Tuesday, March 31, 2009

This is hilarious

This Youtube video is pretty hilarious:

(Via Crooks and Liars)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Shock, outrage!

To the shock, consternation and outrage of right-wing bloggers everywhere, Hillary Clinton is not familiar with all the miracles of all the patron saints of Christendom:

The Catholic News Agency reports that on her recent trip to Mexico, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She left flowers on behalf of the American people.

The Basilica is the second most visited Catholic shrine in the world, and the Lady of Guadalupe is one of the principal symbols of the Mexican nation. The Basilica houses a cloak that belonged to a 16th-century Indian, on which an image of the Virgin Mary miraculously appeared. In the intervening years, no scientific explanation of the image has been forthcoming. Among Catholics (and many others), this is one of the most famous of all miracles...

The Catholic News Agency says that after viewing the cloak, Clinton turned to the priest who was showing her the Basilica and asked, "Who painted it?"

This is one of those stories that seem like it can't possibly be true. Could America's Secretary of State really be ignorant of a central cultural symbol of a country next door? It is as though a foreign minister came to Washington, was shown Stuart's portrait of George Washington, and asked, "Who was he?"
Er... no. It's not. It's as if a foreign minister came to Washington, was shown Stuart's portrait of George Washington and asked: "Who painted it?"

Now, for my money, it's far more disturbing that Hindraker seems to accept the painting's supposed magical origins (OK, miraculous origins... whatever) at face value than that Hillary was unaware of them: "In the intervening years, no scientific explanation of the image has been forthcoming..." ooooh, cue the spooky X-files soundtrack and get me a mass spectrometer. Should be easy enough to determine whether the image on the cloak is made of natural pigments or was instead painted with fairy dust mixed with the blood of Jesus and unicorn tears.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

For Those About to Celebrate

For those who celebrate the death of the newspaper and traditional print media, behold your Brave New World of Cable News:

Welcome to Idiocracy.

(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Jaw Dropping (but in a good way this time)

You don't have to be a basketball fan to be left speechless by this:

(Via Huffinton Post)

Fairly unbalanced

Wonkette brings to my attention this jaw-droppingly stupid segment that ran recently on Fox News. In it some minor mob figure named Michael Francese pimps a book that claims to show that the Obama administration is operating like a Mafia crime family. No, I'm not kidding!

Once again, the Right proves immune to parody. How could a Saturday Night Live skit improve on this stupidity? At any rate, I think my favorite moment in the interview is when the supposed Mafia Crime boss says matter-of-factly: "To me I want less government intervention in my life." Yes, I realize this is standard Right-wing mantra, but... he's a friggin' mob boss, people (supposedly), of course he wants less government intervention in his life. Shesh!

At any rate, there's also a little something in it for Jonah Goldberg at the end there when anchor Brian Kilmeade speculates that George Soros may have engineered the current economic crisis for his own financial benefit (no Right-wing paranoia there, eh, Goldberg?).

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The first tear-down

Contessa Brewer calls bullshit on the GOP so-called "budget."

Even more pathetic than I imagined

So I've downloaded and skimmed the proposed GOP "budget" (you can get a pdf copy here) I put the word "budget" in quotes because it is immediately apparent, from even the most cursory examination, that the document that the GOP is referring to as a "budget" is, in fact, no such thing. It is basically a propaganda pamphlet that takes swipes at the administration's bailout plan, while presenting vague, unspecific, unsupported, goals as an alternative (an even this it does only sparingly). Here, for instance, is the Republican entitlement reform "plan," as it pertains to health care:

republicans’ solution
Instead of accelerating the demise of our nation’s large
entitlement programs and creating an unsustainable new
government health care program, Republicans seek to
provide universal access to affordable health care and to
address Medicare and Medicaid’s trillion dollar
unfunded liabilities with common-sense reforms that
ensure our children and grandchildren can secure benefits
in the future.
Republicans support leveling the playing field through
policies that will provide tax incentives for millions more
working families and small business owners to obtain
access to coverage.
Republicans also support breaking down the balkanized
barriers within our current health insurance industry,
allowing individuals to shop across state lines to purchase
affordable policies that best meet their needs.
Independent estimates suggest that as many as 12 million
individuals could obtain access to health insurance
through this approach alone—health insurance that
would be more responsive to individual consumers’
Republicans support reasonable limits on non-economic
damages, along with penalties for trial lawyers who file
frivolous lawsuits, among other reforms necessary to
preserve patients’ relationships with their physicians and
end the unnecessary defensive medicine practices
increasing costs for all Americans.
With regard to entitlements, Republicans support the
notion that wealthy seniors like Warren Buffett and
George Soros can afford to pay $2 per day more for their
Medicare prescription drug coverage. But we would go
further to save Medicare, by simplifying the current
benefit structure in traditional Medicare to include a
catastrophic cap on out-of-pocket expenses for the first
time in the program’s history. And Republicans plan
vigorous efforts to combat waste, fraud, and abuse in
order to make traditional Medicare more efficient.
Republicans also want to restore quality, care, and
efficiency to the Medicaid program and will look to
governors as the laboratories to improve and enhance the
program. A more flexible financing structure will remove
states’ current incentive to engage in what one liberal
advocacy group called “accounting arrangements…
designed primarily to provide a windfall for state
governments.” More importantly, additional flexibility
will allow states to design program improvements for
beneficiaries—for instance, using state dollars to
supplement private health insurance coverage. Unlike
Democrats who continue to block new state-level reforms
in order to expand government-run programs,
Republicans believe that providing beneficiaries with
additional choices will improve quality of care while
slowing health cost growth.

Now, you might be asking yourself: what kind of a budget names George Soros by name? The answer, of course, is: a vaguely worded political tract thinly disguised as a budget. And let me say that I'm being overly generous in this description. This pamphlet is "thinly disguised as a budget" only in the sense that GOP officials are referring to it as a budget. Even the document's cover page does not make that audacious claim, calling itself instead a "road to recovery."

And what's worse, there doesn't appear to be a word in this document that hasn't been GOP shibboleth for the last 30 years. Consider the quoted text above, which claims to be the GOP approach to entitlement reform. The first thing you'll notice is that it promises "universal access to affordable health care." This claim is laughable once you scan the sparse details the document offers. How will it do this? Well: (1) by providing tax incentives. (2) by restricting States abilities to regulate the quality and content of health insurance policies (3) by asking Warren Buffet and George Soros to pay $730 a year in additional medicare premiums. This is the same B.S. the GOP has been selling since before I can remember. Does anyone seriously think that these steps would do anything to slash the ranks of the uninsured in this country?

In sum, the document is an absurd sham. Hopefully we'll see it savaged in the press tonight. If Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and John Stewart don't tear this thing to shreds they'll have missed a golden opportunity to do the nation a service.

Summary: this thing's not a budget. It's a joke.

Pathetic, unfunny joke.

Say what you will about Obama's plans to rescue the teetering economy, at least they're not a sad, pathetic, unfunny joke. Today the GOP finally unveiled it's "detailed road-to-recovery plan" which, interestingly enough, contains no details whatsoever other than a cut in income taxes to 25% for wage earners making over $100,000 a year and 10% for those making less.

Are you going to have any further details on this today?" the first [reporter] asked.
"On what?" asked Boehner.
"There's no detail in here," noted the reporter.
Answered Boehner: "This is a blueprint for where we're going. Are you asking about some other document?"
A second reporter followed up: "What about some numbers? What about the out-year deficit? What about balancing the budget? How are you going to do it?"
"We'll have the alternative budget details next week," promised Boehner. Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.) had wisely departed the room after offering his opening remarks. ("Today's Republican road-to-recovery is the latest in a series of GOP initiatives, solutions and plans," he had offered.)
A third reporter asked Boehner about the Republican goal for deficit reduction, noting President Obama aimed to cut it in half in five years. "What's your goal?"
"To do better," said Boehner.
"How? How much?"
"You'll see next week."
"Wait. Why not today? Because he asked you to present a budget."
"Now, hold on," said Boehner. "The president came to Capitol Hill and laid out his blueprint for his budget during the State of the Union. He didn't offer his details until days later."
"In general, where do you see cuts coming?" the Huffington Post asked.
"We'll wait and see next week," he said.
It will be interesting to see what the CBO makes of a budget that annihilates the country's tax base. Either it will balloon the debt beyond the wildest assumptions, or it will include absurd budget cuts that no party in power would ever seriously consider passing into law. Here are my predictions:

1) It will call for an absurdly unrealistic across-the-board spending cut that allows the GOP to avoid singling out specific programs for reduction.

2) It will call for an increase in defense spending.

3) It will make wildly unrealistic assumptions about economic growth to allow for a predicted elimination of the federal deficit in its 5th or so year.

4) It won't be anything like a serious attempt at putting together a budget, but rather, a document for the GOP to wave around at press conferences and claim they can do everything Obama wants to do in half the time at half the cost.

A terrific acheivment

An automotive reviewer tests the $2000.00 Tata Nano and comes off impressed.

As in Basketball: Life

I think there's a Metaphor hiding in Barack Obama's NCAA tournament prognostication. When the president first revealed his bracket, commentators pronounced themselves disappointed with the conservatism of his picks, choosing only four outcomes that might be considered "unsafe bets."

Obama's bracket shows no love for, or belief in, the little guy. Maybe former RNC spokesman Alex Conant was right when he wrote this week that the No. 1 myth about the president is that he's bold.
But guess what? Obama's judgment is once again proving sound:

Louisville made quite a rally. President Barack Obama did, too.

The president's NCAA tournament bracket looked a lot better Sunday when he correctly picked 14 of the 16 teams to reach the regional semifinals.

After the first round, Obama ranked in the bottom 5 percent of the 5-plus million fans who entered ESPN.com's pool. But following a strong showing in the second round, he broke into the top half
Does this situation have an air of famliarity to it? How everyone was discounting Obama's chances against Clinton in the primaries, and yet he came back to claim the prize? How two weeks ago everyone was calling for Tim Geitner's head and now the economic outlook seems to be improving and Getner's a hero and Obama's decision to hire him again seems wise and prescient?

For Nerds Only

For a certain kind of person (you know who you are) an image of a 1/4 scale Colonial Viper surrounded by a dozen Hooters girls is probably a lot like what Heaven looks like.

Two Nations Separated by a Common Language

Andrew Sullivan linked to this clip as a humorous commentary of Sarah Palin's propensity to... er... fib. But I don't get the impression that Sullivan quite understands how incomprehensible this 100 mph cockney motormouth actually is to American ears. See if you can understand one tenth of what this person is saying (I am speaking, of course, to my American readers):

$100 trillion zillion

So the other day I was leaving for work when a political ad came on the Tee Vee. It was from some right-wing group expressing opposition to Barack Obama's budget plans. The ad ended by citing a statistic claiming that Congress was spending "$1 billion dollars an hour."

Now, when you run the numbers, $1 billion dollars an hour adds up to $8.7 trillion dollars in a year. And nothing near that amount has been proposed by anyone. So I was curious where that figure cam from. I think I've figured it out. The figure came from Mitch McConnell.

“In just 50 days, Congress has voted to spend about $1.2 trillion between the Stimulus and the Omnibus,” McConnell says. “To put that in perspective, that’s about $24 billion a day, or about $1 billion an hour—most of it borrowed. There’s simply no question: government spending has spun out of control.”
Of course, this is a pretty stupid way of looking at things. After all, congress isn't actually spending $1 billion an hour. It has merely voted a stimulus plan and a budget within 50 days of Obama taking office. The simple fact is, you can make any budget seem outrageous with shenanigans like these. You could, for instance focus on the amount of time it took to congress to vote on the budget and claim, with similar justification, that in just a few minutes congress voted to spend $600 billion dollars, which amounts to something like $100 trillion zillion an hour.

Quote for the day

Some consider the last stanza of the lyrics, which contain the words “Huzza! she spurns the Northern scum! She breathes! she burns! she'll come! she'll come! Maryland! My Maryland!” offensive.

Mark Newgent, writing from "planet Corner," about a move afoot in the Maryland General assembly to alter the lyrics of the official State Song. Newgent explains, that really, no one should take offense at the epithet "Northern scum" since it is directed only at tyrants (presumably the ones who who sent troops to preserve the Union and dismantle the holy institution of slavery) not at Northerners in general.

For the record, we at Patriots Quill do not consider the lyrics offensive, so much as quaint, ludicrous and stupid.

Scratch That...

... Bush/Cheney were even worse than we feared.

Herd Mentality News

In today's New York Times, Gail Collins nails the herd mentality that drives the vast majority pf news coverage in this country:

Tim Geithner — Really cool guy. Super job on that bank bailout thing. Look at the way the stock market jumped. Way better Treasury secretary than last week’s Tim Geithner, who seemed a lot ... shorter.

Barack Obama — Kinda boring. Did you see the news conference? Same thing over and over again. Not that we mind. In these troubled times, we like stability. Thank God we didn’t elect somebody who was all charisma and exciting speeches.
One of the things that really bothers me about the news networks is how much like over-fed house cats they are. Dangle a shiny object before them and it commands their entire attention, distracting them from whatever shiny object they were chasing a few minutes before. This is what happened with the whole AIG bonus non-story. Did $160,000,000 in bonuses really deserve all that coverage with the entire US economy teetering on the edge of mayhem? Couldn't the networks have spent that time better educating the public on the nature of our economic crisis and the potential solutions to it? I realize this is boring stuff, but does anyone seriously believe that the news networks have done a creditable job explaining what credit-default swaps are? What mark to market accounting is? What securitization is? The extent to which Fed monetary policy may or may not have influenced the current crisis? What Keynsianism is? Absolutely not. What we get instead are duelling politicians from either end of a very narrow spectrum of parties and ideologies invited to shower viewers with five minute, disingenuous partisan sound-bites that have very little connection with actual, epirical reality. What can't we have more academic economists on TV describing the true issues at hand?

None of what Collins described would be a problem if we had a new media with actual substance, but we don't. We have a celebrity driven culture of news celebrities. It's a fashion show for these people, and one week crew necks are in and next week they're out. One week Geitner is dawdling (can't he fix the economy already?!) and the next week he's a competent treasury secretary with a workable plan.

Budget Reconciliation Maneuver

David Schuster runs one of his "hypocrisy watch" segments, this time singling out Republicans who criticize the White House for considering passing parts of its agenda through the less restrictive "budget reconciliation process" which is not subject to the minority filibuster. The problem? Republicans used this very maneuver to pass Bush's budget busting tax cuts in 2001 and again 2003, as well as to open ANWR to oil drilling in 2005.

Kudos to Schuster for pointing this out. I suspect that we're going to hear more commentators making this same point in the not too distant future.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Just Because You're Paranoid...

Reporting from "planet Corner" Jonah Goldberg expresses his exasperation at charges that the American Right is prone to paranoia:

...Over at The New Yorker, George Packer, echoing many, rehashes the usual talking points about how conservatives are particularly prone to paranoia and populist hysteria. He trots out Richard Hofstadter and Hofstadter's cribbing of the incredibly flawed work by Adorno. I respect Packer, but I find this all so deeply tiresome.

Look, I think there are examples of conservative or right-wing rhetoric getting out of hand vis a vis Obama. I listened to a video clip of Alan Keyes talking about Obama the other day and he might as well have been talking about Pol Pot. But I think most of the rhetoric has been perfectly legitimate given the times we're in and what Obama is trying to do. In particular, as I noted the other day, I love how liberals — who have been pushing to Europeanize American social policy for generations — are suddenly aghast and contemptuous when conservatives complain that liberals want to Europeanize American social policy, just as the liberal effort starts to succeed.

...and just for fun, here's a clip of Goldberg on Glenn Beck's insane TV show, listening as Beck theorizes that the Barack Obama presidency is the culmination of a communist plot devised by Soviet agents of Nikita Kushchev:

Ever wonder...

Chuck Norris (stop snickering!) wonders why our Border control policy can't be as successful as our Middle East policy.

(via Whiskey Fire, via Crooks and Liars)

Quote for the day II

...I suspect that in the end we will be driven down the road to some form of bank nationalization — and if that is where we are going Paul Krugman is correct to say that it is better to get there sooner rather than later. But unless Paul Krugman has 60 Senate votes in his back pocket, we cannot get there now. And the Geithner Plan seems to me to be legitimate and useful way to spend $100 billion of TARP money to improve — albeit not fix — the situation.

Brad DeLong, arguing for what can be done to help us out of the economic malaise, in contrast to what should be done.

The New Republicans?

Is Meghan McCain the future of the Republican party?

It's hard to say. Listening to that clip I get the sense that McCain would be a Democrat but for the fact that her father is a Republican Senator. But if she is, as she claims, representative of the new, young Republicans then the party is going to have to brace itself for a great deal of change, lest it lose these kids to the Democrats in the years to come. McCain describes herself as socially liberal in that clip, which presumably means that she's a conservative in her economic outlook (and in other interviews she has suggested as much). But currently the GOP is primarily a religious party whose economic stances are a muddle. The party is wedded to the idea of market de-regulation, strongly anti-union and virulently opposed to taxation. But it is a party that is addicted to lavish spending and has never managed to implement (or even propose) realistic policies that might actually help lower the deficit and the national debt. Nor has the party shown that it understands capitalism well enough to implement the sorts of intelligent regulations, transparency requirements and robust accounting rules that can help save the free-market from succombing to its own excesses.

The Republican response to Barack Obama is Bobby Jindal, a Barack Obama doppleganger that the party is pushing under the misguided notion that the only thing holding back it's appeal is the whiteness of its politicians' skin. But discontent with the party runs much deeper than that, and a generation that was raised on Will and Grace is not going to be satisfied with cosmetic changes. They need the party to that is still mired in 19th century backwater fundamenatlism to grow up and get with the 21st century. Bobby Jindal will not save the party from irrelevance. He's just window dressing.

Letter of Resignation

A frustrated AIG executive pens a letter of resignation, which is reprinted in the New York Times. This is likely to be a major topic of conversation today, as bloggers examine, dissect, and mull over its contents. One thing is sure: it paints a picture from within the company as it exists today that has been woefully absent in the media 'till now, and as such it should cast a little light on Tim Geitner's opposition to legislation that would penalize current employees of the company by rescinding, or more recently taxing their bonuses.

One important point the letter makes is that most of the executives who were reponsible for the company's collapse have slithered away into the weeds and are no longer with the company. It's hard to judge how accurate that claim is, but I suspect its likely that a good number of them have left of their own accord. And while it is not easy to feel pity for a guy who's taking home more than $700,000 after taxes, if the author's compensation was indeed negotiated a year ago at a time when the company's terrible financial situation was known, then it's hard to justify tearing up his contract now.

There are three issues that converged in creating this whole AIG bonus tax mess that's transpired over the past few days. The first is a product of Wall Street's habit of providing compensation to executives in the form of bonuses instead of salary. My suspicions are that tax shennanigans are at play here, but the simple fact is that such compensation schemes create the appearance to outsiders that Wall Street is rewarding failure. The second element at play are the outrageous sums that are paid to Wall Street executives to manage money. This naturally creates resentment among the general populace that is struggling to pay tay the mortgage, find affordable health-insurance and feed and clothe the kids. The third element is simple politcal demagoguery. While the previous two elements created conditions that were ideal for an explosion of popular discontent, it was politicians who lit the fuse, hoping to gain political advantage by stoking public outrage.

I don't like the obscene levels of compensation that corporate America rewards its top executives. I think these salaries, bonus packages and golden parachutes create squewed incentives and prioritize short-term gain over the long term viability of our businesses and industries. But I detest demagogic politicians who play to the mob just as much if not more.

Our first order of business must be to repair our economy, set it aright and get it humming again. Once that's done, and before the wounds have healed and people forgotten what got us ere, we need to proceed aggressively to restrain the forces and perverse incentive structures that got us where we are today.

Quote for the day

"Is it the Kindle where you can read a book? I take it that's from a satellite. So the existing statute would probably prohibit that under your view? … If this Kindle device where you can read a book which is campaign advocacy, within the 60- to 30-day period, if it comes from a satellite, it can be prohibited under the Constitution and perhaps under this statute?"

Justice Anthony Kennedy, exposing the depth of his technical saavy during oral arguments at the Supreme Court (it's all satellites these days, people... didn't ya know that?). What do you want to bet that Kennedy does not while away the hours reading Gizmodo?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Appealing to the GOP base

Just when I'd though I'd heard it all when it comes to hateful depictions of Michelle Obama, along comes Right-wing (can I start calling them Reich Wing, yet?) website Town Hall with this doozie:

Take Michelle Obama…please. Every time I turn around, there she is on a magazine cover. Now, normally, like the Mafia, I lay off the spouses, but inasmuch as this particular spouse attended the same racist church as her hubby for 20 years, I’ll make an exception in her case. After all, in spite of the fact that affirmative action got her an Ivy League degree and a $7,000-a-week salary and, moreover, has sent billions of dollars for no particularly good reason to Africa, she insists this is a mean country. The burning question in my circle is: if the First Family gets a female dog, will she be the First Bitch or will she have to settle for second place?
It seems that as much as the racists who make up the Right-wing commentariat despise the thought of a black man in the White House, what really, truly gets their blood boiling is the sight of an uppity black woman as First Lady.

(Found on Stinque)

The most disgusting thing I've heard all year

I have heard and read many awful things about Barack and Michelle Obama over the past few months. There is a seething undercurrent of hatred that is cultivated on the Right, which fuels a murderous rage and reminds us that evil is abiding, enduring and omnipresent in our culture. But few things I have heard or read since the innauguration have shocked me as much as hearing this audio clip, in which a vulgar, pathetic right-wing radio personality named Tammy Bruce, refers to Michelle Obama as "trash." Obama's crime? Encouraging young black children to ignore harmful stereotypes and try to perform well in school.

The audio can be heard here.

Please, if you come across this blog posting, let others know about this audio clip. It is important that people of good will understand just who and what we are up against in this country. Demagogues like Bruce are evil. There is no other way to put it. And they are dangerous. What you have just heard is not your typical partisan hackery. It is an appeal to the lowest, most disgusting and base elements of the human soul. It is an incitement to hatred, which is itself an incitement to violence. Only by exposing these cretins for who they really are can they be stopped.

Quote for the day

"If the person returns the money, I don't think there's a public interest in releasing the names."

New York Attorney General Andew Cuomo, explaining to reporters that nine of the top ten bonus recipients of AIG have agreed to return the money to the company.

I have this mental image of Cuomo on the phone with each executive explaining: "You can keep the bonus, but then I get to keep your kneecaps."

Any way, this is how it's done... not through some silly, potentially unconstitutional, overly broad 90% income tax on bonuses.

Debbie Schultz' Ordeal

Florida Congressman Debbie Wasserman Shultz has just announced that in 2007 she was diagnosed with cancer and has taken radical steps to salvage her health:

Now 42, the mother of three said she discovered a lump in December 2007 while doing a self-examination, and has since undergone seven major surgeries. She kept the illness private while campaigning for reelection and stumping nationwide for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, then Barack Obama. She didn't want the illness to "define" her, Wasserman Schultz said. Most of her staff didn't know about her condition, according to a spokesman.

Wasserman Schultz said that after learning she was at greater risk for the cancer to spread because of her Ashkenazi Jewish descent, she elected to have a double mastectomy, as well as the removal of her ovaries.

I truly hope the disease has been eliminated and Schultz is OK, because she's a dynomite politician and a real firecracker on political shows, and for some time now she's been the person I would most like to see succeed Barack Obama in the Whitehouse when his second term expires in 2012.

Why Obama Mattered

Miopic, nativist conservatives like to scoff at the idea that our global image is, at the end of the day, of any import or real concern. They would just as soon project power through force of arms and keep other nations in line through fear than lead through the respect and admiration that our values and commitment to justice command (when not actively withdrawing from world affairs altogether). This is a dangerous, and ultimately self-defeating view.

One of the great assets that Barack Obama brought to the table when he ran for president was the admiration of hundreds of millions or ordinary men and women throughout the globe. He was seen as a beacon of hope, not just for Americans, but for the citizens of the whole world who for decades admired our nation and spent the last eight years scratching their heads wondering how we could have strayed so far from our ideals. How was it possible that a nation that had once stood for justice was invading non-agressor nations without provocation? How was it possible that a nation that had once been a champion of human rights was now operating clandestine prisons and torturing and murdering detainees while denying them even the most basic juducial protections? Almost over-night, Barack Obama through the sheer force of his personality, his life's story and his genuine idealism, stepped up to the plate and washed away so much of the scum and dirt that had sullied our image abroad due to the actions of the previous administration.

The significance and importance of the global good will that Obama has cultivated and harnessed is nowhere so evident as in the current economic crisis. Yesterday Obama penned an editorial that ran in no fewer than thirty newpapers around the globe, urging significant, concerted action to prevent the current financial malaise from metastesizing into a full blown cancerous depression. There is no guarantee that Obama's plea will have the desired effect, but it seems inconceivable that a similar plea from another politician (John McCain, for instance) would carry anything near the same moral authority nor be received with the same degree of throughtful respect. If anyone can get the world to join hands and act in concert to save us from disaster, it is Obama.

Our nation is very lucky to have elected this man to see us through the present turmoil. Of that I have no doubt.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Poll Taxes and Literacy Requirements

It used to be that the monied classes sought to impose poll taxes and literacy requirements on voters in an effort to suppress the vote of the socialistically inclined working class. Today the imposition of a literacy requirement would just as likely inconvenience our political class. Readers will recall that Sarah Plain, for instance, when interviewed by Katie Couric, was unable to name even one newspaper that she reads regularly. Now voters in Texas can feel proud to call their own a State Representative who might just give the Alaska Governor a run for the money in the contest for dumbest Republican politician now serving:

Give state Rep. Gary Elkins some credit for being honest.

At a hearing Thursday of the House Committee on Human Services, Elkins and other members of the panel considered more than two dozen bills related to Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program.

Three hours into the hearing, Elkins asked: "What's Medicaid?"

The Houston Republican continued: "I know I hear it — I really don't know what it is. I know that's a big shock to everybody here in the audience, OK."

He could have kept quiet. He could have asked an aide. He could have Googled it. Instead, he asked the question into the microphone in the middle of a public hearing.

Medicaid, for the record, is the federal-state health insurance program for low-income people and people with disabilities. Elkins is new to the Human Services Committee. However, he's served in the House since 1995, where one of the main tasks is crafting the state budget.

A quarter of the state budget is Medicaid.

— Corrie MacLaggan

(Via Wonkette)

What were they thinking?

Was running google searches and stumbled across this interesting New York Times article from 2005. It gives a good idea of the sort of thinking that was going on at the Federal Reserve and in Washington at the height of the housing bubble.

Laurence H. Meyer, a former Fed governor and now a principal at Macroeconomic Advisers, said the evidence of risky lending practices was abundant. Even though mortgage rates remain at their lowest point in decades, more than half of all new mortgages are either interest-only loans or adjustable-rate loans that start out cheap but can become very costly if rates rise.

"These kinds of mortgages are feeding higher prices but they are also the kinds of loans that are most vulnerable to distress," Mr. Meyer said.

The issue of a possible housing "bubble," where prices become inflated by unrealistic expectations of even higher prices in the near future, poses difficult issues for the Fed.

Mr. Greenspan and other officials have long argued that it is not their job to influence the price of assets whether stock prices or real estate. Rather, they contend, the central bank's job is to keep inflation low and to promote the maximum sustainable growth without fueling inflation.

It's a myth that no one saw this coming. Plenty of people were warning that the loans that were fueling the bubble were risky ones, with very high probabilities for default. But the Federal Reserve was wedded to the idea that intervention to stymie bubbles was bad policy.

Here's Ben Bernake in 2002:

If we could accurately and painlessly rid asset markets of bubbles, of course we would want to do so. But as a practical matter, this is easier said than done, particularly if we intend to use monetary policy as the instrument, for two main reasons. First, the Fed cannot reliably identify bubbles in asset prices. Second, even if it could identify bubbles, monetary policy is far too blunt a tool for effective use against them.
Although neither I nor anyone else knows for sure, my suspicion is that bubbles can normally be arrested only by an increase in interest rates sharp enough to materially slow the whole economy. In short, we cannot practice "safe popping," at least not with the blunt tool of monetary policy. The situation is further complicated if, as is usually the case, the suspected bubble affects only a specific class of assets, such as high-tech stocks. Certainly there is no way to direct the effects of monetary policy at a single class of assets while leaving other financial markets and the broader economy untouched. One might as well try to perform brain surgery with a sledgehammer.
Understandably, as a society, we would like to find ways to mitigate the potential instabilities associated with asset-price booms and busts. Monetary policy is not a useful tool for achieving this objective, however. Even putting aside the great difficulty of identifying bubbles in asset prices, monetary policy cannot be directed finely enough to guide asset prices without risking severe collateral damage to the economy.

A far better approach, I believe, is to use micro-level policies to reduce the incidence of bubbles and to protect the financial system against their effects. I have already mentioned a variety of possible measures, including supervisory action to ensure capital adequacy in the banking system, stress-testing of portfolios, increased transparency in accounting and disclosure practices, improved financial literacy, greater care in the process of financial liberalization, and a willingness to play the role of lender of last resort when needed. Although eliminating volatility from the economy and the financial markets will never be possible, we should be able to moderate it without sacrificing the enormous strengths of our free-market system.

Bernake may or may not be right to insist that a change in the Federal funds rate is too blunt of an instrument to employ in tamping down an economic bubble. He is certainly right to suggest that the government should have made use of the other tools at its disposal, also. There is no question that lax regulation contributed to fiasco, for instance, and attempts by libertairans to blame the economic meltdown solely on the Federal reserve are little more than articles of faith by those who refuse to accept that bad results are possible from an unregulated market.

Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen is fast becoming one of my favorite columnists on foreign affairs. His attempt to bring a little sanity and reason back into our Middle-east policy and our national debate about Iran is quite refreshing, and perhaps predictably, he's been savaged in the press as a result. But the simple fact is that whenever a small cadre of right-wing ideologues gets a seemingly unshakable grip on one aspect of U.S. government policy and furthermore, get to dicatate all terms and bounds of our national discussion on their pet issue, the results are usually very bad for the country. This is true whether we're speaking of the gun lobby, the right-wing Cuban expatriate anti-Castro lobby, or the right-wing, Likudnik so-called "Israeli lobby." Today Cohen again speaks truth to power and notes that if we are to move ahead in the Middle East, the U.S. is going to have to play a role of honest broker, as opposed to Israel's muscle:

where, I asked [a Senior Israeli official], is Israel’s red line? “Once they get to 1,500 kilos [of enriched Uranium], nonproliferation is dead,” he said. And so? “It’s established that when a country that does not accept Israel’s existence has such a program, we will intervene.”

I think there’s some bluster in this. Israel does not want Obama to talk, talk, talk, so it’s suggesting military action could happen in 2009, within nine months.

Still, this much is clear to me: Obama’s new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s about time. America’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel’s long-term security.

Dumbest show on television

It has all the production values of an infomercial (and I think some of the cast are infomercial regulars, too). And, of course, it's on Fox.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

New (old) GOP strategy

Crooks and Liars brings us a "Hypocrisy Watch" piece that David Shuster did on Minnesota congresswoman Michelle Bachman. My only problem with Shuster's piece is that what he highlights isn't so much hypocrisy, as it is a flat out lie on Bachmann's part. Judge for yourself:

It's easy enough to make yourself look "above the fray" if you simply lie about your record. If reality doesn't fit your ideology, just improvise a new reality.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Quote for the day II

Why doesn’t Barack admit that he is just no damn good at bowling and leave it at that. Just because he bowls like a kid with cerebral palsy is no reason he must insult children and adults with cerebral palsy.
Larry Johnson, insulting kids with cerebral palsy while attacking Barack Obama for insulting kids with cerebral palsy.

Bonuses and Tax Codes

A reader alerts Josh Marshall to the regressive bonus tax rate:

Late Accountancy Update: One reader points out that there are big tax benefits to the companies to paying compensation in the form of bonuses as opposed to ordinary salary income, which is no doubt the reason why, for many in the finance industry, the bonuses totally dwarf the base salaries.

Maybe this will get more people focused on this, as yet, mostly unnoticed element of the present scandal.

Joke of the day

Sarah Palin, Governor of the state with the largest, most ravenous appetite for Federal dollars of any in the Union, is proclaiming her intention to turn down Federal stimulus money. The onetime Mayor of Wasilla, who raised taxes and floated a $14.7 million bond to pay for a new hockey rink and wound up leaving the small town $22 million dollars in debt is worried that by accepting stimulus funds aimed at improving Alaska's educational system she would leave the state with finacial liabilities long after Federal stimulus money had run out.

So, just in case you're keeping score:

Hockey Rinks: good
Schools: bad

Quote for the day

...the reality is that we can punish the bankers or we can save the banking system, but we can't do both at the same time.
Steven Pearlstein reacting to the recently passed bonus killing tax bill in congress.

Hitting your thumb with the hammer

Nate Silver is dismayed by the recent Tax Bill congress passed with the aim of recouping bonuses paid to under-performing AIG executives:

The bonus tax, which passed the House earlier today, applies not only to AIG but also to some 12 other firms that received substantial levels of government assistance. This includes both financial institutions like AIG and nonfinancial ones like General Motors; it includes banks that are preforming poorly, like Citibank, and those that are holding up fairly well, like JPMorgan Chase and PNC. The government has dictated that nobody at anybody of these companies is deserving of incentive-based compensation, unless their household income is less than $250,000 per year.

Just think about some of the implications of this.

A senior engineer at General Motors, who shepherds the production of a new hybrid vehicle that will turn out to be a best-seller, shouldn't get a bonus for that. Really?

Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan, who has managed his company's assets adeptly and kept it mostly off the taxpayer's dole, is no more deserving of a bonus than an AIG crook. Really?
What you're seeing now is the ugly intersection of the technocrats at Treasury trying do their job, with the blind, populist rage of the mob. The folks at treasury could give a damned about the bonuses if addressing the fairness issues they raise stands in the way of rescuing the financial sector. Meanwhile the general public is understandably outraged by the enormous sums (compared to their own earnings) that are being thrown at the very executives who got us into this mess in the first place.

The sensible thing to do, of course, would be to let the technocrats do their job and not fan the flames of popular anger that might lead to precipitous decisions and bad legislation. A few weeks ago GOP pols seemed more concerned about government interference with the internals of business operations than they were with bailed out executives receiving scandalous compensation packages. But the issue proved too enticing to a party still reeling from electoral defeat and aching to put some chinks in the current administration's armor. And so once the issue started gaining some traction you had GOP politicians and their media shills all hitting the airwaves to express shock, shock that AIG executives were taking home big bonuses.

In fanning popular sentiment, however these Republicans put themselves in an awkward spot, seemingly committing themselves to vote for a punitive tax that they had earlier decried as government meddling in the affairs of business. So you got what we saw yesterday: when Democrats called their bluff and proposed just such a tax, over half the Republicans in congress voted for it.

What remains to be seen is what actually becomes of the bill. If it's as bad as critics maintain, it could ultimately come back to hurt the Obama administration when the President is forced to intervene and veto it. That seems unlikely, however. A more realistic outcome would be for the problematic provisions to be sufficiently watered down in the reconciliation process between House and Senate that they cause no real damage to recovery efforts while still allowing legislators to claim that they voted for a bill that curbed these sorts of pay abuses.

I'm still curious as to why no one has picked up on the larger issue of the 25% tax rate for $1,000,000 bonuses. Either there are provisions in the tax code that I'm unaware of that make this a non-issue, or this is the great un-examined scandal of the Wall-Street bonus-frenzy.

Social Security

Eariler yesterday, Andrew Sullivan (who still displays his conservative tendencies from time to time) highlighted a study that showed that fullly 50% of workers would opt out of Social Security if given the chance.

Later in the evening he published one of his "dissent of the day" pieces (letters from readers who disagree) in which the foolishness of respondents to the study was highlighted:

But the survey also found that 33% of adults over 60 would give up their benefit to be able to opt out now.

To save 6.2% on their taxes for the next few years, they are willing to give up 10+ years of future benefits worth about $12,700 per year (average benefit is currently $1056/month).


This survey suggests that 1/3 of our soon-to-retire population has questionable financial judgement. If that isn't an argument FOR mandatory social security, I don't know what is.

And this is precisely "the rub" as it were. I realize that conservatives like Sullivan recoil at what opponents like to call the "nanny state," that is, a government that functions paternalistically, making decisions for citizens it doesn't trust to make the "right" decision. But who can doubt that if 50% of the populace were allowed to forego SS payemnts that it wouldn't wind up costing the government more in the long run.

Consider that in the past decade or so, Americans have been spending more than they've been taking in as income, ralying on now collapsed home values to prop up their debt to assets ratio. Are we really to suppose that this 50% would actually take their SS payments and put them in private retirement plans when they've already shown a marked inability to save as things stand? Or would they instead use this money to bump up the trim level on their next SUV purchase?

More likely whe'd simply end up, after a few decades, with a large pool of elderly paupers who would wind up costing the government more in poverty programs of some sort than if we'd merely kep them on Social Security to begin with, in much the same way that uninsured patients who use hospital emergency rooms as doctors of last resort end up costing the medical system a whole lot more than if they'd merely been supplied with some sort of basic medical insurance to begin with.

Americans as a people aren't willing to let helmetless motorcycle accident victims die on the sidewalk, unattended as a result of their foolishness. We rush them to hospitals and treat them for their injuries in much the same way, but at much greater cost than those who showed good judgment in taking safety precautions. We're not willing to let the uninsured die at the door of hispitals for lack of insurance coverage. And for the very same reasons we wouldn't be willing to let elderly paupers be evicted from their apartments and die of starvation and cold in the streets. Therefore, the only thing to do is to recognize that a government mandated retirement savings plan / safety net is the cheapest way of avoiding these costs.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

ATTN: Michael Steele

Dear Micheal Steele,

This is why everyone thinks your party is stupid:

In the Senate, GOP leaders reacted to the ongoing tax controversy with their most caustic criticism of the Democratic administration since President Obama was sworn in Jan. 20. They mocked Obama as a chief executive who is not paying enough attention to the economy, instead making campaign-style trips such as his current swing through California.
"He's even found time to fill out his NCAA bracket," added Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the No. 3 Republican leader.
Patriot's Quill

It's On!

The House is set to vote on a measure to impose a 90% tax on bonuses given out by firms that received government aid. Republicans are criticizing the measure, as one might expect (and as Democrats planned?)

This is a smart move on the part of the Democratic leadership, as it might well shift outrage toward a party that has hypocritically attacked the Obama administration for doing the very thing its leadership was recommending earlier in the crisis. The public doesn't much care what needs to be done to get this money back, and if the GOP is seen as standing in the way of it, or even blocking it altogether, they'll find themselves in a very uncomfortable position vis. a vis. the voters. It's a hard-edged gambit. Let's see if the GOP accepts it, or declines.

A Moral Outrage

The Catholic Church hierarchy in Brazil makes it explicit: yes, they fully intended for the 9 year old rape victim to die in pregnancy rather than have an abortion. From a letter published in the Osservatore Romano and signed by four priests and their lawyer:

4. We do not agree [with Archbishop Fisichella] that the "decision is hard... for the moral law itself". Our Holy Church continues to proclaim that the moral law is exceedingly clear: it is never licit to eliminate the life of an innocent person to save another life.
(Via Andrew Sullivan)

Dumb People Jump To Dumb Conclusions

On planet "Corner" Jonah Goldberg is paranoid certain that the only reason Rep. Gary Ackerman wants to know the names of AIG executives who have refused to return bonus money is that he wants to see them murdered by the angry mob.

Couldn't it be, rather, that he wants to publicly shame them, Jonah?

Maybe the whole idea of shame is just too alien a concept to a guy like Goldberg.

Picture of the Day

Picture of the day:

Explantion: an undersea volcano erupts off the Tongan coast. The Washington Post has the story.


Hurrah for Bill Richardson! The abolishing of the death penalty is one of the milestones of an enlightened society.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Dumb Metrics

Ridiculing conservatives' obsession with gauging the Obama presidency based upon the performance of the DOW Jones index, Nate Silver notes that the market is now above where it was when Obama took office.

Well, two can play that game, of course. So here's another one for you. How much money would you have today if you'd placed $1000.00 in the DOW when Obama recommended buying stocks, on March 3 of this year?

(answer following the graphic)

The answer: $1112.99

Following Obama's advice you'd have made a 11% return on your investment in just over two weeks. Not bad. I think we've found Jim Cramer's replacement should the Mad Money guru decide to call it a day.

On the Case

The Huffington Post is on the case, and it looks like Mitch McConnel was not the only high ranking Republican to object to limitations on executive compensation before he was outraged that the Obama administration hadn't done more to prevent it.

Blogger Sam Stein nails Hank Paulson, G. W. Bush, Richard Shelby, Mel Martinez and Eric Cantor as all opposing Federal limits on executive pay as conditions for taxpayer bailouts.

Rush Limbaugh is like Herpes

Rush Limbaugh is truly the gift that keeps on giving:

Anger at American International Group knows no party lines. But one top Republican isn't joining in. On Monday and Tuesday, Rush Limbaugh defended the insurance giant and their bonus payouts:

"A lynch mob is expanding: the peasants with their pitchforks surrounding the corporate headquarters of AIG, demanding heads. Death threats are pouring in. All of this being ginned up by the Obama administration."

It's good to see that the de-facto chairman of the GOP is the only guy in the country standing up for these crooks' right to steal taxpayer money. Should play well in Peoria.

Hypocrisy alert

The GOP Minority Leader was against limiting compensation for executives of bailed out companies before he was for it.

Who'd a thunk it!?

Nice Try, No Cigar

According to the New York Times, the head of AIG, in hopes of quelling public anger, is expected to announce a deal in which AIG executives agree to return 50% of their bonus in hopes of averting congressional action to tax it down to nothing:

Edward M. Liddy, the embattled chief of American International Group, is expected to ask employees who received lucrative bonuses to give half the money back.

According to a person briefed on Mr. Liddy’s plans, the A.I.G. chief will announce this plan during his testimony this afternoon before a Congressional committee that is investigating the problems at company.

Nice try, but I'm afraid that train has left the station. If $6 mil was an unreasonable amount to compensate an executive for destroying his company, I don't see how the public is going to be satisfied giving him only $3 mil.

The Obama administration is in a tough spot on this one. My suspicions are that the administration was hoping this issue would just pass under the radar and go unnoticed. The only thing that Rick Santelli had right in his latest rant is that $165 mil is pickles compared to the real money that's being thrown at AIG. But interms of public sentiment, the sum dwarfs everything the government has spent so far. Unlike Santelli the public is willing to spend what it takes to get the economy back on its feet. But the public has no tolerance for rewarding those who brought us to this point. A wooden nickel is more than they deserve in the eyes of the American poeple and I suspect a good chunk of the public sees no real difference between these guys and Bernard Madoff.

If anything good comes of this, perhaps it will be a change in our nation's permissive attitude towards obscene executive compensation. What possibly could one man do for a company that's worth a $6 million dollar yearly compensation package? Is that one guy really $5,950,000 smarter than the average school teacher, or fry cook?

There needs to be a revival of the millionaire tax to discourage these sorts of excesses and help fund a more just society for average working Americans. Maybe this latest chapter in the Wall Street culture of greed and corruption will see to it that we get one.

Globalization is not a Suicide Pact

If I might borrow a rhetorical turn of phrase from Bush's torture apologists: "Globalization is not a suicide pact." It is simply unacceptable for our nation to enter into lopsided trade agreements with China that strip our industry of any competitive advantages while easing Chinese access to our markets. The Economist has more on the blocked Coca Cola deal:

After the decision was announced, investment banks were left wondering, in the words of one employee, whether “a key plank in their business had just blown up.” Coke has spent years developing its presence in China, and has invested heavily, presumably making it one of the world’s more acceptable buyers. It is also one of the few companies able to finance a big deal in today’s difficult circumstances. If Coke was not acceptable to the Chinese authorities, then who is? The rejection will inevitably be used as evidence of non-reciprocity, and the collusion between the country’s state and private sectors, by anyone opposed to China’s recent efforts to buy companies abroad.

Act I Is Over

Act I: Bernard Madoff is largely over.

Act II: The Accomplices is just getting started.

NEW YORK -- Bernard Madoff's longtime accountant was arrested on fraud charges Wednesday, accused of aiding the man who has admitted cheating thousands of investors out of billions of dollars in the past two decades.

The charges against David Friehling, 49, come as federal authorities turn their attention to those who they believe helped Madoff fool 4,800 investors into thinking that their longtime investments were growing comfortably each year. Friehling is the first person to be arrested since the Madoff scandal broke three months ago.

Let's hope Act II is long and satisfying. Personally, I'm betting on some close family members playing a role in this one. I've always been suspicious of the Madoff sons, for instance, who all to conveniently were the ones to turn their father in to the authorities once it became apparent that the Ponzi scheme he was running was on the verge of collapse. Why didn't Madoff himself go to authorities once he knew the jig was up? Was he merely trying to provide cover for them by instructing them to seemingly rat him out?

End of the Bi-partisan Fairy Tale?

Republicans are warning that if the Obama administration uses the budget reconciliation process to push through legislation it wants, it could just spell the end to the bi-partisan honeymoon that Obama currently enjoys.

"That would be the Chicago approach to governing: Strong-arm it through," said Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), who briefly considered joining the Obama administration as commerce secretary. "You're talking about the exact opposite of bipartisan. You're talking about running over the minority, putting them in cement and throwing them in the Chicago River."
Oh, please can we?

Seriously... the GOP might have a better argument if more than a grand total of three, count 'em three Republican legislators had voted for the President's stimulus package. Less than one and one half percent of GOP legislators were willing to reach across the aisle and show a little bi-partisanship at the time. So for the GOP to accuse Obama of threatening bi-partisanship? Give me break!

Un-American Activities

Noah Pollak of the neo-con rag Commentary chides Andrew Sullivan for not noting that Pat Buchannan called AIPAC "un-american" before Commentary called Buchannan's magazine "un-American."

I wonder if Andrew feels a similar incredulity at the headline of Pat Buchanan’s latest column: “UnAmerican Activities: The Israeli Lobby’s Assassination Of Chas Freeman.”
But daddy... she did it first!!!

God, it's nice to be watching this one from the sidelines.

At any rate, Pollak continues:
In my opinion, a magazine that attempts to undermine the democratic legitimacy of the contribution of Jews to the public debate by repeatedly referring to them as a “fifth column” is indeed an un-American publication.
Yeah, excuse me but when did AIPAC, Commentary and a bunch of right-wing Likudnicks become synonimous and co-extensive with the term "Jews"? Last time I checked, the only requirement for being a Jew was that one's mother be a Jew. There's no "membership in AIPAC", "Commentary subscription," or "enthusiastic warmonger" requirement that I know of. Indeed, polls show that most American Jews abhorr the Likudnik ideology that AIPAC and its ilk promote. This attempt by AIPAC and its supporters to claim the mantle of Jewsihness, to say that they speak for all Jews in America is simply an illegitimate power grab, and a lie.

Free Trade, Fair Trade... Either Way It Doesn't Matter

The Chinese authorities have just blocked the Coca Cola company's bid to purchase a local beverage maker.

Observers had not expected the Chinese authorities to reject the transaction outright. Instead, many had anticipated that approval would come with some conditions attached, especially since Coca-Cola had developed good links with Chinese policy makers and improved its reputation and visibility through its sponsorship of the Olympic Games in Beijing last year.

Wednesday’s decision underscored how hard it is for non-Chinese companies to make acquisitions in China.

By contrast, there has been a flurry of multi-billion dollar transactions abroad by state-controlled companies in the past few weeks.
You can argue all day about free trade vs. fair trade, but how do you justify a permissive trade policy with a nation that respects neither of the two?

I understand that the theory of free trade maintains that it is the Chinese who are hurt by protectionist practices (law of competitive advantage, blah, blah, blah), but you've got to wonder whether theory truly meets practice in the actual global market.

What it looks like to the layman is that our manufacturing base is being annihilated by cheap foreign labor, while our intellectual product is a victim to lackluster enforcement of anti-piracy law and those areas in which we have proven our competitive mettle (such as soft drinks) we are being blocked by protectionist policies.

We seem to be getting the short end of the stick from both ends.

At least that's how it looks to the layman.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Santelli: Worthless Hack

Rick Santelli tries to defend himself:

Let's face it: Santelli is simply trying to foment populist outrage and channel it against the Obama administration, which is propping up AIG in order to avert a world depression. We were brought to the brink of this financial disaster by Santelli's Republican pals in Washington, the financial "geniuses" he worships, and by a complacent financial media apparatus that's more interested in pushing toss-of-the-dice stock picks than uncovering the bad governance, lack of transparency, and outrageous business practices that led us here. It's a nice two-for-one: provide cover to your buddies and their million dollar bonuses while attacking Obama for trying to fix the mess you contributed to. I don't think it's going to work, certainly not in an era in which John Stewart commands far more respect than any "real" news broadcaster.

Any time you hear Santelli and his ideological bretheren on CNBC decrying the billions we're spedning in hopes of averting financial catastrophe you can basically turn the channel to nickelodeon or cartoon network. You'll learn more about world affairs from watching 10 minutes of Scooby Doo than ten hours of these idiot rants on CNBC.

Am I reading This Right?

The Washington Post, reporting on the AIG bonus scandal notes:

In the House, Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and Tim Ryan (Ohio) introduced the "Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act" to create a 100 percent tax on bonuses over $100,000 that are distributed to employees of financial firms receiving federal bailout funds. Currently, the IRS withholds 25 percent from bonuses less than $1 million and 35 percent for bonuses more than $1 million dollars.
If I'm reading this correctly (and hunting around the internet I'm finding confirmation) bonuses, which form a substantial portion of Wall Street employees' compensation packages, are taxed at 25% instead of the 35% they'd normally be assessed for income above $357,000. If I'm not missing anything then this would explain why Wall Street traders take so much of their compensation in the form of a bonus. It's a way to pay less in taxes than they otherwise would.

So it's just another way that the rich in this country evade paying taxes. Is this not the real scandal here?

Santelli: AIG bonuses no big deal

Rick Santelli, who thinks that middle class "losers" shouldn't receive Federal assistance to help keep them in their homes, thinks that our outrage over bonuses paid to AIG traders for wrecking the world economy is "misplaced."

With these people it's only a bad thing when it's the government helping the little guy.

(Media Matters)

GOP Wars (continued)

The internecine war ripping the GOP to shreds from the inside continues. One the neo-con right vs. paleocon right we've got Commentary Magazine referring to The American Conservative as un-American.

And in Catfight Corner there's Laura Ingraham / Megan McCain spat that revolves around the pressing question of of whether McCain is thin enough to be a Republican (there seens to be no question she's blond enough).

It's a shame we can't just give them some chariots, spears and nets, put them in an arena and sit back and watch teh show from on high.

It's Legal

I think I'll start a new feature of this blog titled: "It' Legal." I'll be highlighting things that are legal in this country but shouldn't be. Fist off, the credit card companies:

Did you know that a credit card company has the legal right to lower the credit limit on your card to below your outstanding balance, thus triggering over-limit penalties?

Paul Pensabene of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., received a statement from HSBC on Dec. 8 that said he had a $359.99 balance and remaining available credit of $8,640. But when he went online to pay the bill several days later, his online account showed that same balance put him over his newly-reduced credit line of $300. And that didn't include the $35 over-limit fee. Pensabene grappled with customer service until they agreed to remove the fee, and then paid the balance in full. "All I could think was, 'Good lord, what if this is happening to someone that couldn't pay their balance off in one shot?'" he says. "They'd end up in default with these fees piling up."

HSBC cut this guy's credit line from over $8000.00 to just $300.00 and in so doing, triggered an over-limit penalty. The credit card companies, of course, are notorious for this sort of thing. From extortionate, usurious interest rates, to summarily raising rates on customers with perfect payment records, Credit Card companies enjoy seemingly unlimited discretion to wreak havoc on their customers' lives and ruin their credit ratings.

The good new is this sort of thing will be illegal in 2010. Still, one wonders why it was ever legal in the first place.

(Hat Tip: Crooks and Liars)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Contractual Obligations

"A.I.G. executives say that they are contractually obligated to pay the bonuses to their executives, including those who are part of the A.I.G. division where the company’s crisis originated." (New York Times, 3/16/09)

What does it say about this country that powerful plutocrats build careers by criticizing teachers and teachers unions for opposing merit based pay scales, while the oligarchs who put these plutocrats in office enjoy contracts that mandate enormous bonuses even for those employees whose actions and decisions destroyed their own companies?

Our teachers fear merit pay proposals for many reasons. For one, they see it as a back-door mechanism for suppressing their already meager wages. For another, the outcome of their educational efforts all too often is affected by factors over which they have no control: from the crumbling physical infrastructure of our public schools, to the strained social fabric of families and communities beset by poverty, crime, unemployment and drug abuse.

Teachers sometimes struggle to cling to a middle-class lifestyle and while so doing often find themselves spending their own money to buy adequate school supplies for their students. And in the meantime, on the other side of the tracks, top executives of financial giants enjoy obscene salaries and bonuses which are in no way correlated to or connected with actual performance... they see them as entitlements, not as a reward for a job well done.

Something needs to be done about a corrupt culture of greed that insists that private companies must be allowed to pay million dollar salaries and multi-million dollar bonuses in order to attract the best talent, while at the same time slashing educational budgets, insisting that "throwing money at the problem" does nothing to solve our educational woes, and informing our nation's public school teachers that from here on out they must learn to do more with less.

Forced to Re-live the Nightmare

This is just too funny: Thanks to the now notorious John Stewart/Jim Cramer dust-up, Tucker Carlson, a guest on Howrd Kurtz's Reliable Sources, is forced to relive the nightmare of when John Stewart wiped the floor with his career.

The best part of the segment: Carlson wants us to know that, unlike himself, Stewart is an unfunny partisan hack.

Shepherd Smith: Sleeper Agent?

Here are some clips of Fox News Shepherd Smith ridiculing the network's newest wingnut sensation: Glenn Beck.

It's as if Smith is a sleeper agent --the only sane guy at Fox-- and just can't take the secret identity and has decided to out himself. And this isn't the first time Smith has shown himself to be Fox News' only eminently reasonable journalist.

(Hat Tip: Crooks and Liars)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Stewart v. Cramer: Just Devastating

Just devastating. That's my take on John Stewart's evisceration of Jim Cramer on last night's Daily Show, and it's pretty much every intelligent observer's take, also. James Fallows declares Stewart the new Edward R. Murrow. The Chicago Tribune calls Stewart the "thinking man's Rick Santelli," which, I believe was meant to be a compliment. On the other side of the aisle, Diane Bray, writing in Businessweek seems stunned that Cramer didn't put up a better defense:

At this point, I fully expected Cramer to jump up and shout his point of view: the best calls he made, what his audience wants from him, how easy it is to find 45 damning seconds of tape when you go back through hundreds of hours of footage. He could have debunked Stewart’s conspiracy theory. After all, why would anyone in the hyper-competitive TV news business ever keep quiet if they were aware of wrongdoing or heard rumors that a company was going to collapse? The financial turmoil has been ratings gold for CNBC precisely because viewers can’t tear their eyes away from the crisis as it unfolds. News networks often thrive on bad news.
Bray, of course, missed the point entirely. A list of good stock picks he'd made would have seemed a glaring non-sequitor in the context of last night's interview. Stewart didn't go after Cramer for being bad at projecting the direction of the market or even individual stocks. That would have been too easy. It would have been a cheap shot, which is why the right-wing media have focused most of their attention on that aspect of Stewart's original critique of CNBC. What Stewart was most focused on, rather, were the back door dealings and lack of transparency that give the big guys in the market such an advantage over the little guy. The Daily Show host was merciless in his dissection of an interview Cramer gave some time back in which Cramer bascially admitted to market manipulation during his days as a hedge fund manager. When Cramer sought, rather meekly, to justify the interview by suggesting that he was merely trying to shed light on what goes on on Wall Street, Stewart stopped him, rolled tape and showed the rest of the segment in which Cramer goes on to encourage other fund managers to do the same. The visibly shamed Cramer didn't even try to mount a defense after that point.

Stewart's anger was righteous, and his pointed analogies savage. Bank executives, he told us, burned through their companies like Sherman marching through the South, and they did it with our money. They left us impoverished while making millions for themselves. On this point Cramer did not disagree, defending himself instead by insisting that business executives he had known for years lied to him when he interviewed them for his pieces. The Chicago Tribune described Cramer's attitude during the interview this way:
Cramer, the usually peripatetic host of CNBC's "Mad Money," sat and took it, mostly, like a schoolboy willing to let the teacher go on in hopes of still being allowed to graduate.
This is a fair assessment of Cramer's demeanor, but I think it's a little unfair in the personal judgment it levels. One of the reasons that Stewart was able to eviscerate his guest so completely last night was that, unlike Rick Santelli (for whom Cramer was an unfortunate proxy), Jim Cramer obviously has a conscience. It's impossible to imagine Cramer lashing out at over-extended homeowners in an unhinged rant and referring to them as "losers" while a room full of stock brokers cheers him on. To that extent, last night's interview was unfortunate, if not unfair. It was really Rick Santelli we wanted sitting in tha chair last night, along with Larry Kudlow, Maria Baritromo and the whole gang of big-money sycophants who allowed the markets to trample over ordinary Americans like schoolboys stomping on ants and who scoff every time a Democratic president proposes measures that would help the sorts of people who work from 9 to 5 selling life insurance policies, paving roads, flipping burgers. These hansomely compensated media personalities woship at the feet of industry titans who are worth even more than they are and scream "where's the moral hazard?!" every time the government promotes measures that would better the lives the bottom 95%. Supply side economics may be a cruel joke everywhere else, but it's the Gospel According to Jesus at CNBC. Instead of doing what an honest news gathering operation should be doing, and rooting out corruption in our markets, the lack of government oversight that makes it possible and pushing for more transparency, for a more even playing field for ordinary investors, the hosts at CNBC and most of the business media are all players in the filty, dishonest, incestuous orgy of power that made the last decade possible. They don't speak truth to power, rather they idolize that power and help enable its crimes.

It was bittersweet watching Cramer take the heat for all those guys with tears vsisbly welling up in his eyes as Stewart lectured him as from on high. Someone from the financial media needed a dressing down for their complicity in the sheer madness an untrammelled greed that gutted our economic house over the past 8 years. I just wish it had been execrable figures like Santelli, Kudlow, and Alan Greenspan, who even now justify their despicable behavior and deification of ruthless greed by blaming completely incidental social policies that were meant to help the poor --when they're not overtly blaming the working poor themselves. In many ways what we saw last night was the unwinding of a Shakesperean tragedy, but it was the jester who paid the price for the King's hubris... not the King himself. So there is still work to be done.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Warning: this New York Times story on child malnutrition in India includes some of the saddest pictures you'll ever see.

Where is Rove getting his numbers?

In a Wall Street Journal Editorial today Karl Rove again repeats the falsehood that George W. Bush only added $2.9 trillion to the national debt over his 8 years in office. In fact, Bush added nearly $5 trillion to the national debt since he took office, essentially doubling it during his time in office. Rove has produced this $2.9 trillion figure on numerous occasions, and I have yet to see him being called on it. What's more, I've done some web searches and have yet to find any justification for this figure. Rove simply repeats the figure, no one calls him on it, and the show moves on. It's the classic Big Lie technique. I'm sure Rove has some disingenuous justification for his claim, but it's rather sad that no one has yet challenged him to produce it.

Number of the day: 46

46%: those are the annual returns that scam-artist Bernard Madoff promised some investors to his fictional hedge fund. Numbers like those should be a tip-off to any savvy investor that the fund in question is a pyramid scam. No one can realistically promise such returns, and the chances of a fund producing similiar returns on a reliable basis is basically nil. I have to assume that these were rates Madoff promised widows and orphans and other unsophisticated investors. Anyone with any financial sense who heard such promises and didn't immedately run for the exit was simply blinded by his own greed.

More on Sanford

The BLS has released unemployment data, and South Carolina is now officially into the double digits with a 10.4% rate, and ranks second only to Michigan in the depth of its woes.

Confession time

I have a dark confession to make: I really like both John Stewart and Jim Cramer. That I enjoy Stewart should come as no surprise to anyone who's read my blog and knows my politics. As for Cramer, I've always enjoyed his brand of nutty info-tainment, and when I learned that the guy was a life-long Democrat I let myself go. To me there's something tremendously reassuring about learning of sucessful businessmen who are left-of-center in their politics. It seems to hold out promise for a society that is both productive and compassionate. I am not a proponent of centrally planned economies (is there anyone left who is?). Like most American liberals (whether they realize it or not) I broadly agree with the sentiments and goals that John Rawls laid out in his Theory of Justice: that ecomonic inequalities are justifiable in somuch as the poor would be worse off without them, and that a regulated market economy is the most likely mechanism for acheiving economic prosperity that is in keeping with this ideal.

So watching the recent on-air brawl between John Stewart and Jim Cramer has been a bit like watching mommy and daddy fighting. Kinda painful. It's heartening, then to learn that Stewart is something of a hero to Cramer. I have a sneaking suspicion that tonight's on air cage match is going to turn into something more of a kiss and make up. At least I hope so. I'd hate to learn that daddy is moving into an apartment on the other side of town and I'll mostly be seeing him on weekends from now on.

America's Worst Governor

Who is America's worst governor?

I nominate South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, who has decided to let his constituents suffer disease, hunger and deprivation in the name of ideology. If the civil rights movement handed the South to the Republicans in the decades following the 1960s, maybe despicable Republicans like Sanford will help start an opposite trend in the years to come:

...in few places is the nonprofit sphere being tested as profoundly as in this Southern city -- the capital of a state where, figures released yesterday show, the unemployment rate is now the second worst in the nation and conservative political leaders believe that charities, and not the government, should bear primary responsibility for people in need.

Gov. Mark Sanford (R) eschews the prevailing view in Washington that government money should be used as a salve to the economy and to people who have lost jobs. "At some level, government steps in to fill the void," Sanford said in an interview, "but we ought to be the lender of last resort, not the first."

Sanford and the Republican-led General Assembly have cut the state's budget three times since last summer by a total of $871 million, or 13 percent -- among the deepest reductions in the nation.

The cuts have limited state agencies' ability to help the growing numbers of people in need. The state's Medicaid program, for instance, is reducing mental health counseling, cancer screening and dental coverage.

The reductions are constricting the private sector's capacity, too. The Department of Social Services has pared its contracts to nonprofit groups by an average of 10 percent, reducing funding for emergency shelters and employment training programs.

While other states have looked to Washington for assistance, Sanford has been a foremost critic of the federal economic stimulus package. Yesterday, he challenged the law's intent, announcing that he will ask the White House for a waiver to use $700 million -- the part of South Carolina's share of the money over which he has direct control -- to lower the state's debt, instead of putting it toward new spending.

Asked whose mission it is to help the widening pool of people in financial pain, the governor said that such aid "has to be leveraged through church, civic and private hands. . . . If you take care of the need in government circles, you dissipate the ability of civil society to take care of that need."

The simple truth is that the people of South Carolina would have been better off with Rod Blagojevich as governor than Mark Sanford. Blagojevichmay have been a crook, but Sanford is merciless ideologue who's happy to see widows and orphans suffer if it will help his political career.

More light needs to be shed on South Carolina. This is what could become of America's working people if the GOP regains some measure of national power.