Thursday, 26 February 2009

Headline of the Day (I did not make this up)

On Tech Ticker (via Yahoo Finance)

Posted Feb 26, 2009 08:00am EST by Aaron Task

And check out the video under this title with the two oblivious talking heads.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Now do it

Thanks to C-SPAN I have no idea what the bloviocracy thinks about Obama’s speech last night, and I watched it all alone, too. So although I don’t presume to have a clue what ‘average’ people might have thought of it, I can offer the following completely unfiltered reactions of one viewer.

Some aspects of these formal speeches before Congress are completely distasteful to me, like the tiresome anecdotes about Good Old Joe from Racine, Wisconsin (or one of those damn states out there) and how his life should inspire us. I had enough sermons as a kid to last me well into the next incarnation and never got over my caged fury at having to listen to such crap week after week. So obviously these three-hanky set pieces are not aimed at me.

In fact, the august setting and the solemnity of the proceedings make me feel that the oratorial tone should be set even higher rather than be pitched to a public weaned on Days of Our Lives. I got a chill seeing the symbolic entry into the legislative seat of the detainers of the other two powers with the chief of protocol declaiming, ‘The Chief Justice’ and ‘The President’s Cabinet’. Obama standing in the well was quite moment, a monument to the vitality that remains in our system. Two years ago, not one of the people in that hall would have imagined he would beat them all at their own game. We did that.

Obama also wasn’t nearly as slick an orator as we’ve been primed to expect, and I don’t think he’s at his best with a prepared text and an all-pol audience, rather than a congregation-style crowd of average folks. He’s not much of an actor, and the lines didn’t come across as smoothly as, say, Saint Ronald would have delivered them.

But setting my personal tastes aside, I got the distinct feeling as the speech progressed that I was witnessing a world-class reaming of the Republicans by a master. For me (and I’m curious if the Received Wisdom will agree), the most telling moment was his nod to Republican discourse about keeping the deficit down and not saddling ‘future generations’ with a debt they cannot pay. The cheers at that line had a slightly different timbre—one could sense that they were coming from the other aisle.

Then he chuckled and made a joke as if he knew that was the moment he would get their applause. ‘See, I knew we’d find something to agree on.’ Friendly, unthreatening, nonpartisan, flexible, not an ounce of vindictiveness, right?

But then came the skewering: we have to work on that because of the TRILLION-DOLLAR DEFICITS YOU GUYS LEFT US. Huge cheers from the Democratic side. Perfect game of rope-a-dope.

I hope I’m not indulging in wishful thinking to perceive a set of ambitious policy goals and a determination to not be distracted from making them happen. We know he’s all about compromise and cooperation, but that wasn’t the keynote of the speech. Rather, he sounded pretty pissed off, which is where most of the rest of us are these days.

For example, it’s good to know that health care reform is not going to be put off to some remote later date, i.e. never, given that the economic collapse gives us a golden opportunity.

There’s plenty in the Obama Administration I’m not crazy about, but the policy timidity that all his establishment advisors have generated for five weeks was not on display last night. That was the old Obama, the one we elected, and I sat and listened to a whole speech by a president from start to finish for the first time in decades. Minus the soggy bromides and soapy humanizing, I’m ready to be governed by this guy.

Sunday, 22 February 2009


The September bank almost-collapse came and went, so we continue to suppose that the threat of a 1929-style bank run has been averted. But have we really lept successfully over the yawning crevasse? Or is a pre-Depression monetary implosion still an active danger? Growth in the U.S. was down 3.8% for the last quarter of 2008, which as economists never tire of telling us is a total disaster. Given the steadily increasing workforce, even a figure around zero is bad news.

But that’s nothing compared to the -6.0% collapse in the Eurozone including a -8.0% implosion for Germany, a -12% bellyflopper in Japan or the -20% tanking in Korea. ‘Doctor Doom’ Roubini now says the global economy is ‘in free fall as the contraction of consumption, capital spending, residential investment, production, employment, exports and imports is accelerating rather than decelerating’.

The timidity of the Obama Administration’s response and its conservative intuition is disappointing given that time may be short. There is more than ample political cover for the federal government to put Bank of America and Citigroup out of their misery as the FDIC does with increasing regularity when it discovers local ‘thrifts’ are insolvent. Republican objections are mere static at this point, and the temporary nationalization would attract broad support as a show of determination to clean out the fetid stables at a blow and get the financial system back on its feet.

Instead, we get Friedmanite bleating from Geithner and the White House press office about the sanctity of the ‘private sector’, a definition of which would be interesting to hear these days given the Federal Reserve’s rapid expansion into a financial supernova.

It sure looks to this lay observer that nationalization will happen anyway, probably when the final investor abandonment means there’s no residual share value left to wipe out. Would be a shame to see the new team look as hapless and reactive as the one’s we kicked out.

Meanwhile, the streets of New York are displaying a curious phenomenon: as the WaMu and Wachovia branches close down and disappear, previously unheard-of banks with names like Smithfield and TA or something (their logo is indecipherable) are popping up. They sound like mom-and-pop operations from remote Appalachian outposts. As the giants crumble into dust, these modest but solvent operations may be moving into prime deposit-capturing territory and changing the face of our erstwhile dominant and domineering industry.

Friday, 20 February 2009

Add to tombstone

How about First African-American from Illinois to Break Guinness Record for Shortest Term of Office in U.S. Senate?

[Huffington headlines]: 'The Best Thing For Illinois- The People He Loves- Is To Step Aside' ... Governor Urges Speedy Resignation ... Interim Appointment, Special Election To Fill Seat

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Powerless over Stephanopoulos

It’s quite wonderful to see one’s lay intuitions endorsed at the top, such as the growing consensus by the Great and Mighty that the mortally wounded banks should be taken over, the terrible ‘N’-world—nationalization. Some commentators add that the biggest and guiltiest like Bank of America and Citigroup should be broken into smaller pieces in any case so that no one of them can do this much damage ever again. To avoid even the appearance of false modesty, I will point out that I had reached this conclusion exactly eight days ago.

Financial markets continue to tank to lower and lower levels, but despite the egg Geithner laid on Capitol Hill last week, I can’t help feeling optimistic about Obama’s team and their eventual hitting on the right approach. Not that all those Ivy League degrees should impress anybody at this stage, but Obama himself simply continues to reassure.

I caught his Denver signing ceremony for the stimulus package last night, rerun late on C-SPAN, and I’m sorry but all that slavish Beltway attention to the soundbite wars simply cannot be more important than the people whose jobs are going to be saved or created by companies like Namaste that was featured in the event. Its CEO shared the podium, and man did they find the right guy for scoring points—youthful, confident, articulate, serious, utterly convincing.

Obama hinted that his approach is based on the long view, that his administration is going to steadily and relentlessly do what he was elected to do by focusing first on job-creation and well-being from below. He was circumspect, but he subtly signaled to the Capitol Gangsters that they can work themselves up into a lather every day of the week if they so choose, but he’s going to stick to the plan.

I gotta say there’s something 12-step-y about Obama’s inner gyroscope, as if he has absorbed the lessons of the addiction and treatment world wherein family members and friends constantly in upheaval around the addictive scene slowly learn to just decide what they’re going to do and calmly go about doing it whether the addict—in this case the establishment bloviocracy—likes it or not. As Bill and Lois W discovered, it’s a winning formula.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Great Daddy State

In the meantime, drivers are met with “closed” signs at Department of Motor Vehicles offices two days a month, environmental programs are left unattended, piles of dirt mark where highway lanes are to be built to ease the state’s infamous traffic congestion, school systems mull layoffs and counties prepare to sue the state for nonpayment of bills.

That is today’s New York Times describing life in the state of California, a harbinger of where things would be heading nationally if John McCain had brought his co-Republican Bob Foreheads, whose ideological rigidity now threatens to turn into rigor mortis, to national office. And this is just the beginning. Governor Schwarzenegger must find $41 billion in spending cuts or ‘new revenues’, much like his unlamented predecessor attempted before he was kicked out.

California’s drama is a fine practical lesson in the reigning attitudes dating from the 1980s about bad old government and nasty old taxes, which must be opposed forever and always in all circumstances. Jowly Howard Jarvis, who brought tax revolt into vogue with Prop 8, now rules from the grave as the movement he founded is revealed in all its perverse glory for what it is: an exercise in egotistical wishful thinking in which people insist that they be provided with everything they need while someone else pays for it.

So now you have the Golden State heading into the cellar of state rankings in educational attainment alongside Mississippi and Louisiana, with other quality-of-life measures soon to follow. Reagan’s anti-state triumph is appropriately complete in the state that created him, and the result is scorched-earth collapse and dysfunction.

Hatred and resentment of the government nonetheless coexist with insistent, blind worship of The Fatherland, the nation-as-mystic-entity, which is a puzzling aspect of Reaganism and all reactionary thought. How peculiar that the same conservatives who claim with immovable insouciance that ours is ‘the greatest country in the world’ simultaneously experience no disorientation at the steady decline of its alleged marvels.

Wherein lies this ‘great’-ness for them? Perhaps like the Mughal empire, it is enough to know your armies are superior in force, your monuments the most spectacular, your realm limitless. Thus greatness is coincident with size, invention, the capacity to inspire fear, in short, pyramidic.

By contrast, weary liberals such as myself, exhausted by awe, place more stock in what we might understand as greatness of spirit including concern for the weakest. Decades of Reaganite testosterone poisoning have discredited that posture and is now discredited in turn notwithstanding the reconsolidated partisan glee accompanying the Republicans’ newfound budgetary caution. These Johnny-come-latelys to fiscal prudence display the same indifference to consistency as their howling troops who demand that the libraries open and the streets be swept but would prefer the revival of slavery before volunteering a penny of tax from their own pockets.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Bipedal business

The world of business and its non-profit counterpart have more in common than one would suspect at first glance. Both generate ‘products’ that have to find a market, and when times get tough, both quickly scramble to stay afloat and keep their customers and shareholders (or clients and donors) happy.

We’ve seen how bad the professional money-makers have been in their supposed area of expertise and their crude excesses in flush times. Now we are going to hear a lot more about the parallel fiscal and administrative mismanagement thriving in the social services as the ebbing tide reveals who is also swimming naked along the do-gooder seashore.

I have done some work for lucre-loving capitalists and found that the underlying recognition that we’re all in it for the money provides a certain bracing clarity. There’s no hint of a suggestion that one will forgo any benefit or payment due out of ‘loyalty’ to the corporate entity as, with the possible exception of Japanese conglomerates that function as ministates, the concept is absurd. You did X, we give you Y; the moment that breaks down, we don’t know each other.

Within that paradigm decency flourishes to a surprising degree. It’s as though once the nasty, self-aggrandizing, cutthroat nature of human affairs is recognized openly or even celebrated, people can relax and conduct their business with a smile. Plus, there are no ready-made excuses along the line of, ‘We’re doing such important work for humanity, how could you be so crude as to expect a paycheck?’

It’s often satisfying and sometimes inspiring to work in the ‘soft’ businesses such as providing services or promoting human welfare, but the conservatives are onto something with their criticism of these squishy entities, which I know intimately. Whole libraries have been written about their weaknesses, and one of the biggest is the founder-leader-owner syndrome in which an ambitious and often charismatic figure puts together a unique social enterprise, then fails to rise to the evolving needs of the institution (including the giving up of his dictatorial control) and eventually presides over its collapse.

One shortcoming extremely common in the nonprofit universe is the failure to apply businesslike practices and models as the organization grows in size and complexity. When the outcome being produced is not a Barbie doll or a box of oatmeal but things like ‘behavior change among X population’ or ‘recreational programs for inner-city youth’, it is not immediately apparent that a business plan, a cash-flow analysis and precise records of performance are just as essential.

Another frequent ice floe in the path of the nonprofit oceanliners is the failure to distinguish between committed and uncommitted cash, sort of like Wachovia Bank’s failure to note that subprime mortgage bonds were actually not the same as money. In this frequently appearing La Brea Tar Pit of the 501(c)(3)s, wonderful buckets of money flow soothingly in as innovative project proposals attract foundation and donor support, and managers quickly discover many other worthy schemes that can now be financed given the comforting size of the bank account.

But without disciplined attention to the business side of things, they forget that their resources are tied directly to previously agreed-upon activities. What at first glance looks like prosperity and success can turn ever-so-rapidly into a nonprofit Ponzi scheme in which new project money is thrown at the gaping holes created by unwise use of the old. No consequences ensue while times are flush, but the tightening of criteria, a shortfall in donations or the withdrawal of government contracts, even lengthy delays in reimbursement practices, all can conspire to depants the amateur social entrepreneurs.

The denouement is invariably uglier than its counterpart in the business world because a certain percentage of businesses are expected to fail, and there is a ready-made resolution of the painful situation available in the form of bankruptcy. But nonprofit ‘bankruptcy’ implies a species of fraud because inevitably a portion of the money taken in fails to be applied to the promised ends.

It’s a pity because the sorry spectacle reinforces suspicion of the entire class of agencies created to do good, and the cynical view of humankind that they purport to belie is reinforced in exactly the wrong way. Ah, bipeds.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


Bipartisanship is a nice thought, and coming from Barack Obama it actually means something: trying to restore civil terms to political discourse, getting us away from the eight-second-soundbite, dagger-in-the-face style of shouter cable TV, the vile antics of the self-appointed wanker-experts.

But Obama’s instincts for calm, reasoned debate and finding common ground isn’t what we need right now as the financial system lurches from one precipice to another, and the disloyal opposition openly hopes for chaos to erase the collective memory of its own massive incompetence. Time is short; compromise is a luxury. Martin Wolf writes in the Financial Times:

[The Obama Administration] has set itself the wrong question. It has not asked what needs to be done to be sure of a solution. It has asked itself, instead, what is the best it can do given three arbitrary, self-imposed constraints: no nationalisation; no losses for bondholders; and no more money from Congress. Yet why does a new administration, confronting a huge crisis, not try to change the terms of debate? This timidity is depressing.

At the same time, instead of bold action we have bold grandstanding by Congress which today is indulging itself by holding up bankers to public scorn as a substitute for taking away their power, toys and ill-gotten loot. It is patronizing and insulting to be expected to enjoy a televised flogging of executives (who surely know how to put up with—and even enjoy—S&M routines in their cutthroat world) while the White House buckles on tax cuts, mass transit investment, and health and education spending only to get three votes from undistinguished Republican ‘moderates’.

We don’t need O to prove his reasonableness; we need him to save our ass.

Many of the largest banks in the U.S. are out of money and cannot be saved. The IMF director said as much this week, and if we were Brazil or Russia or Bangladesh, the hemlock would have been force-fed them months ago. Where are the independent, realistic, radical voices of alarm and rationality inside the Obama camp? The guy says he will change course when necessary, but under these conditions he cannot wait too long to do so.

Ho hum

It’s not clear which racist creep will take over Israel’s government, but from this distance the differences look pretty cosmetic. Do we get Livni who just presided over the carnage in Gaza or Netanyahu who thinks she’s too much of a softie? Then there’s Liberman who was previously a bouncer in a club in Moldova, a.k.a. Recruitment Central for world sex-slave trafficking and now calls for Israeli Arabs to sign loyalty pledges to the ‘rightful owners’ of the territory, i.e. recent arrivals like himself with racially pure (i.e. Jewish) parentage. You can’t make this stuff up.

Looks as though the slavish American devotion to the most reactionary political forces in Israel has borne its expected fruit—empowering leaders who will ignore Obama’s new approach and continue down the path of conquest, apartheid and further ethnic cleansing. No one can pretend to be surprised by this ongoing debacle.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Just do it

Hard to sort through all the conflicting opinions about the Team Obama economic strategy, but one convincing argument that pops up more and more frequently is that the banking system is insolvent and requires much more radical measures than the lame-ass Paulson Redux unveiled today. That would explain why rescue package after rescue package all get the gong from Wall Street, like Tuesday’s 4-plus percent tanking.

A local institution here is trying to keep people’s morale up by making promises it can’t really keep, then dropping the bombshell when payroll isn’t met or another staffer or two is forced to exit. That approach postpones the unpleasantness for the top brass as they avoid eliminating programs, furloughing everybody for a few weeks or calling out the entire office to go sit in at the appropriate government offices until there’s a solution that sticks.

The slow-collapse mode really is not helpful, but that’s the first response on both micro and macro levels. If the big banks are hopelessly underwater, somebody’s gotta decide to put them out of their misery, nationalize them like the Swedes did in the 1990s, wipe out share- and bondholders, separate the toxic assets from the salvageable ones, run the whole sucker for an indeterminate period and then resell it all back to private owners when things calm down. In fact, it’s done all the time by the FDIC when they take a flailing, failing savings & loan and pull the plug on it. It costs money, but the overall system barely notices.

Maybe radical steps don’t come naturally to people like Geithner who’ve spent their entire lives in magical bubbleland with the Great and Mighty, making fat salaries and forgetting to pay taxes on them. Obama has a modest, moderate streak that is attractive and made him president. But I have a feeling he’s going to need to reach into his bag and pull out another persona sooner rather than later if he plans to stay ahead of the rapidly plummeting curve on the econ charts.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Take charge, make change

Obama inspired with the idea of something new, summed up in his ‘change’ mantra, whose appeal I finally absorbed although the let’s-hold-hands-and-sing (with the Republicans) subtext, not so much. Plus, there’s an inherent contradiction between the two tendencies in his rhetoric because if anything represents the tired old Washington of the Clinton and Bush years, it’s letting the hard-liners of the party of Limbaugh get their way over and over and over.

So Obama’s olive branches and pattycake peace feelers to the guys who got us into this mess aren’t too persuasive for many of us who think what the country needs is less centrism and a larger dollop of partisan warfare. People say they hate the mud-slinging, but they fool themselves. (They also say they hate cheap infotainment and annoying advertisements while continuing to buy all the products scarf up the news about Britney.) There’s something appealing about a tough, consistent and even uncompromising message that rallies your supporters and makes the intransigent opposition pay a price.

Clinton the triangulator already tried the MOR approach, giving ground wherever the conservative machinery geared up to oppose him. His reward was a quick loss of his congressional majority in 1990 and vicious hatred of his entire family fanned by the reactionary base. Obama’s first two weeks are repeating the pattern.

On a brighter note there are positive signs of prudence from Obama on the Afghanistan/Pakistan debacle, about which various commentators have issued their cautions. How easily we forget that the Soviet Union hurried to its demise via the Afghan graveyard. After a lot of talk about a Bush-lite ‘surge’ of forces there, Obama reportedly asked his military experts for a winning strategy for the region and surprise, surprise, they couldn’t lay out one.

I don’t pretend to any expertise on that part of the world, but from my casual reading over the years it seems pretty obvious that you don’t win friends and influence people by bombing and strafing civilians from the air (as O himself criticized during the campaign), backing a hopelessly corrupt regime in Kabul, pretending to fight the opium traffic while allowing the politically connected to keep growing theirs, and turning a blind eye to the nefarious doings of Pakistani intelligence that secretly maintains its alliance with the resurgent Taliban in expectations that the Americans eventually will leave.

W and the neocons seriously undermined American influence and our safety with their arrogant, wacko schemes, and O has the chance to change course. To do so, he has to, um . . . change course. We’re waiting.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

A surfeit of bloviation

What a spectacle we’re getting from the white guys who marched in lockstep behind W as he ran up historic budget deficits by throwing twin tsunamis of cash up at the rich and down into the toilet of the Iraq war. Now all we hear from the perfectly coifed Repubs is the horrible sin of spending money you don’t have and the pressing need to ‘defend future generations’ from the nightmare of national debt. Why not throw in fetuses as well? Nefarious liberals: cynically placing the lives of the pre-born in hock to big gummint.

Given this hyper-partisan resistance, it’s not immediately apparent what Obama gains by his polite attempts to make nice and cede to Republican demands here and there. At first glance—and aided by the woo-wooing of the punditocracy—he looks alternately weak or upstaged.

Witnessing the lack of cooperation, one begins to speculate on the counterfactual: what if he had just burst into office with both barrels blazing and sent up bold, Rooseveltian measures to reshuffle the deck, reenfranchise the middle class and restore the safety net for the poor? Why not if they’re going to be against everything anyway? That’s how W proceeded after his bogus ‘compassionate conservative’ campaign even with a negative electoral mandate.

But Obama’s appeal and winning formula was always supra-partisan, and he seems to believe in the other Roosevelt’s approach (Eleanor’s): if you clearly (and patiently) explain to people what is in their best interest, they will respond. She was living in another age mediawise where the soundbite did not yet rule, but even so it’s an interesting and rather radical concept. And Obama now can soundbite right back.

John McCain looked particularly pathetic as he lethargically denounced the spending package from the Senate floor. This is the superhero who flew through the air during the campaign with A Plan To Save Us, which turned out to be nothing but himself in tights.

Given how wrong the commentators were about everything over the last two years, now’s a good time to sit back and actually see what happens rather than claim you can predict it.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Cold comfort

The gloppiest snow-slush storm of the year hit on Tuesday, putting people in a sour mood. The damp fronts slide toward us from the Great Lakes; after they’ve crossed into the ocean, the sky clears, and the temperatures drop quickly with no cloud cover—it was below zero last night just two counties to the north of us. It’s not South Dakota, but it keeps you on your toes.

I’m reading Némirovsky after being entranced like everyone else with Suite Française, and her earlier short works are marvelous. Despite her French upbringing, she’s still convincingly Russian about the thrill of an old servant raised in Siberia at the first blast of winter air and smothering snowstorms. By contrast, I recall being mocked as a hothouse plant during my Midwest youth, reluctant to venture out of doors even when swaddled from head to toe.

Now I find there’s nothing quite like it. My neighborhood in the heights north of the George Washington Bridge is a few degrees colder than the city, and on my streets two or three inches of the wet snow that dissipated in Midtown managed to accumulate onto car rooftops. GW himself spent some time running from the redcoats quartered in these woods, escaping from Cornwallis who crossed the river into New Jersey in hot pursuit right at the Palisades opposite Yonkers. How easily things could have turned out differently. If the bridge had been built anyway, we’d be calling it something else.

Némirovsky always signals what is happening weatherwise with her characters and gives us the temperature inside as well, a sense of the smoky lamps or the ice forming on the windows. Here in Manhattan we stumble through the winter streets, then bake in our sweat-lodge offices trapped with radiators that can’t be controlled or even running the A/C mid-winter since the windows are usually sealed shut.

Climate seems an unavoidable fact of life, and yet we’ve entered an historical period in which Mark Twain’s wisecrack—‘Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it’—no longer applies. Economist Jeremy Warner in The Independent
of London points out some curious similarities between the climate and the credit crises:

Both have their origins in the idea that it is perfectly acceptable to pump up the system with huge amounts of toxic material—in the case of the credit crunch, trillions of dollars of sub-prime lending, and with climate change millions of tons of carbon. The consumerism of the credit bubble has moreover fed the growth in emissions. Both were based on unsustainable assumptions.

I would add that just as success in controlling global warning requires some humility from the hyper-developed North, the accelerating global economic debacle clamors for a major take-down of the Titans of Finance. The W era was all about frogmarching the unwilling into our glorious century, and it’s not yet clear if the Obama change-agents have realized that those approaches aren’t going to work. They still seem awfully busy getting the usual suspects to gather for brandy by the drawing room fireplace while the masses continue to shiver in the snow below.

[P.S.] Némirovsky, a French Catholic of Russian Jewish origins, was pursued by the Nazis, eventually caught and deported to Auschwitz where she died immediately. The unfinished Suite Française was saved in tiny notes she wrote while on the run by her children, who were hidden throughout the war and miraculously survived.

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Taking the heat

I’m just delighted that Tom Daschle was forced to commit ritual seppuku over his back taxes and perhaps—as some have suggested—to avoid a grilling on his and his wife’s lobbying activities. A pity that Obama has to take it on the chin along with him, but as he himself pointed out, he goofed.

At least Obama’s arrival at the top hasn’t yet destroyed his capacity for reflective self-criticism, something sorely lacking in that alpine environment. He showed unusual humility days after his election by phoning Nancy Reagan and apologizing immediately for making a wisecrack at her expense.

That said, O doesn’t get a pass for this screw-up because it was part of a disturbing pattern he initiated with the slightly-less-dubious Geithner who sailed through his confirmation hearings for the Treasury post despite sounding like Scooter Libby at the grand jury.

It’s great to thump the podium about ethics and accountability but a lot harder to actually carry it out especially if your instincts are to avoid conflict. I should know—I faced the same dilemma the one time I had executive authority in this life (and if God is great, the only time). When you say NO to colleagues based on fiscal ethics, you do not cement eternal friendships.

By contrast, when you pass out the loot or turn a deaf ear to the sound of its soothing flow, they build monuments to you.

The seamy details of how Daschle cashed in after his re-election defeat also throw new light on his chronic wimpitude in allowing W to carry on the disaster in Iraq in the face of massive disgust with it, which Daschle as Senate minority leader had some responsibility to express.

But if he was really thinking about how to set himself up in the cushiest possible fashion after leaving ‘public service’, he’d have no burning desire to seriously rock any of the many boats coasting through the treasure-filled waters of Washington, D.C.

That’s the more important reason for tossing this udder-suctioning suit back to the beet fields of South Dakota, more than just distaste at his crude money-grubbing. When you’re that far up the sigmoid of the state and eyeing the public purse so intently with your pockets agape, you really can’t concentrate on what’s important.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Kirsten G: the Marlboro Woman

My first impressions of our new senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, were negative, and they hardly improved with her rapid abandonment of the ugly position she took on immigration reform as a congresswoman from an upstate district full of nativist white people to fit in better with the minority-heavy city she now represents. Although her new stance is no longer rabidly xenophobic, her instantaneous waffle shows she doesn’t believe in anything but herself. Not a recommendation for higher office.

That was before I actually knew much about her. But for the real sleaze factor that goes far beyond any mere shuffling of positions for opportunistic advantage, let’s delve into her professional associations:

Lawyer Gillibrand worked for the firm Davis, Polk & Wardwell for eight years, four of them as legal muscle for none other than Philip Morris, the world’s biggest cigarette maker. PM, later sued by the U.S. government for decades of conspiracy and fraud in peddling a deadly product, paid the firm $305 an hour for Gillibrand’s services.

According to a tobacco control advocate, Gillibrand’s name (her maiden name actually, Kirsten Rutnik) appears on 1,175 documents obtained from Philip Morris’ company files as a result of the 1998 mega-settlement with states. Four hundred of them remain confidential based on attorney-client privilege.

Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, later hired Gillibrand’s high-powered (Republican) lobbyist father in 2005. PM execs and its political action committee together contributed $24,200 to daughter Kirsten’s congressional campaign.

No doubt our new senator will argue that she was just toiling in the vineyards and couldn’t refuse her powerful bosses by not taking the tobacco case. That would make her a ruthless corporate toady and hardly the tough, independent ‘centrist’ that she likes to paint herself (with Chuck Schumer’s slavering assistance). In any case, she clearly did not feel it was inappropriate or unethical to perform these tasks, and we should judge her accordingly—especially when she waxes on about her concern for ‘children and families’.

Gillibrand and Paterson: with friends like these. . .

Sunday, 1 February 2009

Cliff notes

Back around September I began to hear from friends and acquaintances that they were getting less work, or their company was readying layoffs, or new business was drying up. It confirmed the rumblings in the financial pages about a recessionary wave heading for shore.

Now, the water is up to our knees. Hardly anyone is unaffected by the downturn, and New York (city and state) flounders in the sea, comprised mostly of red ink. We now know that the recession actually began in December of 2007, but in just the last three months it has palpably engulfed us. Those entities (businesses, nonprofits, governments) that did not spend the fat years preparing for the lean are suddenly in deep trouble.

It’s better to learn to swim in advance of, rather than during, a flood, but how many institutions plan ahead? It’s somehow part of biped nature to assume that present conditions will obtain forever and put off emergency planning for later, i.e. never.

For example, just a year ago or so, the city’s transportation authority gave us a few days of free rides on the subways because they had a budget surplus. Say again? No thought of putting aside a few million or paying down some of the system’s crippling debt?

The larger implications are that crisis means opportunity, and that’s not always a good thing—crises also can enable the worst tendencies among us as 9/11 so amply demonstrated. We hear a lot about Obama as the new FDR, but to fill those rather large shoes, he’ll have to assert himself, take big chances and kick some butt.

The other side is certainly ready to do so.

During the fat years Mayor Bloomberg took great delight in sending out property tax rebate checks to all residents in a perfect imitation of Juan Perón or more exactly Evita tossing cash from her limousine to ‘the poor’. Now that the budget deficit has ballooned, guess who is supposed to make the sacrifice?


My friend Laura C., a toiler in the vineyards of New York City’s public school system, wrote me the following note a few weeks ago when the names of New York school superintendent Joel Klein and his Washington counterpart Michelle Rhee were being floated as possible education secretaries. I quote at length here (with her permission) her complaint about both of them as exactly what we don’t need.

I am so glad to see that, yes, someone seems to be on to her [Rhee]. I have been watching her from afar with great distaste. She is getting nationwide play and positive hype. The fact that Obama didn’t choose Rhee or Klien for a cabinet position was somewhat reassuring.

What irks me is that the talk about the “struggle” over education always seems to center on teachers’ “perks” as opposed to the near dictatorial power of principals in most schools, low teacher pay and ever increasing class sizes. At least with Rhee someone thought to look at what she has or hasn’t actually achieved even though it is far too focused on test scores. Those figures sometimes can be marginally improved (especially when teachers are terrified into spending all their teaching time on test prep), but high drop-out rates and low college admission rates remain fairly intractable.

This, in my humble opinion, is because education is not enough of a national priority—period. We are not really dedicated to eliminating the presence of a large, uneducated underclass. There was an eye-opening piece last summer in Time magazine of all places that revealed the vast differences between our system and more successful ones in places ranging from Finland to Hong Kong.

By the way, my school has an 80% to 95% college admissions rate, depending on the year, and a very low drop-out rate. This is almost unheard of in larger schools. However, rather than imitating our model (we are one of the smallest schools in the city), the DOE is doing everything possible to hinder us, cutting about 20% of our teachers this past year with greater cuts lined up for the end of this one.

To top things off, the powers that be have set up an evaluating system that penalizes us because it takes some of our disaffected transfer students (who are already low on credits when they come to us) an extra six months to a year to graduate. How in the world are we going to increase overall graduation and college entrance rates if we are unwilling to invest a little extra time in the kids who are behind??

As a result of this, our school has actually teetered at times on the edge of becoming a SUR school (one in which the principal can be fired, staff reorganized etc.) when it is probably one of the best schools in the city. By “best” I do not mean one of the elite schools like Bronx Science that gets the creme de la creme students through rigorous entrance exams, but “best” in terms of our success with average or troubled students who are at high risk of academic failure.

How do we do this? We are undoubtedly one of the most democratically run schools in the city, with an unheard of system of consensus decision-making where, in theory, even the principal must bring policy proposals to staff for approval. Most of the good ideas implemented bubble up from the teachers themselves.

The teachers have historically been a high caliber, creative bunch (many Ivy League degrees) who wouldn’t be caught dead teaching in a regular city school if they could help it. We’d keep them longer if they could offer better pay and conditions and if teachers had respect in society. (Who could blame my brilliant colleague in her prime teaching years, who moved on to teach at Vassar??)

So there you have it: pay teachers more so that you can attract some of the best minds; respect teachers rather than running them down in every media report on education; reward schools for taking on students who are behind in credits (even if it costs money); spend the extra it takes to create small schools (ideally with even smaller class sizes than ours); lower teaching loads so that capable teachers can share in the administrative and visionary work that comes from a lifetime of experience. It takes national treasure. Money. Period.

But we aren’t committed to it as a nation. Instead, my school is housed in an antiquated, 1930s building with too few rooms assigned to us, and has lost space twice in the past three years. And we’re slated for even more teacher cuts. That’s the reward for our success.

The Rhee boomlet is an example of how easy is to get positive ink by taking aim at unions of any sort. Teachers’ unions are a particular juicy target since they combine everything conservatives hate: public schools, taxes and uppity workers.

And leave it to the ‘centrists’ to echo the popular anti-teacher line. Newsweek senior editor Evan Thomas lauded Rhee a while back for not ‘giving up on inner-city schools’ unlike ‘most educators’ supposedly had done. ‘Right here in Washington, D.C.’, intoned the breathless Thomas, ‘there’s a lady who is trying to actually win this battle, but she’s trying to break the union to do it. . . . Rarely have the lines been so clearly drawn’. That would be the lines between Good and Evil.

Time magazine helped out the cause by putting Rhee on the cover holding a broom.

I don’t pretend to know anything about the details of Washington’s collapsed system, but I’ll bet a week’s pay (assuming I continue to receive some] that it operates on a tiny percentage of the resources available to the suburban school systems. It’s a lot easier to gang up on teachers than to address that glaring inequality.

Laura’s comments were made a couple of weeks ago, and yesterday the Mayor threatened to balance his budget by slashing 15,630 teacher jobs, 80 percent of the proposed 19,650 city layoffs. No need to clean out the top-heavy DOE bureaucracy, just slash the cash spent on those standing in front of the kids day in and day out.

Says Laura now: If [teachers union president Randy] Weingarten’s figures are correct, Mayor Bloomberg is purposely using this crisis to undermine the school system to the point where teaching will no longer be a viable profession and urban kids will never have a chance.

Both Bloomberg and D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty have engineered their own takeovers of city schools in the name of efficiency. But who is going to determine whether they’ve succeeded or, more importantly, what we are going to call ‘success’?

Obama had a lot to say about education during the campaign, so it will be interesting to see whether his politics of reconciliation includes fighting off this assault on his core principles or whether the nation’s bankruptcy will be hijacked by the anti-union conservatives wearing the sheep’s clothing of ‘reform’.