Archive for the ‘Kristol’ Category

Blow, Kristof, and Collins

August 4, 2016

In “Trump Reflects White Male Fragility” Mr. Blow says that if you support Trump, you support his bigotry and racism.  Just like all but a handful of Republicans…  In “Donald Trump and a C.I.A. Officer Walk Into a Room” Mr. Kristof asks us to imagine being a fly on the wall at his first intelligence briefing.  In “Intervening Donald” Ms. Collins says Trump has had plenty to say while Republicans try to get him to stick to a message that could get him elected.  Here’s Mr. Blow:

Reports of Donald Trump’s demise are an exaggeration, to paraphrase and repurpose Mark Twain.

Yes, he can’t stop shooting off his mouth and shooting himself in the foot, and there are reports that his messy campaign is nearing the point of mutiny.

Yes, he knows nearly nothing about world affairs and that becomes ever more apparent every time he stumbles through an interview. Sir, Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, the same year you filmed your last installment of your reality game show “The Celebrity Apprentice.”

Yes, his continued feud with the family of a fallen Muslim soldier may be the most ill advised and foolhardy folly in recent political memory (Trump keeps racking these up.) This is the same man who received five draft deferments during the Vietnam War, one for “bone spurs in his heels” according to The New York Times. While throngs of his contemporaries were fighting — and dying – in battle, Trump was being featured on the front page of The Times after he and his father were sued by the Department of Justice for anti-black bias in their rental properties.

Three years later, The Times profiled him with a backhanded compliment of the nouveau riche: “He rides around town in a chauffeured silver Cadillac with his initials, DJT, on the plates. He dates slinky fashion models, belongs to the most elegant clubs and, at only 30 years of age, estimates that he is worth ‘more than $200 million.’”

Yes, he doesn’t seem to know the difference between Tim Kaine, the Democratic Virginia senator whom Hillary Clinton tapped as her running mate, and Tom Kean, the Republican former governor of New Jersey who last held that office 26 years ago, the same year Trump boasted in his book “Surviving at the Top,” “I’ve never had any trouble in bed,” and counseled in Vanity Fair, “When a man leaves a woman, especially when it was perceived that he has left for a piece of ass — a good one! — there are 50 percent of the population who will love the woman who was left.”

Yes, yes, yes.

But Donald Trump is bigger than all of this, or shall I say, smaller.

He appeals to something deeper, something baser: Fear. His whole campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” is in fact an inverted admission of loss — lost primacy, lost privilege, lost prestige.

And who feels that they have lost the most? White men.

As the New York Times’ Upshot pointed out in July, “According to our estimates, Mrs. Clinton is doing better among basically every group of voters except for white men without a degree.” Put another way: “Hillary Clinton is largely performing as well or better than Barack Obama did in 2012, except among white men without a degree.”

Indeed, a Monday report in The Times put it this way: “A New York Times/CBS News poll two weeks ago found that white men preferred her Republican opponent, Donald J. Trump, to Mrs. Clinton almost two to one, 55 percent to 29 percent.”

These are the voters keeping Trump’s candidacy alive.

He appeals to a regressive, patriarchal American whiteness in which white men prospered, in part because racial and ethnic minorities, to say nothing of women as a whole, were undervalued and underpaid, if not excluded altogether.

White men reigned supreme in the idealized history, and all was good with the world. (It is curious that Trump never specifies a period when America was great in his view. Did it overlap with the women’s rights, civil rights or gay rights movements? For whom was it great?)

Trump’s wall is not practical, but it is metaphor. Trump’s Muslim ban is not feasible, but it is metaphor. Trump’s huge deportation plan isn’t workable, but it is metaphor.

There is a portion of the population that feels threatened by unrelenting change — immigration, globalization, terrorism, multiculturalism — and those people want someone to, metaphorically at least, build a wall around their cultural heritage, which they conflate in equal measure with American heritage.

In their minds, whether explicitly or implicitly, America is white, Christian, straight and male-dominated. If you support Trump, you are on some level supporting his bigotry and racism. You don’t get to have a puppy and not pick up the poop.

And acceptance of racism is an act of racism. You are convicted by your complicity.

I am not accustomed to dancing around an issue; I prefer to call it what it is. I prefer to shine a bright light on it until it withers. Supporting Trump is indefensible and it makes you as much of a pariah as he is.

As Toni Morrison once told Charlie Rose:

“Don’t you understand that the people who do this thing, who practice racism, are bereft? There is something distorted about the psyche. It’s a huge waste, and it’s a corruption, and a distortion. Its like it’s a profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is.”

That stops here, today. For as long as racism and tribalism and xenophobia exist in this country, Trump’s foibles will not signal his ultimate failure. But let’s not let off the people who prop him up, claiming that they’re simply being party loyalists, or Hillary haters or having Supreme Court concerns.

Trump is a mirror. He is a reflection of — indeed a revealing of — the ugliness that you harbor, only it is possible that you may have gone your life expressing it in ways that were more coded and politic. Trump is an unfiltered primal scream of the fragility and fear consuming white male America.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof:

The government is arranging classified intelligence briefings for Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to prepare them for the White House. This longstanding practice of briefing nominees is controversial this year: Senator Harry Reid has urged the C.I.A. to give Trump a “fake” briefing, while House Speaker Paul Ryan has said Clinton can’t handle classified material. But what would a Trump briefing look like, anyway?

“Mr. Trump, I’m Gene Smith from the C.I.A.”

“Smith, huh? Is that your code name? You know, I know a huge amount about the C.I.A., more than most C.I.A. directors. A terrific, beautiful, very good organization.”

“Actually, Smith is my real name. Anyway, let’s get started with China and our assessment that Xi is much more aggressive than Hu.”

“She is more aggressive than who?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, I’d like to meet her. I like aggressive women. She sounds like a 10.”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. That aggressive woman.”

“I’m not sure I understand. Anyway, in China we assess with high confidence that Xi will continue this aggressive nationalistic ——”

“She sounds hot. No, I’m just joking. But, seriously, women love me.”

“Mr. Trump, Xi is a man, president of China.”

“She is a man? China’s president is trans? Boy, they’re more modern than I realized — I mean, I knew that. I know so much about China. You should see me use chopsticks! Did I ever tell you about this hot Chinese girl I once dated? She was so modern, and built like ——”

“Mr. Trump! We expect China will maintain its nationalistic claims in the South China Sea ——”

“Oh, don’t worry. I have lots of Chinese friends. I love Chinese food. Best pad Thai in the world at Trump Tower. So what’s your take, what do the Chinese think of me?”

“We assess with high confidence that the Chinese leadership wants you to win the election.”

“I’m not surprised. There are very, very bad reporters at completely and totally failing newspapers that nobody reads who say I might start a trade war. But China wants me to win the election! Amazing! So why does she want me to win, that transsexual president of theirs?”

“Xi is not trans! Xi would like you to win because alliance management is not your priority, and your presidency could lead to an unprecedented decline in U.S. influence.”

“Unprecedented! Amazing! So the Chinese think that I’d be unprecedented? Who else likes me?”

“Well, North Korea has already officially endorsed you, Mr. Trump. It called you ‘prescient’ and ‘wise.’”

“‘Present and wise!’ They love me! And Russia loves me, too. Putin and I go way back. We’re like this” — Trump knits his fingers together — “and after I’m elected I hope to finally meet him.”

“Yes, we believe that President Putin is backing you.”

“Putin the Pro. Not like Little Ukraine. Sad!”

“Well, Putin believes that NATO might collapse in your presidency and that he would have a freer hand in Ukraine and the Baltics.”

“The Baltics, I know them better than anybody! Melania is from Slovenia. Some people say I leaked those amazing pictures of her to The New York Post. Why would I do that? Did you see them? Here ——”

“Mr. Trump! And you mean the Balkans, even though Slovenia isn’t ——”

“Balkans, Baltics — I don’t get bogged down in details. I’m a strategy guy. Now what about ISIS? I know more about ISIS than the generals do. But I’d like to hear your take. Are they supporters?”

“We assess that they are supporting you in the belief that you help recruitment. Indeed, we fear that they may conduct a terror strike in hopes of helping you get elected.”

“Everybody’s supporting me! What about the Middle East? I’ll probably do a peace deal — I’m a terrific deal maker, you know that? I’ll probably get a Nobel Peace Prize to go with my new Purple Heart.”

“Well, sir, the Middle East is complicated ——”

“The Middle East is a complete and total disaster. They don’t respect us. What about nuclear weapons? If we have nukes, why not use em?”

“Sir, we only offer intel, not policy advice. But ——”

“Shouldn’t we just drop a few nukes on those Kurds?”

“The Kurds? In Syria, they’re our only effective ally.”

“They’re doing bad things. Very bad things. I saw it on a Sunday show.”

“Oh, you mean … the Quds Force?”

“Kurds, Quds, what’s the difference? If I give the order to bomb ’em, you guys can sweat the details. Call Mike Pence.”

“But you’re running to be ——”

“Anyway, tell me about internet security. I’m a little bored. How about we hack into the phone of Miss Sweden and check out her selfies? When I’m elected I’m going to have a whole team on that. …”

What’s the over/under on how long it will take him to tweet something classified?  And now we get to Ms. Collins:

Do you think it’s true that the Republicans are trying to get Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich to do an intervention with an out-of-control Donald Trump?

This is the best rumor of the summer, so let’s hope so. If they televised it, no one in the world would be watching the Olympics.

And it does tell you something that Giuliani and Gingrich are supposed to be the voices of moderation and self-control in the campaign. The former mayor who told a press conference that he was going to end his marriage before he told his wife. And the former House speaker who once presided over a government shutdown, which he seemed to attribute to the bad seat he got on Air Force One.

“The campaign is doing really well. It’s never been so well united,” Trump himself fibbed at a rally in Florida on Wednesday.

He was introduced by a retired general who announced that the rally was “an intervention of the people of this country.” This was the same retired general who recently got in trouble for retweeting an anti-Semitic message.

As usual, Trump spent a good chunk of his speech explaining how unjust his critics are. He was outraged, for instance, that he could have been charged with being unsympathetic to people with disabilities when he’s “spent millions of dollars on ramps” for his buildings.

He also took the opportunity of the Florida visit to brag about having been endorsed by “the great Brian France,” the head of Nascar. Who got the top job upon the retirement of the previous C.E.O., who happened to be Brian France’s father.

Wouldn’t you think Trump would be a little bit embarrassed to preen over the backing of another … heir? But he’s never met a sports celebrity he doesn’t like. This was a guy who boasted that he’d been endorsed by Mike Tyson, convicted rapist. Who really, really wanted to put Don King, the boxing promoter, on the convention speakers’ list. It apparently took quite a bit of persuasion to convince the candidate that it was not a good idea to publicize his friendship with a man who was once convicted of manslaughter for stomping someone to death.

You can’t deny that Trump has kept his promise to run a whole new kind of campaign. Just a week into the general election race and he’s already gotten into an ongoing fight with the parents of a slain war hero, arguing that he had “made a lot of sacrifices” himself. Plus refused to endorse the speaker of the House in a meaningless primary. Plus humiliated a woman with a crying baby.

Things are getting exhausting, aren’t they? I’m prepared to take a couple of questions.

During the fight with the parents of the slain war hero, remind me exactly what Trump claimed his sacrifices for the country were?

Oh, you know, building … buildings. And raising massive amounts of money for veterans. Only the first of which is entirely true.

And what about the crying baby?

Yeah, there was a baby crying at one of the rallies. Trump took the trouble to point it out to the hundreds of people in his audience. “Don’t worry about that baby,” he told the mother. “I love babies.” Wouldn’t you presume he was serious? The worst politician in the country would not be sarcastic about a baby. Rudy Giuliani would not be sarcastic about a baby. Bada-bing: “Actually, I was only kidding. You can get the baby out of here.” And then he made fun of the mother for believing him.

Now that he’s been criticized, he’ll probably start pointing out that Mar-a-Lago doesn’t discriminate against pregnant women.

I live in California and all I can think about is this election. But the only voters who count seem to be in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania! How can that be fair?

Look, normally I’d be sympathetic, what with living in New York and all. But we’ve got a presidential nominee here who apparently didn’t know the Russians had invaded Ukraine until George Stephanopoulos broke the news to him on national television. There are problems larger than the value of your itty-bitty ballot.

Trump keeps saying the election is going to be rigged. Do you think he’s looking for an excuse to drop out

No, I’m just worried that he’s preparing his excuse for when he loses. You do not want this to end with Donald Trump telling his supporters — many of whom appear to have a minimum of 20 guns in the basement — that he was robbed. In the Florida speech he did warn the audience to beware of “people voting 10 times.”

O.K., that’s scaring me.

Let’s have some faith in the electorate. I believe most Americans, when given the choice between explaining the outcome with election fraud or “kept making fun of mothers,” will know which way to go.

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Dowd, Friedman, Kristof, Cohen and Rich

June 21, 2009

Gawd.  MoDo wastes our time with “Obama’s Fly Move” in which she opines that President Obama’s swift killing of a fly may have resonated so much because some Americans fear that he is too prone to negotiation, comity and splitting the difference.  MoDo, honey, it didn’t “resonate” at all.  It was turned into something “meaningful” by morons like you.  STFU, fergawdsake.  The Moustache of Wisdom, in “Bullets and Ballots” written from the safety of his cozy mansion, tells the Iranians that if supporters of Mir Hussein Moussavi want their ballots to count, they must continue their protests and show Iran’s leaders that they can be neither bought nor bullied.  Easy for you to say, Tommy…  Mr. Kristof writes about “Lettuce From the Garden, With Worms,” and says one reason for the myriad health problems in America is our industrialized agriculture system, and it should be under scrutiny — by the government as well as consumers.  Mr. Cohen, who is still in Tehran, says “A Supreme Leader Loses His Aura as Iranians Flock to the Streets,” and that as protesters defied a warning from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country faces its gravest test since the founding of the Islamic Republic.  Mr. Rich writes about “Obama’s Make or Break Summer,” and says that while restraint has proven useful for President Obama’s foreign policy dealings, he can not afford to use the same subtle tactics on urgent domestic issues.  Here’s MoDo:

The White House has two kinds of aides: The ones who prefer to think of their boss as gifted but human, and the ones who think their boss is on a date night with destiny.

The first group thinks that when things go really well for President Obama that he’s benefiting from luck as well as skill. For instance, they suggest, if any one of the sharpshooters from the Navy Seals who killed the three Somali pirates holding the American captain had aimed a millimeter to the left, maybe the captain would have been killed, and the incident would have turned into a symbol of weakness — as when Jimmy Carter’s attempt to free the hostages in Iran ended with a helicopter crash in the desert.

And what if there had been another terrorist attack in America? Everything would be seen through a darker lens.

The second group of aides are more caught up in the myth and magic, feeling that Mr. Obama summons the three-point swishes when he needs them; that his popularity is not so fragile; that the president’s unparalleled vision and buzzer-beating will can shape fate.

Just so, there are some Americans who think the president got an excess of attention from an excitable news media for expeditiously executing a fly that was buzzing around his face during an interview with CNBC and the Times’s John Harwood.

And there are others who see a mystical, metaphorical dimension to the way the president nonchalantly lasered in on the meddlesome insect after it ignored his admonition, “Hey, get outta here.” Without even uncrossing his legs or lunging about, the Chill One caught it, crushed it and kicked it aside and then said to Harwood, “Now, where were we?” before returning to his point about regulatory reform.

“It’s like he’s got one of those Fly Terminator targeting systems in his eyes,” marveled Jon Stewart.

Maybe the president who collected Spider-Man comics as a kid couldn’t resist the age-old face-off with a fly.

The moment had echoes of parables in which the ordinary one becomes the golden one.

In “The Karate Kid,” a teenager whose father has died learns lessons about the body and spirit from his surrogate father and karate teacher, Mr. Miyagi. His lessons are about not going to the dark side, the importance of discipline, and catching flies. “Man who catch fly with chopstick,” Mr. Miyagi says, “accomplish anything.”

In the Grimms’ fairy tale, “The Brave Little Tailor,” a tailor brandishing a rag kills seven flies swarming around his jam-smeared bread. The little man admires his own bravery so much — “For joy his heart wagged like a lamb’s tail” — that he wants the whole world to know of it. So he stitches up a belt for himself embroidered with the legend “Seven at one blow!” and saunters out.

Protected by his legend, using brains rather than brawn, he dispatches two giants and captures a unicorn and a wild boar before winning a princess and living happily ever after as a king.

The president didn’t order up a “One at one blow!” belt. You don’t need such accessories in the era of YouTube viral videos. But he did admire his own ninja moves so much that he gave himself a shout-out: “That was pretty impressive, wasn’t it? I got the sucker.” Then he solicited more snaps for what Harwood called his “ ‘Make my day’ moment” from his press secretary off camera: “Whaddya think, Gibbs?” After the interview was over, he continued his superfly moves by cleaning up the carcass with a napkin.

The moment may have resonated so much because some Americans fear that President Obama is too prone to negotiation, comity and splitting the difference, that he could have been tougher on avaricious banks and vicious Iranian dictators.

The “shocking murder in the White House,” as Stephen Colbert dubbed it, was a small moment. “All they want is to be loved and to feed on our waste,” Jeff “The Fly” Goldblum said in a dry defense of the exoskeletal creatures on the Colbert Report.

But at least this moment didn’t involve any talking or therapy or charm or compromise or seminars.

“The snuff aspect of it was psychologically useful for Obama,” Harwood told me. “He decided to take it out and he did take it out.”

If only the president could be so brazen about pushing through gay rights and health care.

Harwood was bemused about the serious issues in his interview getting swallowed by a bug.

“It will be the most noticed thing in my career,” he conceded, “but I’m rolling with it.”

I guess MoDo has never figured out that the more attention is given to trivial shit the more “important” it seems to be to the trivial and stupid…  Here’s The Moustache of Wisdom:

The popular uprising unfolding in Iran right now really is remarkable. It is the rarest of rare things — more rare than snow in Saudi Arabia, more unlikely than finding a ham sandwich at the Wailing Wall, more unusual than water-skiing in the Sahara. It is a popular uprising in a Middle Eastern oil state.

Why is this so unusual? Because in most Middle East states, power grows out of the barrel of a gun and out of a barrel of oil — and that combination is very hard to overthrow.

Oil is a key reason that democracy has had such a hard time emerging in the Middle East, except in one of the few states with no oil: Lebanon. Because once kings and dictators seize power, they can entrench themselves, not only by imprisoning their foes and killing their enemies, but by buying off their people and using oil wealth to build huge internal security apparatuses.

There is only one precedent for an oil-funded autocrat in the Middle East being toppled by a people’s revolution, not by a military coup, and that was in … Iran.

Recall that in 1979, when the Iranian people rose up against the shah of Iran in an Islamic Revolution spearheaded by Ayatollah Khomeini, the shah controlled the army, the Savak secret police and a vast network of oil-funded patronage. But at some point, enough people taking to the streets and defying his authority, and taking bullets as well, broke the shah’s spell. All the shah’s horses and all the shah’s men, couldn’t put his regime back together again.

The Islamic Revolution has learned from the shah. It has used its oil wealth — Iran is the world’s fifth-largest oil producer, exporting about 2.1 million barrels a day at around $70 a barrel — to buy off huge swaths of the population with cheap housing, government jobs and subsidized food and gasoline. It’s also used its crude to erect a vast military force — namely the Revolutionary Guard and the Basij militia — to keep itself in power.

Therefore, the big question in Iran today is: Can the green revolution led by Mir Hussein Moussavi, and backed by masses of street protestors, do to the Islamic regime what Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian people did to the shah’s regime — break its spell so all its barrels and bullets become meaningless?

Iran’s ruling mullahs were always ruthless. But they disguised it a bit with faux elections. I say faux elections because while the regime may have counted the votes accurately, it tightly controlled who could run. The choices were dark black and light black.

What happened this time is that the anger at the regime had reached such a level — because of near-20 percent unemployment and a rising youth population tired of seeing their life’s options limited by theocrats — that given a choice between a dark black regime candidate and a light black regime candidate, millions of Iranians turned out for light black: Mr. Moussavi. The Iranian people turned the regime man into their own candidate, and he seems to have been transformed by them. That is why the regime panicked and stole the election.

The playwright Tom Stoppard once observed that democracy is not the voting, “it’s the counting.” Iran’s mullahs were always ready to allow voting, as long as the counting didn’t matter, because a regime man was always going to win. But what happened this time was that in the little crack of space that the regime had to allow for even a faux election, some kind of counter-revolution was born.

Yes, its leader, Mr. Moussavi, surely is less liberal than most of his followers. But just his lighter shade of black attracted and unleashed so much pent-up frustration and hope for change among many Iranians that he became an independent candidate and, thus, his votes simply could not be counted — because they were not just a vote for him, but were a referendum against the entire regime.

But now, having voted with their ballots, Iranians who want a change will have to vote again with their bodies. A regime like Iran’s can only be brought down or changed if enough Iranians vote as they did in 1979 — in the street. That is what the regime fears most, because then it either has to shoot its own people or cede power. That is why it was no accident that the “supreme leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, warned protestors in his Friday speech that “street challenge is not acceptable.” That’s a man who knows how he got his job.

And so the gauntlet is now thrown down. If the reformers want change, they are going to have to form a leadership, lay out their vision for Iran and keep voting in the streets — over and over and over. Only if they keep showing up with their bodies, and by so doing saying to their regime “we cannot be bought and we will not be cowed,” will their ballots be made to count.

I am rooting for them and fearing for them. Any real moderation of Iran’s leadership would have a hugely positive effect on the Middle East. But we and the reformers must have no illusions about the bullets and barrels they are up against.

Here’s Mr. Kristof:

Growing up on a farm near Yamhill, Ore., I quickly learned to appreciate the difference between fresh, home-grown foods and the commercial versions in the supermarket.

Store-bought lettuce was always lush, green and pristine, and thus vastly preferable to lettuce from my Mom’s vegetable garden (organic before we called it that). Her lettuce kept me on my toes, because a caterpillar might come crawling out of my salad.

We endured endless elk and venison — my Dad is still hunting at age 90 — or ate beef from steers raised on our own pasture, but “grass-fed” had no allure for me. I longed for delicious, wholesome food that my friends in town ate. Like hot dogs.

Over the years, though, I’ve become nostalgic for an occasional bug in my salad, for an apple that feels as if it were designed by God rather than by a committee. More broadly, it has become clear that the same factors that impelled me toward factory-produced meat and vegetables — cheap, predictable food — also resulted in a profoundly unhealthy American diet.

I’ve often criticized America’s health care system, and I fervently hope that we’re going to see a public insurance option this year. But one reason for our health problems is our industrialized agriculture system, and that should be under scrutiny as well.

A terrific new documentary, “Food, Inc.,” playing in cinemas nationwide, offers a powerful and largely persuasive diagnosis of American agriculture. Go see it, but be warned that you may not want to eat for a week afterward.

(It was particularly unnerving to see leftover animal bits washed over with ammonia and ground into “hamburger filler.” If you happen to be eating a hamburger as you read this, I apologize.)

“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000,” Michael Pollan, the food writer, declares in the film.

What’s even more eerie is the way animals are being re-engineered. For example, most Americans prefer light meat to dark, so chickens have been redesigned to produce more white meat by growing massive breasts that make them lopsided. Who knew that breast augmentation was so widespread in chicken barns?

“When they grow from a chick and in seven weeks you’ve got a five-and-a-half pound chicken, their bones and their internal organs can’t keep up with the rapid growth,” explained Carole Morison, a Maryland chicken farmer who allowed the film crew into her barns. “A lot of these chickens here, they can take a few steps and then they plop down. It’s because they can’t keep up with all the weight that they’re carrying.”

Huge confinement operations for livestock and poultry produce very cheap meat and eggs. But at what cost?

The documentary introduces us to Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-and-a-half-year-old child, Kevin, went from healthy to dead in 12 days, after he ate a hamburger tainted with E. coli bacteria. Even after his death, it took weeks for the tainted meat to be recalled.

“Sometimes it seems that industry was more protected than my son,” Ms. Kowalcyk complains.

She has a point. Agribusiness companies exercise huge political influence, and industry leaders often fill regulatory posts. The Food and Drug Administration consequently dozed, and the number of food safety inspections plunged.

There is some evidence that pathogens, including E. coli, become much more common in factory farming operations. Move feedlot cattle out to a pasture for five days, and they will lose 80 percent of the E. coli in their gut, the film says. And the massive routine feeding of antibiotics to farm animals is a disgrace that reduces the effectiveness of antibiotics in treating sick humans.

Pathogens are now seeping into the unlikeliest foods. On Friday, the F.D.A. advised consumers not to eat Nestlé cookie dough — cookie dough! — because of concerns about E. coli contamination, after reports of illness in 28 states.

American agribusiness truly is wondrous. When I moved back to the United States after years of living in China, I remember visiting a supermarket and feeling a near-religious awe. Yet one consequence of this wondrous system is that unhealthy calories are cheaper than nutritious ones: think of the relative prices of Twinkies and broccoli. We even inflict unhealthy food on children in the school lunch program, and one in three Americans born after 2000 is expected to develop diabetes.

The solutions aren’t simple, and may involve paying more for what we eat, although we may save some of that in reduced health costs for diabetes and heart disease. In any case, “Food, Inc.” notes that we as consumers do have power. “You can vote to change the system,” it declares, “three times a day.”

Here, where the lettuce from the garden has already bolted from the heat, we can’t wait until the weather cools enough for a fall crop.  You may get the occasional bit of grit or an ant, but the flavor is infinitely better and we know there are no chemicals on it.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The Iranian police commander, in green uniform, walked up Komak Hospital Alley with arms raised and his small unit at his side. “I swear to God,” he shouted at the protesters facing him, “I have children, I have a wife, I don’t want to beat people. Please go home.”

A man at my side threw a rock at him. The commander, unflinching, continued to plead. There were chants of “Join us! Join us!” The unit retreated toward Revolution Street, where vast crowds eddied back and forth confronted by baton-wielding Basij militia and black-clad riot police officers on motorbikes.

Dark smoke billowed over this vast city in the late afternoon. Motorbikes were set on fire, sending bursts of bright flame skyward. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, had used his Friday sermon to declare high noon in Tehran, warning of “bloodshed and chaos” if protests over a disputed election persisted.

He got both on Saturday — and saw the hitherto sacrosanct authority of his office challenged as never before since the 1979 revolution birthed the Islamic Republic and conceived for it a leadership post standing at the very flank of the Prophet. A multitude of Iranians took their fight through a holy breach on Saturday from which there appears to be scant turning back.

Khamenei has taken a radical risk. He has factionalized himself, so losing the arbiter’s lofty garb, by aligning himself with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad against both Mir Hussein Moussavi, the opposition leader, and Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a founding father of the revolution.

He has taunted millions of Iranians by praising their unprecedented participation in an election many now view as a ballot-box putsch. He has ridiculed the notion that an official inquiry into the vote might yield a different result. He has tried pathos and he has tried pounding his lectern. In short, he has lost his aura.

The taboo-breaking response was unequivocal. It’s funny how people’s obsessions come back to bite them. I’ve been hearing about Khamenei’s fear of “velvet revolutions” for months now. There was nothing velvet about Saturday’s clashes. In fact, the initial quest to have Moussavi’s votes properly counted and Ahmadinejad unseated has shifted to a broader confrontation with the regime itself.

Garbage burned. Crowds bayed. Smoke from tear gas swirled. Hurled bricks sent phalanxes of police, some with automatic rifles, into retreat to the accompaniment of cheers. Early afternoon rumors that the rally for Moussavi had been canceled yielded to the reality of violent confrontation.

I don’t know where this uprising is leading. I do know some police units are wavering. That commander talking about his family was not alone. There were other policemen complaining about the unruly Basijis. Some security forces just stood and watched. “All together, all together, don’t be scared,” the crowd shouted.

I also know that Iran’s women stand in the vanguard. For days now, I’ve seen them urging less courageous men on. I’ve seen them get beaten and return to the fray. “Why are you sitting there?” one shouted at a couple of men perched on the sidewalk on Saturday. “Get up! Get up!”

Another green-eyed woman, Mahin, aged 52, staggered into an alley clutching her face and in tears. Then, against the urging of those around her, she limped back into the crowd moving west toward Freedom Square. Cries of “Death to the dictator!” and “We want liberty!” accompanied her.

There were people of all ages. I saw an old man on crutches, middle-aged office workers and bands of teenagers. Unlike the student revolts of 2003 and 1999, this movement is broad.

“Can’t the United Nations help us?” one woman asked me. I said I doubted that very much. “So,” she said, “we are on our own.”

The world is watching, and technology is connecting, and the West is sending what signals it can, but in the end that is true. Iranians have fought this lonely fight for a long time: to be free, to have a measure of democracy.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution, understood that, weaving a little plurality into an authoritarian system. That pluralism has ebbed and flowed since 1979 — mainly the former — but last week it was crushed with blunt brutality. That is why a whole new generation of Iranians, their intelligence insulted, has risen.

I’d say the momentum is with them for now. At moments on Saturday, Khamenei’s authority, which is that of the Islamic Republic itself, seemed fragile. The revolutionary authorities have always mocked the cancer-ridden Shah’s ceding before an uprising, and vowed never to bend in the same way. Their firepower remains formidable, but they are facing a swelling test.

Just off Revolution Street, I walked into a pall of tear gas. I’d lit a cigarette minutes before — not a habit but a need — and a young man collapsed into me shouting, “Blow smoke in my face.” Smoke dispels the effects of the gas to some degree.

I did what I could and he said, “We are with you” in English and with my colleague we tumbled into a dead end — Tehran is full of them — running from the searing gas and police. I gasped and fell through a door into an apartment building where somebody had lit a small fire in a dish to relieve the stinging.

There were about 20 of us gathered there, eyes running, hearts racing. A 19-year-old student was nursing his left leg, struck by a militiaman with an electric-shock-delivering baton. “No way we are turning back,” said a friend of his as he massaged that wounded leg.

Later, we moved north, tentatively, watching the police lash out from time to time, reaching Victory Square where a pitched battle was in progress. Young men were breaking bricks and stones to a size for hurling. Crowds gathered on overpasses, filming and cheering the protesters. A car burst into flames. Back and forth the crowd surged, confronted by less-than-convincing police units.

I looked up through the smoke and saw a poster of the stern visage of Khomeini above the words, “Islam is the religion of freedom.”

Later, as night fell over the tumultuous capital, gunfire could be heard in the distance. And from rooftops across the city, the defiant sound of “Allah-u-Akbar” — “God is Great” — went up yet again, as it has every night since the fraudulent election. But on Saturday it seemed stronger. The same cry was heard in 1979, only for one form of absolutism to yield to another. Iran has waited long enough to be free.

I pray for the safety of the protesters in Iran, and am in awe of them.  Here’s Mr. Rich:

That First 100 Days hoopla seems like a century ago. The countless report cards it engendered are already obsolete. The real story begins now. With Iran, universal health care, energy reform and the economic recovery all on the line, the still-new, still-popular president’s true tests are about to come.

Here’s one thing Barack Obama does not have to worry about: the opposition. Approval ratings for Republicans hit an all-time low last week in both the New York Times/CBS News and Wall Street Journal/NBC News polls. That’s what happens when a party’s most creative innovations are novel twists on old-fashioned sex scandals. Just when you thought the G.O.P. could never match the high bar set by Larry Craig’s men’s room toe-tapping, along came Senator John Ensign of Nevada, an ostentatiously pious born-again Christian whose ecumenical outreach drove him to engineer political jobs for his mistress, her cuckolded husband and the couple’s son. At least it can no longer be said that the Republicans have no plan for putting Americans back to work.

But as ever, the lack of an adversary with gravitas is a double-edged sword for Obama. It tempts him to be cocky and to coast. That’s a rare flaw in a president whose temperament, smarts and judgment remain impressive. Yet it is not insignificant. Though we don’t know how Obama will fare on all the challenges he faces this summer, last week’s big rollout of his financial reform package was a big punt, an accommodation to the status quo. Given that the economy remains the country’s paramount concern — and that all new polling finds that most Americans still think it’s dire — this timid response was a lost opportunity. It violated the Rahm Emanuel dictum that “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” and could yet prompt a serious political backlash.

A tip-off to what was coming appeared in a Washington Post op-ed article that the administration’s two financial gurus, Lawrence Summers and Timothy Geithner, wrote to preview their plan. “Some people will say that this is not the time to debate the future of financial regulation, that this debate should wait until the crisis is fully behind us,” they wrote by way of congratulating themselves on taking charge.

Who exactly are these “some people” who want to delay debate on the future of regulation? Not anyone you or I know. Most Americans were desperate for action and wondered why it was taking so long. The only people who Summers and Geithner could possibly be talking about are the bankers in their cohort who helped usher us into this disaster in the first place. Both men are protégés of one of them, Robert Rubin, the former wise man of Citigroup.

There are some worthwhile protections in the Summers-Geithner legislation, especially for consumers, but there’s little that will disturb these unnamed “people” too much. I’ll leave it to financial analysts to detail why the small-bore tinkering in the administration blueprint won’t prevent another perfect storm of arcane derivatives, unchecked (and risk-rewarding) executive compensation and too-big-to-fail banks like Citi. Suffice it to say that the Obama team has not resuscitated the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal reform that Summers helped dismantle in the Clinton years and that would have prevented the creation of banking behemoths that held the economy hostage.

A particularly dramatic example of how the old Wall Street order remains intact can be seen by looking at the fate of credit-rating agencies like Moody’s, which gave triple-A grades to some of the cancerous derivatives at the heart of the economic meltdown. As Gretchen Morgenson of The Times reported last year, Moody’s sins during the subprime frenzy included upgrading its rating of securities underwritten by Countrywide Financial, the largest mortgage lender, after Countrywide complained that the ratings were too tough.

Since then, more details have emerged in this unsavory narrative. When the Securities and Exchange Commission charged Countrywide’s former chief executive, Angelo Mozilo, with securities fraud and insider trading this month, it produced e-mails from 2006 in which Mozilo referred to his company’s subprime loan products as “toxic” and “poison.” Mozilo wrote that “we have no way, with any reasonable certainty, to assess the real risk of holding these loans on our balance sheet.” Yet Moody’s didn’t warn the public by downgrading Countrywide’s securities until the summer of 2007. Meanwhile, this supposed watchdog for investors, which, like other credit-rating agencies, is paid by the very companies it monitors, took its own tranche of the bubble. Moody’s profit margins even surpassed Exxon’s.

And how have it and its peers in the credit-ratings game fared in the Obama regulation crackdown? Incredibly enough, they can still collect fees from the companies they grade. “It is as if Hollywood studios paid movie critics to review their would-be blockbusters,” wrote Eric Dash in The Times.

Non-Wall Street Americans who signed on to Countrywide’s toxic loans are doing far less well. The White House stood by passively this spring as banking lobbyists mobilized to castrate the administration’s Helping Families Save Their Homes Act. The final version eliminated the key provision that would have allowed judges to lower the principal for mortgage holders whose homes are worth less than their loans. Dick Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, correctly observed in April that the banks are “still the most powerful lobby” in Congress and that “they frankly own the place.”

The banks’ influence at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue is also conspicuous. The revolving door between the government and Wall Street is as greasy as ever in this White House. It’s all too depressing that the administration enforced its no-lobbyists policy to shun a human-rights advocate, Tom Malinowski, a lobbyist for genocide victims in places like Darfur, but granted Geithner a waiver to appoint a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist, Mark Patterson, as his chief of staff.

Obama is very eloquent in speaking of the “culture of irresponsibility” that led us to the meltdown, but that culture isn’t changing so much as frantically rebranding. A.I.G. is now named A.I.U., and has employed no fewer than four public relations firms, including one whose bipartisan roster of shills ranges from the former Hillary Clinton campaign strategist Mark Penn to the former Bush White House press secretary Dana Perino.

Taxpayers are paying for that P.R., having poured $170 billion-plus into A.I.G. But we still don’t have a transparent, detailed accounting of what was going down last fall when A.I.G. and its trading partners, including Goldman, snared that gargantuan cash transfusion. Perhaps if there had been a thorough post-crash investigative commission emulating the Senate investigation led by Ferdinand Pecora after the crash of 1929, we would now have reforms as thorough as F.D.R.’s. It was because of the Pecora revelations that Glass-Steagall was put in place.

If you watch CNBC, of course, the recovery is already here, and the new regulations will somehow stifle it. The market is up, sort of. Even some bank stocks are back. Unemployment, as Obama reminds us, is a lagging indicator. And so, presumably, are all the other indicators that affect most Americans. One in eight mortgages is now either in foreclosure or delinquent, with the share of new mortgages going into foreclosure reaching a record high in the first quarter of 2009. Credit card debt delinquencies are up 11 percent from last year in that same quarter.

The test for Obama is simple enough. If the fortunes in American households rise along with Wall Street’s, he is home free — even if his porous regulatory fixes permit a new economic meltdown decades hence. But if, in the shorter term, the economic quality of life for most Americans remains unchanged as the financial sector resumes living large, he’ll face anger from voters of all political persuasions. When the Fox News fulminator Glenn Beck says “let the banks lose their tails, they need to,” he illustrates precisely where right-wing populism meets that on the left.

It’s still not too late for course correction. Before rolling out his financial package, Obama illustrated exactly what’s lacking when he told John Harwood on CNBC: “We want to do it right. We want to do it carefully. But we don’t want to tilt at windmills.”

Maybe not at windmills, but sometimes you do want to do battle with fierce and unrelenting adversaries, starting with the banking lobby. While the restraint that the president has applied to the Iran crisis may prove productive, domestic politics are not necessarily so delicate. F.D.R. had to betray his own class to foment the reforms of the New Deal. Lyndon Johnson had to crack heads on Capitol Hill to advance the health-care revolution that was Medicare. So will Obama for his own health-care crusade, which is already faltering in the Senate courtesy of truants in his own party, not just the irrelevant Republicans.

Though television talking heads can’t let go of the cliché that the president is trying to do too much, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll says that only 37 percent of Americans agree. The majority knows the country is in a crisis and wants help. The issue has never been whether Obama is doing too much but whether he will do the big things well enough to move us forward. Now that the hope phase of his presidency is giving way to the promised main event — change — we will soon find out.

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

January 19, 2009

That bloodthirsty festering boil on the ass of humanity Bloody Billy Kristol has excreted a thing called “The Next War President.”  He says like President Bush before him, Barack Obama knows he, too, will be a war president and that the decisions he makes as commander in chief will be his most consequential.  Bouncing rubble gives Bloody Billy a woody…  Mr. Cohen gives us “Start the Fire,” a tribute to President-elect Barack Obama, with apologies to Billy Joel.  Mr. Krugman discusses “Wall Street Voodoo,” and how many influential people in Washington seem to believe that by performing elaborate financial rituals we can keep dead banks walking.  Here’s that pilonidal cyst Kristol:

In synagogue on Saturday, before saying the customary prayer for our country, the rabbi asked us to reflect on the fact that a new president would be inaugurated on Tuesday, and urged us to focus a little more intently than usual on the prayer. The congregants did so, it seemed to me, as we read, “Our God and God of our ancestors: We ask your blessings for our country — for its government, for its leaders and advisers, and for all who exercise just and rightful authority …”

Barack Obama will assume that just and rightful authority at noon on Tuesday. After a dinner with him that I attended last week, as we said our goodbyes, I overheard one of my fellow conservatives say softly to the president-elect, “Sir, I’ll be praying for you.” Obama seemed to pause as they shook hands, and to thank him more earnestly than he did those of us who simply — and sincerely — wished him well.

The incoming president is the man of the moment. He deserves good wishes and sincere prayers. But I’ve found myself thinking these last few days more about the man who has shouldered the burdens of office for the past eight years, George W. Bush.

He wasn’t my favorite among Republicans in 2000. He has made mistakes as president, and has limitations as a leader. But he has exercised his just and rightful authority in a way — I believe — that deserves recognition and respect.

It will probably be a while before he gets much of either. In synagogue, right after the prayer for our country, there is a prayer for the state of Israel, asking the “rock and redeemer of the people Israel” to “spread over it the shelter of your peace.” As we recited this on Saturday, I couldn’t help but reflect that a distressingly small number of my fellow Jews seem to have given much thought at all to the fact that President Bush is one of the greatest friends the state of Israel — and, yes, the Jewish people — have had in quite a while. Bush stood with Israel when he had no political incentive to do so and received no political benefit from doing so. He was criticized by much of the world. He did it because he thought it the right thing to do.

He has been denounced for this, as Israel has been denounced for doing what it judged necessary to defend itself. The liberal sage Bill Moyers has been a harsh critic of Bush. On Jan. 9, on PBS, he also lambasted Israel for what he called its “state terrorism,” its “waging war on an entire population” in Gaza. He traced this Israeli policy back to the Bible, where “God-soaked violence became genetically coded,” apparently in both Arabs and Jews. I wouldn’t presume to say what is and isn’t “genetically coded” in Moyers’s respectable Protestant genes. But I’m glad it was George W. Bush calling the shots over the last eight years, not someone well-thought of by Moyers.

Many of Bush’s defenders have praised him for keeping the country safe since Sept. 11, 2001. He deserves that praise, and I’m perfectly happy to defend most of his surveillance, interrogation and counterterrorism policies against his critics.

But I don’t think keeping us safe has been Bush’s most impressive achievement. That was winning the war in Iraq, and in particular, his refusal to accept defeat when so many counseled him to do so in late 2006. His ordering the surge of troops to Iraq in January 2007 was an act of personal courage and of presidential leadership. The results have benefited both Iraq and the United States. And the outcome in Iraq is a remarkable gift to the incoming president, who now only has to sustain success, rather than trying to deal with the consequences in the region and around the world of a humiliating withdrawal and a devastating defeat.

The cost of the war in Iraq, and in Afghanistan, has been great. Last Wednesday afternoon, in the midst of all the other activities of the final week of an administration, Bush had 40 or so families of fallen soldiers to the White House. The staff had set aside up to two hours. Bush, a man who normally keeps to schedule, spent over four hours meeting in small groups with the family members of those who had fallen in battle.

This past weekend Barack Obama added to his itinerary a visit to Arlington National Cemetery. Obama knows that he, too, will be a war president. He knows the decisions he makes as commander in chief will be his most consequential. And so on Sunday morning, before going to church, he placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns and stood silently as taps was sounded. The somber tableau provided quite a contrast to all the hubbub and talk of the last few days. Obama’s silent tribute captured a deeper truth, and — I dare say — a more fundamental hope, than could any speech.

Here’s Mr. Cohen, to get the the taste of Kristol out of our mouths:

With apologies to Billy Joel, who’s more of a chronologist, and in tribute to a president, Barack Hussein Obama, representing a new post-cold-war generation of 21st-century Americans.

We Didn’t Start the Fire (2)

Bill Clinton, Tina Fey, capitalist China, O.J.,

Asia rising, Facebook, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Ugg boots, Seinfeld

West Bank, Gaza City, Tupac Amaru Shakur

Mohamed Atta, W.M.D., Harry Potter, Reality TV

Tom Cruise, American Beauty, MP3, Oprah Winfrey

Schwarzenegger, YouTube, America’s got organic food

Armstrong, blogosphere, Monica Lewinsky

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

Vlad Putin, Medvedev, Assad, Posh-and-Becks

The West Wing, Y2K, massacre in Falluja

Britney Spears, Spike Lee, Kurt Cobain, Sarkozy

Mia Hamm, Heath Ledger, Viagra, Napster

Lindsay Lohan, skinny jeans, Boston’s got a winning team

Lehman Brothers, A.I.G., subprime, Ponzi scheme

Rwanda, Darfur, Bosnia, and a billion poor,

Tehran, Hezbollah, trouble with the jihadis

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

New Orleans, Bolaño, Sarah Palin no-go

TiVo, Hu Jintao, and the vegan-eco crowd

Tony Blair, Paris Hilton, Princess Di, Bin Laden

Pyongyang, the renditions gang, Roger Clemens in a cloud

ACT UP, Infinite Jest, O.J. Part Two, Johnny Depp

iPhones, Federer, Who Let the Dogs Out?

Halle Berry, cloned Dolly, and another Kennedy

Jon Stewart, American Psycho, tsunami, Danger Mouse

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

Sedaris, Unabomber, Girls Gone Wild, Nasrallah

Jay-Z, Shanghai, shock and awe in Baghdad

Amy Winehouse, Imus, gases of the greenhouse

Kelly Ripa, Maureen Dowd, Ted Williams gone mad

Outsourcing, Mumbai, so many didn’t have to die

David Blaine, human rights, and Napoleon Dynamite

Mandela, Madonna’s ex, abstinence, safe sex

Rabin blown away, what else do I have to say?

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

BlackBerry, global mall, Hillary Clinton standing tall

Tiger Woods, Barry Bonds, MySpace, The Corrections

Rushdie, Starbucks, Channel Tunnel, Spurlock

American Idol, Black Hawk Down, Miracle on the Hudson

Sopranos, Cougars, Da Vinci Code, life on Mars

Saddam hung, Mugabe, traumatic stress, mission creep

Social networks, match.com, iChat, Amazon,

Terror cells, endless war, I can’t take it anymore

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

Hawaii, Kenya, Kansas and Jakarta

Harvard, finding God, social work, Axelrod

Red state, blue state, unity can no longer wait,

A time to reap, a time to sow, we will close Guantánamo

Iowa, Yes We Can, McCain was just an also-ran

I Have a Dream, Bush out, a black man in the White House

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire

No we didn’t light it

But we tried to fight it

We didn’t start the fire

It was always burning

Since the world’s been turning

We didn’t start the fire …

(Sorry about the spacing, blame the NYT.)  Here’s Prof. Krugman:

Old-fashioned voodoo economics — the belief in tax-cut magic — has been banished from civilized discourse. The supply-side cult has shrunk to the point that it contains only cranks, charlatans, and Republicans.

But recent news reports suggest that many influential people, including Federal Reserve officials, bank regulators, and, possibly, members of the incoming Obama administration, have become devotees of a new kind of voodoo: the belief that by performing elaborate financial rituals we can keep dead banks walking.

To explain the issue, let me describe the position of a hypothetical bank that I’ll call Gothamgroup, or Gotham for short.

On paper, Gotham has $2 trillion in assets and $1.9 trillion in liabilities, so that it has a net worth of $100 billion. But a substantial fraction of its assets — say, $400 billion worth — are mortgage-backed securities and other toxic waste. If the bank tried to sell these assets, it would get no more than $200 billion.

So Gotham is a zombie bank: it’s still operating, but the reality is that it has already gone bust. Its stock isn’t totally worthless — it still has a market capitalization of $20 billion — but that value is entirely based on the hope that shareholders will be rescued by a government bailout.

Why would the government bail Gotham out? Because it plays a central role in the financial system. When Lehman was allowed to fail, financial markets froze, and for a few weeks the world economy teetered on the edge of collapse. Since we don’t want a repeat performance, Gotham has to be kept functioning. But how can that be done?

Well, the government could simply give Gotham a couple of hundred billion dollars, enough to make it solvent again. But this would, of course, be a huge gift to Gotham’s current shareholders — and it would also encourage excessive risk-taking in the future. Still, the possibility of such a gift is what’s now supporting Gotham’s stock price.

A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s: it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders. Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.

The current buzz suggests, however, that policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches. Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward a compromise approach: moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” that would resemble the Resolution Trust Corporation, but without seizing the banks first.

Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, recently tried to describe how this would work: “The aggregator bank would buy the assets at fair value.” But what does “fair value” mean?

In my example, Gothamgroup is insolvent because the alleged $400 billion of toxic waste on its books is actually worth only $200 billion. The only way a government purchase of that toxic waste can make Gotham solvent again is if the government pays much more than private buyers are willing to offer.

Now, maybe private buyers aren’t willing to pay what toxic waste is really worth: “We don’t have really any rational pricing right now for some of these asset categories,” Ms. Bair says. But should the government be in the business of declaring that it knows better than the market what assets are worth? And is it really likely that paying “fair value,” whatever that means, would be enough to make Gotham solvent again?

What I suspect is that policy makers — possibly without realizing it — are gearing up to attempt a bait-and-switch: a policy that looks like the cleanup of the savings and loans, but in practice amounts to making huge gifts to bank shareholders at taxpayer expense, disguised as “fair value” purchases of toxic assets.

Why go through these contortions? The answer seems to be that Washington remains deathly afraid of the N-word — nationalization. The truth is that Gothamgroup and its sister institutions are already wards of the state, utterly dependent on taxpayer support; but nobody wants to recognize that fact and implement the obvious solution: an explicit, though temporary, government takeover. Hence the popularity of the new voodoo, which claims, as I said, that elaborate financial rituals can reanimate dead banks.

Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high. I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.


Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

January 12, 2009

Bloody Billy gives us “Continuity We Can Believe In,” in which he says it seems that we can expect more continuity than change from President-elect Barack Obama’s foreign policy.  He’s trying to make it sound as though soon-to-be-President Obama agrees with Dick Cheney…  Mr. Cohen, in “Mideast Dream Team? Not Quite,” says U.S. enlightenment about the Middle East will require a fresher, broader team than Barack Obama is contemplating.  Prof. Krugman has “Ideas for Obama.”  He says President-elect Barack Obama’s economic plan falls well short of what’s needed. To fix it, he needs to stop talking about “jump-starts” and focus on long-term investment.  Judging from all the above, to say nothing of what else is in the MSM, I don’t see much of a “honeymoon” for the new administration.  Here’s that disgusting creature Kristol:

Barack Obama made news Sunday on ABC’s “This Week”: The White House dog will likely be a Labradoodle or a Portuguese water dog.

I’ve got to say I’m a little disappointed. These are nice, friendly, generally obedient breeds (or in the case of the Labradoodle, a crossbreed). But what a missed opportunity! Obama could have made a bolder, edgier choice, like a mini-Australian shepherd. I happen to know one well. He’s very smart, a bit neurotic, devoted to his master (if sometimes confused about whether he or the master is the master), and always looking for people to herd. A mini-Aussie would have fit right into a White House populated by Rahm Emanuel, Larry Summers, Joe Biden et al. Instead, Obama’s going with a no-drama canine alternative.

And he seems to be going for the no-dramatic-change-in-policy-in-the-White-House alternative as well. Consider Obama’s reaction when George Stephanopoulos played a clip of Dick Cheney counseling Obama not to implement his campaign rhetoric until he’s fully briefed on the details of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy.

“I think that was pretty good advice, which is I should know what’s going on before we make judgments and that we shouldn’t be making judgments on the basis of incomplete information or campaign rhetoric. So I’ve got no quibble with that particular quote,” said Obama. Usually, presidents pretend their campaign positions are more than “campaign rhetoric.” Not Obama.

Obama did note that he differs with Cheney on “some things that we know happened,” including waterboarding. And he did reiterate his pledge to close Guantánamo. But he warned that it was “more difficult than I think a lot of people realize,” explaining that while he was committed to the rule of law, he wasn’t interested “in releasing people who are intent on blowing us up.”

And at one point he returned, unbidden, to the much-maligned vice president, commenting, “I thought that Dick Cheney’s advice was good.”

Perhaps the president-elect was just being polite. Or perhaps he just enjoys torturing (metaphorically!) some of his previously most ardent supporters who want Dick Cheney tried as a war criminal.

In fact, Stephanopoulos asked about that. He pointed to a popular question on Obama’s Web site about whether he’ll appoint a special prosecutor to investigate “the greatest crimes of the Bush administration, including torture and warrantless wiretapping.” Obama stipulated that no one should be above the law. But he praised C.I.A. employees, and said he didn’t want them “looking over their shoulders and lawyering.” He took the general view “that when it comes to national security, what we have to focus on is getting things right in the future, as opposed to looking at what we got wrong in the past.”

With respect to the Middle East, Obama didn’t even say we’d gotten much wrong in the past. Asked by Stephanopoulos whether his policy would build on Bush’s or would be a clean break, Obama answered, “if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach.” So: No break.

Meanwhile, the Obama transition team’s chief national security spokeswoman, Brooke Anderson, was denying a press report that Obama’s advisers were urging him to initiate low-level or clandestine contacts with Hamas as a prelude to change in policy. Anderson told The Jerusalem Post that the story wasn’t accurate, and reminded one and all that Obama “has repeatedly stated that he believes that Hamas is a terrorist organization dedicated to Israel’s destruction, and that we should not deal with them until they recognize Israel, renounce violence and abide by past agreements.”

On Iran, Obama did say he’d be taking “a new approach,” that “engagement is the place to start” with “a new emphasis on being willing to talk.” But he also reminded Stephanopoulos that the Iranian regime is exporting terrorism through Hamas and Hezbollah and is “pursuing a nuclear weapon that could potentially trigger a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.” He said his willingness to talk would be combined with “clarity about what our bottom lines are” — one of them presumably being, as he’s said before, no Iranian nuclear weapons. And he demonstrated a sense of urgency — “we anticipate that we’re going to have to move swiftly in that area.”

So: After talks with Iran (if they happen) fail to curb Iran’s nuclear program, but (perhaps) impress other nations with our good faith, we’ll presumably get greater international support for sanctions. That will also (unfortunately) fail to deter Iran. “Engagement is the place to start,” Obama said, but it’s not likely to be the place Obama ends. He’ll end up where Bush is — with the choice of using force or acquiescing to the idea of a nuclear Iran.

And he’ll probably be calling Dick Cheney for advice.

Here’s Mr. Cohen:

The Obama team is tight with information, but I’ve got the scoop on the senior advisers he’s gathered to push a new Middle East policy as the Gaza war rages: Shibley Telhami, Vali Nasr, Fawaz Gerges, Fouad Moughrabi and James Zogby.

This group of distinguished Arab-American and Iranian-American scholars, with wide regional experience, is intended to signal a U.S. willingness to think anew about the Middle East, with greater cultural sensitivity to both sides, and a keen eye on whether uncritical support for Israel has been helpful.

O.K., forget the above, I’ve let my imagination run away with me. Barack Obama has no plans for this line-up on the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Iran.

In fact, the people likely to play significant roles on the Middle East in the Obama Administration read rather differently.

They include Dennis Ross (the veteran Clinton administration Mideast peace envoy who may now extend his brief to Iran); James Steinberg (as deputy secretary of state); Dan Kurtzer (the former U.S. ambassador to Israel); Dan Shapiro (a longtime aide to Obama); and Martin Indyk (another former ambassador to Israel who is close to the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.)

Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I’ve looked in the mirror. I know or have talked to all these guys, except Shapiro. They’re knowledgeable, broad-minded and determined. Still, on the diversity front they fall short. On the change-you-can-believe-in front, they also leave something to be desired.

In an adulatory piece in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh wrote: “Ross’s previous experience as the indefatigable point man during the failed Oslo process, as well as the main negotiator with Syria, make him uniquely suited for a major renewal of U.S. policy on nearly every front.”

Really? I wonder about the capacity for “major renewal” of someone who has failed for so long.

“Do people in the region take note when Arab-Americans are not represented? Sure they do,” said Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “A message gets sent.”

It’s important for Obama to get his message right from day one. With the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks broadcasting 24-7 images of the carnage in Gaza, where there are more than 800 dead, mobilization in the Arab world is intense. Rage against Israel, and behind it America, bodes ill.

Change is needed, and not just in the intensity of U.S. diplomatic involvement with Israel-Palestine. Some fundamental questions must be asked.

Does regarding the Middle East almost exclusively through the prism of the war on terror make sense? Does turning a blind eye to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank that frustrate a two-state solution, and the Israeli blockade of Gaza that radicalizes its population, not undermine U.S. interest in bolstering moderate Palestinian sentiment?

Should policy not be directed toward reconciling a Palestinian movement now split between Fatah and Hamas, without which no final-status peace will be possible? Beyond their terrorist wings, in their broad grass-roots political movements, what elements of Hamas and Hezbollah can be coaxed toward the mainstream?

Do we understand the increasingly sophisticated Middle East of Al Jazeera where, as Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, put it to me, “People are not dumb and our credibility is at a historic near-zero?”

Asking these questions does not alter America’s commitment to Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders, which is and should be unwavering. It does not change the unacceptability of Hamas rockets or the fact the Hamas Charter is vile. But it would signal that the damaging Bush-era consensus that Israel can do no wrong is to be challenged.

I don’t feel encouraged — not by the putative Ross-redux team, nor by the nonbinding resolutions passed last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The former offered “unwavering commitment” to Israel. The latter recognized “Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza.” Neither criticized Israel.

It seems that among liberal democracies, it is only in the U.S .Congress that a defense against terror that results in the slaying of hundreds of Palestinian children is not cause for agonized soul-searching. In my view, such Israeli “defense” has crossed the line.

“We are all opposed to terrorism,” Telhami said. “But how does that enlighten you about how to move forward?”

Enlightenment will require a fresher, broader Mideast team than Obama is contemplating. As noted in “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East,” a fine evaluation of U.S. diplomacy by Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky, the lack of expertise on Islam and an Arab perspective was costly at Camp David. At one point, the State Department’s top Arabic translator had to be drafted because “the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute.”

Obama should take note, name an Arab-American and an Iranian-American to prominent roles, and beware of a team that takes him — and the region — back to the future.

He said during the campaign that “an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel” can’t be “the measure of our friendship with Israel.” Those were words. Now, with Gaza blood flowing, come deeds.

Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Last week President-elect Barack Obama was asked to respond to critics who say that his stimulus plan won’t do enough to help the economy. Mr. Obama answered that he wants to hear ideas about “how to spend money efficiently and effectively to jump-start the economy.”

O.K., I’ll bite — although as I’ll explain shortly, the “jump-start” metaphor is part of the problem.

First, Mr. Obama should scrap his proposal for $150 billion in business tax cuts, which would do little to help the economy. Ideally he’d scrap the proposed $150 billion payroll tax cut as well, though I’m aware that it was a campaign promise.

Money not squandered on ineffective tax cuts could be used to provide further relief to Americans in distress — enhanced unemployment benefits, expanded Medicaid and more. And why not get an early start on the insurance subsidies — probably running at $100 billion or more per year — that will be essential if we’re going to achieve universal health care?

Mainly, though, Mr. Obama needs to make his plan bigger. To see why, consider a new report from his own economic team.

On Saturday, Christina Romer, the future head of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Jared Bernstein, who will be the vice president’s chief economist, released estimates of what the Obama economic plan would accomplish. Their report is reasonable and intellectually honest, which is a welcome change from the fuzzy math of the last eight years.

But the report also makes it clear that the plan falls well short of what the economy needs.

According to Ms. Romer and Mr. Bernstein, the Obama plan would have its maximum impact in the fourth quarter of 2010. Without the plan, they project, the unemployment rate in that quarter would be a disastrous 8.8 percent. Yet even with the plan, unemployment would be 7 percent — roughly as high as it is now.

After 2010, the report says, the effects of the economic plan would rapidly fade away. The job of promoting full recovery would, however, remain undone: the unemployment rate would still be a painful 6.3 percent in the last quarter of 2011.

Now, economic forecasting is an inexact science, to say the least, and things could turn out better than the report predicts. But they could also turn out worse. The report itself acknowledges that “some private forecasters anticipate unemployment rates as high as 11 percent in the absence of action.” And I’m with Lawrence Summers, another member of the Obama economic team, who recently declared, “In this crisis, doing too little poses a greater threat than doing too much.” Unfortunately, that principle isn’t reflected in the current plan.

So how can Mr. Obama do more? By including a lot more public investment in his plan — which will be possible if he takes a longer view.

The Romer-Bernstein report acknowledges that “a dollar of infrastructure spending is more effective in creating jobs than a dollar of tax cuts.” It argues, however, that “there is a limit on how much government investment can be carried out efficiently in a short time frame.” But why does the time frame have to be short?

As far as I can tell, Mr. Obama’s planners have focused on investment projects that will deliver their main jobs boost over the next two years. But since unemployment is likely to remain high well beyond that two-year window, the plan should also include longer-term investment projects.

And bear in mind that even a project that delivers its main punch in, say, 2011 can provide significant economic support in earlier years. If Mr. Obama drops the “jump-start” metaphor, if he accepts the reality that we need a multi-year program rather than a short burst of activity, he can create a lot more jobs through government investment, even in the near term.

Still, shouldn’t Mr. Obama wait for proof that a bigger, longer-term plan is needed? No. Right now the investment portion of the Obama plan is limited by a shortage of “shovel ready” projects, projects ready to go on short notice. A lot more investment can be under way by late 2010 or 2011 if Mr. Obama gives the go-ahead now — but if he waits too long before deciding, that window of opportunity will be gone.

One more thing: even with the Obama plan, the Romer-Bernstein report predicts an average unemployment rate of 7.3 percent over the next three years. That’s a scary number, big enough to pose a real risk that the U.S. economy will get stuck in a Japan-type deflationary trap.

So my advice to the Obama team is to scrap the business tax cuts, and, more important, to deal with the threat of doing too little by doing more. And the way to do more is to stop talking about jump-starts and look more broadly at the possibilities for government investment.

I wonder if Obama will ever do anything right?

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

January 5, 2009

I was so hoping that the new year would see the end of Kristol…  Today Bloody Billy is beating his chest over “Why Israel Fights.”  He declares that an Israeli success in Gaza would be a victory in the war on terror — and in the broader struggle for the future of the Middle East.  If there is blood to be spilled, Billy’s the guy who wants to spill it…  He’s unspeakable.  Mr. Cohen gives us the “Dangers of the Penn.”  He says Sean Penn’s journalistic trip to Cuba shows that a certain part of the Euro-American left cannot free itself of Castro worship.  Prof. Krugman writes about “Fighting Off Depression,” and says we shouldn’t mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression. Will we “act swiftly and boldly” enough to stop that from happening?  Here’s that disgrace for a human being Kristol:

The Israeli assault on Hamas in Gaza is going to be a replay, we’re told, of the attempt to subdue Hezbollah in southern Lebanon in the summer of 2006. And the outcome, it’s asserted, will be the same: lots of death and destruction, no strategic victory for Israel and a setback for all who seek peace and progress in the Middle East.

Obviously, war is an unpredictable business, so I say this with some trepidation: I think the conventional wisdom will be proved wrong. Israel could well succeed in Gaza.

For one thing, southern Lebanon is a substantial and hilly area, bordered by northern Lebanon and Syria, through which Hezbollah could be re-supplied, both by Syria itself and by Iran. Gaza is a flat, narrow strip, bordered by Israel, as well as by the sea and by Egypt, no friend to Hamas. By cutting off the northern part of Gaza from the southern, Israel has basically surrounded northern Gaza, creating a military situation very different from that in Lebanon in 2006.

What’s more, the Israeli leadership seems aware of the mistakes — political, strategic and military — it made in Lebanon. That doesn’t mean it won’t make them all over again. The same prime minister, Ehud Olmert, is in charge, after all. But, today’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, is very different from his predecessor, the weak and unqualified Amir Peretz. So far as one can tell, the Gaza operation seems to have been well-planned and is being methodically executed, in sharp contrast to the Lebanon incursion. Barak has also warned that the operation could be long and difficult, lowering expectations by contrast with the Israeli rhetoric of July 2006.

In addition, in Lebanon, Israel proclaimed war goals that it couldn’t achieve — such as retrieving its two kidnapped soldiers and disarming Hezbollah. Now the Israeli government says that it seeks to weaken Hamas, lessen its ability to fire rockets from Gaza and secure new arrangements along the Egyptian-Gaza border to prevent Hamas from re-arming. These may well be achievable goals.

And, of course, not all military efforts against terror fail. Recall Israel’s incursion into the West Bank in the spring of 2002, when, under the leadership of Ariel Sharon, Israel succeeded in ripping up established terror networks and began the defeat of the second intifada. Israel also was able to avoid a long-term re-occupation, while retaining the ability to go back in on anti-terror missions. What’s more, the 2002 bloodshed didn’t seem to do lasting damage to hopes for progress or moderation on the West Bank. After all, it’s Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005, not the West Bank, that became a Hamas stronghold.

An Israeli success in Gaza would be a victory in the war on terror — and in the broader struggle for the future of the Middle East. Hamas is only one manifestation of the rise, over the past few decades, of a terror-friendly and almost death-cult-like form of Islamic extremism. The combination of such terror movements with a terror-sponsoring and nuclear-weapons-seeking Iranian state (aided by its sidekick Syria) has produced a new kind of threat to Israel.

But not just to Israel. To everyone in the Middle East — very much including Muslims — who aren’t interested in living under the sway of extremist regimes. And to any nation, like the United States, that is a target of Islamic terror. So there are sound reasons why the United States — whether led by George W. Bush or Barack Obama — will stand with Israel as it fights.

But Israel — assuming it succeeds — is doing the United States a favor by taking on Hamas now.

The huge challenge for the Obama administration is going to be Iran. If Israel had yielded to Hamas and refrained from using force to stop terror attacks, it would have been a victory for Iran. If Israel were now to withdraw under pressure without accomplishing the objectives of severely weakening Hamas and preventing the reconstitution of a terror-exporting state in Gaza, it would be a triumph for Iran. In either case, the Iranian regime would be emboldened, and less susceptible to the pressure from the Obama administration to stop its nuclear program.

But a defeat of Hamas in Gaza — following on the heels of our success in Iraq — would be a real setback for Iran. It would make it easier to assemble regional and international coalitions to pressure Iran. It might positively affect the Iranian elections in June. It might make the Iranian regime more amenable to dealing.

With respect to Iran, Obama may well face — as the Israeli government did with Hamas — a moment when the use of force seems to be the only responsible option. But Israel’s willingness to fight makes it more possible that the United States may not have to.

He should have his medications adjusted.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

I thought I’d begin 2009 with a movie, so on its first freezing afternoon I went to see Gus Van Sant’s “Milk,” starring Sean Penn in a breathtaking performance as a smart, wry gay-rights politician whose whimsical effectiveness arouses murderous ire.

Playing Harvey Milk, slain in 1978 after becoming the first openly gay man elected to public office in California, Penn demonstrates why he’s the finest character actor around. He inhabits Milk’s vulnerability as completely as Gielgud inhabited Lear’s folly.

Even as he stands before a San Francisco gay community incensed by proposals to bar them from teaching in Californian public schools, Penn imbues Milk less with a bully-pulpit rage than a quivering indignation that speaks of the hurt of closeted sexuality.

He quotes the Declaration of Independence to refute anti-gay bigotry: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights … . ”

It’s a powerful moment, one that brought my current obsession with Penn to breaking-point.

Was this really the same Sean Penn who’d just penned a fawning tribute to the grim Cuban president, Raúl Castro, a dictator presiding over a 50-year-old revolution that once dispatched gays to labor camps to correct their “counterrevolutionary tendencies?”

Yes, it was, despite the fact that “Milk” is precisely about the sort of grass-roots political movement that would be impossible in the Cuba of the Castro brothers, despite the fact that the “inalienable rights” of hundreds of Cuban political prisoners are trampled daily and despite the fact that the pursuit of happiness for most Cubans has been reduced to eking out an existence on $20 a month.

(Yes, I know about Cuba’s achievements in education and health care, and gays no longer face outright persecution. But even basic liberties, like the freedom to leave, are denied Cubans in the name of a socialism that allowed an ailing Fidel to hand power to the 77-year-old Raúl — the Castro dynasty’s geriatric version of revolutionary politics.)

Penn is a poor writer, as rambling as a journalist as he is disciplined as an actor. A gift for detachment is as important to the journalist as a gift for empathy is to the actor. Penn has only the latter.

His awful December cover story in The Nation has been elaborated in still more interminable form this month at HuffingtonPost.com, where Penn accuses the “mainstream media” of being “conscious manufacturers of deception,” before allowing Raúl Castro to ramble on for seven hours without a meaningful question about Cuba’s disastrous economic situation or stifling political system.

When I read the piece, I’d just returned from Cuba, where among the more prominent of Raúl’s reforms has been allowing Cubans into hotels for the first time (seriously!) and granting them access to cellphones costing six times their monthly salary.

Yet here’s Penn waxing lyrical (and delusional) about how “Raúlism was on the rise” and allowing the president to proclaim, without any comeback from our actor-journalist, that:

“I am the longest standing minister of armed forces in history. Forty-eight-and-a-half years until last October. That’s why I’m in this uniform.”

Yes, Mr. President, and that’s precisely why you should take it off and go home.

Penn, by the way, traveled to Cuba from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela on a plane loaned by the Venezuelan Ministry of Energy and Petroleum. But, says Penn, that’s like a “journalist flying on Air Force One.” He’s apparently unaware that journalists on the U.S. presidential plane pay commercial rates.

But I don’t want to quibble. Penn’s not the first leftist star seduced by revolution despite dictatorship: Simone Signoret and Yves Montand touring Eastern Europe after the Soviet bludgeoning of Hungary in 1956 comes to mind. The French left had a very hard time getting Stalin in focus, just as part of the Euro-American left cannot free itself of Castro worship. Lenin’s “useful idiots” still abound.

They are dangerous. Penn as Milk gets it. Penn the foreign correspondent flails. Certain rights are indeed inalienable, first among them freedom. No Wall Street excess or U.S. failing changes that.

I asked Christopher Hitchens, who accompanied Penn but was snubbed by Castro, why the actor was in the thrall of Castroism. “A lot of people cannot believe there is no alternative to free-market, bourgeois democracy,” Hitchens said. “It would be too bitter a pill for them to swallow if the Cuban Revolution were nothing but a cruel joke on the Cubans. Sometimes David just has to triumph over the American Goliath.”

Romance is treacherous in politics. I couldn’t reach Penn, but if I had, I would have said this: “Sean, truth is as elusive for a journalist as it is for an actor. It takes work. You should never have written that this was Raúl’s ‘first ever interview to a foreign journalist’ in 50 years. You’re no journalist.

“The Bush years have taught us the dangers of amateurism and the preciousness of freedom. Your journalism flouts those lessons even as your brilliant acting illuminates them.”

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

“If we don’t act swiftly and boldly,” declared President-elect Barack Obama in his latest weekly address, “we could see a much deeper economic downturn that could lead to double-digit unemployment.” If you ask me, he was understating the case.

The fact is that recent economic numbers have been terrifying, not just in the United States but around the world. Manufacturing, in particular, is plunging everywhere. Banks aren’t lending; businesses and consumers aren’t spending. Let’s not mince words: This looks an awful lot like the beginning of a second Great Depression.

So will we “act swiftly and boldly” enough to stop that from happening? We’ll soon find out.

We weren’t supposed to find ourselves in this situation. For many years most economists believed that preventing another Great Depression would be easy. In 2003, Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago, in his presidential address to the American Economic Association, declared that the “central problem of depression-prevention has been solved, for all practical purposes, and has in fact been solved for many decades.”

Milton Friedman, in particular, persuaded many economists that the Federal Reserve could have stopped the Depression in its tracks simply by providing banks with more liquidity, which would have prevented a sharp fall in the money supply. Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, famously apologized to Friedman on his institution’s behalf: “You’re right. We did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”

It turns out, however, that preventing depressions isn’t that easy after all. Under Mr. Bernanke’s leadership, the Fed has been supplying liquidity like an engine crew trying to put out a five-alarm fire, and the money supply has been rising rapidly. Yet credit remains scarce, and the economy is still in free fall.

Friedman’s claim that monetary policy could have prevented the Great Depression was an attempt to refute the analysis of John Maynard Keynes, who argued that monetary policy is ineffective under depression conditions and that fiscal policy — large-scale deficit spending by the government — is needed to fight mass unemployment. The failure of monetary policy in the current crisis shows that Keynes had it right the first time. And Keynesian thinking lies behind Mr. Obama’s plans to rescue the economy.

But these plans may turn out to be a hard sell.

News reports say that Democrats hope to pass an economic plan with broad bipartisan support. Good luck with that.

In reality, the political posturing has already started, with Republican leaders setting up roadblocks to stimulus legislation while posing as the champions of careful Congressional deliberation — which is pretty rich considering their party’s behavior over the past eight years.

More broadly, after decades of declaring that government is the problem, not the solution, not to mention reviling both Keynesian economics and the New Deal, most Republicans aren’t going to accept the need for a big-spending, F.D.R.-type solution to the economic crisis.

The biggest problem facing the Obama plan, however, is likely to be the demand of many politicians for proof that the benefits of the proposed public spending justify its costs — a burden of proof never imposed on proposals for tax cuts.

This is a problem with which Keynes was familiar: giving money away, he pointed out, tends to be met with fewer objections than plans for public investment “which, because they are not wholly wasteful, tend to be judged on strict ‘business’ principles.” What gets lost in such discussions is the key argument for economic stimulus — namely, that under current conditions, a surge in public spending would employ Americans who would otherwise be unemployed and money that would otherwise be sitting idle, and put both to work producing something useful.

All of this leaves me concerned about the prospects for the Obama plan. I’m sure that Congress will pass a stimulus plan, but I worry that the plan may be delayed and/or downsized. And Mr. Obama is right: We really do need swift, bold action.

Here’s my nightmare scenario: It takes Congress months to pass a stimulus plan, and the legislation that actually emerges is too cautious. As a result, the economy plunges for most of 2009, and when the plan finally starts to kick in, it’s only enough to slow the descent, not stop it. Meanwhile, deflation is setting in, while businesses and consumers start to base their spending plans on the expectation of a permanently depressed economy — well, you can see where this is going.

So this is our moment of truth. Will we in fact do what’s necessary to prevent Great Depression II?

Probably not.  Fasten your seat belts…

Kristol and Krugman

December 29, 2008

That wretched excuse for a human being has vomited up something called “George, Abe, Rick and Barack,” in which he says he looks forward to Barack Obama’s inauguration with a surprising degree of hope and good cheer.  So do I, you asshole, so do I…  Prof. Krugman is concerned about “Fifty Herbert Hoovers,” and says that even as Washington tries to rescue the economy, the nation will be reeling from the actions of 50 Herbert Hoovers — state governors who are slashing spending in a time of recession.  Here’s that waste of oxygen:

I’m leaving the country the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration.

It’s nothing personal. Nor, I hasten to add — lest some people get too excited — is it anything permanent. It’s just that I happen to have a speech to give in Canada.

And with millions of people expected to descend on Washington for the inauguration, with the Metro overloaded, and roads and bridges closing, with the Portable Sanitation Association guidelines suggesting that there should be more than 12,000 porta-potties on the Mall — I have to admit that getting out of town seems like a pretty good idea.

But I also have to admit that I look forward to Obama’s inauguration with a surprising degree of hope and good cheer.

For one thing, there will be the invocation, delivered by Rick Warren. I suspect he’ll be careful to say nothing pro-life or pro-traditional-marriage — but we conservatives have already gotten more than enough pleasure from the hysterical reaction to his selection by the tribunes of the intolerant left. And having Warren there will, in fact, be a welcome reminder of the strides the evangelical movement and religious conservatives (broadly speaking) have made in recent decades.

Obama has selected Yale’s Elizabeth Alexander to compose and read a poem. I still remember watching Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993 — and thinking that American culture really was in a state of irreversible decline, as she indulged in that multicultural cataloguing of “the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew,/ The African and Native American, the Sioux, / The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the Greek,/ The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheikh,/ The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,/ The privileged, the homeless, the teacher.”

I’ve looked at some of Alexander’s poetry, and am confident she’ll be a big improvement on Angelou. It makes me think our culture isn’t necessarily getting worse. It may even be getting better.

Obama, it’s been announced, will be the first president to take the oath of office using the Lincoln Bible, held by President Lincoln at his first inauguration, since … Lincoln.

Some commentators have poked fun at Obama’s presumption. And it might be a good idea if, when he takes the oath, Obama makes sure that the Good Book is open to Proverbs 16:18, and its reminder that “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

But my (generous) interpretation of Obama’s choice of the Lincoln Bible is this: It’s an homage to Lincoln, not a claim to be like him. Obama intends to look back to Lincoln for guidance and to look up to him as a model. Lincoln, our greatest president and statesman, had a deep understanding of American exceptionalism. He thought long and hard about the relationship of American founding principles to political practice, and in his actions exemplified the prudent and skillful pursuit of a principled end. He was also a great war president. Obama could do a lot worse than study Lincoln and learn from him.

What’s more, in a radio address this past week, Obama cited George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware River on Christmas night, 1776, as a lesson for us today. Obama’s academic supporters must be rolling their eyes, or assuming he’s just playing to the simple-minded patriots in the peanut gallery. But what if Obama’s own understanding of the founders is more in line with the admiring spirit of many recent popular biographies than the belittling efforts of post-1960s tenured radicals?

One more heartening tidbit — from my point of view — about the president-elect: he’s been in the past an intermittent smoker, and is now a nicotine gum chewer who admits that he’s occasionally fallen off the wagon this past year to indulge in a cigarette. He’s been chastised for this by some scolds. The editors of The Mercury News told him recently he needed to make “a very public show of quitting” to set a good example for young people.

Bah, humbug. Those of us who dislike finger-wagging nanny-state-nagging liberalism relish the prospect of President Barack Obama sneaking a cigarette on the second floor of the White House while rereading Harry V. Jaffa’s great work on Lincoln, “Crisis of the House Divided,” then taking a break to stroll over to take a look at the White House’s copy of Emanuel Leutze’s painting “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” then going back to the family quarters to tell his kids to get back to memorizing some patriotic poetry, all of this interrupted occasionally by calls from Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. Ray Odierno — his Ulysses Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman — to discuss progress in the wars we’re fighting, or from Rick Warren to discuss their joint efforts to fight AIDS in Africa and to reduce the number of abortions in the U.S.

Now that’s a presidency I can believe in.

[Spit]  Now here’s Prof. Krugman:

No modern American president would repeat the fiscal mistake of 1932, in which the federal government tried to balance its budget in the face of a severe recession. The Obama administration will put deficit concerns on hold while it fights the economic crisis.

But even as Washington tries to rescue the economy, the nation will be reeling from the actions of 50 Herbert Hoovers — state governors who are slashing spending in a time of recession, often at the expense both of their most vulnerable constituents and of the nation’s economic future.

These state-level cutbacks range from small acts of cruelty to giant acts of panic — from cuts in South Carolina’s juvenile justice program, which will force young offenders out of group homes and into prison, to the decision by a committee that manages California state spending to halt all construction outlays for six months.

Now, state governors aren’t stupid (not all of them, anyway). They’re cutting back because they have to — because they’re caught in a fiscal trap. But let’s step back for a moment and contemplate just how crazy it is, from a national point of view, to be cutting public services and public investment right now.

Think about it: is America — not state governments, but the nation as a whole — less able to afford help to troubled teens, medical care for families, or repairs to decaying roads and bridges than it was one or two years ago? Of course not. Our capacity hasn’t been diminished; our workers haven’t lost their skills; our technological know-how is intact. Why can’t we keep doing good things?

It’s true that the economy is currently shrinking. But that’s the result of a slump in private spending. It makes no sense to add to the problem by cutting public spending, too.

In fact, the true cost of government programs, especially public investment, is much lower now than in more prosperous times. When the economy is booming, public investment competes with the private sector for scarce resources — for skilled construction workers, for capital. But right now many of the workers employed on infrastructure projects would otherwise be unemployed, and the money borrowed to pay for these projects would otherwise sit idle.

And shredding the social safety net at a moment when many more Americans need help isn’t just cruel. It adds to the sense of insecurity that is one important factor driving the economy down.

So why are we doing this to ourselves?

The answer, of course, is that state and local government revenues are plunging along with the economy — and unlike the federal government, lower-level governments can’t borrow their way through the crisis. Partly that’s because these governments, unlike the feds, are subject to balanced-budget rules. But even if they weren’t, running temporary deficits would be difficult. Investors, driven by fear, are refusing to buy anything except federal debt, and those states that can borrow at all are being forced to pay punitive interest rates.

Are governors responsible for their own predicament? To some extent. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in particular, deserves some jeers. He became governor in the first place because voters were outraged over his predecessor’s budget problems, but he did nothing to secure the state’s fiscal future — and he now faces a projected budget deficit bigger than the one that did in Gray Davis.

But even the best-run states are in deep trouble. Anyway, we shouldn’t punish our fellow citizens and our economy to spite a few local politicians.

What can be done? Ted Strickland, the governor of Ohio, is pushing for federal aid to the states on three fronts: help for the neediest, in the form of funding for food stamps and Medicaid; federal funding of state- and local-level infrastructure projects; and federal aid to education. That sounds right — and if the numbers Mr. Strickland proposes are huge, so is the crisis.

And once the crisis is behind us, we should rethink the way we pay for key public services.

As a nation, we don’t believe that our fellow citizens should go without essential health care. Why, then, does a large share of funding for Medicaid come from state governments, which are forced to cut the program precisely when it’s needed most?

An educated population is a national resource. Why, then, is basic education mainly paid for by local governments, which are forced to neglect the next generation every time the economy hits a rough patch?

And why should investments in infrastructure, which will serve the nation for decades, be at the mercy of short-run fluctuations in local budgets?

That’s for later. The priority right now is to fight off the attack of the 50 Herbert Hoovers, and make sure that the fiscal problems of the states don’t make the economic crisis even worse.

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

December 22, 2008

Oh, sweet merciful baby Jesus in the manger, Billy “I’m a moron” Kristol has yakked up a particularly odious furball this morning.  He produced “Popularity Isn’t Everything,” in which he loftily opines that, in admiration of straight talkers, we should give credit to the nation’s most unpopular Republican, Dick Cheney, and the nation’s most unpopular Democrat, Rod Blagojevich.  You just can’t make this stuff up, you know…  Mr. Cohen, in “Two Shoes for Democracy,” says that the message behind an Iraqi journalist’s insulting gesture — which was in a sense a democratic act — is that the Green Zone should be eliminated.  Mr. Krugman, in “Life Without Bubbles,” says it may take a lot longer than many people think before the United States economy is ready to live without bubbles. And until then, the economy is going to need a lot of government help.  Here’s that drooling, gibbering moron Kristol:

You gotta love Dick Cheney.

O.K., O.K. … you don’t have to. But consider this exchange with Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday”:

WALLACE: Did you really tell Senator Leahy, bleep yourself?

CHENEY: I did.

WALLACE: Any qualms, or second thoughts, or embarrassment?

CHENEY: No, I thought he merited it at the time. (Laughter.) And we’ve since, I think, patched over that wound and we’re civil to one another now.

No spin. No doubletalk. A cogent defense of his action — and one that shows a well-considered sense of justice. (“I thought he merited it.”) Indeed, if justice is seeking to give each his due, one might say that Dick Cheney aspires to being a just man. And a thoughtful one, because he knows that justice is sometimes too harsh, and should be tempered by civility.

Now Cheney isn’t, I’m afraid, always wise. For example, he’s still a defender of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. He even told Wallace he disagreed with the decision to fire Rumsfeld: “I was a Rumsfeld man … I thought he did a good job for us.”

I couldn’t disagree more. But Cheney’s loyalty to Rumsfeld didn’t stop Cheney from being a key behind-the-scenes player in encouraging George Bush to order the surge of troops to Iraq at the end of 2006 — after Rumsfeld had resisted adding troops for years. I’m told by several key advocates of the surge that Cheney was crucial in helping the president come to what was a difficult and unpopular decision — one opposed at the time by the huge majority of foreign policy experts, pundits and pontificators. Most of them — and the man most of them are happy won the election, Barack Obama — now acknowledge the surge’s success. But don’t expect them to give much credit to Cheney.

But enough in defense of the nation’s most unpopular Republican. Let me turn to the nation’s most unpopular Democrat, Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois.

After all, how many of today’s politicians can claim to be a living embodiment of a great American tradition — in this case, the corrupt machine politicians? Their credo was laid down about a century ago by Tammany Hall’s George Washington Plunkitt: “I seen my opportunities and I took ’em.”

Blagojevich is even more terse: “I want to make money.” And when an opportunity came along — a vacant Senate seat — he didn’t sit around studying polls and consulting focus groups. He got to work. He knows — as Americans have always known — that the good things in life aren’t free. As he put it eloquently in discussing the vacant Senate seat, “I’ve got this thing, and it’s [expletive] golden, and, uh, uh, I’m just not giving it up for [expletive] nothing.”

It’s also nice, in this day and age, to see an example of family togetherness and marital harmony. Rod and his wife, Patti, seem to be in accord on so many things. For example, in a disinclination to turn the other cheek. During a Nov. 3 telephone conversation between Blagojevich and an aide about a hostile Chicago Tribune editorial, Patti was heard in the background urging a receptive Rod to punish the corporation that owns The Tribune and the Chicago Cubs: “Hold up that [expletive] Cubs [expletive] … [expletive] them.”

But I was only truly won over to Blagojevich on Friday, when he pledged: “I will fight this thing every step of the way. I will fight. I will fight. I will fight until I take my last breath.” He then quoted the opening lines of Rudyard Kipling’s “If.”

If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating …

But Blagojevich carefully cut off his recitation before the stanza’s last line: “And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.”

Blagojevich must have known he’d violated this maxim. He’d tried to look too good, coiffing his hair with a special brush he keeps with him at all times. (According to The Washington Post, he “goes ballistic when he can’t put his hands on it.”) More important, he’d talked too wise — especially when being bugged by the F.B.I. But you’ve got to give Blagojevich credit for a kind of self-knowledge in omitting from his statement the damning last line of the stanza.

I’ve never heard Dick Cheney quote Kipling. But I suspect he might like Kipling, and that Kipling would admire him — a man who has never gone out of his way to look too good, nor talk too wise, but who has always, in four decades of public service, sought “to fill the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run.”

Billy, please go away.  And on your way out the door please Cheney yourself.  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Of all the questions Barack Obama needs to ask right now, the most important should be addressed to the Secret Service: how the heck did Muntader al-Zaidi got his second shoe off?

Al-Zaidi, of course, is the Iraqi television journalist who expressed his rage at the U.S. occupation of his country by hurling first one shoe, then the other, at President George W. Bush in Baghdad. He’s now in detention.

As for his shoes, they’re not going to end up on some gilded stand in a dusty museum somewhere in the Arab world. They’ve apparently been destroyed at a laboratory during a search for explosives.

Yes, you read that right.

The shadow of Richard Reid, the would-be shoe-bomber of 2001 whom most regular air travelers would happily submit to protracted torture, extends even to Iraq. One thing’s for sure: al-Zaidi, now a hero in much of the Arab world, won’t be short of replacement footwear once he emerges from captivity.

When that will be is anyone’s guess. He’s apologized to Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Bush has urged the Iraqis “not to overreact.”

One theory is that time enough is needed for the journalist’s bruises to fade. One certainty is that the pummeling he got was as intense as the reaction to what he did was slow. A second shoe is one too many. Change the last letter in shoe and you have shot.

These, however, were mere shoes. The throwing of them was offensive — and harmless. Journalists should not throw shoes, even at inept American presidents. Still, with apologies to the late E. M. Forster, I’m tempted to call this incident: “Two Shoes for Democracy.”

Bush, when the shoes came his way, was in the Green Zone, the walled four-square-mile home to Western officialdom and the Iraqi government that has about as much in common with the rest of Iraq as Zurich has with Falluja.

For all it reflects of Iraqi life beyond its walls in what is sometimes called the Red Zone, the Green Zone might as well be in Baton Rouge.

This sprawling urban garrison, where U.S. forces moved into Saddam Hussein’s Mesopotamian Fascist Republican Palace right after the 2003 invasion, is a monument to failure. As long it exists in the center of Baghdad, Iraqi democracy will be hollow.

It is openness, accessibility and accountability that distinguish democracies from dictatorships. Or it should be. A country governed from a fortress inaccessible to 99 percent of its citizens may be many things, but is not yet a democracy.

Al-Zaidi’s gesture broke those barriers, penetrated the hermetic sealing, and brought Red-Zone anger to Green-Zone placidity. In this sense, his was a democratic act.

What it said was: “Tear down these walls.” What it summoned was the deaths, exile and arbitrary arrests that U.S. incompetence has inflicted on countless Iraqis — a toll on which al-Zaidi has reported. What it did was thrust Bush, for a moment, out of the comfort zone of his extravagant illusion. Perhaps, for a second, the other shoe dropped.

After the incident, I heard from a U.S. friend now serving in the joint security station in Sadr City, the teeming Shiite district of Baghdad from which al-Zaidi hailed. He wrote: “We did not get a fusillade of shoes thrown over the concrete barriers and razor wire. One college engineering student in Sadr basically said re the press conference incident: ‘Well that’s the democracy you brought us, right?’”

Or rather, it was a glimmering of such a democracy. Anyone throwing a shoe at Saddam Hussein would have been executed, along with numerous other members of his family, plus assorted friends, within hours of such an incident. Iraq is slowly learning the give-and-take of a system where differences are accommodated rather than quashed.

But the process is slow. Recovering from murderous despotism takes a minimum of a generation.

Al-Zaidi’s anger was that of a Shia — at the U.S. occupation and at all the loss. There is fury and fear, too, among Sunnis, whose “awakening” dealt a devastating blow to Al Qaeda in Iraq but whose mistrust of the now-dominant Shia is visceral. Another of Obama’s pressing questions should be: does my 16-month withdrawal timetable risk re-igniting sectarian war?

One thing is certain: before the United States pulls out its combat troops, the Green Zone must cease to exist. While it’s there, it’s a sign that Iraqis — all Iraqis — have not yet learned to live together. The district chairman in Sadr City said this to my U.S. friend last week: “The Green Zone needs to be deleted.”

That was the message in al-Zaidi’s gesture. He’s being held for insulting a foreign leader and could face long imprisonment. But the Green Zone is an insult to all Iraqis. Al-Zaidi should be released and an Iraqi-American commission on terminating the Green Zone established at once.

Bush dodged a shoe; he cannot dodge shame.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Whatever the new administration does, we’re in for months, perhaps even a year, of economic hell. After that, things should get better, as President Obama’s stimulus plan — O.K., I’m told that the politically correct term is now “economic recovery plan” — begins to gain traction. Late next year the economy should begin to stabilize, and I’m fairly optimistic about 2010.

But what comes after that? Right now everyone is talking about, say, two years of economic stimulus — which makes sense as a planning horizon. Too much of the economic commentary I’ve been reading seems to assume, however, that that’s really all we’ll need — that once a burst of deficit spending turns the economy around we can quickly go back to business as usual.

In fact, however, things can’t just go back to the way they were before the current crisis. And I hope the Obama people understand that.

The prosperity of a few years ago, such as it was — profits were terrific, wages not so much — depended on a huge bubble in housing, which replaced an earlier huge bubble in stocks. And since the housing bubble isn’t coming back, the spending that sustained the economy in the pre-crisis years isn’t coming back either.

To be more specific: the severe housing slump we’re experiencing now will end eventually, but the immense Bush-era housing boom won’t be repeated. Consumers will eventually regain some of their confidence, but they won’t spend the way they did in 2005-2007, when many people were using their houses as ATMs, and the savings rate dropped nearly to zero.

So what will support the economy if cautious consumers and humbled homebuilders aren’t up to the job?

A few months ago a headline in the satirical newspaper The Onion, on point as always, offered one possible answer: “Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble to Invest In.” Something new could come along to fuel private demand, perhaps by generating a boom in business investment.

But this boom would have to be enormous, raising business investment to a historically unprecedented percentage of G.D.P., to fill the hole left by the consumer and housing pullback. While that could happen, it doesn’t seem like something to count on.

A more plausible route to sustained recovery would be a drastic reduction in the U.S. trade deficit, which soared at the same time the housing bubble was inflating. By selling more to other countries and spending more of our own income on U.S.-produced goods, we could get to full employment without a boom in either consumption or investment spending.

But it will probably be a long time before the trade deficit comes down enough to make up for the bursting of the housing bubble. For one thing, export growth, after several good years, has stalled, partly because nervous international investors, rushing into assets they still consider safe, have driven the dollar up against other currencies — making U.S. production much less cost-competitive.

Furthermore, even if the dollar falls again, where will the capacity for a surge in exports and import-competing production come from? Despite rising trade in services, most world trade is still in goods, especially manufactured goods — and the U.S. manufacturing sector, after years of neglect in favor of real estate and the financial industry, has a lot of catching up to do.

Anyway, the rest of the world may not be ready to handle a drastically smaller U.S. trade deficit. As my colleague Tom Friedman recently pointed out, much of China’s economy in particular is built around exporting to America, and will have a hard time switching to other occupations.

In short, getting to the point where our economy can thrive without fiscal support may be a difficult, drawn-out process. And as I said, I hope the Obama team understands that.

Right now, with the economy in free fall and everyone terrified of Great Depression 2.0, opponents of a strong federal response are having a hard time finding support. John Boehner, the House Republican leader, has been reduced to using his Web site to seek “credentialed American economists” willing to add their names to a list of “stimulus spending skeptics.”

But once the economy has perked up a bit, there will be a lot of pressure on the new administration to pull back, to throw away the economy’s crutches. And if the administration gives in to that pressure too soon, the result could be a repeat of the mistake F.D.R. made in 1937 — the year he slashed spending, raised taxes and helped plunge the United States into a serious recession.

The point is that it may take a lot longer than many people think before the U.S. economy is ready to live without bubbles. And until then, the economy is going to need a lot of government help.

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

December 15, 2008

Oh.  My.  God.  Kristol, in “Left and Right, Piling On,” actually is trying to make sense.  He says an undeserved disdain, even casual contempt, seems to characterize the attitude of the political and media elites toward the American auto industry.  I never thought I’d live to see the day…  Mr. Cohen, in “A Church in Guantánamo,” says a sermon on the Parable of the Tenants provokes thought about New York’s financial disaster, based on greed for redoubled assets, and the economic ravages of Cuba’s head-in-the-ground Communism.  Prof. Krugman discusses “European Crass Warfare,” and says Europe’s economy is in trouble. But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her economic officials stand in the way of a much-needed European rescue plan.  Here’s Kristol:

In 1953, the president of General Motors, Charles Wilson, was nominated by President Eisenhower to be secretary of defense. During his confirmation hearings, Wilson was asked if he’d be able, as defense secretary, to make decisions contrary to the interests of G.M. He answered yes, but added that he couldn’t imagine such a situation, because “for years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.”

It wasn’t a ridiculous view. It was widely shared — by big-business-loving Republicans and big-union-embracing Democrats, by big-car-driving suburbanites and big-tank-occupying soldiers.

Today, G.M., Ford and Chrysler get no respect. Maybe they don’t deserve much. Detroit has many sins to answer for, and it’s been doing plenty of answering. But — and I say this as someone who grew up in non-car-driving family in New York and who is the furthest thing from an auto aficionado — there is a kind of undeserved disdain, even casual contempt, that seems to characterize the attitude of the political and media elites toward the American auto industry.

As Warren Brown, who writes about cars for The Washington Post, recently put it, “There is a feeling in this country — apparent in the often condescending, dismissive way Detroit’s automobile companies have been treated on Capitol Hill — that people who work with their hands and the companies that employ them are inferior to those who work with their minds and plow profit from information. How else to explain the clearly disparate treatment given to companies such as Citigroup and General Motors?”

Now there are other ways to explain the disparate treatment of G.M. and Citigroup. Finance is different from manufacturing, and banks from auto companies. It may be that the case for a huge bank bailout was strong, and that the case for a more modest auto package is not. Still, it seems to me true that the financial big shots haven’t been treated nearly as roughly in Congress or in the media as the auto executives, who have done nothing remotely as irresponsible as their Wall Street counterparts.

What’s more, in their disdain for the American auto companies, the left and right wings of the establishment agree. Of course, the particular foci of criticism are different — the left berates the auto companies’ management, the right the United Automobile Workers. But even on the left, while Democratic politicians still try to look out for the interests of the U.A.W., there’s not really that much sympathy for the workers. The ascendant environmentalists disdain (to say the least) the internal combustion engine and everyone associated with it. Most of today’s limousine liberals are embarrassed by their political alliance with the workers who built those limousines.

Meanwhile, on the right, free-market analysts have explained that our regulatory scheme of fuel-efficiency standards is counterproductive. But despite the fact that the government is partly responsible for the Big Three’s problems, the right hasn’t really been stirred to enthusiastically promote a deregulatory agenda to help the auto companies. What excites it is mobilizing to oppose bailouts for unionized workers.

Last week, Senate Republicans picked a fight with the U.A.W. on union pay scales — despite the fact that it’s the legacy benefits for retirees, not pay for current workers, that’s really hurting Detroit, and despite the additional fact that, in any case, labor amounts to only about 10 percent of the cost of a car. But the Republicans were fighting Big Labor! They were standing firm against bailouts! Some of the same conservatives who (correctly, in my view) made the case for $700 billion for Wall Street pitched a fit over $14 billion in loans for the automakers.

So Senate Republicans chose to threaten to filibuster the House-passed legislation embodying the George Bush-Nancy Pelosi deal. The bill would have allowed President Bush to name a car czar, who could have begun to force concessions from all sides. It also would have averted for now a collapse of the auto industry, and shifted difficult decisions to the Obama administration.

Instead, Bush will now probably have to use the financial rescue funds to save G.M. — instead of being able to draw from sums previously authorized for the green transformation of the auto industry, a fight he had won in the negotiations with Pelosi. And Senate Republicans now run the risk of being portrayed as Marie Antoinettes with Southern accents.

Whichever party can liberate itself from its well-worn rut to propose policies that help both American businesses and workers has a great opportunity. That party’s leaders could begin by offering management and labor at the Big Three a little more sympathy, and heaping upon them a little less calumny. Where’s Charles Wilson when we need him?

Here’s Mr. Cohen, writing from Guantánamo:

I confess that I came here for the dateline. It beats Dusseldorf or Lille. Like Sarajevo or Falluja, it is one of those datelines that incline a reader onward.

I was in Santiago de Cuba, where the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s revolution will be celebrated on Jan. 1. It was hot, nobody knew if the ailing Fidel would appear, nor where exactly the festivities would take place. I thought, I’ll drive out to, you never know.

The night before I left, a band showed up on the terrace of my Santiago hotel and played “Guantanemara,” the wistful melody about the peasant girl from Guantánamo. I thought it strange that a place once associated with a love song now summons grim images of George W. Bush’s war on terror.

Guantanemara: once I heard it, I couldn’t get the chorus out my head. Would some proud, sultry-eyed woman fit the image? Purposeless journeys bring pleasant surprises. Yes, I’d go to Guantánamo for a glimpse of the U.S. naval base and whatever else I might find.

It’s a two-hour drive from Santiago, complicated by the absence of road signs, a Cuban idiosyncrasy. I went past the town to a hillside where the bay glimmered silver and the U.S. control tower glinted far away. What a place for bunch of Yemenis to end up.

On the way back to Guantánamo, I gave a ride to a woman who told me she worked in a prison in Havana for $20 a month and had come here to visit her children, whom she had entrusted to her mother after a painful divorce.

I asked her if she’d like to leave Cuba. “No,” she said, “but I’d like to have relatives abroad sending me money!”

In Guantánamo, we pulled up by the main plaza. Dusk was falling. Old folk sat on benches under the palms. I set out across the square with its lengthening shadows toward a whitewashed church, Santa Catalina de Ricci, whose heavy wooden doors were flung open.

A surprise awaited me. The church was full. A young priest in luminous green vestments was holding Mass. His words met me as I entered: “La Misa es siempre un encuentro con Dios” — “Mass is always an encounter with God.”

I am a stranger to faith. Yet a wave of physical relief swept over me. After 10 days in Cuba, with its hymns to the heroism of Fidel, Che Guevara, the Revolution and socialism, the priest seemed a merciful figure. Instead of the deification of Fidel and the utopian perfectibility of mankind, he posited human fallibility and consoling salvation.

Graham Greene’s masterpiece, “The Power and the Glory,” came to me, with its condemned priest in his cell: “When you visualized a man or woman carefully, you could always begin to feel pity — that was a quality God’s image carried with it.”

I was spellbound, standing in the doorway, a breeze coming in. Cuba’s relations with the Catholic Church have improved in recent years, especially since the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1998. Atheism has ceased to be a revolutionary tenet.

The priest began to tell the Parable of the Talents. How a wealthy man, parting on a journey, gave five talents to one of his servants, two to another, and one to a third. And the servant with five talents invested wisely and earned another five. And the servant with two talents did the same, also doubling his money. But the third, fearful of his master, hid the talent in the ground and earned nothing.

And the first two enter “into the joy of thy lord,” but the third “wicked and slothful” servant is cast into “outer darkness.”

“Where is this parable told?” the priest asked.

A child’s hand shot up. “Saint Matthew!”

The child was right. But what of this parable in a land where there’s nothing to invest in? Was it a “free-enterprise parable,” as John Howard, the former conservative prime minister of Australia once called it, a reminder that if you are given assets you must add to them, just as if you are entrusted with the word of God, you must spread that word?

Or was it, rather, a parable about the cost of standing up to authority, of being a whistle-blower like the third servant, who calls his master a “hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown?” Was it about the courage to face down totalitarianism and its rich apparatchiks?

I wondered, but preferred mystery to answers. I’d seen America’s Guantánamo prison. I’d felt the suffering of the woman in the car. I’d left New York’s financial disaster, based on greed for redoubled assets, and found the economic ravages of Cuba’s head-in-the-ground Communism.

Yes, pity. And if this priest had the power to turn the wafer into the flesh and blood of God, and if the people gathered here believed that and were consoled, I was ready to bow my head in silence.

That, it seemed, was why I had come to Guantánamo.

And now we welcome back Prof. Krugman:

So here’s the situation: the economy is facing its worst slump in decades. The usual response to an economic downturn, cutting interest rates, isn’t working. Large-scale government aid looks like the only way to end the economic nosedive.

But there’s a problem: conservative politicians, clinging to an out-of-date ideology — and, perhaps, betting (wrongly) that their constituents are relatively well positioned to ride out the storm — are standing in the way of action.

No, I’m not talking about Bob Corker, the Senator from Nissan — I mean Tennessee — and his fellow Republicans, who torpedoed last week’s attempt to buy some time for the U.S. auto industry. (Why was the plan blocked? An e-mail message circulated among Senate Republicans declared that denying the auto industry a loan was an opportunity for Republicans to “take their first shot against organized labor.”)

I am, instead, talking about Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and her economic officials, who have become the biggest obstacles to a much-needed European rescue plan.

The European economic mess isn’t getting very much attention here, because we’re understandably focused on our own problems. But the world’s other economic superpower — America and the European Union have roughly the same G.D.P. — is arguably in as much trouble as we are.

The most acute problems are on Europe’s periphery, where many smaller economies are experiencing crises strongly reminiscent of past crises in Latin America and Asia: Latvia is the new Argentina; Ukraine is the new Indonesia. But the pain has also reached the big economies of Western Europe: Britain, France, Italy and, the biggest of all, Germany.

As in the United States, monetary policy — cutting interest rates in an effort to perk up the economy — is rapidly reaching its limit. That leaves, as the only way to avert the worst slump since the Great Depression, the aggressive use of fiscal policy: increasing spending or cutting taxes to boost demand. Right now everyone sees the need for a large, pan-European fiscal stimulus.

Everyone, that is, except the Germans. Mrs. Merkel has become Frau Nein: if there is to be a rescue of the European economy, she wants no part of it, telling a party meeting that “we’re not going to participate in this senseless race for billions.”

Last week Peer Steinbrück, Mrs. Merkel’s finance minister, went even further. Not content with refusing to develop a serious stimulus plan for his own country, he denounced the plans of other European nations. He accused Britain, in particular, of engaging in “crass Keynesianism.”

Germany’s leaders seem to believe that their own economy is in good shape, and in no need of major help. They’re almost certainly wrong about that. The really bad thing, however, isn’t their misjudgment of their own situation; it’s the way Germany’s opposition is preventing a common European approach to the economic crisis.

To understand the problem, think of what would happen if, say, New Jersey were to attempt to boost its economy through tax cuts or public works, without this state-level stimulus being part of a nationwide program. Clearly, much of the stimulus would “leak” away to neighboring states, so that New Jersey would end up with all of the debt while other states got many if not most of the jobs.

Individual European countries are in much the same situation. Any one government acting unilaterally faces the strong possibility that it will run up a lot of debt without creating much domestic employment.

For the European economy as a whole, however, this kind of leakage is much less of a problem: two-thirds of the average European Union member’s imports come from other European nations, so that the continent as a whole is no more import-dependent than the United States. This means that a coordinated stimulus effort, in which each country counts on its neighbors to match its own efforts, would offer much more bang for the euro than individual, uncoordinated efforts.

But you can’t have a coordinated European effort if Europe’s biggest economy not only refuses to go along, but heaps scorn on its neighbors’ attempts to contain the crisis.

Germany’s big Nein won’t last forever. Last week Ifo, a highly respected research institute, warned that Germany will soon be facing its worst economic crisis since the 1940s. If and when this happens, Mrs. Merkel and her ministers will surely reconsider their position.

But in Europe, as in the United States, the issue is time. Across the world, economies are sinking fast, while we wait for someone, anyone, to offer an effective policy response. How much damage will be done before that response finally comes?

Kristol and Cohen

December 8, 2008

As if Monday weren’t bad enough on its own, Paul Krugman is off today.  This leaves us with that gibbering moron Kristol and Roger Cohen.  Wrong Way Billy has taken up his crayons and scribbled “Small Isn’t Beautiful.”  He loftily opines that given recent history, the right should think twice before charging into battle against Barack Obama under the banner of “small-government conservatism.”  His piece does have, however, one of the most unintentionally funny lines I’ve ever read.  He actually wrote “And Reagan’s record as governor and president wasn’t a particularly government-slashing one.”  I wonder if he’s doing a segue into comedy?  Mr. Cohen, on the other hand, waxes all Proustian in “Paris vs. Havana.”  He is writing from Paris and says what Havana has been able to preserve in its crumbling architecture, thanks to socialist economic disaster, is that very pungent texture Paris has lost to modernity.  Among the things he gets elegaic about are “the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro,” “the bad teeth,” and “the seat-less toilets on the stairs.”  Whatever floats your boat, I guess…  Here’s that schmuck Kristol:

President-elect Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress are about to serve up a supersized helping of big-government liberalism. Conservatives will be inclined to oppose much of what Obama and his party cook up. And, I believe, rightly so.

But conservatives should think twice before charging into battle against Obama under the banner of “small-government conservatism.” It’s a banner many Republicans and conservatives have rediscovered since the election and have been waving around energetically. Jeb Bush, now considering a Senate run in 2010, even went so far as to tell Politico last month, “There should not be such a thing as a big-government Republican.”

Really? Jeb Bush was a successful and popular conservative governor of Florida, with tax cuts, policy reforms and privatizations of government services to show for his time in office. Still, in his two terms state spending increased over 50 percent — a rate faster than inflation plus population growth. It turns out, in the real world of Republican governance, that there aren’t a whole lot of small-government Republicans.

Five Republicans have won the presidency since 1932: Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and the two George Bushes. Only Reagan was even close to being a small-government conservative. And he campaigned in 1980 more as a tax-cutter and national-defense-builder-upper, and less as a small-government enthusiast in the mold of the man he had supported — and who had lost — in 1964, Barry Goldwater. And Reagan’s record as governor and president wasn’t a particularly government-slashing one.

Even the G.O.P.’s 1994 Contract With America made only vague promises to eliminate the budget deficit, and proposed no specific cuts in government programs. It focused far more on crime, taxes, welfare reform and government reform. Indeed, the “Republican Revolution” of 1995 imploded primarily because of the Republican Congress’s one major small-government-type initiative — the attempt to “cut” (i.e., restrain the growth of) Medicare. George W. Bush seemed to learn the lesson. Prior to his re-election, he proposed and signed into law popular (and, it turned out, successful) legislation, opposed by small-government conservatives, adding a prescription drug benefit to Medicare.

So talk of small government may be music to conservative ears, but it’s not to the public as a whole. This isn’t to say the public is fond of big-government liberalism. It’s just that what’s politically vulnerable about big-government liberalism is more the liberalism than the big government. (Besides, the public knows that government’s not going to shrink much no matter who’s in power.)

Now it’s true that the size of the government and the modern liberal agenda are connected. It’s also true that modern conservatism has to include a strong commitment to limited (though energetic) government and to constitutional (though not necessarily small or weak) government. Still, there’s a difference between a conservatism that is concerned with limited and constitutional government and one that focuses on simply opposing big government.

So: If you’re a small-government conservative, you’ll tend to oppose the bailouts, period. If you more or less accept big government, you’ll be open to the government’s stepping in to save the financial system, or the auto industry. But you’ll tend to favor those policies — universal tax cuts, offering everyone a chance to refinance his mortgage, relieving auto makers of burdensome regulations — that, consistent with conservative principles, don’t reward irresponsible behavior and don’t politicize markets.

Similarly, if you’re against big government, you’ll oppose a huge public works stimulus package. If you think some government action is inevitable, you might instead point out that the most unambiguous public good is national defense. You might then suggest spending a good chunk of the stimulus on national security — directing dollars to much-needed and underfunded defense procurement rather than to fanciful green technologies, making sure funds are available for the needed expansion of the Army and Marines before rushing to create make-work civilian jobs. Obama wants to spend much of the stimulus on transportation infrastructure and schools. Fine, but lots of schools and airports seem to me to have been refurbished more recently and more generously than military bases I’ve visited.

I can’t help but admire some of my fellow conservatives’ loyalty to the small-government cause. It reminds me of the nobility of Tennyson’s Light Brigade, as it charges into battle: “Theirs but to do and die.” Maybe it would be better, though, first to reason why.

Nah, let the Republican Light Brigade saddle up.  I’ll even hold the stirrup for them…  Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Since visiting Cuba a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about the visual assault on our lives. Climb in a New York taxi these days and a TV comes on with its bombardment of news and ads. It’s become passé to gaze out the window, watch the sunlight on a wall, a child’s smile, the city breathing.

In Havana, I’d spend long hours contemplating a single street. Nothing — not a brand, an advertisement or a neon sign — distracted me from the city’s sunlit surrender to time passing. At a colossal price, Fidel Castro’s pursuit of socialism has forged a unique aesthetic, freed from agitation, caught in a haunting equilibrium of stillness and decay.

Such empty spaces, away from the assault of marketing, beyond every form of message (e-mail, text, twitter), erode in the modern world, to the point that silence provokes a why-am-I-not-in-demand anxiety. Technology induces ever more subtle forms of addiction, to products, but also to agitation itself. The global mall reproduces itself, its bright and air-conditioned sterility extinguishing every distinctive germ.

Paris, of course, has resisted homogenization. It’s still Paris, with its strong Haussmannian arteries, its parks of satisfying geometry, its islands pointing their prows toward the solemn bridges, its gilt and gravel, its zinc-roofed maids’ rooms arrayed atop the city as if deposited by some magician who stole in at night.

It’s still a place where temptation exists only to be yielded to and where time stops to guard forever an image in the heart. All young lovers should have a row in the Tuileries in order to make up on the Pont Neuf.

Yet, for all its enduring seductiveness, Paris has ceased to be the city that I knew. The modern world has sucked out some essence, leaving a film-set perfection hollowed out behind the five-story facades. The past has been anaesthetized. It has been packaged. It now seems less a part of the city’s fabric than it is a kitschy gimmick as easily reproduced as a Lautrec poster.

I know, in middle age the business of life is less about doing things for the first than for the last time. It is easy to feel a twinge of regret. Those briny oysters, the glistening mackerel on their bed of ice at the Rue Mouffetard, the drowsy emptied city in August, the unctuousness of a Beef Bourguignon: these things can be experienced for the first time only once.

So what I experience in Paris is less what is before me than the memory it provokes of the city in 1975. Memories, as Apollinaire noted, are like the sound of hunters’ horns fading in the wind. Still, they linger. The town looks much the same, if prettified. What has changed has changed from within.

At dinner with people I’d known back then, I was grappling with this elusive feeling when my friend lit a match. It was a Russian match acquired in Belgrade and so did not conform to current European Union nanny-state standards. The flame jumped. The sulfur whiff was pungent. A real match!

Then it came to me: what Paris had lost to modernity was its pungency. Gone was the acrid Gitane-Gauloise pall of any self-respecting café. Gone was the garlic whiff of the early-morning Metro to the Place d’Italie. Gone were the mineral mid-morning Sauvignons Blancs downed bar-side by red-eyed men.

Gone were the horse butchers and the tripe restaurants in the 12th arrondissement. Gone (replaced by bad English) was the laconic snarl of Parisian greeting. Gone were the bad teeth, the yellowing moustaches, the hammering of artisans, the middle-aged prostitutes in doorways, the seat-less toilets on the stairs, and an entire group of people called the working class.

Gone, in short, was Paris in the glory of its squalor, in the time before anyone thought a Frenchman would accept a sandwich for lunch, or decreed that the great unwashed should inhabit the distant suburbs. The city has been sanitized.

But squalor connects. When you clean, when you favor hermetic sealing in the name of safety, you also disconnect people from one another. When on top of that you add layers of solipsistic technology, the isolation intensifies. In its preserved Gallic disguise, Paris is today no less a globalized city than New York.

Havana has also preserved its architecture — the wrought-iron balconies, the caryatids, the baroque flourishes — even if it is crumbling. What has been preserved with it, thanks to socialist economic disaster, is that very pungent texture Paris has lost to modernity.

The slugs of Havana Club rum in bars lit by fluorescent light, the dominos banged on street tables, the raucous conversations in high doorways, the whiff of puros, the beat through bad speakers of drums and maracas, the idle sensuality of Blackberry-free days: Cuba took me back decades to an era when time did not always demand to be put to use.

I thought I’d always have Paris. But Havana helped me see, by the flare of a Russian match, that mine is gone.

I’ve got the feeling that he just re-read “Remembrance of Things Past.”  He should burn his copy.

Kristol, Cohen and Krugman

December 1, 2008

That horse’s ass Wrong Way Billy thinks he can tell us about “Jihad’s True Face.”  He squawks that if terror groups are to be defeated, in countries like India and the United States, governments will have to call on the patriotism of citizens.  (Billy seems to have forgotten that the “terror groups” in the United States tend to be wild-eyed right wing lunatics who consider themselves “patriots.”)  How much longer does his contract have to run?  Mr. Cohen says “Try Tough Love, Hillary.”  He believes U.S. policy toward Israel has been ineffective. It’s time to think again.  Or just think at all, for that matter.  Prof. Krugman discusses “Deficits and the Future.”  He says conomists worry that large budget deficits will burden future generations. But strong fiscal expansion would actually enhance the economy’s long-run prospects.  Here’s that gibbering idiot Kristol:

Much of the reporting from Mumbai the last few days has been informative, gripping and often moving. Some of the commentary, on the other hand, has been not just uninformative but counterinformative — if that’s a term, and if it’s not, I say it should be.

Consider first an op-ed article in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times by Martha Nussbaum, a well-known professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. The article was headlined “Terrorism in India has many faces.” But one face that Nussbaum fails to mention specifically is that of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamic terror group originating in Pakistan that seems to have been centrally involved in the attack on Mumbai.

This is because Nussbaum’s main concern is not explaining or curbing Islamic terror. Rather, she writes that “if, as now seems likely, last week’s terrible events in Mumbai were the work of Islamic terrorists, that’s more bad news for India’s minority Muslim population.” She deplores past acts of Hindu terror against India’s Muslims. She worries about Muslim youths being rounded up on suspicion of terrorism with little or no evidence. And she notes that this is “an analogue to the current ugly phenomenon of racial profiling in the United States.”

So jihadists kill innocents in Mumbai — and Nussbaum ends up decrying racial profiling here. Is it just that liberal academics are required to include some alleged ugly American phenomenon in everything they write?

Jim Leach is also a professor, at Princeton, but he’s better known as a former moderate Republican congressman from Iowa who supported Barack Obama this year. His contribution over the weekend was to point out on Politico.com that “the Mumbai catastrophe underscores the importance of vocabulary.” This wouldn’t have been my first thought. But Leach believes it’s very important that we consider the Mumbai attack not as an act of “war” but as an act of “barbarism.”

Why? “The former implies a cause: a national or tribal or ethnic rationale that infuses a sacrificial action with some group’s view of heroism; the latter is an assault on civilized values, everyone’s. … To the degree barbarism is a part of the human condition, Mumbai must be understood not just as an act related to a particular group but as an outbreak of pent-up irrationality that can occur anywhere, anytime. … It may be true that the perpetrators viewed themselves as somehow justified in attacking Indians and visiting foreigners, particularly perhaps Americans, British and Israeli nationals. But a response that is the least nationalistic is likely to be the most effective.”

If, as Leach says, “it may be true” the perpetrators viewed themselves as justified in their attacks, doesn’t this mean that they did in fact have a “rationale” that “infused” their action?

But Leach doesn’t want to discuss that rationale — even though it’s not hard to find. Ten minutes of Googling will bring you to a fine article, “The Ideologies of South Asian Jihadi Groups,” from the April 2005 issue of Current Trends in Islamist Ideology. It’s by the respected journalist and diplomat Husain Haqqani, who, as it happens, is now Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States.

Lashkar-e-Taiba, Haqqani explains, is a jihadi group of Wahhabi persuasion, “backed by Saudi money and protected by Pakistani intelligence services.” He notes that “Lashkar-e-Taiba has adopted a maximalist agenda for global jihad.” Indeed, the political arm of the group has conveniently published a pamphlet, “Why Are We Waging Jihad?,” that lays out all kinds of reasons why the United States, Israel and India are “existential enemies of Islam.”

So much for Leach’s notion that the Mumbai terrorists had no “cause” or “rationale.” But Leach’s refusal to see this is in the service of persuading India not to respond in a “nationalistic” way — and of persuading the United States not to see itself primarily as standing with India against our common enemies.

But if terror groups are to be defeated, it is national governments that will have to do so. In nations like India (and the United States), governments will have to call on the patriotism of citizens to fight the terrorists. In a nation like Pakistan, the government will have to be persuaded to deal with those in their midst who are complicit. This can happen if those nations’ citizens decide they don’t want their own country to be dishonored by allegiances with terror groups. Otherwise, other nations may have to act.

Patriotism is an indispensable weapon in the defense of civilization against barbarism. That was brought home over the weekend in an article in The Times of India on Sandeep Unnikrishnan, a major in India’s National Security Guards who died fighting the terrorists at the Taj hotel. The reporter spoke with the young man’s parents as they mourned their son: “His father, dignified in the face of such a personal tragedy, was stoic, saying he was proud of his son who sacrificed his life for the country: ‘He died for the nation.’ ”

Here’s Mr. Cohen:

Imagine Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Israeli prime minister, saying this to Barack Obama:

“The United States has been wrong to write Israel a blank check every year; wrong to turn a blind eye to the settlements in the West Bank; wrong not to be more explicit about the need to divide Jerusalem; wrong to equip us with weaponry so sophisticated we now believe military might is the answer to all our problems; and wrong in not helping us reach out to Syria. Your chosen secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, said during the campaign that ‘the United States stands with Israel, now and forever.’ Well, that’s not good enough. You need to stand against us sometimes so we can avoid the curse of eternal militarism.”

Perhaps that seems unimaginable. But Olmert has already said something close to this. In a frank September interview with the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, reprinted this month by The New York Review of Books, the Israeli leader chose to exit with a mea culpa for his country’s policies.

Those policies have been encouraged by the Bush administration, whose war on terror was embraced by the Israeli government as a means to frame Israel’s confrontation with the Palestinians as part of the same struggle. No matter that Al Qaeda and the Palestinian national movement are distinct. The facile conflation got Bush in lock step with whatever Israel did.

So, by saying Israel has been wrong, Olmert was also saying the United States has been wrong, even if he never mentioned America.

What Olmert, who appears on the verge of indictment for fraud, did say in his “soul searching on behalf of the nation of Israel” was that he had made “mistakes” as a former right-wing hard-liner and that military power will not deliver his 60-year-old country from existential anguish.

“We could contend with any of our enemies or against all our enemies combined and win,” Olmert said. “The question that I ask myself is, what happens when we win? First of all, we’d have to pay a painful price. And after we paid the price, what would we say to them? ‘Let’s talk.’ ”

Olmert is now convinced of the need to settle with the Palestinians and Syria through giving up parts of Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. The fact such views come from a former Likudnik is a measure of how the political ground has shifted in Israel ahead of elections early next year.

I think Olmert’s words should be emblazoned on the wall of Hillary Clinton’s eighth-floor State Department office: “We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage elsewhere — without this, there will be no peace.”

Asked if this included a compromise on Jerusalem, Olmert said, “Including Jerusalem.”

He also declared, “I’d like to know if there’s a serious person in the state of Israel who believe that we can make peace with the Syrians without, in the end, giving up the Golan Heights.” Those words should go up on Clinton’s wall, too.

For Olmert, “holding this or that hill” is “worthless” and Israeli generals are deluded in clinging to them.

These ideas will sit uneasily with the pro-Israel constituency that Clinton has dealt with as a Democratic senator for the state of New York. Nobody’s been more solidly pro-Israel than she. But to be effective, she must become a tough taskmaster in the name of Olmert’s compromises. That is in the best long-term interest of Israel.

Clinton noted during the campaign that the United States could “obliterate” Iran if it launched a nuclear attack on Israel. Olmert chose different language. He noted “a megalomania and a loss of proportion in the things said here about Iran.” Once again, his words are instructive.

I am fiercely attached to Israel’s security. Everything depends, however, on how that security is viewed. Israel can continue humiliating the Palestinians, flaunting its power with a bully’s braggadocio. It will survive that way — and be desperately corroded from within. Neither domination nor demography favors Israel over time.

Its moral authority is already compromised by a 40-year occupation. The Diaspora Jew did not go to Zion to build the Jew among nations.

This is the reality behind Olmert’s warning that “we have a window of opportunity — a short amount of time.” This is the reality behind his appeal to “designate a final and exact borderline between us and the Palestinians.”

For that, Palestinians must also compromise, especially on the right of return, and they must renounce terrorism. Return must essentially mean return to a new and viable Palestinian state.

Getting to such a two-state deal at, or close to, the 1967 borders will require concerted U.S. involvement from day one of the Obama administration. Its tone should be one of tough love, with the emphasis on tough.

And now here’s Prof. Krugman:

Right now there’s intense debate about how aggressive the United States government should be in its attempts to turn the economy around. Many economists, myself included, are calling for a very large fiscal expansion to keep the economy from going into free fall. Others, however, worry about the burden that large budget deficits will place on future generations.

But the deficit worriers have it all wrong. Under current conditions, there’s no trade-off between what’s good in the short run and what’s good for the long run; strong fiscal expansion would actually enhance the economy’s long-run prospects.

The claim that budget deficits make the economy poorer in the long run is based on the belief that government borrowing “crowds out” private investment — that the government, by issuing lots of debt, drives up interest rates, which makes businesses unwilling to spend on new plant and equipment, and that this in turn reduces the economy’s long-run rate of growth. Under normal circumstances there’s a lot to this argument.

But circumstances right now are anything but normal. Consider what would happen next year if the Obama administration gave in to the deficit hawks and scaled back its fiscal plans.

Would this lead to lower interest rates? It certainly wouldn’t lead to a reduction in short-term interest rates, which are more or less controlled by the Federal Reserve. The Fed is already keeping those rates as low as it can — virtually at zero — and won’t change that policy unless it sees signs that the economy is threatening to overheat. And that doesn’t seem like a realistic prospect any time soon.

What about longer-term rates? These rates, which are already at a half-century low, mainly reflect expected future short-term rates. Fiscal austerity could push them even lower — but only by creating expectations that the economy would remain deeply depressed for a long time, which would reduce, not increase, private investment.

The idea that tight fiscal policy when the economy is depressed actually reduces private investment isn’t just a hypothetical argument: it’s exactly what happened in two important episodes in history.

The first took place in 1937, when Franklin Roosevelt mistakenly heeded the advice of his own era’s deficit worriers. He sharply reduced government spending, among other things cutting the Works Progress Administration in half, and also raised taxes. The result was a severe recession, and a steep fall in private investment.

The second episode took place 60 years later, in Japan. In 1996-97 the Japanese government tried to balance its budget, cutting spending and raising taxes. And again the recession that followed led to a steep fall in private investment.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that trying to reduce the budget deficit is always bad for private investment. You can make a reasonable case that Bill Clinton’s fiscal restraint in the 1990s helped fuel the great U.S. investment boom of that decade, which in turn helped cause a resurgence in productivity growth.

What made fiscal austerity such a bad idea both in Roosevelt’s America and in 1990s Japan were special circumstances: in both cases the government pulled back in the face of a liquidity trap, a situation in which the monetary authority had cut interest rates as far as it could, yet the economy was still operating far below capacity.

And we’re in the same kind of trap today — which is why deficit worries are misplaced.

One more thing: Fiscal expansion will be even better for America’s future if a large part of the expansion takes the form of public investment — of building roads, repairing bridges and developing new technologies, all of which make the nation richer in the long run.

Should the government have a permanent policy of running large budget deficits? Of course not. Although public debt isn’t as bad a thing as many people believe — it’s basically money we owe to ourselves — in the long run the government, like private individuals, has to match its spending to its income.

But right now we have a fundamental shortfall in private spending: consumers are rediscovering the virtues of saving at the same moment that businesses, burned by past excesses and hamstrung by the troubles of the financial system, are cutting back on investment. That gap will eventually close, but until it does, government spending must take up the slack. Otherwise, private investment, and the economy as a whole, will plunge even more.

The bottom line, then, is that people who think that fiscal expansion today is bad for future generations have got it exactly wrong. The best course of action, both for today’s workers and for their children, is to do whatever it takes to get this economy on the road to recovery.

50 days to go, until the grownups are in charge.