Friday, December 18, 2009

30 million reasons.


In today's column, Brooks lists the reasons to support and oppose the healthcare bill currently under consideration in the Senate.

His reasons to oppose the bill anger me, each in its own unique weakly reasoned and misleading way. But the thing that bothers me the most is the opening sentence:

"The first reason to support the Senate health care bill is that it would provide insurance to 30 million more Americans."

Brooks spends exactly 21 words in his 800-word column on this fact as if to quickly get that out of the way so he can talk about the important stuff.

Well, here is my list:

1. It will expand health insurance to 30 million Americans.

2. It will be budget neutral .. and I don't care what Brooks says about the alleged political inconceivability of spending cuts. If you really believe that you can't support legislation because the Congress will never be able to stick to its targeted savings embedded in it, that's political nihilism and effectively invalidates any further debate. On the one hand he wants more cost control, on the other hand he doesn't believe that the cost cutting measures in place will be implemented. What exactly does that leave the Congress with then?

3. It will expand health insurance to 30 million Americans.

4. It will save tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives every year.

5. In case you missed it, it will expand health insurance to 30 million Americans.

6. It will launch a host of ideas to improve the system.

We're not talking about anything revolutionary or immediate here but I have absolutely no idea what else Brooks is looking for that would:

(a) improve quality and efficiency
(b) correct all the messed up incentives currently in place
(c) cut not just wasteful spending but also total spending (that seems to be what he is looking for in his reason to oppose # 2)
(d) and at the same time do all magic this BY MEANS OF A SINGLE BILL and AT THE SAME TIME not be achieved with some measure of government involvement in the current system (which he cites as reason #4 to oppose).

Brooks is opposing the bill because it fails to live up some vague ideal of "getting the fundamental incentives right" .. but he also expects us to believe that it's a tough call for him, and he "flip flops" every day, as if the bill kept changing dramatically overnight from one that fundamentally transforms the system to a bad one that only insures 30 million more people without bending the cost curve.

As if all this time it seemed like we might, in the end, suddenly, find the holy grail .. and - OMG, oops - we didn't, so - sorry 30 million uninsured Americans, better luck in 16 years!

And those 350,000 of you that die in the meantime because you have no coverage - you can rest in peace because .. we didn't slow innovation!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

You Know You Made It When ..

.. a dorky historian uses you as an example of flamboyance.

"To be recommended humble discretion by President Sarkozy is like being counselled modesty in dress by Lady Gaga, or self-denial by a banker."

Thanks, TGA, for a hump day chuckle. And an otherwise good article on the Swiss minaret craziness.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Boeuf Bourguignon.


Because this blog does have "eat" in its title, some pictures from my effort to make Boeuf Bourguignon a la Julia Child.

You start with oil, butter and bacon, of course.


You pat the beef dry with paper towels and display it on a white cutting board to take a nice picture.


Then you do a million other steps, all of which you forget to take pictures of .. oh, except the onions ..

.. and mushrooms ..


.. all of which are sauteed in butter - naturally! While the beef is braising in the oven for 3 hours, you realize you're starving and you run out to buy some cheese - how French! - and consume tons of it with crackers and wine.


When the meat is done and your whole home smells like butter and beef, you take a nice picture of the beef ..


.. and conclude that you're entirely too full of cheese to eat much of it. Refrigerate and reheat it the next day, when the flavor developed into even more orgasmic dimensions.

Bon Appétit!

Warning: This recipe was developed by Julia Child to prevent weight loss by long distance runners despite training as much as 50 miles per week. Reading this post alone is equivalent to consuming a tablespoon of butter. Eat some bread.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Clueless.

I have to admit: I have no idea what the US should do in Afganistan and I don't have a strong view on Obama's decision about this on Tuesday. And judging from reading the million and a half comments about it in the last few day, nor does anyone else really. Given the insane mish-mash of entirely contradicting elements of the genesis of the war, the current situation and the variety of possible ultimate goals, it's impossible to have an answer that will be entirely satisfying to anyone - and so the critics abound.

Meanwhile, I like the analysis of the Tuesday speech put forth in this TNR article:

"the rhetoric does, I think, help to answer a question that a lot of pundits have been puzzling over for the past year: What, exactly, is Barack Obama's overarching worldview when it comes to foreign policy? For a long time, I've felt I didn't really know. After last night's speech, I suspect Obama doesn't really know either. A politician who is capable of sounding such dissonant notes in the same speech is a politician who is still figuring out his first principles of foreign policy. This might help explain some of the more confusing things about Obama's first year in office: how, for instance, a president who has found his way to a human-rights-friendly policy on Afghanistan could have seemed so cold to human rights in his approach to Iran and China; or how a candidate who once spoke forcefully about the need to address genocide in Sudan has proven to be such a disaster on the issue now that he is in office."

On a slightly different note, I really enjoy the proposal to institute a war tax to pay for this insanity. And not because I want to pay more taxes, but because it exposes the hypocrisy of proponents of escalating the war who at once want to send more troops, but don't want to pay for it with tax hikes, even thought they are allegedly fiscally conservative (yes, I'm talking about Republicans here). And, in a sense, it will put the question to the nation as a whole: is this war worth paying for and if it's not worth paying for, why is it worth fighting?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Dubai.

An interesting article about Dubai .. but this part is particularly insightful:

"In Saudi, it's hard to be straight when you're young. The women are shut away so everyone has gay sex. But they only want to have sex with boys – 15- to 21-year-olds. I'm 27, so I'm too old now."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Marie's Secret?

"In VR [velvet revolution], it is not just the Abbé Sieyès who survives. Louis XVI gets to keep a nice little palace in Versailles, and Marie Antoinette starts a successful line in upmarket lingerie."

Timothy Garton Ash in a recent article in the NY Review of Books, explaining one of the differences between old-style revolutions and velvet revolutions.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tough First Years.

Regarding Obama's first year, Joe Klein makes a good point:

"Stepping back a bit, I do see a metapattern that extends over the 40 years since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy began the drift toward more ideological political parties: Democrats have tough first years in the presidency. Of the past seven Presidents, the two Bushes rank at the top in popularity after one year, while Obama and Bill Clinton rank at the bottom, with Jimmy Carter close by. There is a reason for that. Democrats come to office eager to govern the heck out of the country. They take on impossible issues, like budget-balancing and health care reform. They run into roadblocks — from their own unruly ranks as well as from Republicans. They get lost in the details. A tax cut is much easier to explain than a tax increase. A foreign policy based in bluster — railing against an "axis of evil" — is easier to sell than a foreign policy based in nuance."

Human Inventions.


"All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian, or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit."

Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason.

While listening to NPR I came upon a segment with Thomas Frank who has an article in Playboy (slightly unfortunate venue) about Glenn Beck. During the segment he points out the conservatives' reverence for the founding fathers generally and Beck's obsession with Thomas Paine in particular.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

False Choice.

According to Brooks, "we face a brutal choice. Reform would make us a more decent society, but also a less vibrant one. It would ease the anxiety of millions at the cost of future growth. It would heal a wound in the social fabric while piling another expensive and untouchable promise on top of the many such promises we’ve already made. America would be a less youthful, ragged and unforgiving nation, and a more middle-aged, civilized and sedate one. We all have to decide what we want at this moment in history, vitality or security."

It is strange to conclude that reforming health care is a simple trade off between vitality or security from the fact that the current bills do not bend the cost curve (and never could, by Brooks' logic), when the principal reason why this is so is because Republicans, the great conservative minds, did everything in their power to strip serious cost containment out of every version of the bill (eg, independent Medicare payment commission, "death panels", strong public option etc.).

Yes, Brooks is right to point out that the current bills would do little do contain costs, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we should ask ourselves if we want to give up growth for security. The question we should be asking ourselves is if we are willing to give up what he calls "a more decent society" only because the current system is phenomenally resistant to change without even asking ourselves why that is so and what can be done about it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Suprise!

Americans don't give a flying monkey about bipartisanship, when it comes to getting the public option.
"Which of these would you prefer – (a plan that includes some form of government-sponsored health insurance for people who can’t get affordable private insurance, but is approved without support from Republicans in Congress); or (a plan that is approved with support from Republicans in Congress, but does not include any form of government-sponsored health insurance for people who can’t get affordable private insurance)?"

Fifty one percent said they preferred the public option; 37 percent said they preferred a bill with some support from Republicans in Congress. Six percent said neither and seven percent expressed no opinion."
Good to know that Americans care more about the substance of the bill than they care about holding hands with their evil twins on the other side of the political spectrum. Because, really, bipartisanship doesn't pay your health care premiums when you get fired and the insurance companies denies you coverage because you're pregnant or diabetic.

And as Tapper points out, this might embolden the Democrats to go ahead with the public plan with no Republican support and, maybe, this means we can end the obsession with Olympia Snowe. Unfortunately, I don't think it's that simple: the reason why they might need at least one Republican vote - and Snowe's seems the most likely to come on board - is because there are some Democrats and Independents who might vote to filibuster a bill with a public option in it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Ridiculous Conclusions.


And since I'm all about blogging again, why not post my upcoming article in Zahraničná politika? I'm back on Obama, with gloves off.

Ridiculous Conclusions

Sometimes the tactical decisions that Obama makes make one wonder what the man really believes in. And, increasingly, they don't even seem to produce their purported goals.

When the President received criticism for being the first president since 1991 not to receive the Dalai Lama during his most recent visit to Washington in October, the press was promptly educated by his senior adviser Valerie Jerrett that "it is not a signal of any lack of commitment to human rights .. that's a ridiculous conclusion to draw." At the same time, Jerrett admitted it is "a fair point to make" that the decision to postpone the meeting was made out of respect to Chinese sensitivities to Tibet. In other words, it was a tactical move, not a principled move; the appearance of bending over backwards to please the Chinese should not be disconcerting - the President knows what he's doing - trust him.

To be sure, America's dependence on China is hardly a secret. With some $2 trillion in US government bonds, China is the largest holder of the US debt and thus the largest funder of its massive deficits. Amicable relations with China are therefore a clear priority for US foreign policy. And yet, this sort of diplomatic calculus could hardly justify not meeting with the Dalai Lama. For one thing, even George W. Bush received him during his visit in 2007 (and awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal) and other Congressional leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, met with him during his most recent visit in October. Of course, this was enough to make the Chinese dissatisfied: shortly thereafter, China accused the US of interfering with their internal affairs. In the end, Obama's tactical move not only enraged those who think the US should take a principled stand on human rights in China, but it also failed to deliver the goal of pleasing the Chinese government, instead encouraging them to make even more ambitious demands.

To anyone who has been watching Obama's presidency with a little bit of a critical eye, this scenario looks eerily familiar. In fact, we witnessed a similar tactical blunder even before the Obamas moved into the White House, when then president-elect asked Pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration ceremony. For the sake of context, this choice was controversial due to Warren's widely publicized support for Proposition 8, an anti-gay marriage ballot measure in California during the November election. The choice of an extremely conservative pastor was widely seen as Obama's attempt to reach out to the conservative base and passionately criticized by his largely progressive supporters. In the end, it did very little to improve national cohesion (as evidenced by the largest partisan gap in Obama's job approval ratings, according to PEW) and at the same time offended his socially progressive supporters.

Fast forwarding to last summer, we saw the same pattern emerge during the health care reform debate. As the debate quickly focused in on the question of the public plan - a government run insurance option - the legislators increasingly looked to the White House for guidance. At this critical juncture, in an apparent attempt to bring some Republican support on board, the President and his advisors, through interviews and press conferences communicated the message that while the President supports the public plan, it is "not the entirety of health-care reform" and "not the essential element". Ironically, this telegraphed flexibility did not make Republicans any more constructive in the reform efforts. In fact, despite the president's soft-pedaling on one of the key components of reform, it seems likely that if reform passes, it will happen with no Republican votes.

Obama's willingness to make sacrifices to achieve greater goals - Dalai Lama vs the Chinese, progressive issues vs national cohesion, public option vs bipartisan support - is theoretically understandable as shrewd political calculus. However, it is then imperative to judge his effectiveness in making these trade-offs and, so far, it seems to be very limited. In fact, it seems that every time the President decides to give something up, he receives very little in return. The impression it creates is one of an almost pathological desire to please his opponents even if this disregards the sensitivities of those that might be hurt in the process.

It is certainly understandable how his predilection for compromise and trade-offs would make Obama appealing to a certain committee in Norway. At home, however, he is testing the patience of his liberal base. It is ironic that one of the common criticisms of George W Bush was his inflexibility. These days, Democrats sometimes wish that Obama would exhibit some of that stubbornness, at least when it comes to defending their interests – the promises he made a year ago.

20 Years.

Yes, it's been almost 20 years since the revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe that effectively ended the Cold War and that being one of my personal favorite topics, I was delighted to find a pretty good article on it in the New York Review of Books. Hiding in the analysis of the article are a couple of really fun anecdotes that are worth quoting:

So what happened in 1989 can only be understood on the basis of a scrupulous, detailed chronological reconstruction of intended and unintended effects, in multiple directions on multiple stages, day by day, and sometimes—as on the evening of November 9 in Berlin—minute by minute. The reporting or misreporting of events, especially by television, is itself a vital part of the causal chain. When a trusted, avuncular presenter on the 10:30 PM West German television news declared that "the gates in the Wall are wide open" they were not yet wide open; but this report helped to make them so, since it increased the flood of East Berliners (who watched and were more inclined to believe West German television) hoping to get through the frontier crossings to the West, and the crowds of West Berliners coming to greet them on the other side.An erroneous report on Radio Free Europe that a student called Martin Šmid had been killed, in the suppression of the November 17, 1989, student demonstration in Prague, helped to swell the protesting crowds in the first days of the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. (In what seems to me the best, and certainly the most amusing, of the retrospective chronicles, György Dalos tells how the student came home the next evening to be told by a somewhat agitated father that he was reportedly dead.)

With regards to the apparent US apathy towards or understatement of what was going on in CEE:
Nor did Bush set much store by bearded dissidents who looked like something out of Berkeley in the 1960s. Victor Sebestyen, in a book full of sharp snapshots and crisp narrative, has a well-sourced account of the President meeting with the leading Hungarian dissident János Kis in Budapest in July 1989, and subsequently telling aides, "These really aren't the right guys to be running the place." Much better to stick with a preppy reform communist.
The bottom line of the article seems to be that 20 years later, given the significance of the events of that year, someone needs to write a comprehensive history of 1989 from all angles. However, looking at these anecdotes, I think this would make for brilliant material for a 4-hour epic movie 1989 (fine, I'll settle for a 10-part series on PBS). I mean, seriously - a blunder on TV, a screw up on the radio and you have a revolution - that is classic.

Gosh, WTF.

I realized that I totally stopped posting anything on the blog and that's not fun. I guess the temptation to just spit out random crap on Facebook is easier than blogging and I keep telling myself that I will just reserve the blog for longer more thought out stuff .. except that doesn't happen anymore, because all longer more thought out entries never start as longer more thought out entries, instead they almost always happen as a quick reaction to something and then take a life of their own .. except all the quick reactions to crap are now channeled to FB, hence the death of blogging. But that has to end. Now!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Health Reform in America – Why It Should, Could and Probably Won't Happen


A super belated installment of my article in Zahranicna Politika. It was meant to be a "US Health Reform 101" for readers outside the US who may not be familiar with the problem. Of course a few things have changed since the time it was written but the conclusion still rings true, especially when one looks at the Senate Finance Committee bill.

Health Reform in America – Why It Should, Could and Probably Won't Happen

The story of US health reform is a complicated one and a thorough analysis of the topic is beyond the scope and scale of this column. However, it has become increasingly difficult to ignore given the prominence it has risen to in the last few months. Not only has it become the number one domestic issue that the president, lawmakers, lobbyists, news reporters and policy analysts are occupied with, but it is also quickly becoming the gauge for the Obama administration's success and potentially one of the determinants of the mid-term Congressional elections (in November 2010) and the next presidential election (in November 2012). Even more broadly, it has been a fascinating study in the functioning (some would say, malfunctioning) of the US political system and its many quirks. In short, for anyone interested in US politics, there are many reasons to care about health reform.

So what is all the fuss about? Why all the talk about reforming a system which is defined by spectacular innovation and some of the most advanced treatments and therapies? The standard answers to that question typically involve three aspects of the system: access, cost and outcomes. Quite simply, with all its high technology and innovation, the US health system leaves many people uninsured, and despite being the most expensive in the world, it produces worse outcomes. Specifically, while almost a fifth of non-elderly Americans don’t have any health insurance, the cost per capita is roughly twice that of most developed countries, and yet life expectancy is remarkably below average while infant mortality is astonishingly high. Underneath all these characteristics lies the fact that health care in America is an amalgam of disjointed systems of financing and delivery with little coordination of care, no incentives for prevention and wellness and plenty of room for duplication and errors.


(Source http://ucatlas.ucsc.edu/health/spend/cost_longlife75.gif)

If this brief description of the complexity of US health care and its flaws in and of itself doesn’t make it obvious how much of a fool’s errand trying to revamp the system is, consider the fact that during the last reform effort, led by Hillary Clinton, the backlash from all stakeholders was so strong that for the last 15 years most lawmakers treated health care like a bag of toxic waste they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. And yet, given the ambitious nature of Obama’s agenda, it seemed almost natural that he would try to find the Holy Grail.

Interestingly, despite the obvious difficulty of the task and the discouraging historical precedent, as recently as in June, there was a widespread sense of confidence on Capitol Hill that this time around things are different and something will get done. For starters, in the 15 years since the last attempt, healthcare spending has ballooned 160%, while the ranks of the uninsured have swelled from 41 million to 47 million. In fact, according to the CNN exit polls from the presidential election, while the economy was the number one issue for the vast majority of voters, healthcare ranked as number one for as many as did the issues of terrorism and Iraq. Even more specifically, two thirds of voters said they were worried about health care costs (and 60% of them voted in favor of Obama). In addition to having an apparent mandate and greater urgency, the new Democratic administration was also equipped with an expanded Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress - the first time such power alignment occurred since 1993. Perhaps more importantly, unlike in 1993, there seemed to be an agreement among key stakeholders, including the for-profit healthcare industry, about the need for reform. This was a major difference from the Clinton era, when the lobbying and advertising efforts of the health insurers, pharmaceutical manufacturers and doctors killed reform in its infancy. The new administration, trying to prevent Clinton’s mistakes, kept the process as open and collaborative as possible so as not to ignite hostile opposition from any of the key groups, instead making deals with each of them. The premise was that if we can fix the system and expand coverage, all of the participants will benefit and should therefore contribute in their own ways towards making the overhaul affordable. In short, for a very long time it seemed like the stars were aligning for the impossible to occur.

In hindsight, it was only a question of time when the fairy tale would turn into a mean fight. Once the committees in Congress started drafting bills – there are 3 of them in the House of Representatives and 2 in the Senate with jurisdiction over health care – the details got in the way of noble goals. The reality is that while most agree on the need for reform, there are numerous starkly different ideas about both how it should be accomplished and paid for – and each of them has a different set of proponents and enemies. The obvious goal is to find a solution that upsets the smallest number of participants – which isn’t very consistent with the objective of revamping 16% of the US economy. To make matters more complicated, the differences of opinion do not necessarily fall along party lines, rendering the Democratic majorities in Congress largely useless. As an example, a major portion of the debate has been around the possible introduction of a government-run health insurance option that would compete with private health insurers. While progressive democrats perceive this as an essential part of the reform, the conservative block of the party is vehemently against it. Recognizing the complexity of these diverging interests, Obama has been smart in keeping his demands as vague as possible and instead putting out broad parameters for reform – it has to expand coverage, improve quality and save money. This strategic vagueness, however, didn’t prevent the opponents of reform from poking holes in the proposals and the proponents of different solutions from engaging in hostile debates.

And so here we are in August and the whole reform effort appears to be on life support. Why? If reform fails, history books will probably trace its death to the August congressional recess. The recess is a month-long break during which lawmakers typically go back home to meet with their constituents. Early on in the month it became clear that having a bunch of health care proposals sitting around for a month was like leaving a carton of milk on the table for a few days. The news became quickly dominated by reports of contentious town hall meetings in which lawmakers encountered anger and even violence, often fueled by outrage over the supposed attempt to nationalize healthcare and over particular provisions in the health care bills, some of which were completely made up. The famous example was the rumor that Obama’s reform would create government-run “death panels” that would determine which patients are worth living – which turned out to be a gross misrepresentation of actual proposals to include funding for voluntary end-of-life counseling. Another example of populist hysteria was the accusation that the reform will force preferential hiring of homosexual hospital administrators and includes funding for sex change operations, when in fact none of the proposals include any such language. Absurd or not, these protests have a good chance of making lawmakers uneasy about their support for reform especially if they are Democrats in conservative districts or states and thus vulnerable in the next election.

So does this mean that health care reform is dead? Probably not entirely. Obama has made the issue so central to his domestic policy that a complete failure could harm the future prospects of both his party and his own. However, given the lack of legislative will and mounting opposition in the electorate, the most viable alternative is to settle for some smaller incremental changes such as expanding some public programs like Medicaid to cover more poor people and children and pay for it by cutting spending in a few targeted areas. This would be very far from a comprehensive reform of financing and delivery of care, and it will certainly anger the progressive Democratic base. However, faced with the prospect of getting nothing at all, the progressives will likely take whatever “reform” they can get. In the end, it seems quite possible that this will all have been yet another exercise in the realpolitik in the US legislative process and perhaps another lesson for those who believed in Change: it’s slow, painful, full of compromise and ultimately not very satisfying.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Dear Mr. Collier,


I read about you in the New York Times and I have to say I am truly perplexed.

Your situation as you describe it would seem to position you as one of the fiercest advocates of health reform. Your wife's experience with the system is nothing if not exemplary of everything that is flawed in it: your insurer denied payment for your wife's radiation treatment because they were deemed "experimental" (even thought they are pretty much the standard of care for breast cancer as far as I know), presumably to avoid paying for the $63,000 bill (which you ended up not having to pay only because of the kindness of Emory Healthcare). Your insurance premiums have been going up 15% per year - I would imagine much faster than your income - and your deductibles have quadrupled. More importantly, God forbid the cancer were to recur (and in the best case, there is about a 10% chance it will) and you happened to lose your job, your wife would be uninsurable, due to her pre-existing condition.

And yet, you oppose health reform which aims to control the growth in cost of care, prohibit insurers from discriminating among people based on pre-existing conditions, and would give you a safety net to fall back on in case you lose your job or your employer simply decides to no longer provide health coverage for employees, or their spouses (it's a recession, after all).

What I don't understand at all is your reasons for fearing health reform. You say about Obama "he wants to centralize everything. He wants to take over the car companies. He wants to take over the banks. Now he wants to take over health care." Leaving aside the fact that the government didn't simply decide to take over car companies and banks (they begged for and survived thanks to government intervention), I simply don't get what about any of the current proposals says anything about the government taking over health care. And even if it did, why is that necessarily a bad thing compared to what happened to you? You worry about the government rationing care and skimping on the elderly. Instead, you prefer to be in a system, where your insurance company can simply deny payment for a procedure which, according to medical research lowered recurrence risk of your wife's cancer by more than 50%, because it is considered "experimental", even though your doctors recommended that treatment. If that isn't rationing and intruding into medical care decisions made by your doctor than I don't know what is. But I guess having those life-threatening decisions made by a for-profit entity at least feels more American?

I suppose I can understand one reason why you want to keep the system as it is - that against all odds and thanks to a combination of luck and other people's charity, you got what you need out of it. Your wife is OK now and, however expensive it may be, you have health insurance. In other words, the system sort of works for you, so why mess with it?

All of which is to say, go read James Surowiecki's brilliant article in the New Yorker about why we tend to want to stick with things that suck.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Just Dance.

Eh, not particularly timely but here's another installment of my column in the Slovak journal Zahraničná politika. I have to say, using a night out at Vandam as inspiration and a Lady Gaga reference .. that's a first for me.

Just Dance.

Starting a column with a personal anecdote like “when I went out last Sunday it occurred to me” is probably not particularly professional. And yet, at the risk of diminishing the respectability of this piece, I can't help myself: When I went out last Sunday it occurred to me that for a city in the epicenter of the greatest economic decline since the Great Depression, everyone seems to be having an unusually good time. Granted, this was the night before Memorial Day, one of the few national holidays in the US, also considered an unofficial start of the summer. But it struck me as somewhat representative of the overall mood around me – not just in my social interactions, but also at my work in the financial markets – that could generally be summed up with three statements: the world is not coming to an end; it's going to be ok; just dance. And the skeptic in me has to wonder: is this for real or are people just fooling themselves, diluting their worries with a cocktail of green shoots, only to wake up with a massive hangover of reality the next morning?

The term green shoots in this context was coined by the Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke during an interview in March to describe what he believed were some early signs of economic recovery. Since then, many analysts have been obsessed with identifying these encouraging data points. Suddenly, it mattered less that many data points were still bad or worsening; it became fashionable to point out that as bad as things may seem – or deteriorating even – they are getting worse at a slower rate, the implication being that we are close to hitting a bottom. The market responded accordingly: between early March and the end of May, the S&P500 index has climbed 35%. And this sense of optimism has clearly infected American households: the Conference Board consumer confidence index in May showed a stunning improvement since the previous month to the highest level since last September, when the crisis broke out. Even more telling is the fact that the increase was driven by a pop in future expectations – to the highest level since December 2007, the month when this recession started. In other words, while people's assessment of the current situation is still not particularly rosy, their view of the future is as good as it was before the recession started. Similarly, in the stock market, one earnings report after another, investors have been looking through mediocre near term trends, and propping up prices of stocks in the hopes of an economic recovery.

Now, let me spell out my main source of skepticism clearly: none of the fundamental negative trends that were at the core of the downturn that clearly broke out last fall has reversed. Here's a quick survey of some macroeconomic factors: the housing prices keep going down (15% in April, according to National Association of Realtors, while the inventory of homes climbed 8.8% and mortgage delinquencies hit a record high, said Mortgage Bankers Association), the true health of banks remains unclear, unemployment continues to go up, even if at a slower pace. In other words, there is plenty of negative data pouring out, if one only pays attention.

At this point, you may ask yourself: why insist on highlighting the negative and ignoring the positive signs? Shouldn't we be celebrating the improving sentiment? These questions aren't entirely unfounded. The economic cycle is, after all, a self-feeding mechanism to some extent: if sentiment recovers, businesses will plan for higher output, increase investment, hire workers, and so on and so forth. And yet, while confidence is an essential element of recovery, it doesn't actually pay for much. So while consumers may be feeling more bullish, the real question is how much stuff will they be able to buy when all is said and done. And if you think about the fact that much of the spending in the last decade was driven by a massive expansion of credit – which is unlikely to make a comeback soon, I have to wonder what the true buying power of Americans – and people around the globe – will be when the dust settles. Put bluntly, without credit cards, how many millions of people will find it essential in the future to get the latest iPod every 6 months?

And so, while it would be nice if this jolly spring became the foundation for the next boom, I am finding it difficult to ignore all the signs that tell us otherwise. What's more, the precedents are not very encouraging: even during the Great Depression the economy did not fall apart immediately. After the initial drop, there was a brief period of recovery during which the market rallied 50%, only to start an extended decline during which stocks lost 80% of their value. And while I am nowhere near making that kind of prediction, when I look around today and see everyone dancing again, I fear how surprised everyone will be when the music stops.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Finally.

Some time ago I was walking with a friend and the topic of health care reform came up. The friend stated: "clearly something has to be done .. there are so many uninsured people."

I may know a lot about health care but being caught off guard on a hungover Saturday morning, my response probably wasn't as succinct or clearly stated as I would have liked it to be. And the response I think is the most appropriate is that the uninsured are not the problem with the system but rather a symptom of the problem.

Here's what I mean: with some notable exceptions (like illegal aliens and young healthy people) the reason why there are so many uninsured people in this country is because health insurance has become prohibitively expensive for many employers to offer and for many individuals to buy. The real issue in America is not access but rather cost. As health insurance premiums have grown at double digit rates every year over the last 2 decades (all the while incomes haven't changed much, if anything, they have gone down), people are increasingly faced with an ugly trade off between health coverage and other spending. This has transpired in a few ways: many businesses have either stopped offering health coverage or increased the employee portion of the cost. To the extent that employees are faced with larger portion of the premium, it has clearly provided a disincentive to buy coverage (so called "take up" rate). And while other employers haven't asked their employees to foot a greater portion of the bill, almost all have shifted their employees to plans with higher out-of-pocket expenses - effectively leaving many "underinsured". And so, even if you still technically have coverage, chances are that when you get to the hospital, you now have a large deductible and a co-pay. In other words, the precipitous growth in health care costs (which drive premiums) has left many people out in the cold.

The reason for making this distinction between access and cost (ie, the uninsured are not the problem, but rather a symptom of a problem, which is skyrocketing costs) is twofold:

1. By focusing on the number of people without health insurance the implication could be that you could solve the perceived problem of access by simply throwing trillions of dollars to those who don't have coverage and get them insured. This would, at least temporarily, make everyone happy. I say temporarily because without addressing the underlying problem of cost and "bending the cost curve" (a popular expression these days), the problem would reemerge as further increases in costs would make insurance increasingly expensive to employers and employees (ie, right where we started) or, in the case of government funding, would lead to ever increasing deficits.

2. The focus on the uninsured also makes health care reform less appealing or relevant to the average voter. While there are unacceptably many uninsured Americans, the majority is still insured and the majority likes their health insurance. By talking about reform through the perspective of access, it is hard to inspire much urgency or support when the majority of people don't have an access problem. Other than feelings of sympathy, the horror stories of those who lack health insurance are not particularly motivating to those who do. In reality, however, even those that have insurance today and are happy or OK with it, are not immune from the underlying problem of cost growth. At a minimum, their premiums and out of pocket costs are rising at incredible rates year after year. More importantly, however, unless those trends are muted, the pool of uninsured and underinsured is ever expanding - and it is this threat that should make the need for reform very personal even to those who are currently covered.

On a related note, by focusing on costs rather than access, the problem becomes not only personally relevant to everyone but also inherently less partisan. It is easy to see how a conservative would not be particularly moved by the idea of "universal coverage". And it is also easy to see why my friend, who I mentioned in the beginning of the article, would relate the notions of health reform and uninsured in his liberal train of thought. Indeed, the very need for health reform is often questioned by some in the Republican party, on the grounds that there is nothing inherent about the right to health care. However, by focusing on the real problem - costs - reform suddenly sounds like a fiscal imperative, something that is surely more appealing to conservatives. And certainly, for a problem as big and complex as health care, it is useful to think about problems in ways that people across the ideological spectrum find appealing.

So, to conclude this little diatribe, because cost is the true problem that we should be addressing, I found it heartening that recently the public discourse has finally shifted in that direction. Not only in Obama's press conference on Wednesday but also in a recent slew of articles and op-eds on the topic (here, here and here). I really hope that the message is resonating - not just with the public but also with the lawmakers who are in charge of the sausage that is the legislative process around health reform.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Health Reform Op-Ed Extravaganza.

You can tell that an issue is heating up when you get a slew of columns on it in one day.  Today we got one from Krugman, Douthat, and Will.  All make solid points, even though they see the problem from very different perspectives.  After following the issue up close for the last few years, I could probably write an novel about it, so one of these days I should at least squeeze out a longer piece here.  Stay tuned.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Gay Marriage & Logic, continued.

A while back I wrote about the futility of arguing with gay marriage opponents because their "arguments" are not based on logic or anything remotely related to argumentation but are instead disingenuous excuses or covers for a purely emotional pre-disposition.  At the time, this was inspired by an NRO editorial "arguing" against gay marriage.

Yesterday, Jonathan Chait at the New Republic posted an article that expands on this theme brilliantly, also mentioning the NRO editorial:
Dismissing the argument that marriage might foster more stable gay relationships, the magazine's editors replied curtly, "[T]hese do not strike us as important governmental goals." There's a word for social policy that disregards the welfare of one class of citizens: discrimination.

Some hard-core conservatives are willing to openly discriminate like this, but most people aren't, which is why public opinion is warming to gay marriage. Most opposition arises from simple discomfort. When I first started hearing about gay marriage, I didn't oppose it, but it seemed sort of strange and radical--and only after several years did I realize I supported it.

The line "I believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman" is an expression of that sensibility--a reflection of unease rather than principle. As people face up to the fact that opposing gay marriage means disregarding the happiness of the people most directly (or even solely) affected by it, most of us come around. Good ideas don't always defeat bad ideas, but they usually, over time, defeat non-ideas.

American Dream, Interrupted


The third installment of my column in Zahraničná politika, a Slovak foreign policy magazine, touches on the less obvious yet very troubling effects of the economic crisis.

American Dream, Interrupted

There has been a lot of talk about change lately, including in this column, as a result of the election of Barrack Obama and his arguably progressive agenda. And yet the most striking changes occurring all over the place are not happening because of Obama and his agenda, but rather around him and despite him. I am talking about the current economic crisis / recession / depression and how it is slowly redefining the US in ways that are far reaching and profound. And increasingly I have to wonder, what is left of America as we know it?

The US banking system is only a few steps away from nationalization - it has been saved for now simply because the administration wants to try every avenue possible first. Several major car manufacturers are only a few miles from bankruptcy, temporarily held afloat by loans from the government. The real estate market continues to melt down and that the government is trying to revive it seems like par for the course. In short, not only are some of the key symbols of American capitalism - banks, cars, houses - are under serious stress, but also the essence of their rescue plan could be labeled un-American: government intervention and control. And yet, even those who criticize big government, higher taxes and deficit spending, have had little to offer in term of alternatives. In fact, the US - and by extension, the world economy - is lucky that the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression is occurring under the watch of a President and Congress that don't seem philosophically opposed to taking bold pro-active steps.

Yet, as ironic as all these extraordinary circumstances may seem, they do not make me wonder about the future of American capitalism and its position in the global economy. Time, simple forces of supply and demand, and presumably the current government intervention, will eventually sort out the problems in banking, autos and real estate one way or another. No, the changes that should make Americans more worried are much more quiet and subtle and are affecting some of the core fueling forces of America and, as cheesy as it may sound, shattering the idea of the "American dream."

The first issue I have in mind here is immigration. While the topic of illegal aliens is consuming the attention of the mainstream media and the President, there is an entirely different battle going on - against legal immigrants who have been living in the country on working visas. Due to a special skill or high level of education, these foreigners have been sponsored by a US company to live in the country. Over the years, many of these individuals have contributed greatly to the US economy - for example, Microsoft says that 35% of their patents came from new inventions by visa and greencard holders. In other words, this program - and immigration in general - has been the feeding channel to attract and retain the hardest-working, brightest minds from all over the globe to the US.

And yet, the visa program has come under criticism from those who argue that during a recession, American companies should not be giving jobs away to foreigners. The most vivid assault on the program came in the economic stimulus plan which imposes severe restriction on any company receiving federal funding and their ability to hire foreigners. However, even outside of the companies directly affected by the stimulus restrictions, the popular backlash against the visa program has led to a drop in applications for new visas as companies are becoming shy about sponsoring foreign workers. It was in that spirit that Wells Fargo, a major US bank, has decided to discontinue sponsorships for some of the foreigners they already employ. And Microsoft, after it announced it will continue sponsoring immigrants, had to quickly soften its stance amid criticism from media and lawmakers and declared it will file "substantially fewer" applications - this despite having clearly stating how crucial hiring from the global talent pool is for them - and the US.

Education and research are another defining element of America that is being threatened as a result of the current crisis. On one end of the spectrum, the institutions relying on public funding are facing a tough future as 36 states have either enacted or proposed budget cuts for elementary or higher level education. On the other end of the spectrum, private institutions which are not solely dependent on public funding are dealing with massive declines in the values of their endowment portfolios - 23% during the 5 months ended in November of last year, according to the National Association of College and University Endowments. Even Harvard - with its breathtaking endowment that peaked at $37 billion in 2008 but is expected to decline 30% as a result of the market meltdown - is planning to reduce its budget by $220 million over the next two years. Moreover, in the US education goes hand in hand with research: American universities are not just educational institutions, but also powerhouses of invention and progress. In fact, universities now perform about 60% of all basic research in the US, according to National Science Foundation. And the math is quite simple: fewer education dollars equals less research.

Perhaps most profoundly, however, shrinking higher education budgets translate into fewer dollars available for financial aid for students from lower income families at a time when increasingly more students are in need of such aid due to the economic downturn and market losses. Because attending college is impossible for the poor without outside assistance, the reductions in funding could have a meaningful impact on social mobility. In other words, kids from lower income families will have fewer chances to get higher education and move up on the socio-economic ladder.

While funding for higher education is dropping, it is hard to imagine any other country replacing the US as the leader any time soon. It is telling, however, that the US stands to capitalize less on its investment in education than ever before, as foreign students are increasingly likely to return home after graduation. This is not some insignificant group we're talking about: according to National Science Foundation, foreigners received nearly 60% of all engineering doctorates and over 50% of all engineering, math, computer sciences, physics and economics doctorates awarded in the US. And today, they are planning to return home in greater numbers than ever before. As the Kauffman Foundation found in its report "Losing the World's Best and Brightest", 58% of Indian, 40% of European and 54% of Chinese students surveyed would stay in the US if given the choice, which suggests a meaningful drop in the appeal of the US given that historically as much as two thirds of foreigners overall stayed in the US after receiving a doctorate, more specifically 92% of the Chinese and 85% of Indians. And while the availability of economic opportunities in the home country was the most important reason for returning (other than family ties) - a stunning revelation in and of itself - the ability to obtain a visa was also an important factor. Stated differently, it would seem that the aforementioned backlash against working visas is making it harder to stay in the US for the shrinking portion of those that find it appealing in the first place.

And so, in 2010 (or any time between 2011 and 2020, depending on which pessimistic economist you believe), when the US recovers from this recession, it will probably be very different - not because its banks will operate under different regulations and a few car companies will no longer exist but rather because some of its key competitive advantages, like ever replenishing diversity and investment in human capital, will have fallen prey to the economic meltdown. Will those naturally recover as the economic engine goes back into full speed and will other countries capitalize on America's weakness in the meantime? That remains to be seen. But for now the American Dream is on hold.

Monday, April 27, 2009

His Name Was Mellon.


And I fell in love instantly.  During my most recent trip to Slovakia, I took a little trip with my brother Martin and my niece Natalia and our cousin Roman to my brother's country house.  It's an old defunct mill with some piece of land and a beautiful little creek:

We took Natalia to "ride" on a horse.  Here's her and my brother admiring the beautiful horse, Mellon:

And here they are riding:

I tried it too.  It was amazing..

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Can Someone Please ..


.. fire Maureen Dowd?  I mean, her last column is an interview with inventors of Twitter.  Let's imagine for a moment that the phenomenon of Twitter hasn't been explored by numerous other writers.  And let's imagine that an interview is an acceptable way to use your column space in the NYT.  Even if I give her a break on those two things, how does someone think this is remotely good material:
ME: ..Is there any thought that doesn’t need to be published?

BIZ: The one I’m thinking right now.

ME: Did you know you were designing a toy for bored celebrities and high-school girls?

BIZ: We definitely didn’t design it for that. If they want to use it for that, it’s great.

ME: I heard about a woman who tweeted her father’s funeral. Whatever happened to private pain?

EVAN: I have private pain every day.

Let The Torture Witchhunt Begin.

Turns out, many knew.  Even if they don't remember.  And finally, this can stop being a partisan issue.
Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, who in 2002 was the ranking Democrat on the House committee, has said in public statements that she recalls being briefed on the methods, including waterboarding. She insists, however, that the lawmakers were told only that the C.I.A. believed the methods were legal — not that they were going to be used.

By contrast, the ranking Republican on the House committee at the time, Porter J. Goss of Florida, who later served as C.I.A. director, recalls a clear message that the methods would be used.

“We were briefed, and we certainly understood what C.I.A. was doing,” Mr. Goss said in an interview. “Not only was there no objection, there was actually concern about whether the agency was doing enough.”

Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida, who was committee chairman in 2002, said in an interview that he did not recall ever being briefed on the methods, though government officials with access to records say all four committee leaders received multiple briefings.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pink Slip.

Pink Slip

If you already haven't, you should go see Justin Bond's Rites of Spring at Joe's Pub - one more show left next Sunday.   I saw it last night and Justin is as magical as ever and Joe's is just a perfect venue for him.  And even though I heard 95% of the stories before, Justin's delivery never bores me, as random and disorganized as it may sometimes seem.  Even his band is always amuzed, and they heard them all many many times.  And the songs - well, you can check those out on his first CD here.  

Monday, April 20, 2009

Lost Loves and Lost Years.

Only about half-way through the most recent short story from David Sedaris in the New Yorker did I realize that I was reading a story written by a man talking about his relationships and encounters with other men published in a relatively mainstream magazine, and I thought to myself, how awesome.  Granted, the New Yorker is a fairly liberal magazine with a pretty geographically confined readership base, but still, it is no fringy rag.  It wasn't just that a piece like that would be published there, but that it no longer seems like a big deal.

The piece is nostalgic, funny, sweet, raw and blunt, typical Sedaris.  Go read it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Rule of Law.

Yesterday the administration released a series of legal opinions authorizing "brutal interrogation techniques" employed by the Bush administration, also known to the rest of the civilized world as torture.  

Only thing worse than doing something criminal and illegal and getting away with it, is doing it under the protection of very labored legal language which basically reenterprets the law to justify the activity in question.  

Here's an example from one of the memos:

"As we explained in the Section 2340A Memorandum, "pain and suffering" as used in Section 2340 is best understood as a single concept, not distinct concepts of "pain" as distinguished from "suffering"... The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view inflict "severe pain or suffering". Even if one were to parse the statute more finely to treat "suffering" as a distinct concept, the waterboard could not be said to inflict severe sufering. The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering."

There is absolutely nothing scarier than a government that takes it on itself to interpret the law to suit its needs.  And I think it will take minimal effort to prove that that is indeed what occurred and that someone essentially "ordered" these legal opinions.  However none of this can be achieved without proper investigation and prosecution.  If these people genuinely believe that they did nothing wrong, they have nothing to be afraid of.  So I hope the president is joking when he says "nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past".  Huh?  Do we now believe that no crime should be prosecuted because it only amounts to "laying blame for the past"?  Where are we drawing the line?  

And no, I don't give a damn if we tortured for the right cause (not that we were ever shown any results of what torture has accomplished).  Any country can decide to justify whatever it wants on the grounds that it is protecting itself, yet I am sure that the US or the UN, would not particularly care.  This is such a crazy slippery slope and if we hope to have any sense of order in the world - and hope to have any say in what that order looks like - we can't arbitrarily decide how to interpret laws and which international treaties apply to us. 

And, as citizens in a democratic country, if we ever hope to live with the peace of mind that the government cannot arbitrarily act against us - will all the best intentions - it is in our best interest to see these activities be investigated and those who broke the law be prosecuted.  

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The World Is Flat.

That the passage of gay marriage in Iowa and Vermont would produce a response from the conservatives was not a surprise at all.  Nor was its utter head-in-the-sand ridiculousness.  The NRO editorial on the subject is a beautiful case in point.  

Why people even feel the need to respond to it employing the tools of reasoning and logic, however, is a mystery to me.  Sullivan and Anonymous Liberal are the cases in point.  They both make very solid logical points that are, well, in a deep sense pointless (borrowing from the illustrious language of NRO).  For to me, arguing with the essence of the NRO article, is like arguing with the someone who believes that the world is flat.  Not because I think that my position is superior and right (and I do), but because someone who believes the arguments assertions in the NRO piece, will not care what enlightened logical arguments you have to offer and will never change their mind.  The only thing that a sane person can do is laugh and update their Facebook profile with funny excerpts.  

One point I would like to advance, however, has less to do with the arguments in the article and more to do with its title and the way it contradicts the very essence of the conservative view.  The title The Future of Marriage, suggests that marriage is something that has a past, a present and a future; in other words, that it is something that evolves.  The very fact that the article defends the currently prevailing legal construct of marriage as the right one, suggests that marriage is fluid and certainly not "by nature the union of a man and a woman."  

A few more bon mots:  

One still sometimes hears people make the allegedly “conservative” case for same-sex marriage that it will reduce promiscuity and encourage commitment among homosexuals. This prospect seems improbable, and in any case these do not strike us as important governmental goals.

Same-sex couples will also receive the symbolic affirmation of being treated by the state as equivalent to a traditional married couple — but this spurious equality is a cost of the new laws, not a benefit.

So too is the governmental recognition of same-sex sexual relationships, committed or otherwise, in a deep sense pointless.

In fact, the more I read and think about it, the more I feel like argumentation is futile not because the points advanced by the NRO don't even meet the basic requirements for argumentation, but rather because they are disingenuous.  This is not about what marriage is and isn't supposed to be, this isn't about kids, this isn't about what is natural and what is right.  Actually, this isn't about marriage, kids, or laws at all.  Instead, encoded in these paragraphs of garbage are the following clear messages:  YOUR COMMITMENT IS NOT IMPORTANT, YOUR EQUALITY IS A COST and YOUR RELATIONSHIPS ARE POINTLESS.

FINALLY, after all these years, it is clear to me that these faux arguments are are nothing more than a wordy veil around a simple singular emotion: WE HATE YOU.

And good luck arguing with that.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

On a Roll ..

Vermont done and DC says ME TOO!  

And the world, shockingly, hasn't come to an end.

Torture Like It's USSR.

Today, Sullivan points me to a brilliant article in the NY Review of Books about a Red Cross report about torture in Guantanamo which until now has been classified (and can be found here).

When I think about torture and the way it has been talked about over the years I can't help but be confused on several levels.  On the one hand, the fact that it went on is virtually undisputable at this point.  On the other hand, the idea of exploring what happened and how and who exactly was responsible seems to be getting very little traction.  In the light of the multiplying (and now certified official) evidence, the Bush administration denied allegations of torture and went out of its way to sugarcoat its activity with Nazi-inspired euphemisms like "enhanced interrogation techniques" and at the same time justified those as necessary to protect the country.  And while abroad the US has been getting tremendously bad rep for its practices, the public here seems strangely passive on the issue.

To be fair, given the vagueness of the languague employed and the emotional calculation at play, the lack of popular outcry isn't entirely surprising.  The majority of the populace elected and - for the vast majority of its term - supported the Bush administration.  The administration tortured to protect the people it governed.  At the same time, the administration said that it doesn't torture, but whatever it is doing is done to protect the American people.  The message was not "torture is good", it was "whatever we do is to protect you".  This had several implications: first, the country could feel good about "whatever the government was doing" because it was meant to "protect them" and after all, it wasn't torture.  Second, by defining the terms of the debate, the administration automatically invalidated any arguments against torture - both on principle and as a matter of strategy.  Because the government wasn't torturing, there was no place in the debate to ask "Is torture right?" or "Does torture work?" or "Is it worth the damage it is doing to our reputation?"  Any debate around torture quickly became diluted by ridiculous polemics like "Is waterboarding torture?"

Mark Danner makes an interesting observation in his NYRB piece about the role that the American press played in propagating the administration's view by reprinting its wording: 

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. 

Ah, the power of words.  The pattern shouldn't be surprising to anyone with the slightest knowledge of the 20th century.  I just wonder if this sort of political behavior is a natural outcome of an organic course of events that somehow has a tendency to happen in turbulent times, or do the leaders actually get inspired by each other?

Either way, the net effect of controlling the terms of the debate - and the press complicitly reporting on the same terms - while reinforcing the overarching objective of national security - was such that by the time the evidence of clear undisputable torture started dripping out, the weirdly foggy non-debate has been going on for so long that the actual act of torture (a) was not really a surprise and (b) occurred in some confusing ethical vacuum that allowed people to distance themselves from it entirely.  In the meantime, people could feel comforted by watching episodes of 24, entirely based on the premise that extraordinary situations require extraordinary means, something that Danner also notes in his article.

It is scary but somehow almost understandable.  The question now is what happens next, with a new administration and new set of facts.  To that point, Danner ends his piece with 2 poignant paragraphs:

Philip Zelikow, who served the Bush administration in the National Security Council and the State Department and then went on to direct the 9/11 Commission, remarked in an important speech three years ago that these officials, instead of having that debate simply called in the lawyers: the focus, that is, was not on "what should we do" but on "what can we do."

There is a sense in which our society is finally posing that "what should we do" question. That it is doing so only now, after the fact, is a tragedy for the country—and becomes even more damaging as the debate is carried on largely by means of politically driven assertions and leaks. For even as the practice of torture by Americans has withered and died, its potency as a political issue has grown. The issue could not be more important, for it cuts to the basic question of who we are as Americans, and whether our laws and ideals truly guide us in our actions or serve, instead, as a kind of national decoration to be discarded in times of danger. The only way to confront the political power of the issue, and prevent the reappearance of the practice itself, is to take a hard look at the true "empirical evidence of the last five years, hard years," and speak out, clearly and credibly, about what that story really tells.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Some Legal Opinions Are Fun To Read in Full

Our responsibility, however, is to protect constitutional rights of individuals from legislative enactments that have denied those rights, even when the rights have not yet been broadly accepted, were at one time unimagined, or challenge a deeply ingrained practice or law viewed to be impervious to the passage of time. The framers of the Iowa Constitution knew, as did the drafters of the United States Constitution, that “times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress,” and as our constitution “endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom” and equality.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Closing In.

I was wondering when we're going to start hearing more about the H1B restrictions that were placed on institutions getting TARP money (that I wrote about here) and today I saw this deeply troubling article.    Few interesting bits:

The legislation doesn't apply to current employees of Wells [Fargo] and other TARP recipients who need to have their existing H-1B visas renewed. However, Wells is letting those visas expire anyway, according to a copy of an internal email sent to some of its foreign employees on March 20 from the bank's human resources department.

This contrasts with Goldman Sachs, another TARP recipient, which is renewing existing H-1B visas and continues to offer jobs to foreign workers who need new temporary visas to join the investment bank. "We will make offers to the best people regardless of where they live," said Ed Canaday, a Goldman spokesman.

Bank of America pulled job offers for more than 50 foreign students who would have needed H-1B visas to join the bank.

First of all, go Goldman.  As evil banking empires go, they are right up there along with everyone else and I always viewed their "emphasis on people" with heavy doses of skepticism.  But I guess they mean it, and how rightly so.  The Bank of America case is so disturbing and I can't imagine what I would do if after years of studying and multiple rounds of interviewing I would have my offer rescinded so that someone else, who was considered a worse applicant in the first place, can fill my spot.  Granted, the next best 50 are probably not complete idiots.  And one could (and many would) argue that a first year analyst in banking is a generic commodity.  What college graduate with some amount of training can't crunch some numbers and do a decent job?  

Indeed, the problem is not that this will lead to a massive deterioration of the talent pool in our investment banks (if only because the best of the best can still get an offer from Goldman).  The real problem is twofold:  first, there are areas where the foreign talent is much more irreplaceable (I'd like to say IT, but that could only be because I don't know anything about IT and I'm stereotyping .. and besides, maybe smart IT is what got us into this mess in the first place? Though the dude in question was American, so there!  But I digress ..).  

Second, bringing highly qualified immigrants to this (or any) country by means of employment is by far the easiest and most natural way to replenish the diversity of this country and anything to close that path, as tempting as it may be during a recession, is just not desirable.  I realize that I am making an assertion here that deserves a bit more argumentation; but if you need one, here's a pragmatic argument in favor of immigration.  

Lastly, one technical note on the article, specifically regarding this pearl of wisdom:

With unemployment surging, there's no need for companies to hire foreign guest workers through the H-1B program when there are plenty of qualified Americans looking for jobs, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said in February. Grassley sponsored the amendment to the stimulus bill that made it harder for TARP recipients to hire overseas workers on H-1B visas. "Our common-sense amendment simply ensures that recipients of American taxpayer money make American workers their first priority," he added.

This common-sense only makes any sense if you believe that American taxpayor money is only money paid by American workers.  However, seeing that some 50% of my income gets rerouted biweekly to the United States trasury, New York State and New York City, I beg to differ.  Yes, foreigners pay taxes, too, and by design (they have to earn more than the going market rate to justify their H1B status)  they actually pay more in taxes that the average American.  So unless someone wants to exempt me from contributing to the $1 trillion bailout of the US banking industry and to the $800 billion stimulus ($11,000 per person, thank you very much) or exempt me from paying Federal taxes (a much much higher amount), don't tell me that I am somehow a lesser priority than a US citizen.  

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Change Light.

Second article for Zahranicna Politika, a Slovak foreign policy journal.  Once again, feels a bit dated, as it was written in mid-February.  The original English text of the article posted below.

Change Light

If anyone thought that American political scene would suddenly become boring or ordinary after the departure of George Bush, they were sorely mistaken. Indeed, even before the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States, it became clear that while Change may have been Obama's campaign moto, it certainly is not what we have witnessed in the American political culture. In fact, scandals and sensations - large and small - have been filling the front pages of newspapers including a governor who tried to sell Obama’s senate seat and several cabinet nominees who forgot to pay their taxes - particularly embarrassing given that one of them was nominated (and eventually confirmed) to be the Treasury Secretary - the head of the agency responsible for the collection of taxes.

Admittedly, while these scandals make for good gossip, they do not necessary say much about the Obama presidency as such. Mishaps and misbehaviors always happen and Obama cannot control everything. So what can we conclude from the moves that he has taken so far, that were solely in his control? Change is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. Those who voted for Obama as a clear-cut alternative to Clinton and as a candidate who wants to move away from the "politics of the past" were astonished to find out that a good portion of his appointments were in their past affiliated with the Clinton administration. Thus, a new pro-Obama narrative developed: it wasn't necessarily the people that would change but rather the substance and the style of the presidency. What else was he going to do anyway – beam a whole new Democratic party in from space?

So how about that substance and style? One might highlight Obama's early steps after the inauguration as signs of a new era in Washington. First, he introduced ethics guidelines that would shut the revolving door between government and industry by placing restrictions preventing those with a lobbying record from working in the government – and vice versa. Surely a bold step - at least until it became clear that Obama reserved the right for exceptions: Deputy Defense secretary nominee William Lynn used to be a lobbyist for Raytheon, a military contractor, and the Health and Human Services secretary nominee Tom Daschle - while not technically registered as a lobbyist - has earned large amounts of money from companies in health care - an industry he was tapped to regulate and reform. Speaking of ethics, nominating cabinet members with questionable tax records didn’t seem particularly kosher either, yet Obama fully stood behind them.

Another immediate move during the first few days in office was to make good on his campaign promises and shut down Guantanamo Bay - a symbolic move to end the questionable extrajudicial practices perpetrated by the Bush administration. It did not take long before it came under criticism as being a bit too symbolic: he delayed the closing of Guantanamo for a year and seemingly left open the door to extraordinary renditions - the practice of apprehending and transferring suspects to other countries. Even more important to many critics of torture was that Obama has shown little interest in prosecuting or even investigating the activities of the last administration. In short, instead of true groundbreaking steps, it seems that the few moves that Obama has made so far have come off as somewhat half-hearted and unconvincing.

As substance and style of presidency goes, one of the key aspects of Obama's vision during the campaign was post-partisan politics - putting aside differences and working toward mutually agreeable goals. There was probably no better way to test this lofty goal than to attempt to pass a trillion-dollar stimulus package to revive the US economy. It must have been disheartening to the new president when, despite his best effort, not a single republican voted for the stimulus bill in the House of Representatives. Clearly, Obama's attempt at bipartisanship has resulted in nothing of the sort. If anything, it has shown that the legislative process is inherently partisan and expecting anything else is not realistic.

All these instances of words speaking louder than actions – ethics, Guantanamo, bipartisanship - seem to have one important element in common: reality. The problem with implementing a lot of these goals is that, sooner or later, one is bound to run into complications: that really qualified guy he really wanted to hire who used to be a lobbyist (and forgot to pay some taxes); those prisoners some of which are probably terrorists yet we have no idea how and where to prosecute them; the Republican party he wants to work with amicably that has no incentive to cooperate with him. Suddenly a lofty goal becomes an obstacle, something that needs to be circumvented or exempted from. And that, in short, is how ideals seemingly die in Washington.

And so, three weeks into the age of Obama, Hope, another slogan from Obama campaign, is certainly running high: according to the New York Times/CBS News poll, 79% of respondents were optimistic about what the new president can accomplish, higher than any of the previous five presidents at the outset of their time in office. Change, however, even with the best of intentions, has so far been quite elusive. With plenty of time left in his presidency, it would be premature to declare Obama's mission a failure, but it will be interesting to observe how the reality of governing will temper his ability to deliver on his idealistic promises, or even his appetite to do so. In the meantime, it seems like we will have to settle for Change Light.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

And .. We're Back.

It's been a month since my last post which also means that I've had Olive for a month.  Apart from doubling in size, learning a whole bunch of stuff, hijacking my schedule, and charming everyone along the way, the most essential piece of news is that she survived, as did I.  The living room carpet, on the other hand, is a whole different story.  

The other reason for lack of posting has been an intellectual paralysis of sorts.  Maybe it's the lack of time to properly chew on things and write something reasonable or maybe I'm just numbed from it all.  It certainly is not because of not much stuff happening.  

Take for example the end of February, when Obama released his 2010 Budget.  It did little more than formalize his widely broadcast intention to reform healthcare, yet the market somehow found this entirely shocking and troubling.  It felt like September and October of last year all over again.  Yes, exactly - the post-Lehman meltdown, except on 0 sleep (this was also the second day after Olive arrived).  There is so much more I could say on this topic and yet I won't, quite simply because that I is all I read and talk about all day and another mention of health reform would likely induce vomit.

One observation, however, that I am planning to explore further at some point, is just how this crisis/recession/fuckup seems to be slowly but surely decomposing some of the core principles that this country claims to be built on.  We have already turned against foreigners (don't let them take our jobs!), then came rage against people who make a lot of money (they got us into this mess!).  I am curious albeit a bit scared to see what else this crisis will produce.

George Packer at the New Yorker describes the fine line against populism and paranoia more eloquently:
... if interest politics turns into the kind of populism that rejects all forms of institutional authority—and we’re closer than we’ve been since at least the nineteen-seventies—the public mood will sweep aside Obama’s program of reforms and quite possibly turn into a new sort of reaction: anti-bank, anti-Washington, anti-immigrant, anti-global. The populist temper and the paranoid style are not the same thing, but they are related in obvious ways: when the former loses its bearings, it can degenerate into the latter.
It certainly doesn't help that instead of tempering the public rage, the elected officials are instead capitalizing on it with ridiculous laws like the 90% tax on the folks are AIG (the ridiculousness of which only became fully obvious to me after reading this op-ed in the Times).  It is somewhat ironic that this country had a similarly emotional period not too long ago, and many decisions made at the time - however popular - were regretted a few years later.  

NYCweboy has a good post with observations about the current rage.  What interests me most is what sort of lasting impact this all will have.  It is just a temporary phase, or will we see some permanent damage?  It was, after all, economic crises combined with skillfull political manipulation that have led to some of the most abhorrent events of the 20th century...