Friday, February 27, 2009


Olive finally came on Wednesday and she is so cute that I may have a heart attack.  The breeder sent her early to avoid some nasty cold temperatures up in MN, so my whole plan of spending the first few days with her after she comes on Friday was scrapped.  Last two nights were brutal with her crying and barking and me alternatively trying to ignore her and trying to calm her down.  Needless to say things like sleep or working out have become fairly non-existent for me, so hopefully I can restore some sense of routine as we figure out hers.  Every puppy book and website I read before she came suddenly sounds very theoretical.  This is going to be interesting.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Undersecretary for Go Fuck Yourself.

If you haven't read the New Yorker profile of Rahm Emanuel yet, drop everything you're doing and go read it.  It's a bit of a car crash: ugly and brutish but you have to keep reading.  The funniest is the head-on attack against Paul Krugman - multiple times, with a few F-words.  Who needs TV with delicious drama like this?

“No disrespect to Paul Krugman,” Emanuel went on, “but has he figured out how to seat the Minnesota senator?” (Franken’s victory is the subject of an ongoing court challenge by his opponent, Norm Coleman, which the national Republican Party has been happy to help finance.) “Write a fucking column on how to seat the son of a bitch. I would be fascinated with that column. O.K.?”

The really interesting bit is the explanation of how the stimulus package was passed and his role in the negotiations.  Really makes one appreciate the "process."  And by appreciate, I mean detest.

The Benefit of No Other Alternative.

David Brooks strikes a chord in his column today that resonated with me, which is not a common occurrence for a conservative columnist.  
I fear that in trying to do everything at once, they [the new administration] will do nothing well. I fear that we have a group of people who haven’t even learned to use their new phone system trying to redesign half the U.S. economy. I fear they are going to try to undertake the biggest administrative challenge in American history while refusing to hire the people who can help the most: agency veterans who are registered lobbyists.

I worry that we’re operating far beyond our economic knowledge. Every time the administration releases an initiative, I read 20 different economists with 20 different opinions. I worry that we lack the political structures to regain fiscal control. Deficits are exploding, and the president clearly wants to restrain them. But there’s no evidence that Democrats and Republicans in Congress have the courage or the mutual trust required to share the blame when taxes have to rise and benefits have to be cut.

All in all, I can see why the markets are nervous and dropping. And it’s also clear that we’re on the cusp of the biggest political experiment of our lifetimes. If Obama is mostly successful, then the epistemological skepticism natural to conservatives will have been discredited. We will know that highly trained government experts are capable of quickly designing and executing top-down transformational change. If they mostly fail, then liberalism will suffer a grievous blow, and conservatives will be called upon to restore order and sanity.

It’ll be interesting to see who’s right. But I can’t even root for my own vindication. The costs are too high. I have to go to the keyboard each morning hoping Barack Obama is going to prove me wrong.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Oh, Andrew.

Andrew Sullivan can drive me nuts, sometimes.  Actually more often than not.  But sometimes he writes a piece that is so good and spot on that I have to say bravo and link to it.  It talks about the paradoxes of America - and why it is so maddening yet lovable.  As a foreigner I share a lot of his sentiments (save for the conservative religious stuff, that's where my mind is still stuck in the cynical Europe he puts down ever-so-gently in the column).  

The one bit that I thought was particularly interesting was the comparison between bigotry in America and Britain:

"In America, the bigotry you face is real, unvarnished and in the open. In Britain, it can come masked or euphemised or deflected into humour. It hurts much more to punch a brick wall than to punch a deep velvet cushion. But if you punch hard enough, the wall will one day crumble, while the pillow will constantly absorb the blows."

It rings true and yet I could make the argument that in some respects the reverse is the case.  Isn't America the birthplace of political correctness, after all?  

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


A very belated link to a very belated article that I wrote for Zahranicna Politika, a Slovak foreign policy journal.  The original English text of the article, which was translated and published in Slovak, is posted below.  The chart that I am referencing in the article appears in this entry.  It was written immediately after the election with an audience in mind that did not follow all the events as they unfolded.  Yet even for me it is interesting to reread it now after some time has passed and the events of last fall are a bit more blurry.  

In the aftermath of the historic presidential election, commentators around the world are often interpreting the election of Barack Obama as a rejection of the policies of G. W. Bush and the triumph of social progress in the United States. Some have proclaimed we are living in the “post-racial” age, others have concluded "It's the economy, stupid!" However, as the initial electric excitement cools, it is essential to remember that Obama's victory was neither obvious nor a given as late as the beginning of September, when the economy was already slowing down and quickly heading for a downturn. So how did he close the deal?

As the Republican convention came to a close in the first week of September and McCain's recently chosen running mate Sarah Palin exploded into national consciousness, the polling data triggered a sense of helplessness and many headaches among Obama supporters. According to the Gallup Poll from September 7, 48% of voters indicated they would vote for McCain, 3% more than Obama and more than ever before. After 8 years of Bush, with a deteriorating economy and a massively unpopular war, Obama was losing in the polls. During those early September days, it looked like despite the lowest approval ratings of the incumbent president on record, Republicans had a solid change of winning. This contradicted all conventional wisdom: only once since 1856 has the Party in the White House managed to retain the presidency during a definable economic downturn. McCain's lead in the polls was truly mind-boggling: how could this be and what happened since then that catapulted the Democratic ticket to victory?

The answer to both those question can be summarized by two words: Lehman Brothers. On September 14th, the bankruptcy of one of the largest investment banks set off a chain of events that completely redefined the landscape of the race. The same day, another major bank, Merrill Lynch, was saved from the same fate by being acquired by Bank of America. Two days later, the US government seized control of AIG, one of the world's biggest insurers. Shocked by the failure of these institutions, the credit markets completely seized up and borrowing practically evaporated, creating a real threat to the functioning of financial markets and their ability to support the daily operations of businesses far from Wall Street. If there was any hesitation about the seriousness of the situation, it was all but gone when the treasury secretary and the chairman of the Federal Reserve unveiled their massive $700 billion proposal to bail out the troubled banks. The public was stunned and outraged.

These unprecedented events did more than just expose the fragile state of the financial system. The credit crisis completely changed the discourse about the economy, which until then was commonly defined by a heavy dose of sugarcoating and denial. It needs to be clarified that it was no secret that the economy was ailing at least since the summer of 2007. In the first two quarters of the year, 1.4 million US homes were foreclosed on and by the end of August the economy shed roughly 700 thousand jobs at the same time when energy and food prices were skyrocketing. And yet, until Lehman's failure, the policy makers had a habit of underplaying the seriousness of the problems. The Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson was on record multiple times as saying that the problems in the sub-prime mortgage market did not pose a serious problem to the economy and were contained. The investors were seemingly not particularly worried either and the stock market was happily chugging along: until August, the Dow Jones index was not too far off from its all-time highs. Even as economists were increasing their odds of a recession, it was still a subject to debate, not a given. On the campaign trail, the candidates themselves did not pay much attention to the economy over the course of the summer. Perhaps it was this denial corroborated and fueled by the administration that allowed voters to defy conventional wisdom and seriously consider the incumbent party candidate, despite the clearly deteriorating conditions. However, during that dramatic week in September, the luxury of sticking their heads in the sand was taken away from the electorate. No longer was the administration able to sugar coat things. On the contrary: if they wanted to pass a bailout package quickly, they needed to convince everyone as fast as possible how extremely dire the circumstances were. In short order, the band aid was ripped off and the wound it exposed was deep and ugly.

To understand how shaken the public was from these events in the weeks that ensued, one needs to look at the consumer confidence indicators. While consumer confidence has already declined significantly in 2008, in October, the Conference Board index dropped 23%, the third largest month-over-month decline ever, and reached the lowest level on record. In more real-life terms, the impact of this plunge on confidence could be observed in the sales of retailers, the ultimate gauge of Americans’ well-being: while shopping saw a significantly reduced growth in September, by October, most retailers were reporting a decline in spending, with some as large as 17%. In a matter of weeks, Americans went into panic mode and the discourse about the crisis increasingly involved comparisons with the Great Depression. According to Google Trends, the mention of "Great Depression" in the US increased more than tenfold in September.

In the context of the election, the September meltdown was not only an escalation of an already dreary economic picture. It gave voters a new set of lenses through which to assess the two candidates and provided them a unique chance to observe the two men responding to a crisis. When McCain declared that the fundamentals of the economy were strong the day after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, his critics immediately seized it as an example of him being disconnected from reality. McCain's apparent denial of reality closely resembled the manner in which the Bush administration talked about the economy right until then – a rather unfavorable association which McCain needed to avoid at all cost. It is probably no coincidence that on that very day, Obama's chances of winning the presidency, as evidenced by the Intrade prediction markets, turned around sharply and never stopped going up (chart at the end). A little over a week after the crisis started, McCain announced a dramatic suspension of his campaign to focus on the bailout negotiations in the Congress and called on Obama to postpone the upcoming debate. Instead of helping his campaign, McCain ended up looking like the panicky and unfocused one when Obama responded cool-headedly: "It is going to be part of the president's job to deal with more than one thing at once. It's more important than ever to present ourselves to the American people." By the time of that first debate, Obama’s chances improved by 9% to 56% and the polls indicated a significant reversal from early September – Obama was leading by 4%.

As the terrifying economic news was coming out, the media was increasingly exposing news on McCain's running mate, Sarah Palin. Her first media appearance – the interview with Charlie Gibson on ABC – aired a few days before the credit crisis started. Just as the first bailout package was being negotiated in the Congress and John McCain suspended his campaign, the Katie Couric interviews on CBS were released. While Americans were contemplating the onset of the second Great Depression, they witnessed the Republican VP candidate unable to remember the name of a single newspaper. Not only did that dampen the enthusiasm about Palin, but it also brought into question McCain's decision-making. The critics wondered: how could he be trusted to safeguard the economy if the one big decision he made so far was so rushed and irresponsible? Most importantly, right when experience could have proven to be a tremendously reassuring attribute to the American people, McCain could not play that card due to his relatively inexperienced and seemingly ignorant running mate. The day after the first Palin interview aired on CBS, Obama's odds went up almost 3 points to 55%.

By the end of September, the debates were McCain’s last chance to prove himself as capable of dealing with the country's economic woes and reverse Obama's momentum. However, no such turnaround materialized. Not only did Obama score better in all three debates (and increasingly better – 51, 54 and 58%, according to CNN's polls), all three also portrayed McCain as lacking the likeability, temperament and coolness that Obama possessed. In the first debate, McCain struck all the wrong cords by barely looking at his opponent in addition to linking Russia's president Putin to KGB. In the second installment, he further damaged his likeability scores by memorably referring to Obama as "that one" and in the final debate he got carried away during the abortion discussion and spoke about women's health in air quotes, a gesture which did not go unnoticed by the commentariat and a key voter group – women. As if that was not enough, the Republican campaign launched a series of negative ads against Obama – his questionable affiliations, his supposed socialistic ideas. Not only was that a clear betrayal of McCain's own principles (he himself was burnt by similar tactics in the 2000 primary race against George Bush), but also a distraction from what the electorate probably cared more about – the collapsing economy. In the days following the final debate on October 15th, Obama improved his odds to 85% and his lead in the polls expanded to 6-7%.

While the campaign kept everyone in suspense until the very end, McCain’s team was never able to close the advantage that the Democratic ticket received in the month that started with the Lehman bankruptcy and ended with the last debate. As tempting as it may be to conclude that after all it was all about the economy, it should be remembered by historians and politicians in the future that the deteriorating economy did not seem to matter until very late in the race – and it took a near collapse of capitalism for that to kick in. In that sense, the election was not only historic because it symbolized the end of a racial barrier in American politics, but because it nearly led to the most counter-intuitive outcome. As strategists and political scientists ponder future electoral outcomes, they are well advised to use the “It’s the economy, stupid!” mantra carefully, because as the 2008 election showed, it may not be relevant until the circumstances are just right.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Unbearable Stupidity of Populist Protectionism.

First the House version of the stimulus bill included a "buy American" provision. Then the Senate voted to limit bailout-supported firms' ability to hire H1B workers. At this rate, I may soon be deported from the country to make room for a US citizen to take my job.

For those of you that don't know, H1B is a work visa program for skilled foreign workers. It is the visa I - and any of your foreign friends in the US (unless they are students, illegal or have a Greencard) - live and work on in the US.

Apart from the obvious personal discomfort that seeing something like that creates – not that I am working at a bailed-out bank, but it is a troubling trend for anyone on an H1B visa - there are two big mistakes in a step limiting H1B visas or immigration to protect the US economy.

The first problem is well outlined and discussed in today’s column by Friedman. Given that intellectual capital is the greatest competitive advantage of the US, putting protective measures on it’s inflow is counter-productive. There is something terribly non-sensical about collecting some of the brightest minds from around the globe, bringing them to US universities, and then not allowing them to participate in the US labor market. On previous occasions I took that a step further and argued that immigration is necessary not just to sustain America’s competitive advantage but also to bring it back to fiscal soundness, given the rapidly deteriorating demographic profile of the country.

The second problem I have with the logic of labor protectionism is that I think it’s a symptom of a broader flaw in thinking about recession and unemployment and specifically about the obsession about unemployment common in the public debate about the economy. Surely, increasing unemployment is not a good thing. And understandably, it is the most poignant way to describe a recession. It is personal, it is sad, it has troubling consequences. I think it is for those reasons that when it comes to debates like the one right now about the stimulus package the language used is more often about jobs than it is about output or production. However, as the economy is concerned, unemployment is a symptom or a proxy of a recession, not the equivalent of a recession. Higher unemployment is a result of a contraction in economic activity. And yes, it feeds on itself, but it is primarily caused by shrinking demand.

Bringing this back to my point about foreign workers: I think this obsession about jobs (as opposed to output) leads to the understandable yet mistaken belief that employing more Americans is good given the swelling ranks of the unemployed. Or, to use the words of Charles Grassley, the Senate Finance Committee ranking member:

"With the unemployment rate at 7.6 percent, there is no need for companies to hire foreign guest workers through the H1-B program when there are plenty of qualified Americans looking for jobs."

And yet, hiring Americans in place of foreigners still does not create a job. As economic activity goes, the nationality or immigration status of the worker makes no difference. If I were to be fired today and some US citizen were to replace me, it would do nothing to unemployment or the economy. Even though an unemployed American was hired, no job was created, nothing was added to the economy. And as secondary economic effects go, my income is as likely to be spent – and generate economic activity – as anyone else’s. So nothing has changed there either.

That's why the whole idea of labor protectionism doesn’t make sense to me: it doesn’t matter who gets the job. What matters is that a job is created – which can only happen when the economy expands. Of course, the only reason why the idea makes sense is political: Americans vote for American senators, so if it otherwise doesn’t make a difference who gets a job, they would prefer to favor their constituents. This, however, should not be confused with being beneficial for the economy.

Or, viewed as irrelevant to its long term prospects.

Monday, February 9, 2009


"..six years of war have clarified priorities. The battlefield has its own values, starting with courage. Sexual orientation falls somewhere below musical taste."

Owen West, a commodities trader who served two tours in Iraq with the Marines in NYT. Image by Joel Holland, NYT.

Postpartisan Happy Face.

Krugman slams Obama:

"So has Mr. Obama learned from this experience? Early indications aren’t good.

For rather than acknowledge the failure of his political strategy and the damage to his economic strategy, the president tried to put a postpartisan happy face on the whole thing. “Democrats and Republicans came together in the Senate and responded appropriately to the urgency this moment demands,” he declared on Saturday, and “the scale and scope of this plan is right.”

No, they didn’t, and no, it isn’t."

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Another Stimulus Thought

"Here's my advice to Democratic politicians, from the president on down: On a priority basis, direct money to stem cell research devoted to growing yourselves new spines, and perhaps new brains. It is abundantly clear to the majority of Americans not within the beltway that most Republican politicians continue to range from partisan obstructionist to outright greedy. For Democrats to dilute desperately-needed progressive proposals in the hopes of attracting substantial Republican support is an exercise in futility that if continued will further damage this country --- and cost Democrats dearly at the next election."
From a comment on today's column from Frank Rich in the Times.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Stimulus Thought.

Bipartisanship, like ceasefire, cannot be unilateral.  If the other side doesn't want to work with you, there cannot be bipartisanship, same way that there is no ceasefire, if one side continues to fight.

That was my key gripe with the hope/change moto of the Obama campaign.  As goals, they are nice, as promises, they are pretty suspect.  You can't promise something that doesn't entirely depend on you, something that makes assumptions about other people's behavior.  

I think Obama is quickly finding out what I'm talking about in his effort to pass the stimulus legislation.  His attempt at bipartisanship has so far resulted at nothing anywhere near that.  In the process, it has empowered Republicans - at least on the face of it - so much that it feels like they have an overwhelming majority in Congress, not the opposite.  Clearly, their incentives are completely misaligned.  The GOP has no reason to seek a swift passage of the legislation - they know it will pass without them eventually and if/when it doesn't work they can say they opposed it - and tried to improve it.  And with a bill of this scale, scope and ambition it is bound to not work exactly as intended or as fast as necessary and for someone somewhere to have a reason to be unhappy about it.  So when that moment arrives, and it will, the GOP can capitalize on it.

Strangely I don't even find it as vicious and calculating as it sounds, just sort of normal.  Here's a party struggling to survive and redefine itself and then here's a guy who is happy to give them all the room necessary to make a lot of noise - who can blame them for taking advantage of the situation?

And you know what?  I say let them.  Selfishly, I hope they cut the tax rates as much as possible.  It's a stupid policy - it won't do anything for the economy, at least not for a while (most people will save the money, except for those in dire straights, like they did with Stimulus #1 in the summer of 08), it doesn't produce any sort of sustainable anything to show for it, and it will grow the massive deficit.  But at this rate all the interesting progressive ideas will be killed by the time the bill passes, because we need consensus, so I am dramatically losing interest in the Democratic agenda.  

Stimulus aside, I just hope Obama can learn from this experience and grow some balls. Otherwise this doesn't bode well for all his other ambitious goals. 

PS.  Cutting executive compensation at firms that receive Federal bailout money doesn't count as ballsy.  That's populist.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Yes, You Screwed Up. Big.

I am mad.  Very mad.

Healthcare being one of the issues I know a lot about and care about, I was beyond dismayed to hear that the tax-related problems derailed the nomination of Daschle.  Not because I was particularly fond of his specific views on healthcare (which I was, many of them), but because he had a unique combination of qualifications that are key in pushing any reform through the Congress - he knows healthcare more than many in DC AND he can work with Congress to get things done - they respect him and like him and - more importantly - he knows the ins and outs of the sausage factory that is the Congress.  In 1993-94, Hillary may have had a lot of good ideas in her healthcare reform proposals but she was the ultimate outsider.  Good luck getting something as complex, partisan and inherently emotionally charged as healthcare reform done without being able to work with the legislation.

Now, I am somewhat amazed at Obama saying so openly that he screwed up.  That's certainly a new phenomenon in the White House.  But it doesn't make the screw up any lesser, nor does it really explain the arrogance with which they went ahead with the nomination despite knowing about these tax issues.  Nor do I really understand why this reflects well on Obama - and reaffirms his committment to ethics - when it wasn't his decision to pull the nomination and if anything he kept insisting on it much like he did with Geithner.  Most of all, I am very disappointed with how long it took them to come forward with the information they knew for a while.  I may not know much about the White House, but I think it's a good rule of thumb that the longer you keep a secret, the harder it will come back later to bite you in the ass.  And, well, it did.  Lastly, I have to - and hate to - wonder, what else are they not telling us?  

I am dismayed, but I hope that if nothing else, team O will learn from this to be more upfront with inconvenient information.  If they hope to be different from the last presidency, that's a good place to start, and a lot of the other improvements will just follow suit.