Monthly Archives: August 2008

Wasilla: why scale matters

I’m watching an absurd discussion on Newhour with Jim Lehrer. A supposedly serious question is posed to an Alaskan writer: “What can you tell us about her achievements on the city council and then as mayor?” There was no real answer to that, as might be expected. Sarah Palin was mayor of a small town, and more recently governor of a physically vast state, with very few people and an extremely simple economy based on oil extraction.

When I was involved with Davos some of the invited public figures were presidents or prime ministers of small countries. It rapidly became apparent that rising to the top of the political establishment in, say, Bermuda, is not equivalent to rising to the top of the political establishment in a country of more than 66,000 people (Bermuda’s population). There were highly targeted issues where the Bermudan prime minister might have heft — the re-insurance industry, for example — but outside that it was like meeting the mayor of a smallish town.

Scale counts.

You cannot be serious

Mark Kleiman:

Could McCain have possibly made a more un-serious choice? Esepcially given his age and health problems? Think about the former Mayor of Wassilia confronting Vladimir Putin over Ukraine. Think about it hard. Now none of this is any reproach to Palin. She is no more responsible for McCain’s choice of her than Incitatus was responsible for the plan of his rider, Caligula, to make him Consul of Rome. This isn’t “shattering the glass ceiling;” this is an insult to all the Republican women who had some actual qualifications for the job, and for that matter to all women: McCain is making a joke of women’s aspiration to high office. McCain’s willingness to put Palin one not-very-reliable heartbeat from the Presidency tells you all you need to know about his fitness for office.

As Kleiman also points out, if Alaska were a county, it would only rank 84th in the country in population.

Noise control

I’ve adopted a daily mantra: ignore the noise.

It’s not about the construction going on at the house next door. It’s about the constant drumbeat from so much of the political media. Obama’s too passive. McCain’s a fighter, but a good guy. People won’t vote for the black guy with the funny name (just about all of the foreign media are pounding this drum in particular). Clinton voters will vote for McCain. Bill is seething with resentment and the party is divided.

I stand by my early view that Obama will win this election handily. He has everything in his favor, and as some of the truth about McCain inevitably seeps out — however much the media fawns on him — his share of the vote will continue moving south. I never thought anyone in my lifetime could be a worse president than George W. Bush, but McCain has that potential. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

I’m not advocating living in blissful ignorance, but I do think you have to tune out the noise.

Power readers?

When I saw the announcement, I thought Google’s Power Readers was a good idea. I’d like to know what feeds people are reading. But if you actually look at the feed lists, they are all boring to a fault and incredibly conventional. Either these folk have drastically edited their lists, had them confected by someone that has no clue, or it’s a very sad reflection on their ability to trawl the interwebs.

Ages ago, Dave Winer tried to whip up enthusiasm for the same idea, but he was way, way ahead of his time. Needless to say, it’s far better to be ahead of your time than behind.

Your choice: drunks, connivers, thugs or lunatics

Douglas Muir at Fistful of Euros provides a pithy, essential summary of political leadership following the collapse of the Soviet bloc. In my Davos role, I saw many of this crop and it wasn’t a pretty sight:

All across Eurasia, in the early 1990s, you had a first generation of post-Communist leaders taking power. And by and large, it wasn’t a very promising crop. You had drunks (Yeltsin), slimy connivers (Iliescu), petty, mean-spirited nationalists (Tudjman), slimy connivers pretending to be petty, mean-spirited nationalists (Milosevic), corrupt thugs (Lukashenko, Smirnov), guys who had no idea what the hell they were doing (Izetbegovic, Berisha) and just plain lunatics (Niyazov).

But in terms of sheer damage inflicted upon his hapless country, nobody — not Yeltsin, not Berisha, not even Milosevic — came close to Gamsakhurdia.

Muir isn’t just offering dispassionate history, of course. He’s trying to give some of the background to the Georgia/Russia conflict that is missing in most accounts.

Six months ago, not incidentally, I linked to Muir’s essential guide to the then “frozen conflict” of South Ossetia. Pity he didn’t have many more readers then.

What It Takes

If, like me, you’re an obsessive reader of the political blogs, you probably have encountered references throughout the political season to Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes. By all accounts, it’s the landmark work on presidential primaries. When I first saw a recommendation of it, I wasn’t impressed. Why, after all, would I want to read 1,100 pages on the 1988 presidential primaries, which in my memory ranked among the least memorable of contests.

The regular drumbeat of recommendations finally got the better of me a few weeks ago. Here’s the verdict: drop whatever else you’re reading and pick up What It Takes. The first two chapters alone make the book a classic. In the first chapter, Cramer details then vice-president George H. W. Bush’s trip to Houston to throw the first ball at the 1987 National League Championships Series game. It’s funny, but it also brilliantly conveys a host of Bush character traits that prove crucial in the rest of the book. Junior also makes a memorable appearance, which should have told anyone what a disaster he would be. The second chapter goes back to Bob Dole’s childhood in rural Kansas. I never understood how Dole became a national-level politician, but a reader can’t fail to be moved by Cramer’s account.

In addition to the two Republicans, Cramer follows Gary Hart, Joe Biden, Dick Gephardt and the eventual Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis. I really feel, falsely in many ways, that I know all six of these politicians now. You could extract Cramer’s chapters on each of them and have a fantastic biography. Put it all together and you’ll never feel so gripped by 1,100 pages of political writing.

The fault lies with Bush… again

If you want to be depressed, but informed, read Clive Crook’s Financial Times column about the plight of the US economy. He starts with an excellent run-down of the poor shape of the economy:

The US economy may not be in recession, but this is the nearest thing. In spite of the recent fiscal stimulus, output grew less than 2 per cent at an annual rate in the second quarter, slower than expected. That followed growth of 1 per cent in the first quarter and a contraction (on revised numbers) of 0.2 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2007. A recession is usually defined as two consecutive quarters of shrinking output. It has not happened yet, but it very well might in the next few quarters. Even if it does not, that would be little consolation.

Prospects for the second half of the year are poor. Some of the current boost from the fiscal injection delivered last quarter will keep feeding through, but consumer spending, the hitherto unstoppable engine of US growth, is stalling. The prices of food and petrol, together with still-tightening credit conditions and a housing market that has not yet touched bottom, are weighing it down. Net exports were the main accelerator in the second quarter – without that rise, in fact, output would have fallen, fiscal stimulus or no. But they cannot be relied on in future because growth in Europe and elsewhere is going to be limited by, among other things, policymakers’ worries about inflation.

Most forecasters are expecting a double-dip US slowdown – and the second dip could be a technical recession. Regardless, the labour market is already behaving that way. Unemployment moved up to 5.7 per cent in July, the labour department reported on Friday. Overtime is falling; involuntary part-time working is on the rise. Unemployment will climb above 6 per cent next year. While it may be true that the US has seen much worse, this is no mere “mental recession”.

He makes clear how little room for maneuver there is, in either monetary or fiscal policy. What raises Crook’s column above the ordinary, however, is his clarity about why we’ve reached this point:

It is worth remembering where the blame for this neutering of fiscal policy lies: squarely with the Bush administration. At the start of this decade, the budget stood in surplus to the tune of 2.4 per cent of GDP. On unchanged policy, this was expected to grow to a surplus of 4.5 per cent of GDP by 2008. This year’s actual deficit of 3 per cent of GDP therefore represents a worsening of more than 7 per cent of GDP, or roughly $1,000bn. Almost all of this deterioration is due to policy: to tax cuts, spending increases, and their associated debt-service costs.

That projected surplus was a priceless gift to the White House. It offered the Bush administration ample scope for outlays on homeland security and other unforeseen priorities, and moderate tax cuts as well, all within a budget balanced over the course of the business cycle. Instead, the administration knowingly opted for outrageous fiscal excess – adding insult to injury with its phoney tax-cut sunset provisions, designed for no other purpose than to disguise the long-term fiscal implications. Eight years on, this startling record of fiscal irresponsibility has all but taken fiscal policy off the table as an available response to the slowdown.