Let’s have a little reality check: Which party took back power in the House in Senate in 2006? And how far has the market fallen in the past 2 years?
It’s become conventional history that we have suffered so much with Bush. It’s been conveniently forgotten that his administration policies help rebuilt our economy after the attacks on 9/11. It’s been conveniently forgotten that in 2006 we had near full employment. It’s been conveniently forgotten that the Democrat policies (see Frank, Barney and Dodd, Chris) help build the house of cards that were Fannie and Freddie. It’s been conveniently forgotten which party enacted laws requiring mortgage companies meet a quota of high-risk loans.
It’s real easy to lay everything at the foot of the Bush administration. It’s a little harder to look at history with an objective view, and recognize how we’ve come to this point.
Posts For: November 21, 2008
For one of the most bizarre political analyses you’ll ever read, check out Hossein Askari’s piece on Iran in today’s Herald Tribune. Askari starts off reasonably enough, citing Iran’s near-thirty-year economic deterioration as a source of widespread unpopularity among Iranians. But then surreality hits — hard:
What can the mullahs in Tehran do to survive? After all, it is only their survival that matters to them. They care little for ideology. They have no commitment to spreading the revolution. Theirs is no religious mission. They barely think about justice for the Palestinians. Their goal is not nuclear enrichment or nuclear weapons. It is survival, pure and simple.
If “Theirs is no religious mission,” then Hitler was indifferent on the Jewish question, and Karl Marx wasn’t one for ideology. But this counterfactual assertion is a mere set-up for Askari’s prescription:
The mullahs have shown that they cannot embrace comprehensive economic reforms. Some commentators naïvely state that better relations with the United States would salvage the regime.
It is hard to see how the lifting of U.S. sanctions, which have not been effective over a period of nearly 30 years, would address Iran’s fundamental economic decay. It is even more difficult to imagine that the United States would not secretly try to undermine the regime in Tehran even after restoring relations.
There is a more radical and better option for the mullahs to maintain their hold on power. Embrace Israel.
Askari goes on to give several reasons why this is a good idea. But whether or not the reasons are valid, they are beside the point. The mullahs are on a religious mission. Fundamental to that mission is the destruction of Israel. The realist mullahs of Askari’s imagination would certainly make things a lot easier. They could come clean on enrichment and missile construction, and give up all their proscribed materiel. With Barack Obama coming into office, they wouldn’t even have to make a pledge to democratize or clean up their human rights act to get the U.S. to leave them alone. As an equal member of the “community of nations,” America wouldn’t dream of dictating conditions to our new Persian partner, etc., etc. But even the hope-infused world of Barack Obama is too reality-based to indulge this fantasy.
Abe and Peter, there are two levels of interest here. One is the bemusement that some of us feel as to those who passionately hop from one position to the next, from adoration to villification of figures and political stances, with not much tolerance for those who adhere to views that they themselves embraced not so long ago. Their extremism is only matched by their political amnesia.
On a separate level, one sympathizes with a broader group of observers and voters who supported the President-elect’s candidacy based on the notion that he believed what he said on a range of issues. Let’s put the shoe on the other foot for a moment. I can only imagine what John McCain supporters would have said if he had been elected and then promptly appointed as Defense Secretary or Secretary of State Chuck Hagel, who had repeatedly vowed an immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Or, if after vowing to appoint originalist judges, he picked Cass Sunstein for a Supreme Court vacancy. They would be justifiably very upset that they’d been conned. (It remains to be seen whether Obama’s appointments and policy decisions will depart as radically as these hypotheticals and to the degree feared by his Left-leaning fans.)
In this broader group of supporters one must include those who perceived Barack Obama as a wise and thoughtful person who would attract top talent on their merits. For example, the invariably interesting Megan McArdle is indignant. The rumor that Obama economic advisor Austan Goolsbee may be thrown overboard for gender politics isn’t sitting well with her. She writes: “Needless to say, given that Obama’s sterling choice of highest-caliber economic advisors was one of my main reason for supporting him, my regret is mounting faster than ever.” (Watch out, Megan, if he really is serious about nationalizing health care, bailing out Detroit and giving Big Labor its card check bill.)
So the perpetually outraged may be joined by the justifiably outraged. President-elect Obama has promised to bring us all together and so far he is.
Candidate Obama, of course, played into the hopes and aspirations of voters holding contradictory views and conflicting interests by cultivating vagueness to a high art and avoiding firm stances. As a result there are large numbers of voters convinced based on only a hunch that they have the Presdient-elect figured out. Many of them are wrong. In short, the perpetually aggrieved will have a never-ending supply of reinforcements from the ranks of conned, confused and mislead Obama supporters. At some point, the circles can’t be squared. Or to borrow a phrase, the chickens come home to roost.
I wanted to piggyback on what Abe says about Andrew Sullivan, who is oh-so-angry that Barack Obama is apparently considering John Brennan to be the next director of the CIA.
Andrew, like Keith Olbermann, seems to be most himself when he is in a state of perpetual moral outrage. What separates Olbermann and Sullivan, though, is that Olbermann has been somewhat more anchored and less unstable in his worldview. (I realize that saying anyone is less stable than Olbermann is by itself a remarkable statement.)
Sullivan, for example, writes that naming Brennan would be “an unforgivable betrayal of [Obama's] supporters and his ideals.” Those who want to take the time to review Andrew’s web site prior to the Iraq war will find him making essentially the same charge against President Bush and Vice President Cheney; if they refused to go through with the war against Saddam, it would be a betrayal of those who supported them and their ideals.
There is something slightly amusing watching (or reading) people who are constantly feeling betrayed by those whom they once passionately embraced. My sense, though, is that a frenzied and melodramatic state of mind works better when you’re a writer for, say, an HBO series. It works less well when you hope to be taken as a serious voice in public affairs.
The end times are upon us. First, there was Sinbad the Sailor versus the Pirates of the Arabian. Now, the Telegraph is reporting that a convicted Al-Qaeda terrorist was among a number of British prisoners given lessons in stand-up comedy:
Zia Ul Haq, who was involved in the ‘Gas Limos Project’ to bomb London, was reportedly enrolled on an eight-day comedy workshop at HMP Whitemoor.
He was among 18 prisoners, including murderers, who were given lessons in stand-up, comic drama, improvisation and scriptwriting.
Having completed the £8,000 course they were to have received a certificate and staged a performance for fellow inmates and guards at the Category A prison in Cambridgeshire.
Given that Islamic terrorists are not exactly famous for their sense of humor, the instructor (unnamed, alas) surely deserved the money.
I’m delighted to report that an inside source gave me a copy of his prize student’s routine. His shtick included such one-liners as
I cheated on my wife. Now she calls me an infidel!
And among his setups was
It’s the night before their big martyrdom operation, so Ahmed and Abdul walk into a bar…
And, my personal favorite, punchlines like
…and so Allah says, “Congratulations, here are your 72 white raisins.”
Note that the instructor clearly failed in his task, given that the best comedy relies on surprise. A truly funny Islamic terrorist comic would have replaced “congratulations” with “mazel tov.”
America’s place in the sun is just about over. An ongoing shift of wealth and power from the West to the East “is without precedent in modern history.” And the world’s most populous country? “China,” we are told, “is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country.” All these conclusions come from “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World,” a report released yesterday by the National Intelligence Council, the coordinating group for all 16 American intelligence organizations. Its reports represent the consensus views of those agencies.
Before you move to Beijing and apply for Chinese nationality, please note the report was written in Thomas Friedman’s the-world-is-flat world. In that wonderful universe, economic development is relentlessly spreading wealth from nation to nation, so it is perfectly permissible to assume that “demography is destiny.” Therefore, a China five times more populous than the United States will inevitably end up with an economy five times larger and a military five times more powerful.
Yet in the world as it really is, events are unforeseen and trends materialize overnight. Where we live, unpredictability reigns. The last thing we should do if we want to know what the future will look like is extrapolate.
Nonetheless, Global Trends extrapolates. Worse, the report extrapolates from events that no longer seem indicative. For example, it assumes the continual increase in oil and commodity prices. That’s a brave assumption, when we have just seen oil fall from over $147 a barrel in mid-July to under $50 at this moment. The report was mostly written before the onset of the global financial crisis.
Yet the National Intelligence Council, incredibly, decided to go ahead with the release of Global Trends as if a once-in-a-century series of events was without lasting significance. The gruesome destruction of wealth occurring today will eventually be reversed, but the reversal may not come before, for instance, the collapse of the governments in China and Russia, two nations the report picks as winners over the next couple decades.
American intelligence analysts may be able to peer into other nations, but they obviously have a hard time understanding America. Therefore, let me say a thing or two about the land of the free and the home of the brave. The United States is not only institutionally strong but resilient and fast-moving. It is unique in its ability to adjust and recover. Even before others stop bemoaning the fall of the West and the end of capitalism, America will find its way and lead the rest of the world to recovery.
So here’s some advice to the National Intelligence Council: insert a “not” in every sentence of Global Trends if you want to know what will really occur in 2025.
We’re still about two and half months before the Israeli elections, but the polling has begun in earnest. Haaretz is showing the Likud party having pulled out in front of Tzipi Livni’s Kadima party by six seats, compared with polls a few weeks ago showing them tied. In the meantime, however, three very big things have happened.
First, Likud has added to its ranks a series of impressive candidates with a reputation of integrity–Benjamin Begin, Dan Meridor, Moshe Yaalon, and others–setting the Likud off as a contrast against the corruption-tainted Kadima party currently in power.
Second, the global financial crisis has cause many Israelis to refocus their thoughts on the economy, and no party leader has Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s reputation for economic decisionmaking.
Finally, the election of Barack Obama may well be triggering a kind of hawkish backlash among Israelis. Fearing that the new administration will pressure Israel to make concessions, Israelis might increasingly see in Netanyahu the necessary bulwark against international pressure.
Yet probably the most fascinating change has been the emergence of a new Netanyahu, one who is capable of remaining silent as his opponents sink deeper into their own muck. Bibi is respected but not always liked, and while he makes a stellar presentation in English, in Hebrew he often comes across as untrustworthy. His political reinvention has been dramatic over the past few years, his silence met with gratitude, his record appreciated, and the new polls reflect all this. The upcoming election is, to use a phrase loved by Americans, his to lose.
Abe, in defense of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, perhaps that Che-looking statue is actually an homage to Woody Allen’s commanding performance in Bananas, important scenes of which take place in Manhattan (just as a bronze Rocky Balboa now stands near the steps the character triumphantly climbed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art).
Then again, maybe the Central Park statue was installed to please musical-theater aficionados, who cannot forget Mandy Patinkin’s star-making turn as Che in Evita.
Why is it that nice Jewish boys so often play Latino Marxist revolutionaries? Admittedly, Fidel Castro himself has speculated that his mother was of Jewish-Turkish descent. Oy vey.
Forget politics: what’s truly amazing about the “Che” statue, in this day and age, is that it glorifies smoking.
Andrew Sullivan is having a hard time of it. Upon hearing that John Brennan was Barack Obama’s leading candidate to head the CIA, he wrote:
We didn’t work our butts off to elect Obama only to get Bush another four years at CIA. If Brennan emerges as the pick, those of us against the continuation of war crimes and the prosecution of war criminals will have to oppose him strenuously in the nomination process. We will, in fact, have to go to war with Obama before he even takes office.
I wouldn’t sweat it if I were Obama. When Sullivan “goes to war,” he packs it up and blames his fellow soldiers the moment things get tough.
You know that the problem of sea piracy has blown completely out of control when even your mortal enemies are helping you out. According to this report from Somalia, pirates are now being fought by Islamist insurgents who are acting like vigilante privateers.
Dozens of Somali Islamist insurgents stormed a port on Friday hunting the pirates behind the seizure of a Saudi supertanker that was the world’s biggest hijack, a local elder said. . . .
The Sirius Star — a Saudi vessel with a $100 million oil cargo and 25-man crew from the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Croatia, Poland and Britain — is believed anchored offshore near Haradheere, about half-way up Somalia’s long coastline.
“Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and hijacking its ship is a bigger crime than other ships,” Sheikh Abdirahim Isse Adow, an Islamist spokesman, told Reuters. “Haradheere is under our control and we shall do something about that ship.”
Maybe the world’s shipping companies should start registering their vessels with Saudi Arabia, or another Muslim state.
Things really have already changed since Barack Obama became President-elect. For example, way back in pre-Change October, James Yamada’s sculpture “Our Starry Night” graced the Doris C. Freedman Plaza in New York City’s Central Park:
But that was then. And this is now! Passing by the Doris C. Freedman Plaza today, I spotted this sculpture, “El Che” (pictured below in another city), by the German artist Christian Jankowski:
Why is the most vibrant capitalist hub in the world playing host to a statue of a murderous communist thug? Bailout mania? The Castroesque extension of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s reign? The base of the sculpture is inscribed with a Che quote that my ignorance of Spanish prohibited me from deciphering. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t an apology for committing acts of terror and helping to derail a country for nearly half a century.
UPDATE: Apparently, the sculpture is not intended to depict Che Guevara, but rather a street performer dressed as Che Guevara. Which I’m sure makes all the difference in the world to the families of Che’s victims.
Jennifer outlined her reasons why she thinks Hillary Clinton will accept the position of Secretary of State from President Elect Obama. She’s right, but there are more reasons why she ought to accept, why Obama would be right to offer it to her, and why it’s probably for the best.
First, Hillary is probably the closest thing to a “hawk” that Obama would be likely to tap. When one considers some of the other people he could name–John Kerry, Richard Holbrooke– Hillary comes out looking pretty good. She also has a general attitude and demeanor that could work wonders at State. Her history of “I take no crap from anyone who is not my husband” could be the sort of thing that could finally bring about the systemic change needed at Foggy Bottom. Oh, come on. Admit it. The mere thought of Hillary bouncing an ashtray off the head of Mahmoud Ahaminejad ought to bring a smile to almost anyone.
Then there’s the Hubert Humphrey factor. When asked why he chose Hubert Humphrey as his vice-president, Lyndon Johnson reportedly said it would be better “to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.” It’s a co-opting move, bringing her into the inner circle where she would be obligated to restrain her criticisms.
It also takes Bill Clinton off the table. He’s a notorious loose cannon, always willing to take swipes at Obama at the drop of a hat. By making Hillary a part of his administration, Obama would in essence “taking a hostage” to ensure Bill Clinton’s good behavior.
So it makes sense for Obama to offer her the job. But would she take it? As Jennifer said, it would get her out of the Senate and into a position of real power. Hillary could probably remain in the Senate for life if she chose, but is highly unlikely ever to amass the kind of power and influence she has sought. As Secretary of State, she wouldn’t be setting any kind of historical precedent (Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, and Condoleezza Rice have taken those trophies), but she would be in a position to actually achieve things. And over the course of her career, she has been far more interested in results than glory.
Also, there’s the fact that Hillary still has several million dollars in campaign debts. That could prove an embarrassment, but when she and Obama had their public reconciliation, he promised to help her retire that debt. It would suddenly be very much in his best interest to keep that promise.
And finally, there is one compelling reason why even the most Clinton-loathing individual ought to support: the sheer entertainment factor. The Department of State rendered utterly clawless Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Could it do the same to Hillary?
Maybe, maybe not. But stock up on the popcorn. It promises to be a hell of a show.
It was not just the private jets that did in the Big Three’s efforts to extract billions from the taxpayers. It seems Congressmen, even the Democrats, have learned a thing or two in the last couple of months. We learn from this report that Congress is getting more particular about how and to whom they dole out money:
In two congressional hearings — one Tuesday before the Senate Banking Committee and another Wednesday before the House Financial Services Committee — Nardelli, GM’s G. Richard Wagoner Jr. and Ford’s Alan R. Mulally failed to coherently lay out those goals, lawmakers said, or make a compelling case for how federal aid will help achieve them.
“We kept asking: ‘What are you going to do with the money?’ And they said: ‘We’re going to save the industry.’ And we said: ‘Well, how are you going to save the industry?’ And they said: ‘We’re going to spend the money,’ ” recalled Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), who quizzed the executives on Tuesday. “Even those who were very sympathetic walked away from that saying: ‘What can I vote for out of this?’ ”
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), who chaired Wednesday’s hearing in the House, said many lawmakers found it difficult to support a bailout for the auto industry so soon after approving a $700 billion rescue for the financial sector that has failed to calm to the markets. Instead of making more loans, some banks are hoarding the money or using it to buy weaker firms. So when the auto executives provided evasive answers, Frank said, many lawmakers experienced a bad case of déjà vu.
And if that is not good enough news, it seems that the idea of a prepackaged bankruptcy is gaining traction:
Dodd said he also wants to explore the idea of a bankruptcy in which the companies work out agreements to restructure with suppliers, lenders and labor, potentially supported by government help.
Bennett, who is close to Senate GOP leaders, said many Republican lawmakers also want a clear explanation of “why bankruptcy isn’t an option.”
This is progress. If Congress has discovered that shoveling money out the door is not guarantee of success, that bankruptcy may be an appropriate forum to rework the auto industry, and that the public is fed up with bailout mania that’s evidence of a fairly steep learning curve.
If we can get them to grasp the folly of tax increases and card check legislation, we will really be heading in the right direction.
Writing yesterday about Iran’s nuclear program, Gordon correctly raised an eyebrow on the virtues of dialogue. Of course, it is a matter of speculation what it means that Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear bomb if and when it reprocesses it. The fissile material in question is low enriched uranium, and Iran would need to feed it back into its centrifuges to enrich it to weapons-grade. As Gordon notes,
The milestone is merely virtual because Iranian technicians have produced only lowly enriched material with their centrifuges. They would need to reconfigure this equipment and operate it for several months to produce the highly enriched metal needed for the core of a truly destructive bomb.
The question then: how long would this take them? A partial answer comes from the IAEA latest report on Iran, which was leaked two days ago on David Albright’s ISIS website. In the report, IAEA Director General Mohammad ElBaradei writes that, “to date, the results of the environmental samples taken at FEP and PFEP, and the operating records for FEP3, indicate that the plants have been operating as declared (i.e. less than 5.0% U-235 enrichment).” In a footnote, ElBaradei indicates that enrichment levels at the Fuel Enrichment Plant “show enrichment levels … of up to 4.9% U-235.” 5.0% enrichment levels are a critical benchmark. Break that barrier, and covering the remaining ground to reach the 90% enrichment level needed for a nuclear bomb is relatively simple.
Clearly, the report indicates significant progress for Iran’s nuclear scientists and their efforts to cross the threshold of 5 percent. They have enriched “up to 4.9%,” which means they are not very far. How long then before it’s too late? Easter? Iran’s presidential election in June? The September elections in Germany? How much time do the advocates of engagement have before Iran will put them before a fait accompli?
What will Iran do in the next few months on this front is, of course, anyone’s guess. Once Iran has crossed the 5 percent benchmark, it might leave everyone guessing–or it could increase enrichment levels to, say, 20% and then stop. This would not be, technically speaking, in breach of NPT obligations (though in Iran’s case it is, as five UN Resolutions clearly indicate). It would signal to the world that Iran has the nuclear know how to enrich to weapons-grade, but it does not clarify Iran’s intentions. It would not matter, of course, because the ability to build a weapon alone would be a “game changer,” as President-elect Barack Obama has defined it. Of course, Iran could choose to provoke some more and decide to withdraw from the NPT–a gesture that would leave us guessing even more, because such a move would block any further IAEA inspections. Knowing that Iran has reached a critical threshold and not knowing of any further progress in its program would be even more of a game changer. But it would offer a pretext to the international community to inflict harsher measures on Iran. Finally, Iran could test a weapon–and that would put all matters to rest.
Which is why the notion of engagement at this point is just as virtual as the milestone on which Gordon was commenting. Theoretically, one could make sense of the argument for engagement with Iran. If it succeeded, that would be great; and if it failed, it would provide a better case for the next U.S. administration to call for tougher international efforts against Iran. The problem is that while the US and its allies ‘engage’ Iranian centrifuges continue to spin and enrich. And given the state of progress with Iran’s program, Iran might as well play the role and let us talk until all talk is futile. Only an engagement that rests on a prior Iranian commitment–one that is verifiable–to freeze all enrichment activities can stop the nuclear clock from running in Tehran. And given how Tehran has played its hand so far, nobody can seriously believe this option is in the cards.
The problem with engagement is not its intrinsic weakness – it can sometimes work. The problem with engagement, in Iran’s case at this historic juncture is that there is no time left to try.
Some are puzzled why Hillary Clinton would give up her perch in the Senate for the State Department. Truth be told, it is not much of a perch. As others have observed, the Senate does not offer her much. She does not have much seniority, she can’t use the Senate in the short run to prepare for a presidential run, and she would be trading in the spotlight which shines on a presidential candidate for an occasional spot on Meet the Press and CSPAN coverage of speeches to an empty gallery. What’s so great about that?
Instead, at the State Department, she becomes the most prominent woman on the international stage, rounds out her experience, escapes the humdrum routine of the world’s greatest deliberative body (filled with the world’s greatest gasbags), and has the last say in the “who is more expert in foreign policy” argument with her former rival. From her perspective, it’s a no-brainer.
And with whom would you rather spend your time: Dick Durbin and Harry Reid? Or David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy?
J.G., Mike Huckabee, I think, is confused as to his audience if he is indeed pursuing the presidency in 2012 and not book sales and TV ratings. Certainly, a conservative can raise her profile, get on the short list for a New York Times column, up her bookings on MSM outlets, and get plaudits from the Left blogosphere by bashing conservatives, especially social conservatives. And to stay in the news she’ll have to become increasingly insulting, bigoted and outlandish. But that isn’t going to get the support or the respect of fellow Republicans. (Eventually liberals will tire of the act too, but that’s another issue.)
Similarly, Huckabee’s bashing of Republican opponents will get noticed by the MSM in their obligatory “Republican Food Fight!” columns. But once again, it doesn’t gain points with or much interest the GOP base. Republicans are mad at the people (e.g. President Bush, Congressional Republicans, McCain staffers) who, they believe, led their party over a cliff. But I sense no desire to eviscerate future leaders, especially ones who are contributing to the current debate on substantives issues, as Mitt Romney is.
Huckabee is a savvy enough fellow to know this. So perhaps his sights are set on book sales and ratings rather than a political future. If that’s the case, he’s doing a splendid job of self-promotion–and proving once again why that was always his strong suit.
Michael Gerson has written a noteworthy column in today’s Washington Post.
Focused on the landmark Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), which will be headed for a final reading in the Iraqi parliament next week, Gerson points out that the success of the so-called “surge” has paved the way for an orderly withdrawal of U.S. combat forces. While the withdrawal deadlines are not ideal, it may turn out that they are not terribly problematic, thanks to the enormous progress we’ve seen in Iraq over the last 22 months. (In addition, both sides are free to renegotiate the agreement when it expires in three years.)
The SOFA, and the fractious debate in Iraq on it, is a reminder that a nation that was ruled by a dictator of almost unfathomable cruelty is now free and self-governing. A country that, a little more than five years ago, was an implacable enemy of America is now its ally. Once considered a terrorist state, Iraq is the place that gave birth to the “Anbar Awakening,” which, with the help of the United States, has decimated jihadists in the battlefield of their choosing. And Iraqis, whose future once seemed as dark as the night, now have reason to hope.
It is quite an extraordinary and moving thing to witness. It is also a significant, and perhaps even a historic, achievement for the national security of the United States, for the larger struggle against Islamic militancy, and for the cause of liberation and human dignity.
These achievements can still be undone; the SOFA might be voted down in parliament next week and the security and political progress that’s been made could be reversed by unwise actions. The future of Iraq increasingly rests with the people of Iraq. But that is as it ought to be. And given everything the Iraqi people have experienced in recent decades and recent years, they have acted admirably and with courage.
The Iraq war itself remains unpopular in America; after stockpiles of WMD were not found and the occupation phase of the war was badly mismanaged for several years, it was inevitable that public support for it would crater and never recover. Nevertheless, a war that a few years ago appeared destined for failure is now something quite different. As Gerson writes, “A war that once seemed likely to end in a panic of helicopters fleeing the American embassy now seems destined to conclude as the result of a parliamentary process. . . . The cost of this success has been high for America, and some may argue it has not been worth the price. But it is still a success.”
That judgment sounds contrarian and off-key today. But it is, in fact, an accurate reflection of reality. Much later than he had hoped, at a cost much higher than he expected, with far more mistakes than he ever should have allowed to happen, George W. Bush has presided over a successful war. And that is something that, in the dwindling days of his presidency, he can take sober satisfaction in.
As the real estate market melted down regionally in 2006 and 2007, property owners in New York City, specifically Manhattan, were not only not affected, but saw the value of their holdings increase about 20 percent. Manhattan, it was said, was in a strange zone of protection. For one thing, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of the owned housing units are in cooperatives, not condominiums, and stringent rules governing co-op ownership basically preclude the purchase of apartments by speculators (apartments must be owner-occupied, cannot be rented, and there is often an onerous “flip tax” to keep people from buying and then selling shortly afterward). And the dollar was so cheap, relative to other currencies, that the market was ballasted by Europeans and Asians who came to snap places up as safe long-term investments. Sure, people would say, if housing prices sink 30 percent nationwide, New York will inevitably decline, but maybe only to the level it had reached in 2006, which was already 40 percent higher than it had been in 2003.
The crash has begun, and because of the particularly parlous effect of the economic crisis on the high-end New York City workforce, it may now be the case that Manhattan will fare worse than the rest of the country. According to the Real Deal, “Manhattan data compiled by the appraisal firm and released yesterday showed that the volume of signed contracts in September and October plummeted roughly 75 percent from the same period last year.” Take tens of thousands of high-dollar earners out of work with the likelihood that there will be negligible bonus money paid out next February, combine that with the declining assets of everyone with holdings in the stock and bond markets, and add in the fact that the dollar is strengthening against other currencies, and you have some idea of the magnitude of the disaster that is about to hit.
The point here is not for anyone to feel sorry for New Yorkers who own apartments. It is, rather, to offer another object lesson in what happened over the past few years as many financial firms and many of the people who ran them insisted on willfully blinding themselves to the macroeconomic impact of the decline in housing prices. Perhaps part of the problem was their parochialism — the fact that they lived and worked in a place where there was not even a hint of a threat to the value of their own homes. Even in this global, interconnected, Blackberried, unsleeping, 24-7-365 economy, they had no personal, tactile, visible experience of what a declining market was or looked like. They did not live and were not located in Nevada or Florida, where the housing crash first took place. They saw numbers on spreadsheets and read stories in newspapers, but such things can turn reality into an abstraction, raising only the question of what might or might not constitute a buying opportunity.
These matters are abstractions no longer.
The Washington Post reports:
Barack Obama was famously able to impose discipline and control over his presidential campaign, but it didn’t take long for him to discover that running a transition is something quite different.
Top aides to the president-elect had hoped to take a methodical approach to selecting and unveiling their new team, starting with the announcements of top national security and economic players shortly after Thanksgiving. But leaks and rumors have disrupted that plan, suggesting that the “no-drama Obama” mantra famously repeated by his staff may not be as operational in Washington as it was at campaign headquarters in Chicago.
Once again, reporters are amazed that running a campaign isn’t much like running the country. The sole focus and relatively small numbers employed in winning an election really aren’t comparable to running a far-flung administration, hiring diverse people, and making substantive policy decisions.
Having been sold on the New Politics and the aura of The One, the MSM cheering section may be stunned to learn that leaks, incompetence, poor personnel decisions, bureaucratic logjams, and conflicts with Congress are not exclusively Republican faults.
The next step will be exercising a level of skepticism. Unlike the Post, I find it hard to believe that Penny Pritzker suddenly realized she had pre-existing business commitments preventing her from accepting a cabinet position. (I favor the “What are you guys doing! She ran a failed subprime lending bank!” explanation.) Rather than kvelling about his masterful transition management, a more independent media might be quizzing Obama’s aides on why, with the market tanking, we still lack the name of his Treasury Secretary pick.
But it is an adjustment for everyone. Sooner or later, the MSM may graduate from noticing the President-elect doesn’t run a transition as smoothly as his campaign to questioning his executive skills, probing his motives, and hunting down unfavorable information. An independent and adversary media not dedicated to Obama’s success–now that’s a change we could believe in.
Of the many nonsensical assertions included in the Brent Scowcroft-Zbigniew Brzezinski article from this morning’s Washington Post, the most astonishing comes in the last paragraph. The rest of it is really nothing new: Israeli-Palestinian peace is important, it can make Arab governments more cooperative, we already know the parameters in which to solve it, etc. (Scowcroft and Brzezinski include the laughable idea that an international peacekeeping force should be the one responsible for preventing terror attacks from Palestinian territory. These guys, apparently, have never heard of Hezbollah and Lebanon.) But let me jump ahead to the amazing last sentence:
[I]n many ways the current situation is such that the opportunity for success has never been greater, or the costs of failure more severe.
Oh, really? How so?
The authors do not provide any proof from which to conclude that now, more than ever (to coin a phrase), success stands so close that the American government can simply reach out and grab it. How soon they forget! Bill Clinton went to Camp David thinking exactly the same. Condi Rice, similarly misguided, dragged dozens of leaders to Annapolis.
“Never been greater”? Why? Because Hamas controls Gaza and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority can barely claim to represent a fraction of the Palestinian people? Or maybe because Iran is on the rise and is funding Palestinian terrorists? Or is it because Hezbollah has proved, in the past two years, that international monitoring is a bad joke? Or because both Israel and the Palestinians are undergoing severe leadership crises?
But they are not just saying that the opportunity is there for Obama to grab. They also threaten him with severe “costs of failure.” And that’s also interesting. As I suggested back in August, “[w]hen it comes to last chances in the Middle East, there is always good news and bad news. The good: the last chance for peace is rarely the real last chance. The bad: the last failure is also rarely the last.”
But Scowcroft and Brzezinski make an ever graver mistake. By claiming that the consequences of failure will be more severe than ever, they pull the rug out from under their claim that opportunity “has never been greater.” Opportunity can’t be “great” when we already know that past attempts have failed, that circumstances are tricky (as the authors themselves note), and that possible failure will have “severe” costs. (Ask your banker and he’ll tell you exactly the same.) What Scowcroft and Brzezinski describe is a risky investment, not a great opportunity.