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When Dubya was dipping to 28% in the public-approval ratings, defender Larry Kudlow decided the rising arc of stock-market performance was a better measure of the president's job performance than the seven consecutive years of triple-digit deficits, the biggest American foreign-policy blunder in modern times in Iraq, and the rank incompetence in losing a great American city at the mouth of the Mississippi.
It was the over-heated stock market of 2007, coinciding with a record, unsustainable U.S. housing bubble that inspired Kudlow's praise of Bush 43. Within a year, the market was crashing by more than 40%, and Americans were understandably afraid to look at their 401k statements.
Here's Ludlow in 2007, just before the epic stock-market crash:
This brings me to a larger point. Despite the criticism President Bush has received over his Iraq War policies, isn't it interesting that stock markets have been booming since early 2003, when Saddam was overthrown and the president signed his supply-side tax cuts into law? (Bush, of course, never gets any credit on either of these points.)...
I have long believed that stock markets are the best barometer of the health, wealth and security of a nation. And today's stock market message is an unmistakable vote of confidence for the president.
As Kudlow wrote, the market was up a "remarkable" 30% over the previous year. As I write this, the market is up about 70% in the short 15 months since Obama took office.
But as I've long noticed, this phenomenon of measuring presidential competence by stock-market performance applies only to Republican presidents and Congresses. The LBJ economic boom, the Clinton economic boom, the stunning Obama economic turnaround - Dems get little credit on those points.
Now, I'm prepared to be surprised. For the sake of intellectual honesty, Kudlow might actually shed his reactionary tendencies long enough to note the current market's "unmistakable vote of confidence for the president." Paul Krugman provides a handy chart on his blog:
The Obama stock market. Hope you got in early. (Yahoo Finance)
I'm a progressive.
I'd be a liberal if the term still meant what it originally did, at its birth during the Age of Enlightenment. (The original name of the Lady in the Harbor was "Liberty Enlightening the World.") When, with John Locke figuring prominently as a philosophical touchstone, liberalism meant individual freedom, including speech and property rights. It meant the overturning of religious absolutism and monarchial and other autocratic regimes. It meant free trade and globalization in place of cloistered protectionism and isolationism. These liberal values were the driving force of the American and French revolutions.
But I don't recall having ever identified myself on this site as a liberal. The bastardization of "liberalism" reached its point of no return during the Great Society and other tumults of the 1960s. It became associated with "bleeding heart" welfarism (as opposed to a more constructive approach to realizing our moral obligation to helping our fellows in distress). With foreign policy naivete. With spendthrift administration of public funds. With trade-union supremacy over other stakeholders in the economy. And with personal irresponsibility.
About a third of the way into that paragraph, you thought, "Wait, that's the Right!" It's conservatives who have been spendthrift, naive on foreign policy (latest example, the Iraq war), who run roughshod over other stakeholders in the economy (Wall Street and corporate lobbyists), and go awry in their private lives as much as any identifiable group (Newt Gingrich, Mark Sanford, Bob Ney, the pedophiles in the Vatican's charge).
What today is a conservative, as I once identified myself? In Ontario, where the "Progressive Conservative Party" ruled for 43 consecutive years beginning during the Second World War, it meant no more government than necessary, but as much government as required. At the federal level, the Conservative Party subsidized construction of the transcontinental Canadian Pacific Railway and launched the CBC. In Ontario, the PCs built the province's network of community colleges and cultural assets such as the Ontario Science Centre and Ontario Place. They, and not the opposition Liberals, decided on full funding of Catholic schools, at the risk of alienating their base, because it was the right thing to do. They spent within their means, but they spent heavily, on social and physical infrastructure.
Classically, as in the Burke or Hobbes definition, conservatives are okay with progress - encourage it, even - as long as doesn't mean discarding hard-won lessons of the past. Such as living within your means and individual responsibility.
But conservatives in modern parlance are reluctant to assist those in distress, unless they're corporations in need of a taxpayer handout. They seem to oppose progress in the human condition utterly. (Example: the eight lost years in stem cell research when Dubya pandered to social conservatives in his base). They celebrate raw capitalism. Capitalism morphed into a "mixed economy" of government-private sector partnership in the 20th century. But it would appear that today's conservatives were behind the door during those history and economics lessons.
I don't think anyone can tell the precise meaning of today's "liberalism" and "conservatism." The only passably accurate term for me seems to be progressivism. The first U.S. president to embrace it by that name was a Republican, Teddy Roosevelt. For him, progressiveism meant breaking up the trusts that exerted too much power over the public. That's a recognizably "liberal" notion, as applied to, say, liberation from the tyranny of George III. And it meant protecting the public from peddlers of tainted meat and snake-oil cures. Hence the Food and Drug Administration, a TR legacy. Later it would be Richard Nixon to found the Environmental Protection Agency - and who thinks of him as a "liberal"?
Jefferson said, "That government governs best which governs least." That's easily a rallying cry for today's conservatives. Those like Grover Norquist, for example, who famously said his goal is to shrink government to a size where "you can drown it in a bathtub."
But the author of the Declaration wasn't calling for the eradication of government, least of all the one of which he was a prime architect. Jefferson was speaking a variation of my earlier reference to government when necessary, but not more government than necessary. It's the decision about the degree of government involvement that challenges us. Not, one hopes, the existence of government itself.
What libertarians have never grasped is that there will always be government. It will be government "by, of and for the people." The alternative is not solitude or chaos. Someone will be in charge. Someone will take charge. The alternative to what libertarians rail against is a military junta, an absolutist monarchy, a religious theocracy, a dynastic kleptocracy, an ideological imperium like Cuba or the Soviet Union or something equally disagreeable. Because wherever people gather, they promptly organize themselves. Or perhaps I misunderstand Golding's point in Lord of the Flies.
You'll get government, whether you like it or not. I'm for an accountable, pragmatic progressive government. My starting point is helping people in trouble, as much as possible on their terms. (Who knows the problem better than they?) And the larger project is a caring society. The alternative is gated communities, a throwback to a caste society in which opportunity is open only to the elect.
So, progressive. Easy to say, too. Same number of syllables as "liberal," one fewer than "conservative," four fewer than "Christian fundamentalist." A dynamic term for those who are optimistic about the future. Conservatives seem afraid of the future, a trait they do share with Burkeans, who fretted about unrestrained liberty evolving into mob rule. Rousseau, a liberal, trusted too much in the intelligence of our species. Burke, a classic conservative, deemed the people not quite sufficiently intelligent to act in their own best interests. And doesn't the latter sound familiar? It's akin to the patronizing "nanny state" regard for people of which conservatives accuse liberals. That's what I mean about today's muddled terminology.
"Call me anything but late for dinner" was the breezy assertion of my parents' generation. After fascism, communism, Marxist-Leninism, and failed, Depression-era capitalism, they were wary of isms and labels.
I don't want to be late, either. I don't want to be late for the 21st century. For the rebirth of cities. For unprecendented comity among nations and cultures. For an environmentally sustainable life for our species. And for a caring society, in which no one is alone in their grief, troubles, promise and challenges, except by choice.
That's progressivism to me.
(Illustration: Liberal Party of Canada poster, 1930. The Liberals lost that year's election, but governed for nearly 70 years in the 20th century. Source: National Archives of Canada)
Cast your mind back to 1993-94, as "the vast right-wing conspiracy" had an open field in de-legitimizing Bill Clinton's presidency.
Not this time.
By most definitions, a conspiracy is at least somewhat secretive, which the anti-progressive forces decidedly are not. But conspiracy has a nefarious connotation, accurate in this case of reactionaries at war with the truth. And what most characterizes a conspiracy is a network, in this case extensive, of like-minded agents.
Clinton's defenders were thin on the ground. And, with exceptions like James "Serpenthead" Carville, were not street fighters. (Barbra Streisand?) Al Franken and Michael Moore didn't really hit their stride until Dubya took the stage.
Maybe it's because the G.O.P. screwed up so vastly in 2001-09 - two recessions, a botched war of choice, failing to protect the homeland from 9/11 and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, doubling in eight years a national debt Bush Jr.'s 42 predecessors spent 224 years accumulating - but the MSM seems more inclined than in 1993-2001 to accommodate the views of those opposing this president's vilifiers.
And, equally important the progressives have come out of hiding hibernation, and are raising their game with considerable speed. Yes, there's Limbaugh, O'Reilly, et al. But there now are lacerators on the left, too - Maddow, Olberman and Rep. Alan Grayson, to name a few. Meanwhile, entertainers Tucker Carlson, Mona Charon, the Coultergeist have been around so long we've tuned them out.
Here's some progressive pushback of the past few hours:
* Paul Krugman calls G.O.P. "bailouts" claim "possibly the most dishonest argument ever made in the history of politics." Notice Krugman doesn't say "American" politics. So I guess he's including Berlusconi, Aethelred the Unready and Vlad the Impaler. (video; ABC's "This Week")
* Joe Klein of Time says statements by Beck, Palin are "right up close to being seditious." (video, "Chris Matthews Show")
* Andrew Sullivan, progresssive who blogs at the Atlantic, renews sedition charges against Beck, Palin and "the Fox News Republican National Committee Coaliton Machine." (video; "Chris Matthews Show")
* Joan Walsh: "Right now there is a climate of violence on the right." (video, CNN's "Reliable Sources")
Okay, Joe (Anonymous) Klein can be a weasel. But that makes my point. When this agent of conventional wisdom sides with the progressives...Well, its not like LBJ "losing" Cronkite, but it says something about growing MSM disgust with too many right-wing fabrications to ignore.
That's especially true when, as now, the falsehoods from the right are not counter-balanced by at least some responsible G.O.P. voices. This is the price Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are paying for strait-jacketing fellow Republicans. When your side speaks with one, bile-flecked voice, the MSM for the sake of variety alone is more inclined to give the other side a hearing - conspicuously not the case in 1993-2001.
That's not to say the right is failing with the wall of noise it puts up. Just that progressives are putting some cracks in it, and the Nov. 9, 1989 for progressives is in sight.
James Murdoch, 37, daddy's head of European and Asian ops, storms into newsroom of the redesigned Independent, one of London's half-dozen upmarket national dailies, livid about Independent ads hinting at Roop-media's political influence in the midst of the current U.K. national election campaign.
The U.K. Guardian reports:
In common with so many of the unpleasant episodes involving angry young men in modern London, it was a squall about reputation and respect. The newly relaunched Independent had produced a series of relatively innocuous promotional ads assuring readers: 'Rupert Murdoch won't decide this election. You will.'
There is no evidence that Murdoch senior has even seen the ads, but witnesses report that directly upon seeing Kelner, who was supervising the final production stages of that night's paper, Murdoch the younger began angry remonstrations. 'What are you fucking playing at?' was his opening gambit.
Another case in which the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. My, what insecurity? Could this be the same family whose New York Post is editorializing that proposed congressional Wall Street reforms will destroy the Big Apple economy? (Uh, blockheads, an unrestrained Wall Street has impaired Gotham's economy. Wakey, wakey.) Whose Faux News maintains an alternative-reality force field on behalf of the right? Who can pass off sewage as news to the unsuspecting, but can't take an isolated tap on the knuckles?
Sheesh. James, 37, is no W.R. Hearst. But then, neither is Roop Sr.
Hearst actually believed in the American imperialism his yellow journalism stoked. By contrast, Roop means only to protect his financial interests. Murdoch Sr. aligned with Hillary Clinton in her New York Senate race and then, picking the wrong horse next time, flirted with her again for the Dem presidential nomination. Murdoch helped launch Margaret Thatcher, School-Milk Snatcher, who broke the Fleet Street unions for Roop. But he later backed a Labourite Tony Blair obviously about to topple the Tories. He shilled for Dubya, of course, and stoutly defends the Commie autocrats in Beijing. Roop just wants to be aligned with those holding power wherever he reaps his profits, or those poised to soon do so.
It's a bidness, as the late Molly Ivins would say. Too bad the collateral damage is civic hygiene.
The big show of the week:
Tuesday marks start to the showdown between Carl Levin's congressional committee and Wall Street. Lead-off star witness is Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, shaping up as America's Public Enema #1, tagged last summer by investigative reporter Matt Tabbi in Rolling Stone as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity." Blankfein says Goldman has been doing "God's work." Levin on the weekend released Goldman internal e-mails that show, he says, that Goldman was "betting against the U.S. housing market." That's not sexy enough. WH and Dems must cast Goldman and its Wall Street co-conspirators as "betting against America," as Frank Rich does here.
To put you in the mood for this week's Levin-Blankfein smack-down, here's a gripping two-part Bill Moyers interview with the co-authors of the bestselling 13 Bankers, a ripping expose of Wall Street malevolent greed that triggered the Great Recession and the loss of more than 8 million U.S. jobs.
If I was God, two things I might do: One is to have Texas or some other government-hating state (they're all south of the Mason-Dixon line save Montana, Idaho and the Dakotas) do without government for a year and wait to see how long it takes them to gather up all their "Don't Mess With Texas" knick-knacks and dump them into the Gulf of Mexico. Texas, of course, began as a government project,stolen liberated on Texans' behalf from Mexico by Uncle Sam.
Second thing, I'd scramble every TV signal in America save PBS. That's right, nothing but PBS 24/7 for a year. The couch potatos and sports addicts would squawk, but since there's a Republic awaiting rebirth, the stakes are high enough to suspend Faux News, the Golf Channel and the Food Network for until next spring. I mean, isn't there a cookbook store on every corner by now?
Heads-up 2: The Taliban is planning its own troop surge in what's shaping up as yet another failed foreign occupation of Afghanistan. (q.v. Britain, Soviet Union...)
March 4, 1970, four dead in Ohio, an iconic image of the tragedy of the Vietnam War. The dead, cut down by Ohio National Guardsmen with high-powered rifles, were Kent State students Jeff Miller, Allison Krause, Bill Schroeder and Sandra Scheuer (below). Scheurer was shot through the throat from 400 feet.
Heads-up 3: A week this Tuesday, to mark the 40th anniversary of the tragedy at Kent State University, Michael Moore plans a live webcast of what he he's describing as a Kent State Truth Tribunal. Four students were killed that day by Ohio National Guardsmen, and nine more injured, and to this day no one has been held to account.
Now that Bush-Cheney axis of evil is gone, Jon Stewart makes Faux News his chief target. What "The Daily Show" reveals would be funny for its absurdity if it weren't, in fact, quasi-tragic, given Murdoch's huge audience of brainwashees. Which makes "The Daily Show" an indispensible tag team with Media Matters for America, a go-to source for falsehoods and distortions in the MSM.
"Stewart does a great job of using comedy to expose the tragedy that is Fox News, and he also underscores the seriousness of it," Eric Burns, president of Media Matters, tells the NYT. In its account, "Jon Stewart's Punching Bag, Fox News," the Times reports that:
[Stewart] said on the show this week that he criticizes the network a lot because it is 'truly a terrible, cynical, disengenuous news organization.'
Is Facebook to blame for a "girls crisis"? (Antonia Zerbesias, women's issues blogger, Toronto Star)
Shocker: A U.S. shrink, writing in NYT Magazine, describes how he's learned that spending a little more time than his usual 20 minutes with patients enables him to more accurately diagnose them and prescribe the right drugs. To read his account, he's part of whole generation of like-minded shrinks that somehow graduated med school to inflict drive-by psychiatry on the public all these years.
Senate panel to release damning documents on credit-rating agencies' role in financial meltdown. Without the seal of approval from S&P and Moody's, those toxic assets would never have been bought by suckers worldwide. (NYT)
Why Romney should take credit as father of Obamacare. He pioneered it as Massachusetts governor. He's been running away from his record ever since, but shouldn't. (Newsweek)
America's demographic advantage. With its continued robust birth rate, America, already third-most-populous nation, will keep growing. (Joel Kotkin, Newsweek)
With a fertility rate 50 percent higher than Russia, Germany, or Japan, and well above that of China, Italy, Singapore, South Korea, and virtually all of Eastern Europe, the United States has become an outlier among its traditional competitors, all of whose populations are stagnant and seem destined to eventually decline. Thirty years ago, Russia constituted the core of a vast Soviet empire that was considerably more populous than the United States. Today, Russia's low birthrate and high mortality rate suggest that its population will drop by 30 percent by 2050, to less than one third that of the United States. Even Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has spoken of 'the serious threat of turning into a decaying nation'.
How the tax system is rigged to benefit the rich. I challenge you to read this and not have drops of blood start forming on your forehead. Here's a perfect example of how the presidency has gained power at the expense of Congress: administrations simply refuse to enforce the law. (Ezra Klein, Newsweek)
Every year the IRS collects data on "the tax gap." The tax gap is the difference between the taxes the agency knows it's owed and the taxes the agency has actually been paid. In fiscal year 2008, the tax gap was $345 billion. That's about 14 percent of the total taxes collected that year. And you know who makes up that shortfall: those of us who didn't dodge our taxes...
A report released by Citizens for Tax Justice shows that between 1995 and 2005, the IRS's budget was slashed by a fifth. Between 1995 and 2003, its enforcement division lost 36 percent of its staff. They were barred from conducting research on tax evasion, which meant they lost the ability to keep up with new tricks that accountants had discovered to game the tax code. More bizarrely, audits of the poor increased, through a special program meant to ferret out Earned Income Tax Credit fraud, but audits of people making more than $100,000 fell from 210,000 in 1996 to 92,000 in 2001—despite the fact that there were 80 percent more income filings over $100,000.
Some nice lines in Paul Krugman's column today:
Remember the 1987 movie Wall Street, in which Gordon Gekko declared: Greed is good? By today's standards, Gekko was a piker. In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, the finacial industry accounted for a third of domestic profits - about twice its share two decades earlier.
Those profits were justified, we were told, because the industry was doing great things for the economy. It was channeling capital to productive uses; it was spreading risk; it was enhancing financial stability. None of those were true. Capital was channeled not to job-creating innovators, but into an unsustainable housing bubble; risk was concentrated, not spread; and when the housing bubble burst, the supposedly stable financial system imploded, with the worst global slump since the Great Deprerssion as collateral damage.
We've been devoting far too large a share of our wealth, far too much of the nation's talent, to the business of devising and peddling complex financial schemes - schemes that have a tendency to blow up the economy. Ending this state of affairs will hurt the financial industry. So?
But then there's this:
On Thursday, President Obama went to Manhattan, where he urged an audience drawn largely from Wall Street to back financial reform. "I believe," he declared, "that these reforms are, in the end, not only in the best interest of our country, but in the best interest of the financial sector."
Well, I wish he hadn't said that - and not just because he really needs, as a political matter, to take a populist stance, to put some public distance between himself and the bankers. The fact is that Mr. Obama should be trying to do what's right for the country - full stop. If doing so hurts the banks, that's O.K....
In his Thursday speech, by the way, Mr. Obama insisted - twice - that financial reform won't stifle innovation. Too bad.
Three times William Jennings Bryan sought the presidency as the Dem nominee, campaigning against Wall Street. Three times he lost.
It would be bad politics for Obama to incessantly beat on Wall Street. Americans, no fools, would see this as blaming someone else for challenges they expect their president to tackle without complaint. Of course there's populist rage out there at the banks and the bailouts. But the punditry exaggerates its breadth and potency, and discounts how this anger will dissipate in an economic recovery.
Obama has everything to gain from the even-handed, open-hearted effort he made yesterday to recruit Wall Street into the reform effort. It squares with the president's trademark reasonableness and his common-sense approach to problem-solving. It's in keeping with his ideology-free style, which appeals especially to the swelling ranks of independents.
As for stifling innovation, not all financial-markets innovation has been subprime, or junk, mortgages; credit default swaps; collateralized debt obligations; and special investment vehicles (for hiding dubious assets off the balance sheet). Automatic banking/teller machines are a financial-markets innovation. So are credit cards that enable you to accumulate points toward free or discounted purchases. So is drive-through branch banking and daily interest savings accounts.
As it happens, subprimes - which predate the housing boom - serve a useful purpose when marketing responsibly. Credit default swaps are an important device by which airlines hedge against a spike in fuel prices, and aluminum producers hedge against a slump in metal prices.
Now turn this on its head. The president says his plan is to stifle innovation. By which he means throwing the baby out with the bathwater, pardon the cliche. America thrives on innovation. It's as American as apple pie. (That cliche, too.) Everyone craves innovation - that is to say, progress - provided only that it doesn't harm anyone.
To appease Krugman, Obama might have qualified that remark by adding, "But with any innovation, we must test it using the doctor's oath: "First, do no harm."
It's okay to have a tin ear for politics. Indeed, it's essential that visionaries untether themselves from the status quo and the cries of "It can't be done," in order to conceive a better world.
But you notice we rarely put visionaires in charge. And that when we do, they generally fail. As a rule they have insufficient appreciation for the pragmatism required to get things done in the real world.
Ideally our leaders sup with visionaries, and apply their public-arena skills to turn a vision into the world's longest bridge of its kind and time spanning the East River connecting Brookyn with Manhattan. To explore the heavens with spacecraft rather than mere telescopes. And to create and strengthen a social safety net that does not bust the budget or drain the taxpayer of an inordinate amount of disposable income.
I guess this is the conservative side of my personality, the part that asks, "Where will you get the money?" "How will you overcome the inevitable opposition?" "Are you sure this new thing will work, when the current thing seems to work well enough?" All three of those questions were deeply felt by Americans during the HCR debate. And HCR almost perished for its advocates' sloth in getting around to ackowledging them.
Krugman is one of those folks, like Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Scherr, who are on the right side of history. God bless 'em. They are required reading.
Reich wants to break up the banks so none has more than $100 billion in assets. If other nations fail to follow suit, America's resulting puny banks would be eaten alive by their giant offshore rivals. But I get the principle, that size for its own sake is the philosophy of the cancer cell. And, as GM proved, in time it becomes impossible to manage. But size has its obvious advantages. Can we focus on making size work, rather than revert to the small-is-beautiful notions of the 1960s?
I just have to confess I'd find the ideas of my progressive heroes a tad easier to wholly embrace if they were a bit more grounded in practicality. Not a lot, just a bit.
Nitpick: I mean no slight of Krugman, everyone does it: What Michael Douglas' character actually says is, "Greed, for lack of a better word, is good." The nuance is important. Even Gekko acknowledges that his pro-avarice philosophy is in some ways indefensible.
(Photo: New York Times handout)
David Olive is a business and current affairs columnist at the Star, which he joined in 2001 after stints at the Globe and Mail, National Post and Financial Post.
"If all economists were laid end to end, they would not reach a conclusion."
- George Bernard Shaw