2008 - %3, January

The Mortgage Meltdown

| Mon Aug. 25, 2008 8:57 AM PDT

THE MORTGAGE MELTDOWN....From the LA Times this morning:

Long before the mortgage crisis began rocking Main Street and Wall Street, a top FBI official made a chilling, if little-noticed, prediction: The booming mortgage business, fueled by low interest rates and soaring home values, was starting to attract shady operators and billions in losses were possible.

"It has the potential to be an epidemic," Chris Swecker, the FBI official in charge of criminal investigations, told reporters in September 2004. But, he added reassuringly, the FBI was on the case. "We think we can prevent a problem that could have as much impact as the S&L crisis," he said.

You gotta be kidding. Even a guy at the FBI saw this coming? But the rocket scientists at the Fed somehow slept through it anyway? Yeesh.

Still, the conclusion of the story should restore your faith in the federal bureacracy: after writing his memo, Swecker's budget was cut. "Nobody wanted to listen," Sharon Ormsby, the chief of the FBI's financial crimes section, explained. Partly this was because of an increased focus on counterterrorism, but apparently much of it was also because Ashcroft & Co. insisted on shifting resources into the movement hot button areas of illegal immigration and child pornography. Now that's the approach to regulatory and fraud issues we've come to expect from the Bush administration.

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Those Olympic Ceremonies

| Mon Aug. 25, 2008 8:47 AM PDT

THOSE OLYMPIC CEREMONIES....I think I've finally figured out what it is that bugged me so much about the Olympic opening ceremonies in Beijing a couple of weeks ago. I know there are plenty of candidates for this honor, but here's mine: it reminded me of the annual Easter Pageant at the Crystal Cathedral. That's an odd thing to say since I've never actually seen the Easter Pageant even though I've lived within ten miles of the CC (and its predecessor) my entire life, but there you have it. I think the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics are what Rev. Schuller would stage if he had $300 million and 20,000 people to do it with.

Self-Parody Watch

| Sun Aug. 24, 2008 2:34 PM PDT
SELF-PARODY WATCH....This is just bizarre. Has any presidential candidate ever before run an ad mocking his opponent for not choosing a particular running mate? I think the folks running McCain's war room are getting cabin fever or something.

But who knows? Maybe an attack ad this transparent will be just the thing to finally get all those ex-Hillary supporters fully on board with Obama. Sort of the way trash talk from the Yankees ends up on the front page of the Boston Globe and fires up even fair weather Red Sox fans. That's pretty much how it would affect me, anyway.

In any case, since this is an ad that's obviously aimed at insiders and the media, not actual voters, Jon Cohn has some pointed advice:

Having said all that, the media has some responsibilty here, as well. Controversy makes for good coverage, I know. But for all the talk of disunity, the really remarkable story about the Democrats right now is the absence of meaningful dissent on the party's agenda. When it comes to substance, the Democrats are arguably more united than they have been since the early 1960s. Yes, you can find divisions on both domestic and foreign policy, on everything from the relative priority of deficit reduction to America's response to Darfur. But these debates don't match the kind we've seen in the past.

That's really true, isn't it? On trade and economic issues, the left and right of the party have both moved in each other's direction since the early 90s and the remaining disageements are pretty moderate. Nearly everyone is united on some form of liberal internationalism as our favored foreign policy stance, and nearly everyone wants to withdraw from Iraq. Social issues have largely sorted themselves out. There's surprisingly broad agreement about what our energy policy ought to look like. And there's virtual unanimity on the broad contours of how we should tackle healthcare.

It's not all sweetness and light, but aside from optics and personality issues, liberals really are remarkably united this year. It's kinda scary in a way. I blame the blogosphere.

FORMATTING NOTE: It took me a while to figure out how to embed YouTube clips over at the old site so that they looked decent, but I haven't quite figured it out here yet. This clip looks fine in Firefox, but it's sort of squashed in Internet Explorer and a complete disaster in Safari. Sorry. I'll fiddle around some more later and try to figure out the magic bullet.

On the other hand, I just noticed that link highlighting works a whole lot better in IE and Safari than Firefox. Win some, lose some, I guess.

Barn Doors

| Sun Aug. 24, 2008 11:15 AM PDT

BARN DOORS....Via TPM, Mark Halperin said this morning that Barack Obama was foolish to bring up the issue of John McCain's seven house because it "opens the door" for McCain to air inflammatory ads about Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, and other dark chapters from Obama's past. It opens, to coin a phrase, the gates of hell.

But wait, you're thinking: wasn't all this stuff going to come up anyway? Turns out George Stephanopoulos asked precisely that:

Stephanopoulos: Don't you think that was going to come up anyway?

Halperin: I think it would have been hard for John McCain, given the way he says he's going to run his campaign, to do all this stuff without the door being opened.

It really does make you wonder what planet Halperin is living on. Last month McCain hired Karl Rove protege Steve Schmidt, and since then he's run ads mocking Obama's celebrity, charged (repeatedly) that Obama puts his career ahead of his country, pretended that Obama had refused to visit wounded soldiers unless the press was along, run an ad saying that Obama was responsible for high gas prices, and conspicuously declined to comment on Jerome Corsi's bestselling claim that Obama is really a secret Muslim. At this point, who cares how McCain "says he's going to run his campaign"? Halperin can look at McCain's actual campaign and see what kind of campaign he's running. It's been sunk in the gutter for weeks now.

Anyway, as Halperin is certainly well aware, McCain and his cheering section are beavering away on all this stuff anyway. Over at National Review, for example Stanley Kurtz has been hard at work badgering the University of Illinois to give him access to the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Why? Because his heart is turning somersaults over the possibility that something in the archives will show that Obama had a conversation or three with radical leftist Bill Ayers during the period when both served on the board of CAC in the mid-90s. Do you think Kurtz was waiting for a "door to be opened"? Or Jerome Corsi? Or Steve Schmidt? Please.

The Great Road of Georgia

| Sun Aug. 24, 2008 10:41 AM PDT

THE GREAT ROAD OF GEORGIA....The Observer reports that despite Russian claims that they're withdrawing from Georgia, they appear to be doing no such thing:

The country's forces were in control of several key areas outside the original conflict zone — including the Black Sea port of Poti and the western town of Senaki. Additionally, troops had established new 'buffer zones' around the breakaway republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

There was compelling evidence yesterday [] that Russia is planning a long-term occupation of Georgia. The Observer witnessed Russian soldiers digging trenches seven kilometres outside the port of Poti next to the Rioni river and the main highway to Tbilisi.

....The Kremlin's plan now appears clear: to maintain a significant military presence in Georgia, capable of choking the country's economy and shutting down its major trade routes. It also allows Russia the option of a future invasion, should it want one.

OK, fine. If the West is looking for a way of supporting Georgia that doesn't involve dumb ideas like boycotting the 2014 Olympics or kicking Russia out of the G8, how about building the Georgians a new cross-country road and rail link? One further south that wouldn't be under Russian control?

Now, I know what you're thinking: every place south of the current cross-country road is full of mountains. And so it is. But that didn't stop the Ming emperors from building the Great Wall of China, did it? If they can build a thousand miles of wall, we ought to be able to build a couple hundred miles of road and rail. So let's get cracking.

Outside Lands: Slogging It, Part Two

| Sat Aug. 23, 2008 4:02 PM PDT

An hour and a half after our streetcar adventure began, we made it to Golden Gate Park Friday evening with more than a half an hour to spare before Manu Chao took the stage at 6:15.

Making our way through the gates took another 45 minutes: We entered the park at 19th Avenue, the closest entrance to the box office and our passes, but the festival map did not label the intra-park streets, which snake around and break off into tributaries. I figured this was the organizers' way of testing our spatial-reasoning skills.

This thought was confirmed when, after we realized we had walked too far and turned around to backtrack, we saw signs labeled "media check-in" and "will call" with arrows pointing us in the right direction. The sign was hanging on a fence, facing away from anyone who entered the park at 19th Avenue.

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My Outside Lands Experience: Worth the Fog and Trouble

| Sat Aug. 23, 2008 3:37 PM PDT

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First of all, not to rub it in to my streetcar-entrapped Mother Jones colleagues, but a motorcycle makes things a lot easier.

To those of you who aren't located within about a 10-mile radius of San Francisco, let me remind you of our unique meteorological situation. The California Current brings cold Pacific Ocean water south from Canada, while upwelling from the frigid, murky deep peaks during the summer months, making our ocean waters colder in June and July than they are in December. The summer sun heats the land in central California, causing high low surface pressure, and sucking the chilly, saturated air in from the sea and over SF. This creates the famous fog, which everyone thinks is so charming in pictures but actually feels like a soggy blizzard. It's my personal theory that the Bay Area's notorious political uniqueness is actually a symptom of meteorological alienation from the rest of America, frolicking in the summer sun while we huddle around our space heaters. Whatever else our shivery summer isolation causes, it makes an outdoor music festival in Golden Gate Park, out by the ocean where thick fog is almost inevitable, seem about as attractive as spending an evening under the vegetable sprayers in the supermarket.

Conservative Insta-Reaction

| Sat Aug. 23, 2008 1:14 PM PDT

CONSERVATIVE INSTA-REACTION....I consider The Corner to be a peek into the conservative id, so I was curious to see what they had to say about Joe Biden before the message machine kicks in. Here it is in a nutshell:

The 3 am text message announcement was a subtle dig at Hillary; Biden's a blowhard; he thinks he's smarter than you; it's "the most self-loving ticket ever"; he's a plagiarist; he's a pro-choice Catholic, just like John Kerry; he doesn't represent change; he's unpopular in Iraq.

That's pretty weak brew. I'm sure it'll get better and nastier over time, though, as they get over the fact that, as near as I can tell, some of them actually have sort of a grudging admiration for the guy. Still, the golden rule in attack politics is that you need something new: the blowhard/plagiarism/he-said-Obama-wasn't-ready-to-be-president stuff is old news, and the media almost certainly won't give it more than a little bit of play. The question is, can the wingers take this stuff and somehow roll it up into something that seems fresh, the way the Swift Boaters did with John Kerry's Vietnam service? If they can, then the media will start to play along.

Outside Lands: Slogging It

| Sat Aug. 23, 2008 1:11 PM PDT

Our downtown offices at Mother Jones sit just a few miles from Golden Gate Park, the site of the Outside Lands fest, so to make sure we had a good spot for Manu Chao's set at 6, Brittney and I hopped on an outbound streetcar just after 4 yesterday afternoon.

After the train pulled away from Montgomery Street, we began talking about the bands we were excited to see: The Black Keys, Radiohead, Beck, Cold War Kids. It had been a long week at MoJo; our Military Bases project finally went live. We were looking forward to a relaxing night in the park.

And then approximately 12,639 tourists, hipsters, hippies, festival-goers, and unlucky commuters crammed themselves into to the train at the next stop. I guessed 12,634 of them were also on their way to Outside Lands. Suddenly, I became acutely acquainted with the aromatic heft of Old Spice deodorant under the arm of the guy who wedged in next to me to grab the pole over my head. Two women, probably on their way home, sitting in the seats just in front of me looked up at the crowd that had made the train a can of sardines; their faces wore Kurtz's horror.

So many people had squeezed in to the train the door wouldn't close, so the conductor politely informed the crowd not to lean on the bars that, when pressed, open the doors when the cars stop at street level. Ten stops and ten similar announcements later, he'd lost his patience: "DON'T LEAN ON THE BARS! THE BARS KEEP THE DOORS OPEN! GET OFF THE CAR! CAR TWO! I KNOW IT'S YOU, CAR TWO!" A girl at the back of the car put it even more bluntly: "Get off the f*cking bars! Get off the f*cking car!"

We were half way there.

—Steve Aquino

The Biden Effect

| Sat Aug. 23, 2008 10:37 AM PDT

THE BIDEN EFFECT....I think this poll result from the Washington Post pretty much summarizes what non-obsessives think about Obama's choice of Joe Biden for vice president: they don't care. Asked if it would affect their vote, only a quarter said it would, and that quarter was split almost down the middle. There's just no effect at all.

Which is not to say that there won't be an effect eventually, of course. If Biden says something dumb, or if McCain's attack dogs are able to dream up an effective smear campaign against him, it could turn into a mistake. But like nearly any other choice Obama could have made (Hillary Clinton is the obvious exception), he starts off as a big fat null. People just don't care that much about who the vice president is.