2009 - %3, April

What Would W. Do at the G-20?

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 11:15 AM EDT

Imagine if George W. Bush were still president.

Don't gag. But ponder what might have happened at the G-20. Would Bush have arrived with the same-old agenda and urged other nations to cut taxes for individuals and corporations and to resist the calls for too much reregulation of high-flying financiers? Would he have also advocated, as his fellow Republicans in Congress are doing these days, spending cuts in order to restrain government deficits? And if so, would he have been laughed out of London?

The problem in years past was that Bush, no matter what any foreign leader thought of him, led the biggest economic and military power on the globe. So he could not be laughed off. (See Iraq). Barack Obama, on the other hand, is appreciated, not merely tolerated. And though Bush had entered office promising a certain amount of humility in foreign affairs (and then dumped that vow after 9/11), Obama actually demonstrated how such a pledge could be put into practice. During a Thursday press conference, he said:

We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize that the world is a complicated place and that we are going to have to act in partnership with other countries, when we lead by example, when we show some element of humility and recognize that we may not always have the best answer, but we can always encourage the best answer and support the best answer.

Of course, Obama has an interest in lowering expectations. It will be tough enough for him to fix the economic problems of the United States; being responsible for the economic woes of the world would be an even heavier burden. But he's also acknowledging that in the changing world, the United States is no longer the be-all-and-end-all, that it has indeed lost some global clout. A sneeze from the United States can still turn into a cold in other parts of the planet. But America may not be able to function as the world's economic doctor. (Hey, look at our health care system.) Having tapped out all that credit created by the speculation-driven housing bubble, it no longer has the demand to fuel a global rally.

Obama also showed a measure of maturity when he conceded that the steps the United States and the G-20 nations are taking may not work. At that press conference, ABC News' Jake Tapper asked him, "Can you say with confidence that the steps the G-20 nations are taking today...will help the world, or will prevent the world to avoid a depression or a deeper recession?" And Obama replied:

In life there are no guarantees; in economics, there are no guarantees. The people who thought they could provide guarantees, many of them worked at AIG, and it didn't work out so well.

Shades of JFK.

In London, Obama worked cooperatively and collaboratively with 19 other nations to reach an agreement under which these countries will engage in more than $1 trillion in lending to spur growth and will develop tough new regulations for banks and financial firms. Sure, some of this was left vague. But this accord was better than bickering and no resolution. "We never thought we would have such an agreement," French President Nicolas Sarkozy said. Obama may not be solely to credit for the agreement. But it's clear that his presence at the meeting--did you see this picture?--juiced up the proceedings, as he led the G-20 gang to a good-as-can-be-expected (if not a little better than that) deal.

So what would Bush have done? The good news is, we can only guess.

This was first posted at CQPolitics.com. You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

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Explaining the March Jobs Report: Pace of Job Loss Setting Records

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 10:51 AM EDT

According to the grim new jobs report, the economy lost 663,000 jobs in March, pushing the nation's unemployment rate to 8.5 percent. We've lost an average of 684,000 jobs every month since November 2008. Dean Baker, head of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, fills in some details:

While the most disadvantaged groups are feeling the effects of the downturn the hardest – the unemployment rate for African Americans is now 13.3 percent, which is also the rate for people without high school degrees – this recession is hitting everyone. The unemployment rate for workers with college degrees rose by 0.2 percentage points to 4.3 percent in March, almost a full percentage point above the peak for college grads in the last two recessions. While this rate is still just half of the overall average, it is double the 2.1 percent unemployment rate faced by college grads just a year ago. In other words, a college graduate is more than twice as likely to face unemployment today than a year ago.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities notes a disturbing nugget of news that is slipping under the radar:

The Labor Department’s most comprehensive alternative unemployment rate measure — which includes people who want to work but are discouraged from looking and people working part time because they can’t find full-time jobs — stood at 15.6 percent in March, up 6.9 percentage points since the recession began and the highest level on record in data that go back to 1994.

CBPP also claims that the "pace of job losses is far worse than it was even in the deep 1981-82 recession." So while the overall unemployment rate is not yet as high as it was then, we're losing jobs faster. See the chart below.

A Word of Caution re: Polling

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 10:43 AM EDT
You probably already knew this, but don't trust Fox News polls. The network's questions are as biased as its hosts are insane.

CEO Blues

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 1:58 AM EDT
The Wall Street Journal reports that CEO pay was down a whopping 3.4% last year.  But wait!

CEO compensation decreased more sharply at banks and brokerages, long the source of some of the biggest paychecks. Median annual cash compensation for CEOs in the financial industry fell 43%, to $976,000. Total direct compensation fell 14.2%, to a median $7.6 million.

So that's what happens when you destroy the global financial system: your pay goes down 14% to a mere $7.6 million per year.  I guess we showed them, didn't we?

Downsizing Brenda Starr

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 1:25 AM EDT
The bloodbath in America's newsrooms has come to the funny pages. The latest victim of corporate short-sightedness and the death of print media: Brenda Starr, who in the course of her 69-year news career (take that, Helen Thomas) has become synonymous with hard-hitting reportage from exotic locales such as Kazookistan and a fabulous head of sparkly fire-red hair (nice try, Maureen Dowd). On Tuesday, Starr got furloughed by the publisher and CEO of the financially troubled Flash, Al Neuharth-lookalike B. Babbit Bottomline. It's not clear what Starr's next move will be; in typical cartoon soap opera style, this plot development is taking agonizingly long to unfold. There's been hints that she'll follow in the footsteps of her "scrappy intern" Pug, who headed to India, "where newspapers are still thriving." Or maybe she'll launch an exciting second career on the Internets, perhaps with the tech-savvy former colleague who recently told her to "E-mail me on Facebook!". Stay tuned!

Rocket Fuel Found in Infant Formula

| Fri Apr. 3, 2009 12:40 AM EDT

A scary new under-the-radar CDC study has found that 15 infant formulas sold in the US are contaminated with the rocket fuel additive perchlorate—which is even worse than it sounds, because so is the tap water parents mix formula with.

From the Environmental Working Group:

Researchers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that 15 brands of powdered infant formula are contaminated with perchlorate, a rocket fuel component detected in drinking water in 28 states and territories.
The two most contaminated brands, made from cow’s milk, accounted for 87 percent of the U.S. powdered formula market in 2000, the scientists said.
The CDC scientists did not identify the formula brands they tested.
The little-noticed CDC findings, published in the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, raise new concerns about perchlorate pollution, a legacy of Cold War rocket and missile tests. Studies have established that the chemical is a potent thyroid toxin that may interfere with fetal and infant brain development (Kirk 2006).

Read the full EWG report, or learn more about perchlorate in this Mother Jones investigation by David Corn.

Update: Don't miss ProPublica's story on perc problems.

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Having the Right Enemies

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 9:13 PM EDT
Richard Scott is rich, conservative, and hates universal healthcare.  He's all about "patients' rights," you see, and intends to spend a big chunk of his fortune making sure people know it.  But if he intends to play the role of shady financier to the anti-reform crowd — well, that's fine by me:

Once lauded for building Columbia/HCA into the largest health care company in the world, Mr. Scott was ousted by his own board of directors in 1997 amid the nation’s biggest health care fraud scandal.

....“He’s a great symbol from our point of view,” said Richard J. Kirsch, the national campaign manager for Health Care for America Now. “We cannot have a better first person to attack health care reform than someone who ran a company that ripped off the government of hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Conservative health care activists, while glad to have a potential ally willing to spend $5 million out of his own pocket, are not fully embracing Mr. Scott....“I just don’t understand why he would be a messenger people would listen to,” said Charles N. Kahn III, who was a senior executive with the insurance industry group that ran the “Harry & Louise” advertisements credited with helping to kill the Clinton plan 15 years ago but who is working for a deal now. “I don’t think people are waiting to hear from him.”

....Mr. Scott has said his sole policy interest is to see to it that whatever overhaul Mr. Obama and Congress consider does not move the country toward a socialized system and away from what he calls his four pillars of reform: “choice, competition, accountability and personal responsibility.”

Ah, yes: competition and accountability.  Let's talk about that, shall we?  Or, rather, let's outsource it to our very own Blue Girl, who just happens to have worked at HCA back when they were bilking the taxpayers out of millions of dollars.  If you want to know how they did it, she's got the story right here.  It was simple!  And it'll remind you of Enron, IndyMac, AIG, and all the other bright lights of competition and accountability in corporate America that we've come to know and hate.

And for a real zeitgeist blast, there's also this: Scott steadfastly maintains that he did nothing wrong, and for his current venture he's hired the same PR firm that represented Swift Boat Veterans for Truth in 2004.  Central casting could hardly do better.  The wingers really know how to pick 'em, don't they?

Bruno Trailer Is Here (If You're Over 17)

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 8:17 PM EDT
I've been covering Sacha Baron Cohen's follow-up to Borat for a while now, from reports that his Austrian fashionista character Bruno was terrorizing midwesterners to unconfirmed but overwhelmingly positive early reviews of the film. But now, via HuffPo, we have something real: the actual, official trailer for the actual, official movie, which you can watch above. Needless to say, it is Not Safe For Work, and you have to enter your age to even make it play—the film was given a preliminary rating of NC-17, because, you know, references to gay sexuality are way worse than elaborate torture. Don't get me started. Anyway, the preview is perhaps even more raucous than one could have imagined, with practically every scene a jaw-dropping, and potentially dangerous, act of queer trickery. I'd say Baron Cohen should get a MacArthur genius grant, but I'm sure he's going to make a zillion dollars anyway. Bruno is out July 10.

Great Moments in Diplomacy

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 5:52 PM EDT
McClatchy's Steven Thomma reports that things were tense at the G-20 meeting until Barack Obama stepped in to save the day.  Listen and learn, grasshopper:

Heading into the summit's final hour [] it appeared that the group would fail to reach a consensus, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy pushed to have the G-20 spotlight offending tax havens based on a list published Thursday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and China objected, largely because it doesn't belong to the OECD.

That was when Obama, long a champion of ending or curbing tax havens, decided to float a compromise and pulled Sarkozy aside....Obama proposed that the G-20 merely "take note" of the OECD list, thus opening the door to implicit but not direct endorsement of that list.

....Obama then met with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Sarkozy in a corner of the summit meeting room, as the other world leaders waited. Upon the trio's reaching agreement, the G-20 summit then agreed to note the list of tax havens.

I guess I shouldn't make fun of this stuff.  The world is what it is.  But seriously: today's big ruckus was about whether to "spotlight" tax havens or to merely "take note" of them?  Jeebus.

Of course, this is all based on the word of an anonymous White House official who's got a vested interest in making Obama look like a diplomatic powerhouse.  And this business of China objecting to an OECD list because it doesn't belong to the OECD is almost certainly bogus.  (More likely it's because Macao and Hong Kong are tax havens and China isn't keen on having them cleaned up.)  So who knows if this story is even true?

But it sounds disturbingly plausible.  Of such stuff are diplomatic communiqués made.

Coolest G-20 Leaders Forming a Band?

| Thu Apr. 2, 2009 5:07 PM EDT
Anybody else notice the similarity between the arrangement of four of our world leaders at the G-20 conference in this picture, and a famous shot of one of the world's greatest bands? Because we did. I'm trying to think of a joke about "Obama met the queen and now he wants to be in Queen," but it's not happening. So, what instrument do you think each of them plays? Hu Jintao's got the Freddy Mercury position, but he just doesn't seem like he's got lead singer charisma. Sorry, but it's true. Belusconi, on the other hand, thinks he's in the Monkees. You're supposed to try and look cool, dude! Medvedev is so the drummer. By the way, how pissed is Sarkozy he didn't get in this shot? That'll teach him to be late to dinner. Although five members does make your musical combo much more likely to be a "boy band," so maybe he got a "non, merci" from the clearly-intent-on-musical-integrity Medvedev? Our own Dave Gilson didn't see "rock band" in this picture, he saw Japanese Photo Booth. He has a point. Check out his enhanced version of the shot after the jump.