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The Third Front

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 5:40 PM EDT
Only Nixon could go to China, and maybe only a Republican Defense Secretary can make serious cuts in big-ticket weapons systems.  Bob Gates has been rumored to favor axing some major platforms for quite a while, and the Boston Globe reports today that he's serious about it:

Two defense officials who were not authorized to speak publicly said Gates will announce up to a half-dozen major weapons cancellations later this month. Candidates include a new Navy destroyer, the Air Force's F-22 fighter jet, and Army ground-combat vehicles, the officials said.

More cuts are planned for later this year after a review that could lead to reductions in programs such as aircraft carriers and nuclear arms, the officials said.

....Gates's budget plans remain closely guarded, but aides say his decisions will be guided by the time he has spent with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One aide who has traveled with Gates more than a dozen times said the secretary "is particularly keen and aware of the urgent operational needs on the ground."  That likely means greater investments in intelligence-gathering systems such as pilotless drone aircraft, special-operations forces and equipment, and advanced cultural training for military personnel, aides said.

Obviously we've heard this all before, and there's no telling if Gates and Obama will be able to fight and win this battle.  They don't call it the Iron Triangle for nothing, after all, and a fight like this will suck down political capital faster than a dozen stimulus bills.

On the other hand, it looks as if Gates is carefully taking away equal numbers of toys from the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and it's possible that the stuff he wants to replace them with will be fairly evenly split too.  That may make his job easier.  Maybe.

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Correction: No Brown/Rihanna Duet

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 4:51 PM EDT
Ugh. See, this is what I get for breaking my rule not to talk about the Chris Brown/Rihanna scandal. Turns out my post last week citing a Reuters report that Rihanna had recorded a "love song" duet with boyfriend and alleged batterer Brown was incorrect, thank whatever deity or scientific principle you subscribe to. People (I'm quoting People in the Mother Jones!) has it covered, saying that it's all a big misunderstanding: Brown and Rihanna worked on a demo earlier in 2008, vocals to which apparently just recently leaked online, causing everybody to go into a tizzy. So, score one for, you know, sanity. My apologies for being that annoying blogger guy, just re-posting other stories for their shock value that turn out not to be true. I hate that guy! I promise to post lots of stories about cool up-and-coming bands this week to try and make up for it.

New Music: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 4:33 PM EDT
While Pitchfork's positive (8.4) review compared this New York band to Ride and Peter Bjorn and John, all I can think of when I see their unrepentantly verbose name and hear their strummy, melancholy, addictive tunes is The Smiths. Actually, the delicate, often-buried vocals mean I suppose this can be called "twee," but unlike the cutesy Belle and Sebastian, there's substance and strength here. There's the driving rhythm of "Young Adult Fiction," the Hacienda beat of "Stay Alive," and the Bowie-like skip of "A Teenager in Love." While lead singer Kip Berman has none of Morrissey's penchant for drama, he does have the Mozzer's ability to find the most interesting, ear-pleasing notes, counterpoints to the major chords that surprise at first but then seem utterly natural. To anyone who lived through, I dunno, 1988, this sound may feel so familiar it may seem like a carbon copy of a long-forgotten album. But to me, it's a a glorious renewal of a lost thread in rock music: a band that uses understatement to soar. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart's self-titled debut album is out now. MP3s: "Come Saturday," "Everything With You" After the jump, the video for "Everything With You"

The AIG Mystery: Who's Receiving Those Bonuses?

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

Just who's getting those AIG bonuses?

For days, media commentators, Republican and Democratic Legislators, and just plain folks have been ranting about the news that AIG, the belly-up insurance-giant-cum-hedge-fund that has been bailed out by the US government to the tune (so far) of $175 billion, is handing out at least $165 million in bonuses to its executives. The outrage has been flying fast and thick. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) called for AIG executives to resign or commit suicide. Stephen Colbert screamed and waved a pitchfork. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), declared that some of AIG's employees ought to be fired. President Barack Obama said he was "choked up with anger." Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, promised late Tuesday that Democrats would propose legislation taxing the bonuses at severe rates unless the bonus contracts were renegotiated. At the White House press briefings, press secretary Robert Gibbs has been pelted with questions about what Obama is going to do to stop—or reclaim—the bonuses.

But in all the furor, one unanswered question has been who precisely is receiving this largesse. Andrew Cuomo, the New York state attorney general, has been on the case. On Monday, he subpoenaed AIG for the names of the executives who received bonuses. The idea, presumably, would be to try to publicly shame some of the executives into returning the money. And Cuomo received something of a boost from the White House. At the end of Tuesday's press briefing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Gibbs said that the president is supportive of Cuomo's efforts and is also "looking into" obtaining and making public the names of the AIG employees awarded bonuses. This was not a rip-roaring endorsement, but a signal that Obama wouldn't mind if Cuomo succeeded in publicly humiliating these executives. After all, Cuomo's endeavor makes sense: If it's really so hard to get the money back from these folks (because preexisting contracts supposedly can't be broken), taxpayers should at least know whose bank accounts they're padding.

Death and Taxes

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 3:30 PM EDT
The AIG bonuses have already been paid out, so how can we get them back even if we want to?  Some clever congressmen think they have the answer:

Senate Democrats will seek to recoup $165 million in bonuses paid to executives of the troubled insurance giant American International Group through a narrowly focused tax, unless the money is returned voluntarily, party leaders announced this morning.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said Finance Committee Chairman  Max Baucus (Mont.) would unveil a proposal by tomorrow that would tax up to 98 percent of the bonus money. "That will certainly send a message to the people at AIG and all others who try to benefit from the hardships the American people face," Reid said.

In the House,  Reps. Steve Israel (N.Y.) and  Tim Ryan (Ohio) introduced the "Bailout Bonus Tax Bracket Act" to create a 100 percent tax on bonuses over $100,000 that are distributed to employees of financial firms receiving federal bailout funds.

On the scale of grand karmic justice, this all sounds fine.  Screw 'em.  Sadly, though, the world doesn't work on the principle of karmic justice.  If it did, Rush Limbaugh would be flipping burgers at a McDonalds in West Sacramento.  So, some random thoughts:

• Would this cause havoc with the sanctity of contracts?  Would no one ever trust the United States government again?  I've now read variations on this theme several times, and I'm unimpressed.  More likely, I'd say, is that the lesson everyone would learn is that if you destroy the global financial system then you might have your bonuses taken away.  This does not strike me as such a bad lesson.

• Would this be legal?  Just curious.  The Supreme Court is fine with retroactive tax increases, but if you target this too finely couldn't it be read as a bill of attainder?  Maybe some legal eagles can chime in on this.

• I wonder how many of the folks at AIG getting the big bonuses are American?  Can we get Gordon Brown to put the screws to the ones who aren't?

• There's actually a genuine unfairness in applying this to every financial firm that's received federal bailout funds.  This is one of the reasons I opposed Hank Paulson's dramatic October gathering where he insisted that every big bank accept TARP funds: it means that we don't know which banks really needed the money and which ones didn't.  If, as Richard Kovacevich continues to insist, Wells Fargo never needed the money in the first place, does the government really have the moral authority to wipe out Wells Fargo's bonuses?

• Are we afraid that if we don't pay these guys millions of dollars they'll all quit and AIG will implode even worse than they already have?  Here's an idea: draft 'em.  Rewrite the selective service law to remove age limits, make financial wizards a special category, and then induct them into the Army.  Unlike the world of foreign affairs, this is one place where the carrot and stick metaphor is genuinely appropriate: instead of the carrot of millions of dollars for good performance, we'd use the stick of years in the stockade as a way of preventing bad performance.  Plus we could make them all wear uniforms and clean out the latrines in their spare time.

That last idea is dedicated to Tyler Cowen. We don't want bloggy fame making us too conventional, do we?

Hmm, About Mobilizing Those Obama Millions....

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 3:06 PM EDT

Organizing for America, the next iteration of President Obama's campaign apparatus, is launching a web tool today that is designed to mobilize millions of Obamaniacs in support of the president's budget. Right now, the tool, which you can find here, mainly makes calling your elected representatives easier.

Not to be the skunk at the party here, but I have a question: shouldn't people know what is in the budget before they start demanding support for it?

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Ditka 237, da Russian Bear 3: Ambassador Iron Mike

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 2:30 PM EDT
In honor of St. Patrick's Day President Obama announced Dan Rooney, the Irish-American owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers, as ambassador to Ireland. The merger of professional football and politics is a promising one, and Obama should look closer to home when naming his official envoy to Ukraine. Being from Chicago, Obama knows that if anyone should be our man in Kiev, it's Iron Mike Ditka.

Ditka, who is of Ukrainian descent, ushered in the gilded age of the Chicago Bears. He's one of two people to win Super Bowls as a player, assistant coach, and head coach. He runs a chain of self-named restaurants, dabbles in California wines, launched resorts in Florida, and works as a sports commentator. If anyone could tackle the challenges of running an embassy, it's Ditka. As SNL's Superfans remind us, who wins in a fight, Ditka versus god? Trick question—Ditka is god. 

A Question

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:31 PM EDT
I've asked this before, but I'm going to ask it again.  This time I don't want it to get lost, so I'm including no long discussion or analysis.  Just the question.  Here it is:

Why is the modern financial system so profitable?  Shouldn't it actually be getting less profitable over time?

All types of guesses are welcome.  Give it your best shot.

I'm Flicking the Lights Off

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:20 PM EDT


Sarah Silverman did it first but this crew does it DARKER for Earth Hour: Saturday 28 March 8:30pm. You can too. Don't forget.

Madagascar's Coup d'Etat

| Tue Mar. 17, 2009 1:04 PM EDT

During a college semester abroad in Fort Dauphin, Madagascar, I suddenly felt compelled to write long letters to anyone who I thought might read them. Partly it was to plaster entire envelopes with the country's beautiful palette of penny stamps--everything from lemur scenes to Elvis tributes. But I also really needed to tell someone about the malnourished, 24-hour banana salesmen who slept in doorways, the giant hissing cockroaches in the outhouses, and the men who stood on the rocks alongside the coral beaches and hurled out fishing line, bending over as it unspooled off the tops of their heads.

Madagascar has never been a practical country, and I suppose that's part of its charm. The bridges are all washed out. The national highway is a soup of laterite. Rural folk live in mud-brick hovels yet spend the afterlife within palatial cement replicas of airplanes and taxi brousses--the jacked-up WWII-era troop carriers that are the only way to get around. The less intractable of these problems were, according to Fort Dauphin's students, caused by the greed and ineptness of the country's then-president, Didier Ratsirika, who clung to power only because his party rode into town before each election atop huge loads of free rice.

An island off the southeast coast of Africa, Madagascar is in some ways even more tragic than the continent's cliches. When humans first drifted there from Africa and Indonesia beginning only about 1000 B.C., it was as if they followed the wake of a second Noah's Ark. They found lemurs the size of gorillas, pygmy hippos no bigger than pigs, and elephant birds, which stood 10 feet tall and weighed half a ton. Those creatures were long ago engulfed in wave of extinction that continues to this day. Among the most tenuous survivors is the Aye Aye, which seems like a fusion of monkey, bat, and woodpecker. Despite Madagascar's status as a virtual mini-continent where 80 percent of species are found nowhere else, its infrastructure has been too unreliable to support what should be a thriving tourism industry.

There was once hope that politicians could turn things around. In 2002, Malagasy president Marc Ravalomanana, a self-made dairy farmer, ousted Ratsirika at the polls in a wave of popular support and optimism. Of course, Madagascar was still a country where children stood on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, waiting to dance for the occasional driver in hopes he'd toss coins out the window; poverty ran deep. So when Andry Rajoelina, the young, charismatic disc jockey who'd become mayor of the nation's capital, Antananarivo, organized protests against rising food prices and government graft last year, Ravalomanana had him ousted. The ensuing three-month standoff ended this week when troops sympathetic to Rajeolina stormed the presidential palace and forced Ravalomanana to cede power.

"This is no clash of policies; it is a clash of personalities," the BBC opined. That doesn't mean it's any less a disaster. The Madagascar military has ended its tradition of not taking political sides. Rajoelena has refused to submit to a referendum on the presidency, paving the way for an uncertain period of dictatorship. And tourism has ground to a halt and will likely take months or years to start up again, especially in the midst of a global downturn.

As the coup clearly shows,  tourism and poverty are uneasy bedfellows. The tragedy in Madagascar is that they need not be. Though hard to reach and difficult to navigate, Madagascar is far from dangerous. It simply needs more ways for tourist money to flow to people at the bottom of the economic ladder, and more tourists who won't let a few sand fleas, stomach bugs, and lost tires get in the way of seeing the most unique place on the planet.