| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 10:13 PM EDT

I cannot wrap my head around this op-ed by Jackson Diehl in Sunday's Washington Post. The theme? President Obama is starting to look a lot like President Bush:

The Bush administration pushed through the USA Patriot Act in October 2001 by suggesting that opponents didn't want to stop another al-Qaeda attack. In his first news conference, Obama suggested that congressional opponents of the stimulus package "believe that we should do nothing" about the economic emergency...

So Obama hasn't strayed far from Karl Rove's playbook for routing the opposition. But surely, you say, he's planning nothing as divisive or as risky as the Iraq war? Well, that's where the health-care plan comes in: a $634 billion (to begin) "historic commitment," as Obama calls it, that (like the removal of Saddam Hussein) has lurked in the background of the national agenda for years. We know from the Clinton administration that any attempt to create a national health-care system will touch off an enormous domestic battle, inside and outside Congress. If anything, Obama has raised the stakes by proposing no funding source other than higher taxes on wealthy Americans, allowing Republicans to raise the cries of "socialism" and "class warfare."

Just as Bush promoted tax cuts as a remedy for surplus and then later as essential in a time of deficits, so Obama has come up with strained arguments as to why health-care reform, which he supported before the economic collapse, turns out to be essential to recovery. Yet as he convened his "health care summit" at the White House on Thursday, the stock market was hitting another 12-year-low; General Motors was again teetering on the brink of insolvency and the country was still waiting to hear the details of the Treasury's proposal to bail out banks. George W. Bush might well be asking: Is the president taking his eye off the ball?

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Billy Corgan Asks Congress For Money

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 8:12 PM EDT
Okay, the Smashing Pumpkins frontman was actually asking the House Judiciary Committee to pass the Performance Rights Act, which would give artists royalties for having their songs played on the radio, rather than just the songwriters, but the end result would be more moolah for Mr. Mopey more bucks for baldy an increased revenue stream for Mr. Corgan. Pitchfork found the Getty page with pictures if you want to see him, all decked out in a suit and stuff. The Chicago Sun-Times has a transcript of Corgan's full testimony, including gems like "ours is a business that always begins with the brilliance of the artists." Sure, unless it starts with the cynicism of a label exec. But that's a kind of artistry! Anyway, Corgan was speaking on behalf of Music FIRST, an organization whose whole reason for being is to revise the royalty structure; internet and satellite radio pay royalties to artists and songwriters, while regular old AM/FM stations just pay songwriters. After the jump: your farcically-named DJ tries to untangle this moral web.

Rihanna and Chris Brown Recording Duet

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 7:41 PM EDT
If you, like me, have been watching the Rihanna/Chris Brown scandal unfold with sick horror, get ready to have that feeling step up to a scream/hurl combo. Reuters is confirming TMZ's reports that Brown and his alleged victim of assault have been in the studio working on a "love song." The song was originally meant for Rihanna alone, but producer Polow Da Don apparently thought it would be a super idea to have Brown join in and make it a duet. The track's themes apparently touch on "overcoming difficult challenges as a couple." Insert scream/hurl noise here. A source told TMZ that the recording sessions were "very emotional... the feeling in the room was pure love." Insert louder scream/hurl noise here. Apparently the producer urged them to hurry up and record the track, since "the heightened emotions would translate powerfully into the music." Insert enormous scream/hurl noise here with additional sound of head exploding.

Blogs and The Man

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 6:55 PM EDT
Should the president read blogs?  Ezra thinks so:

Many of us bloggers know Jesse Lee, the White House's crack blog outreach guy. It would be nice, however, if the Eisenhower Executive Office Building housed Lee's inverse: An independent-minded new media guy charged by Obama with digging through the blogosphere and picking out a selection of posts and contrary voices that the President might find analytically useful. That's certainly happening on the communications side of things, where the blogs are watched with an eye towards message and influence. It would be nice to know a similar project was underway to trawl the more technical corners of the blogosphere for insights that might be useful but aren't being hunted down by a busy president or his overworked underlings, much less passed on by technocrats whose incentives don't include elevating analyses that undercut their own positions.

Nah.  Obama has all the technical expertise he needs, and the real outliers wouldn't make it past this hypothetical EEOB gatekeeper anyway. Instead, Obama ought to just read some blogs.  Either pick a few he likes and scan them daily, or else commission some kind of random RSS feed based on a larger universe of blogs.  It would be sort of like Ozymandias watching all those TV screens at once to suck in the zeitgeist, except in words.

(Sorry.  I played hooky this afternoon and went to see Watchmen. So I figured I ought to work in a reference somewhere.)

Anyway, one of the keys to this would be to keep his reading list absolutely secret.  Can you imagine what your blog would become like if you knew the president was reading it?  You'd either become a constant shill for every one of your pet hobbyhorses or else catatonic from the pressure of knowing that the leader of the free world was reading your pearls of wisdom.  So that means Obama needs to make the choices himself and not let anybody else in on it.

Besides, assuming that Obama doesn't screw the pooch completely over the next eight years, what would be cooler than discovering in 2016 that your blog was one of the ones he had been reading?  Not much.  So get that man an RSS reader and let him see the outside world in all its raw glory.

Cities Are Selling Stimulus Funds to Each Other

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 6:48 PM EDT

In Los Angeles County, cities are buying federal stimulus funds from each other at deep discounts, turning what was supposed to be a targeted infusion of cash into a huge auction.

It all started when the county's Metropolitan Transportation Agency decided to hand out $44 million from the federal stimulus package in the form of $500,000 transportation grants to each of the county's 88 cities. But some cities didn't have any shovel-ready transportation projects. So with MTA's blessing, they're selling the grants to the highest bidder:


La Habra Heights, a city of 6,000, has sold its $500,000 in federal funds to the city of Westlake Village for $310,000 cash. Irwindale, population 1,500, also sold its $500,000 to Westlake Village, for $325,000 cash.


The city of Rolling Hills, population 1,900, sold its $500,000 share to the city of Rancho Palos Verdes for $305,000 cash. The city of Avalon has reached an agreement to swap its $500,000 with L.A. County.

This is Southern California that we're talking about--the land of eternal gridlock. MTA could have redirected the money to a nearly infinite list of other transportation projects. But chief planning officer Carol Inge told the Pasadena Star-News that the agency didn't want to do that because "our board wanted to give every city at least a chance to benefit from the stimulus package."

I'm sure many cities have higher priorities than transportation. And I would have liked to have seen more direct aid to ailing local governments in the stimulus bill. Still, MTA's approach strikes me as a bit too creative. What's next, stimuls money credit default swaps?

UPDATE: After this post appeared, MTA reversed course and invalidated these sales. It now says that the stimulus funds can only be swapped for other county money targeted for transit projects. But this probably won't end the controversy. MTA is still handing out a half million bucks to all 88 cities in the county, including the tiny Irwindale, population 1,446. That's $345 per Irwindalian, just for transportation. With that they could hire a worker to dig through the yellow pages and dial up free limos for everyone. H/T to TotalCapitol in the comments.

Out of Afghanistan--Or In Deep?

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 6:47 PM EDT
In a recent interview with The New York Times, President Barack Obama said the United States was not winning the war in Afghanistan–but did not use the word "losing"–and he raised the possibility of talking to Taliban and Islamist factions in order to separate them from al Qaeda. The point: to isolate Osama bin Laden's murderous gang, both geographically and politically. Obama's remarks have generated much discussion about his policy on Afghanistan, though he does not yet have one. His national security team is in the middle of a review that is due to be completed by the end of the month. Obama has said he will send 17,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan in the spring and summer. But he has not yet said what the overall mission is there. While foreign policy experts and others await the results of the review, there's still plenty to discuss and ponder, and I did so Tuesday night on Hardball:

You can follow my postings and media appearances via Twitter by clicking here.

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Coachella Shuffle: Winehouse Out, Chems In

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 3:57 PM EDT
Oh, Amy Winehouse. No matter what sort of stupid crap you get up to, the hypnotic, neo-soul melody of "You Know I'm No Good" still haunts me, and of course I know that your actually being no good is part of the whole package, even though it makes me feel like as a consumer of your musical product I'm part of the problem, an "enabler;" but still, if you're so "no good" that you can't get a freakin' visa to come over here and perform, then that's too "no good," although it's clearly a difficult line to walk: you have to be bad enough to be scary, not bad enough to be, you know, dead, or permanently removed from society, or something, so I'm sympathetic, and also not. In simpler terms, it was announced yesterday that Winehouse was forced to cancel her appearance at the Coachella music festival in April, although spokeman Chris Goodman denied that any official visa-rejection happened, calling the problem "legal issues." He's likely talking about the assault charges the singer faces in the UK over a scuffle back in September of 2008, although I suppose it could be any combination of 80 gazillion other things: arms smuggling, baby seal torture, hastening the heat death of the universe. We know she's no good! But don't fret, Coachella-bound hipsters: will some freak-folk, electro, punk rock, and avant-hip-hop make up for Winehouse's absence? Organizers announced yesterday that longtime festival favorites the Chemical Brothers have been added to the lineup, along with beardy hippie Devendra Banhart, stoner-raver hero the Orb, oh-so-French disco-dance producer Etienne de Crecy, and they're-so-bad-they've-got-a-crime-in-their-name punk rockers Murder City Devils. Plus, the little DJ dome that I never go into because it seems like it must be stiflingly hot will play host to hip-hop boundary-pushers Flying Lotus, Kode 9, Daedelus and more. Maybe I'll stop by this time. Okay, it all sounds good; now, if we could only find a freakin' house to rent...

Thoughts on Jim Cramer vs. Jon Stewart

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 1:45 PM EDT

There is a serious feud ongoing between Jon Stewart and Jim Cramer.

Stewart, as you probably know, used the Daily Show and other venues to slam the financial TV networks in general and CNBC specifically. The Mad Money host, who has become famous by instructing viewers to buy and sell individual stocks in a carnival barker style, came under especially harsh criticism.

Cramer then did a media tour to defend himself; you can see a video summarizing that here and read a column Cramer wrote on the subject here. Stewart responded; you can see that here. Cramer's primary argument in all this is that Stewart is taking video snippets out of context to make him look bad -- something a comedian or a blogger could do to any pundit. Cramer points out that Stewart never mentions the fact that he urged people to withdraw their money from the stock market October 2008, when the Dow was still around 10,000. He did do that, it's true.

Cramer does deserve credit for (1) ending his market boosterism and Wall Street CEO ego-stroking before the rest of TV's financial news community did the same, and (2) apologizing for some horrifically bad stock picks (he endorsed Wachovia stock after then-CEO Bob Steel came on Mad Money and pimped the bank). But ultimately that's all tangential: What Cramer really needs to do is stop making ordinary people believe they can game the stock market on a day to day basis. A massive majority of the buying and selling done on Wall Street is done by banks and massive institutions with all the resources in the world at their disposal. Joe Sixpack and his 1,000 shares of Coca-Cola are just grease for the gears. If Joe invests his money long-term in low-risk index funds and mutual funds, he might ride out the market's fluctuations. If he tries to move that Coca-Cola at just the right time, and buy Johnson & Johnson at just the right time, he's going to get eaten alive.

Jim Cramer can defend himself all he wants. But his modus operandi is still problematic: he sends amateurs hurtling into a professional's game.

Generals Open Up About Their Own PTSD

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 1:28 PM EDT

It's about damn time. CNN spoke with two one-stars who are doing their part to destigmatize this oh-so-natural consequence of, you know, war and stuff:

Brig. General Gary S. Patton and Gen. Carter Ham have both sought counseling for the emotional trauma of their time in the Iraq war. "One of our soldiers in that unit, Spec. Robert Unruh, took a gunshot wound to the torso, I was involved in medevacing him off the battlefield. And in a short period of time, he died before my eyes," Patton told CNN in an exclusive interview. "That's a memory [that] will stay with me the rest of my life." Ham was the commander in Mosul when a suicide bomber blew up a mess tent. Twenty-two people died.

As bad as all the death and destruction is, imagine being the general whose day-to-day decisions put the rank and file in harm's way.

The interview's a start, but until these generals do a whole lot more to send the message down the chain of command that mental health is as important as physical health, we're going to keep seeing our soldiers come back unsalvageable.

Sticking Together

| Tue Mar. 10, 2009 1:08 PM EDT
Without fussing over the details in this particular post (you can go here for that), the Employee Free Choice Act would almost certainly make it easier for unions to organize new workplaces.  That's why unions support it and management doesn't.  Wal-Mart management, for example, especially hates it.  But I sure never expected this, as reported by Ezra Klein:

The more impressive strike came, however, earlier this morning, when Citibank downgraded Wal-Mart's stock from a "buy" to a "hold" on fears that passage of EFCA could force the company to unionize which would in turn decrease shareholder profits as more of the company's worth was distributed to employees.

....It's hard to recall another time when an analyst actually downgraded a stock on fears of legislation that few expect will even pass. Indeed, many on the left are arguing that this is more about creating stock market panic that will convince senators to vote against EFCA than about accurately pricing Wal-Mart's stock. "When I see upgrades to the stocks of Wal-Mart's already-unionized competitors (grocery stores like Safeway who will gain back market share if easier unionization results in higher Wal-Mart labor costs) specifically pegged to the specter of EFCA, then I'll admit that Citi is engaged in good-faith prognosticating here," e-mails Josh Bivens at the Economic Policy Institute. "Otherwise, not so much."

The malefactors of great wealth are really sticking together on this, aren't they?  Considering Citibank's recent record, though, I think we could all be forgiven for taking their view on this with a grain of salt.