The Art of Being George

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 4:10 PM EST

THE ART OF BEING GEORGE....In a package called "Art and Culture In the Bush Era," Newsweek asked its cultural critics to pick the "one work in their field that they believe exemplifies what it was like to be alive in the age of George W. Bush." Let's argue over some of their choices, OK?

First off, there are the two TV critics, who practically bent over backward to avoid naming 24. I'm not saying that Battlestar Galactica and American Idol are bad choices, mind you, and I know that maybe it seems a little too obvious for guys who are paid to think nonobvious thoughts about this stuff, but come on: 24 is George Bush's America. Case closed.

Art critic Peter Plagens chose Jeff Koons's "Hanging Heart," but he's wrong. The only possible choice is everything ever manufactured by Damien Hirst, who has made a career out of convincing people to give him fantastic sums of money for stuff that everyone knows is obvious crap — and then lying about it on the occasions when people don't. Read this, for example, and tell me if it doesn't scream "George Bush":

There was the summer of 2007 when thousands of people lined up outside White Cube waiting to glimpse a human skull cast in platinum and covered with 8,601 diamonds that he claimed to have sold at its $100 million asking price. When he was pressed, however, it turned out that the buyer was actually a consortium of investors that included the artist himself; Jay Jopling, owner of White Cube; and Frank Dunphy, Hirst's business manager.

Music critic Lorraine Ali chooses Green Day's "American Idiot." Wrong again. The correct answer is a tie between the insane protest over Dixie Chick Natalie Maines saying "we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas" and Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue." Yes, yes, I realize that Natalie Maines's comment is not technically an actual work of art, but we shouldn't let that stand in the way of a higher truth.

The book critics chose The Corrections and Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. Wrong and wrong. In the fiction category, the iconic book of the Bush era is clearly The Pet Goat. Right? The nonfiction category is a little tougher, but I think Jane Mayer's The Dark Side deserves the nod for the book that best represents what Bush and Cheney were really all about. A close second, perhaps, goes to Glassman and Hassett's Dow 36,000, which represents Bush and Cheney's own personal fantasy of what they were all about. Yes, it was written in 1999, but remember that we're going for higher truths here.

The movie critics chose Blackhawk Down and Borat. I guess those choices are OK. But instead, how about the second Star Wars trilogy, another painful reminder that sequels are usually a disappointment?

UPDATE: In comments, PureGuesswork makes a strong case in the music category for Britney Spears: "She spent the last eight years coming up with new ways to fuck up, and now she is worried about her legacy."

UPDATE 2: In the movie category, lots of votes for Idiocracy. Hard to argue with that.

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Did Bernie Madoff Bilk Mother Jones? (From the Editors)

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 3:42 PM EST

Okay, here's the good news: Unlike other nonprofits, Mother Jones did not invest its portfolio with ponzi master Bernie Madoff. But here's the bad news: In recent weeks, we've heard from major donors saying that they've taken such a beating in the market, they have no choice but to pull funding they already promised to us—funding that was paying for our kick-ass reporters in Washington. This is not General Motors-size money we're talking about—about $125,000 so far has evaporated—but for an organization our size, it is a big chunk, especially at a time when we're already slashing the budget to deal with the broader financial crisis and the severe downturn in print advertising. Managers are taking pay cuts, we'll be running somewhat smaller issues, we're subletting office space, but at this point the only way to reduce expenses even further is to lay off reporters and cut back on investigating the powers that be. That's the last thing we want to do: With Washington in transition and billions flying out the door, someone has to dig into where the bailout money is going.

This is where you come in. We're not asking you to pay for private jets or chauffeured Town Cars; every penny of your donation goes to the overworked, underpaid investigative reporters whose work you see here every day. Anything helps, and it's super easy—just follow this link. Think about it: Right now the Wall Street bailout has each and every one of us on the hook for $11,600 and counting. We'll keep track of your money for a lot less than that.

Rick Warren??

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 3:12 PM EST

rick_warren.jpg This one puzzles.

Rick Warren is the pastor of the California-based megachurch known as Saddleback and the author of super-bestseller The Purpose Driven Life. He wins plaudits from mainstream media types and Very Serious People because he is trying to expand the evangelical community's priorities beyond the standard social issues. He wants to see more attention paid to poverty, climate change, AIDS, and human rights. That's all well and good, but Warren still has many views that match the hardline right. He strongly supported Proposition 8. He considers stem cells "non-negotiable." He compares abortion to the Holocaust. He has admitted the difference between between him and James Dobson is primarily "a matter of tone." In a move that would make George Orwell proud, he just gave George W. Bush an "International Medal of P.E.A.C.E."

And this is the guy Barack Obama has chosen to give the invocation at his inauguration? A man whose views stand in stark contrast to the ones held by the tens of millions of Americans who elected Obama?

I'm not the only one who is shocked. There is already a petition at that urges the President-elect to give this incredible privilege to one of the nation's thousands and thousands of men and women of the cloth whose views match Obama's, and those of the people who will have flown in from around the country to see the inauguration in person. Take a look.

What Environmentalists Really Think of Ken Salazar

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 3:03 PM EST

As you may have read, Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) has been tapped as President Obama's Secretary of the Interior. And as we've reported previously, the Interior secretary post is a major one in terms of the nation's environmental health. The Interior (and by default, its secretary) governs the management of public lands, national parks, oil and gas resources, and even the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey.

Environmentalists were pushing for Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a staunch conservationist. So what's their consensus on Salazar? You can read their various statements, below. Overall, they seem cautiously optimistic. But then, it would be hard not to be buoyed by Salazar when you're comparing him to predecessors like mining advocate and former chemical company lobbyist Gale Norton.

Center for Biological Diversity: "He is a right-of-center Democrat who often favors industry and big agriculture... He is very unlikely to bring significant change to the scandal-plagued Department of Interior. It's a very disappointing choice..." --Kieran Suckling, executive director, via New York Times.

Sierra Club: "He has been a very vocal critic of the Bush administration's reckless approach to rampant land development in the West." --Josh Dorner, a spokesman, via the UK Guardian.

Wilderness Society: "He's going to be an honest broker... He is trying to manage conflicts in a way that reaches resolution. I'm not sure he's articulated a grand vision for the public lands." --Bill Meadows, president, via Washington Post.

"On a personal level, our experience has been that there is a genuine openness to [Salazar] considering different ideas.." --David Albersworth, senior policy analyst, via Rocky Mountain News.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: Salazar is a "sympathetic soul" who will be a refreshing change because "the past eight years with the Bush administration have felt like a battle, then it became total despair." --Karen Schambach, California coordinator, via the Los Angeles Times.

"Salazar has a disturbingly weak conservation record, particularly on energy development, global warming, endangered wildlife and protecting scientific integrity," --Daniel R. Patterson, southwest regional director, via New York Times.

Environmental Working Group: "We're encouraged by it... he recognizes the importance of the food programs, and he's very good on conservation." --Ken Cook, president, via the Washington Post.

Environment Colorado: "We hope he continues to play a role in insuring that, as we develop our mineral rights in these incredibly sensitive areas, we require industry to put in place safeguards that protect our health, environment, water and air quality," --Pam Kiely, program director, via New York Times.

Bubble Economics

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 2:34 PM EST

BUBBLE ECONOMICS....Does the economy need a $600 billion stimulus? Think bigger:

A number of economists, including former advisers to Republican presidential candidate John McCain, have suggested to Obama's team that the economy needs a much bigger cash infusion, possibly up to a $1 trillion over two years.

....Obama's economic team believes that to put unemployment on a downward trajectory with a goal of 7.5 percent or less over two years would require a stimulus package of about $850 billion. That would generate about 3.2 million jobs by the first quarter of 2011.

....Among those whose opinions Obama advisers sought were Lawrence B. Lindsey, a top economic adviser to President George W. Bush during his first term, and Harvard professor Martin Feldstein, an informal McCain adviser and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Ronald Reagan.

Over at RBC, Jonathan Zasloff poses a few good questions about how to spend this dough. On this very narrow issue, I think my first question would be, how much of this program should be spending and how much should be tax cuts? Can we really spend this much money quickly even if we want to? Would a payroll tax holiday make sense as part of this package?

More broadly — and I know I'm being a bit Chicken Little-ish here — I continue to wonder if a massive stimulus package that spurs domestic consumption means that just as we propped up the economy in 2002 by replacing the dotcom bubble with a housing bubble, we're now propping up the economy in 2008 by replacing the housing bubble with continuing support for our ever-ballooning trade deficit bubble. See Tim Duy for more on this. I don't know if he's right, but I don't feel too bad for bringing this up since no one else really seems to know either.

In any case, I do know that pretty much every economist in the country agrees, in general, that eventually U.S. consumption has to go down, savings have to go up, and we have to start exporting more than we import. It's just a question of whether we can afford to worry about that with the economy collapsing around our heads. Still, here's a thought: if this is a serious long-term concern, shouldn't we at least try to construct a stimulus package that stimulates export industries more than other sectors of the economy? If so, how would we go about doing that? And what else should we be doing to prepare for the day when the current panic subsides, the great T-bill bubble bursts, and the rest of the world decides that 0% yields on treasuries suck and they don't want to buy any more of them? And what they'd really like instead are some tangible goods and services, thankyouverymuch?

I don't know. Maybe we really can't worry too much about this at the moment. But the trade deficit bubble is going to pop eventually just like the dotcom bubble and the housing bubble. We at least ought to be thinking about this a little bit.

Chart of the Day - 12.17.2008

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 1:52 PM EST

CHART OF THE DAY....From "Spatial patterns of natural hazards mortality in the United States," this map shows where you're most likely to die from natural disasters. (Data is from 1970-2004.) As you can see, my hometown of Orange County is one of the safest places in the country, despite its worryingly close proximity to the San Andreas fault. You see, although you may think that earthquakes are dangerous, it turns out they are a mere rounding error when it comes to dying at the hands of nature's awesome wrath. By far the biggest causes of death by natural disaster are cold weather, hot weather, lightning, flooding, and tornadoes. Earthquake deaths are so microscopic they don't even get a category or their own.

On the other hand, we're still waiting for the Big One out here. This map could change color at any time.

(By the way, just eyeballing this, it looks to me like Massachusetts is the safest state in the union. Connecticut and Rhode Island are pretty good too. Who knew?)

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Public Works

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 12:21 PM EST

PUBLIC WORKS....California is on the verge of cancelling hundreds of public works projects because it can't sell the revenue anticipation bonds needed to continue financing them:

Road, levee, school and housing construction projects throughout California are on the verge of being halted or delayed, as state officials prepare to shut off their financing in the most drastic fallout yet from California's cash crisis.

Officials plan to meet today to freeze financing on these projects and about 2,000 others, including park improvements, environmental restoration and repairs to state prisons.

....Lockyer told legislators last week that halting public-works projects would have a ripple effect through California's economy, costing private companies $12.5 billion and eliminating 200,000 jobs.

Let me just say up front that California's problems are largely of our own making. If the rest of the country has zero sympathy for us, I don't really blame them.

Still, this is a national problem, not just a local one. And if infrastructure spending is good stimulus, but the problem is that it takes a long time to get it up and running, then surely, at a minimum, you wouldn't want to lose a single dollar of infrastructure spending that's already in progress. Especially when the immediate problem has been caused by the freezing of the credit markets more than by California's fiscal recklessness. TARP to the rescue?

Examining the New Secretary of Agriculture, Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 11:44 AM EST

tom-vilsack.jpg It is easy to groan at the selection of former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack as Barack Obama's Secretary of Agriculture. Ezra Klein over at the Prospect notes that the pick signals two important things that are sure to disappoint food policy reformers. (1) Politicians from agricultural states are enmeshed in the politics of farm subsidies, and Iowa, as the number one corn-producing state in the country, can likely count on a continued flow of poisonous corn subsidies under Vilsack. (2) USDA will continue to be a department for food producers instead of one for food consumers, meaning that food policy decisions will be made with the needs of agribusiness first and the needs of low-income kids with little access to healthy food options second. (If you don't know why those two things are at odds, you haven't been listening to Michael Pollan.) It is because a conventional pick like Vilsack likely means the continuation of policies that harm both eaters and small farmers that food activists were passing around a petition to get a reformer the job. Alas, it didn't happen.

But before we throw our foodie/organic-only/locavore selves into complete despair, let's take a closer look at Vilsack. For a former governor of a corn behemoth, he's actually has the right instincts.

Person of the Year

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 11:41 AM EST

PERSON OF THE YEAR....In a shocking surprise, Time has named Barack Obama their person of the year. Yawn. I would have voted for one of those cheesy group picks, in this case "America's mortgage bankers and Wall Street rocket scientists." I mean, if touching off the 21st century version of the Great Depression doesn't make you person of the year, what the hell does it take?

Runners up were Henry Paulson, Nicolas Sarkozy, Zhang Yimou, and, in a tremendous diss to poor old John McCain, Sarah Palin. Feh. Tina Fey would have been a more deserving choice.

Arne Duncan on the Court

| Wed Dec. 17, 2008 11:15 AM EST

ARNE DUNCAN ON THE COURT....I don't know anything about Arne Duncan's actual views on education, but what you're really thirsting for is some insight into his hoops skills, right? So here you go, courtesty of reader JT, who was friendly with the basketball coach at University High three decades ago and ended up played pickup games with the 16-year-old Duncan in the University High gym:

On Sunday afternoons, John would open the UHigh gym to his friends and his team....It was there that I ended up playing against and with Arne Duncan and then watching him play in UHigh games.

Arne was a very intelligent (Doh!) and very unselfish basketball player. If I recall rightly, he was the tallest player on the team, but he was also the best ball-handler. He had a good jump shot, but he was slow and not extremely quick. What he did have, however, was outstanding court vision. If you were going to be open off a cut, or a break out, he would see it before it occurred and get you the ball in position to do something with it.

Indeed, I recall John complaining that Arne was TOO unselfish. He was by far the best shooter on the team, and most of his teammates could not do enough with the ball when they got it.

I have no idea what, if anything, this means. Does outstanding court vision translate into awesome bureaucratic infighting skills? Does great ball handling mean he knows how to handle the teachers unions? Speculate away!