Squeaky Clean

In the Washington Post today, Al Kamen compares Barack Obama's habit of doling out plum ambassadorships to big campaign donors with Bill Clinton's squeaky clean record of ignoring the money and instead choosing people "with experience in public policy."  Bob Somerby is amused by this sudden rejuvenation of Clinton's reputation:

For years, Kamen’s coven kept insisting that Clinton’s fund-raising was corrupt — that virtually everything was up for sale, given the president’s corrupt love of cash. In the case of the Lincoln Bedroom, the coven faked especially hard — and no one embarrassed itself more than Kamen’s own newspaper. In one especially sad example, the Post belatedly added Chelsea’s Clinton’s slumber party guests to the list of Lincoln Bedroom overnight guests, thereby driving up the numbers and heightening the sense that the Clintons had been misbehaving. It’s hard to get much sicker than that, but Kamen’s coven was up to the task. A few years later, Kamen himself reviewed a Christmas card — on Christmas Eve! He thought he saw character problems.

Without going into obsessive detail, more than a decade has passed since we heard — and heard, and heard, then heard some more — about Bill Clinton’s vile corruption when it came to campaign fund-raising. (We also heard the coven’s gong-show tales about that Buddhist temple.) More than a decade has passed—and have you seen anyone do any work on all the corruption this coven alleged? By now, the coven has had plenty of time to detail and document its big loud-mouthed charges. Have you see anyone produce the book — or even the magazine piece — which documents the way Bill Clinton actually sold off the White House?

And what happened to our most recent president emeritus in all this, anyway?  Who did he send to Britain and Japan?  Click the link for the answer.

Jon Voight is a brilliant character actor. More than that, he shares responsiblity for Angelina Jolie, for which we are all eternally grateful. But he's also a committed conservative, a diehard Israel booster, and a guy who's not afraid to let you know it. His most recent role as arch-villian Jonas Hodges (a comically evil version of Erik Prince) on the Fox show 24 is just another acting job, of course, but may not be that far off from reality. The Midnight Cowboy was a featured speaker at Tuesday's Senate House Dinner, a GOP fundraiser, where he held forth before party luminaries like Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich. Needless to say, he's not a fan of our new president.

From the UK's Daily Mail:

He said: 'It was amazing to me how the media and the young generation were taken in by Obama's false haloistic presence... Obama as a candidate portrayed himself as a moderate, but turned out to be wildly radical."

... With an audience that included Vice President candidate Sarah Palin and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, Voight said: 'We were the great power of good for the world and we were the liberators of the entire world. We are becoming a weak nation.

'Obama really thinks he is the soft-spoken Julius Caesar. Republicans need to find their way back to power to free the nation from "this Obama oppression".'

Naming various Democrats, he said they can be blamed for the 'downfall of this country'.

 

Hypocrisy Watch

From USA Today:

Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett voted against the $787 billion economic stimulus package in February, declaring the day it passed that "the only thing this bill will stimulate is the national debt."

Two days earlier, however, Bennett had written to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Agriculture Department seeking stimulus money for Utah, according to copies of the letters released under the Freedom of Information Act. Using 16 identical cover letters, Bennett passed along stimulus funding requests from 14 Utah cities and counties totaling $182.5 million.

....USA Today's review of congressional correspondence with 10 federal departments or agencies found 13 Republicans who voted against the bill and sought funding for their states or districts.

This is presented as sort of a vague act of hypocrisy, but that's unfair.  If money is being doled out (or about to be doled out) despite your opposition, that doesn't mean your state shouldn't get its share.  Likewise, even if I oppose, say, the mortgage interest deduction, there's nothing wrong with me continuing to take advantage of it as long as it's still around.  There are ways in which stuff like this might rise to the level of mockable hypocrisy, but this really isn't one of them.

McCain Was Right

During his failed campaign for president, John McCain had some pretty clever ideas about climate change. And no, not "drill, baby, drill." In an uncharacteristic moment of clarity, McCain proposed that the US government offer a reward of $300 million to any individual who invented a more efficient car battery.

Will President Obama embrace McCain's idea and urge Americans to get creative about clean tech? As environmental sustainability becomes an ever hotter issue, individuals and companies have come up with bright, green ideas, including more accessible solar panels, smarter suburbs, and more creative vehicle designs.

Such strategies have been incredibly helpful in terms of reducing what we use, but none so far have introduced the kind of significant technological innovation that is needed to reverse our gas guzzling, energy hoarding culture. As Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu told Congress in March, the scientific community needs technology that is "game-changing, as opposed to merely incremental." MIT chemist Daniel Nocera, for example, invented a chemical catalyst last year that distills hydrogen from water to produce energy. Nocera explained that on a large scale, this process "could take care of the world's energy needs." President Obama should give Americans an incentive to create such energy-saving technologies in other environmental fields as well.

Absurdly popular rapper 50 Cent has a new single out, but you've probably never heard it. And if you're watching MTV or tuned in to Power 106, Hot 97 and Wild 94.9, you probably never will. 

That's because 50's new collaboration isn't with Timbaland, the Game, or Lil' Wayne, but Puerto Rican duo Wisin y Yandel. And it's in Spanish.  

50-Cent is one of a growing cohort of American rappers flocking to the Carribean (and New York) to record with established artists like Daddy Yankee (whose English remixes sometimes land him on MTV), Wisin y Yandel, Zion y LennoxAventura, and Luny Tunes, purveyors of the Carribbean's infectious blend of rap, dancehall, and bachata, called Reggaeton. Never heard of 'em? Well, get yourself an education, courtesy of some of America's most popular rappers:

Who Speaks for the GOP?

Conor Friedersdorf takes a look at a recent USA Today/Gallup poll and comes away discouraged:

Like it or not, Americans regard Rush Limbaugh as the face of the Republican Party, he is able to drive the agenda of the conservative movement, and a lot of people on the right don’t find that problematic....Should this be the last time that a talk radio host breaks the 10 percent barrier in a poll like this, the GOP and the conservative movement will be a lot better off, and so will our country.

Obviously I agree, but in a way this news isn't quite as grim for conservatives as Conor suggests.  The full poll results are below, and among Republicans themselves Limbaugh is basically tied with Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich.  But even that's not the biggest takeaway.  What the poll really shows is simply that Republicans have no leaders at all.  This is probably fairly normal for a party that's suffered the kinds of setbacks the GOP has lately, but the good news is that even given the obviously enormous vacuum on the right, Limbaugh still can't break 10% among self-identified Republicans as the voice of the GOP.

Granted, this is grasping at straws at bit.  Still, it's better to have a vacuum from which a new leader can emerge, with folks like Limbaugh, Cheney, and Gingrich yipping around in the mud, than to have one of those guys already a clear top dog.  Plus there's this: Sarah Palin didn't make the list at all.  That shows a disturbing amount of common sense from the loyal opposition.

A Clean Break?

Apparently one of the ministers in Binyamin Netanyahu's government is tired of pussyfooting around with the United States.  If we insist on a halt to settlements in the West Bank, he says, Israel should fight back.  Eric Martin passes along the following report from the Jerusalem Post:

The minister suggests reconsidering military and civilian purchases from the US, selling sensitive equipment that the Washington opposes distributing internationally, and allowing other countries that compete with the US to get involved with the peace process and be given a foothold for their military forces and intelligence agencies.

[Yossi] Peled said that shifting military acquisition to America's competition would make Israel less dependent on the US. For instance, he suggested buying planes from the France-based Airbus firm instead of the American Boeing.

Italics mine. This ought to go over real well. If relations between Obama and Netanyahu were a little chilly before, this ought to send them into clearly polar territory.

Whose Deficit?

Who's really responsible for the massive budget deficits we're currently running?  David Leonhardt crunches the numbers and produces a nice chart that tells the story: IWPBS.

That is: It Was President Bush, Stupid.  That's just a thumbnail on the right, but you can click on it to see the full-size version.  Here's Leonhardt on how an $800 billion surplus turned into a $1.2 trillion deficit over the past eight years:

You can think of that roughly $2 trillion swing as coming from four broad categories: the business cycle, President George W. Bush’s policies, policies from the Bush years that are scheduled to expire but that Mr. Obama has chosen to extend, and new policies proposed by Mr. Obama.

The first category — the business cycle — accounts for 37 percent of the $2 trillion swing. It’s a reflection of the fact that both the 2001 recession and the current one reduced tax revenue, required more spending on safety-net programs and changed economists’ assumptions about how much in taxes the government would collect in future years.

About 33 percent of the swing stems from new legislation signed by Mr. Bush. That legislation, like his tax cuts and the Medicare prescription drug benefit, not only continue to cost the government but have also increased interest payments on the national debt.

Mr. Obama’s main contribution to the deficit is his extension of several Bush policies, like the Iraq war and tax cuts for households making less than $250,000. Such policies — together with the Wall Street bailout, which was signed by Mr. Bush and supported by Mr. Obama — account for 20 percent of the swing.

About 7 percent comes from the stimulus bill that Mr. Obama signed in February. And only 3 percent comes from Mr. Obama’s agenda on health care, education, energy and other areas.

Everybody except the blowhards on TV seem to understand this already.  It's pretty simple stuff.

Now, Leonhardt also points out that inherited or not, Obama hasn't yet provided any credible plan for reducing federal deficits in the long term.  This is true, and eventually he's going to have to.  But since the inescapable answer includes higher taxes, he first has to turn around at least a few of the diehard tax jihadists in both the Republican Party and the conservative precincts of his own party.  That might take a while.

Via Dan Drezner, here is Martin Wolf summarizing a recently released research report from Goldman Sachs:

The paper points to four salient features of the world economy during this decade: a huge increase in global current account imbalances (with, in particular, the emergence of huge surpluses in emerging economies); a global decline in nominal and real yields on all forms of debt; an increase in global returns on physical capital; and an increase in the “equity risk premium” — the gap between the earnings yield on equities and the real yield on bonds. I would add to this list the strong downward pressure on the dollar prices of many manufactured goods.

The paper argues that the standard “global savings glut” hypothesis helps explain the first two facts. Indeed, it notes that a popular alternative — a too loose monetary policy — fails to explain persistently low long-term real rates. But, it adds, this fails to explain the third and fourth (or my fifth) features.

The paper argues that a massive increase in the effective global labour supply and the extreme risk aversion of the emerging world’s new creditors explains the third and fourth feature....The authors conclude that the low bond yields caused by newly emerging savings gluts drove the crazy lending whose results we now see. With better regulation, the mess would have been smaller, as the International Monetary Fund rightly argues in its recent World Economic Outlook. But someone had to borrow this money. If it had not been households, who would have done so — governments, so running larger fiscal deficits, or corporations already flush with profits? This is as much a macroeconomic story as one of folly, greed and mis-regulation.

I just finished reading Barry Ritholtz's Bailout Nation, and it was great.  It's a polemic, mainly about domestic policy and regulatory idiocy, but it's a good polemic.  Well worth reading.

But there was a big part missing from it: as Wolf says, better regulation would have reduced the size of the credit bubble and the ensuing crash, but in the end, all the cheap money generated by our persistent trade deficit had to go somewhere.  You can't hold back the tide forever, after all.

I guess I've been haunted for months by John Hempton's simple formulation: banks intermediate the trade deficit.  If China is sending us huge bales of cash every month, it's going to end up in the banking system and the banking system is going to end up lending it out.  Sure, Alan Greenspan made things worse, George Bush made things worse, and the giddy free market ideology of the Republican Party made things worse.  Bill Clinton, Robert Rubin, and the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party made things worse too.  But the underlying cause is, and always has been, our persistent trade imbalances.  That was as much a weapon of financial mass destruction as the rocket science derivatives that Warren Buffett so famously criticized.

Things have improved on this score recently.  Our trade deficit is half what it was at its peak.  The problem is that this isn't nearly enough: eventually, we need to pay down all these loans.  That means we need to start running a trade surplus, not merely a smaller deficit.  And we have to do this even though oil prices are almost certain to rise in the long term and our dependence on foreign oil is going to continue to grow.  I still haven't figured out how this is going to happen, and as near as I can tell, neither has anyone else.  All the options seem pretty grim, though.

It's anyone's guess why North Korea has returned to rattling its nuclear sabre. Some think it's just the same old problem-child behavior: acting out to get attention and receive humanitarian and food aid. Others believe its more closely tied to the country's internal power struggle, underway since Kim Jong Il suffered stroke. For its part, Pyongyang blames... wait for it... the United States, of course. It's a tough sell, considering that the Obama administration has offered to sit down with the North Koreans in direct talks--a move that might have been a major step forward had Kim Jong Il not decided to scrap it all and go for broke.

The question of how to deal with North Korea's recent displays of aggression--the nuclear test, the missile launches, the kidnapping of two US reporters--is one that will require a united international front. To that end, US envoy Stephen Bosworth is emphasizing a renewed diplomatic effort. Speaking to the Korean Society in New York City, he sent a message to the North Koreans assuring them that "we have no intention to invade North Korea or to change its regime through force and we have made this clear ... repeatedly." That doesn't mean there'll be no military reaction, though. "North Korea's recent actions to develop a nuclear capacity and an intercontinental ballistic missile capacity will require that we expand our consideration of possible responses, including our force posture and options for extended deterrence," Bosworth continued. 

But sanctions appear to be the international community's hope at the moment. (Whether they can work is another question entirely.) According to AFP, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Japan and South Korea, have reached agreement on a tougher set of sanctions, which they will present to the 15-member Security Council as early as Thursday.