Quote of the Day - 03.16.09

From Fareed Zakaria, himself a Very Serious Person in good standing, breaking ranks with the Very Serious People who have a chokehold on American foreign policy:

The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement.

On a related note, I think this partly accounts for one of my pet peeves: the popularity of the "carrot and stick" metaphor that gets used so often when politicians and pundits talk about how we should deal with foreign powers.  Most national leaders are comfortable with the idea of negotiating with us based on competing interests, but I don't think there's a leader in the entire world who doesn't bristle at the idea of being bribed like a schoolboy into cooperation with the United States.  It's a fantastically counterproductive way of publicly describing foreign relations, but nobody on this side of the Atlantic even seems to notice how fundamentally demeaning and offensive it is, or how difficult it makes it for foreign leaders to avoid the charge that they're "caving in" if they come to terms with us.

A better description of the bargaining process is simple: we have things we want, they have things they want, maybe we can strike a deal.  That's the way adults negotiate.  It's time for the carrot and the stick to be buried for good.

Alcopops

Last year California decided to raise taxes on "alcopops," sweet alcoholic drinks that are largely designed to appeal to teenagers.  But guess what?  No new taxes have flowed into state coffers:

Beverage makers admit they aren't paying the new taxes. They say they don't have to because they have reformulated the drinks — more than 6,000 varieties — to transform them into simple beers by limiting the amount of distilled spirits they contain.

They won't explain how. The formulas, they say, are trade secrets. And beverage-industry officials and federal regulators say there are no tests to determine how much distilled spirits the drinks contain.

....Board member Bill Leonard, who voted against the initial tax hike, said that although he is curious about how the industry managed to change thousands of drink formulas in a year, "it is probably impossible for us to ever figure out whether the formula is what they say it is."

I have to admit that my first reaction when I read this story was to laugh.  I know, I know: that's totally inappropriate.  It's a serious issue.  Etc.  But the brazenness on display here is really something, isn't it?  If the alcopop business ever fizzles out, maybe industry executives can all find jobs at AIG instead.

AIG Reveals Creditors, Plans Bonuses

As Kevin Drum notes, "AIG" (really the mostly government-owned company's government-appointed executives) released the names of its largest counterparties on Sunday. So it looks like the Project on Government Oversight's Michael Smallberg was right on the money when he told me on Friday: "With members of Congress from both sides of the aisle asking for the list, they'll only be able to avoid these questions for a limited amount of time."

Now we know what many observers already suspected: not only were companies receiving billions from the insurance company in what's been dubbed a "backdoor bailout," but some of those banks weren't even US-based. The meat of the "backdoor bailout," Portfolio's Felix Salmon writes, is in Appendix B of AIG's list (PDF): the amounts of bad mortgage-backed securities AIG bought from its counterparties to cancel out the bad insurance contracts it had written for those very same mortgage-backed securities. France's Société Générale got $6.9 billion, Germany's Deutsche Bank got $2.8 billion, and Swiss UBS got $2.5 billion. Goldman Sachs, as POGO suspected, also did quite well: it got $6.8 billion. The benefit for AIG's counterparties here is twofold: they offloaded bad assets, which improves their financial situation, and were most likely compensated for those assets in excess of what were actually worth.

I know I'm late to this, but I'm a big fan of this Norm Eisen character. From a profile in last Friday's WaPo:

Eisen is the White House ethics adviser, the guardian of Obama's integrity, and he is called for consultation every time the new administration has a question regarding more than 1,000 pages of government ethics rules and regulations....

Eisen almost never leaves his office without a binder of ethics statutes and a badly mangled copy of "5 CFR," the code of federal regulations. It's a dense collection of complicated rules. One chapter on gift bans is followed by a long addendum of exceptions, which are then followed by their own exceptions. Gifts from lobbyists are not allowed, unless they're worth less than $20, and only then if they result from a spouse's business or employment.

After he accepted the ethics job, Eisen "got comfortable" with his copy of the 5 CFR -- meaning he tore off the cover, ripped out pages that did not apply to the White House and annotated sections he liked. He crossed out rules in pencil that he planned to change. No longer, he decided, could White House employees receive small gifts, honorary degrees or awards from lobbyists.

"No way," he said. "Some of these things are just scams."

Ultimately, it is Norm Eisen's work that has the power to separate Obama's administration from all the other administrations in recent history, including the Democratic ones. He is the Secretary for Ending Politics As Usual. And I wish him all the luck in the world.

Proud socialist Billy Wharton took to the pages of the Washington Post yesterday to argue that Barack Obama is not a socialist. Frankly, he'll thank everyone for dropping the phony comparison.

All this speculation over whether our current president is a socialist led me into the sea of business suits, BlackBerrys and self-promoters in the studio at Fox Business News. I quickly realized that the antagonistic anchor David Asman had little interest in exploring socialist ideas on bank nationalization. For Asman, nationalization was merely a code word for socialism. Using logic borrowed from the 1964 thriller "The Manchurian Candidate," he portrayed Obama as a secret socialist, so far undercover that not even he understood that his policies were de facto socialist. I was merely a cudgel to be wielded against the president -- a physical embodiment of guilt by association.

The funny thing is, of course, that socialists know that Barack Obama is not one of us. Not only is he not a socialist, he may in fact not even be a liberal. Socialists understand him more as a hedge-fund Democrat -- one of a generation of neoliberal politicians firmly committed to free-market policies.

Wharton points to Obama's refusal to nationalize the banks, his rejection of single-payer health care, and his unwillingness to withdraw all troops from Iraq and Afghanistan immediately. All are areas that represent deep divides between the president and America's socialist minority. Wharton continues, "The president has... been assigned the unenviable task of salvaging a capitalist system intent on devouring itself." Fundamentally reshaping that system is out of the question for Obama. Any political observer who has been watching Obama closely but still doesn't accept that either (1) doesn't understand the president, (2) doesn't understand socialism, or (3) understands both but is willing to disregard reality for the sake of a partisan talking point.

SXSW Dispatch: Email Is for Old People

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest Festival.

Part One: Email Is for Old People

In a fit of pathological optimism, I opted to register for both the Interactive and Film portions of SXSW. This is like deciding to "do" both Italy and France on a five-day trip to Europe: Vertigo-inducing and ill-advised, though possible if you forgo sleep. Forgoing sleep in Austin has been easy; my hotel walls, more than three blocks away from the musical epicenter, were booming in time to the bass beat until well past 2 a.m.

And now I also have insomnia. Because not until I started passing out my spiffy new business cards in the SXSW pressroom did I discover that, despite living in San Francisco, having an iPhone, knowing some html, and maintaining a regular Facebook account, what a pathetically ass-backwards, last century, late-adopting, buzzword-clueless Internet rube I really am.

And, dear reader, or rather, user, or rather content-abuser, I hope you're a rube too.

SXSW is all about the search for the new. New music, new filmmakers, and in tech, that new "killer app," which will change everyone's lives forever. The killer app of two years ago at SXSW was Twitter. The killer app of last year was also.... Twitter. And this year at SXSW, as I discovered while trading business cards with tech bloggers and entrepeneurs too polite to point it out (thanks, Grant!), not having a Twitter account printed on my card places me firmly on the dusty, musty side of ever-narrowing bandwidth between tomorrow and yesterday.

Email addresses are obsolete; give your Twitter handle instead? It took me a while to wrap my mind around the concept—long enough that by the time I'd built my new account, I'd found out that guess what, Twitter's out now, too.

Like I said, vertigo.

In my next dispatch: Two films which premiered this weekend about what happens when it's not your email address but your livelihood that's become obsolete.

AIG Fesses Up

So where has all that taxpayer cash that's been shoveled into AIG gone?  Today they revealed their largest counterparties, and the top 5 — drum roll, please — are:
  • Goldman Sachs: $12.9 billion
  • Bank of America + Merrill Lynch: $12.0 billion
  • Société Générale: $11.9 billion
  • Deutsche Bank: $11.8 billion
  • Barclays: $8.5 billion
So it looks like everyone was right: Goldman did have enormous exposure to AIG and foreign banks did get massive dollops of aid from the bailout.  No wonder Lloyd Blankfein and Christine Lagarde took such a keen personal interest in AIG's fortunes.

UPDATE: The AIG memo contains four appendices that list amounts paid out to various creditors.  I just added them up to get the numbers above, but Felix Salmon says that amounts to adding up apples and oranges.  The real action, he says, is solely in Appendix 2, which gives us a different top 5:
  • Société Générale: $6.9 billion
  • Goldman Sachs: $5.6 billion
  • Merrill Lynch: $3.1 billion
  • Deutsche Bank: $2.8 billion
  • UBS: $2.5 billion
There's more to it than this, though.  Read Felix for more details on why further transparency is still needed.

Professor Buffy, Ph.D: Vampire-Slaying in the Real World

Journalism is weird.

Check out this HuffPo article about medieval folks' belief in vampires:

An archaeological dig near Venice has unearthed the 16th-century remains of a woman with a brick stuck between her jaws— evidence, experts say, that she was believed to be a vampire. The unusual burial is thought to be the result of an ancient vampire-slaying ritual. It suggests the legend of the mythical bloodsucking creatures was tied to medieval ignorance of how diseases spread and what happens to bodies after death, experts said...The well-preserved skeleton was found in 2006 on the Lazzaretto Nuovo island, north of the lagoon city, amid other corpses buried in a mass grave during an epidemic of plague that hit Venice in 1576."

How weird that the desecrated skeleton blamed for the worst of society's ills was female. Not. But I digress.

Wouldn't you know that Friday, as I luxuriated in the New Yorker I innocently came upon this: "In The Blood: Why Do Vampires Still Thrill?"

Ok. I smell a conspiracy, which is about as unusual as me smelling coffee or my stupid cat's litter box. Or, like, oxygen.

I'm a humorless feminist and all, but given the planet's fascination with vampires, why are the victims female while the cultural vampire sex symbols are male?

People, if we're gonna do the time, can't we at least do the crime?

Usually, I'm fine with the idea of nonsense for the sake of nonsense. From Monty Python to Aqua Teen Hunger Force, the random and ridiculous can often reach ecstatic comedic heights. On the other hand, sometimes comedy can be the best weapon against hypocrisy and villainy, as Jon Stewart's hilarious and vital takedown of CNBC made clear this week. So it should be the perfect formula: the usually-hilarious Will Ferrell brings his smirking imitation of the just-barely-former president to Broadway in "You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush," the final show of which was broadcast by HBO last night. Unfortunately, Ferrell's 90 minutes of Bushy bumbling missed the mark, both as silliness and as satire. Tellingly, the first big (or, well, average-sized) story to emerge from Ferrell's Broadway run was pure shock value: the Times reported last month that audience members had "stormed out" after seeing a photo of a penis projected on a screen. While the Times' breathless reporting on this issue was actually pretty funny in and of itself, the moment turns out to be oddly symbolic of the entire show's caterwauling randomness, a "just because I can" stunt with an easy "stimulus package" joke. This "ultimate" exposure could be an attempt to get at something central and pathetic about W., but it just feels kind of empty.

We Over-Privileged Bitches Who Dare Not To Breastfeed

My friend Hanna Rosin has such a deliciously subversive piece in the latest Atlantic that I've spent days over my witch's cauldron of a laptop diabolically trying to figure out which plums to excerpt for maximum outrage. The piece is called, (tee hee) The Case Against Breastfeeding. Pissed off yet? Good.

So, where to begin? What will most offend the tender sensibilities of MoJo's oh-so-progressive readers? How about this, the subhead?

In certain overachieving circles, breast-feeding is no longer a choice—it's a no-exceptions requirement, the ultimate badge of responsible parenting. Yet the actual health benefits of breast-feeding are surprisingly thin, far thinner than most popular literature indicates. Is breast-feeding right for every family? Or is it this generation’s vacuum cleaner—an instrument of misery that mostly just keeps women down?

Wha? I never miss Hanna's work, but this time, she had me at "instrument of misery." I just hope the drool doesn't crash my keyboard. The science behind 'breast is best' is bogus, just another conspiracy to keep those of us with vaginas barefoot and topless in public? Yes, as it turns out—the science is bogus. Can't tell that from, oh, what our pediatricians and 'lactation consultants' tell us, could we?

I only breastfed both my kids off and on, the first for about six months, the second for at most four. Why? There was a minor (though, with great effort fixable) health issue. But mostly it just felt so selfish. There was my then husband and my mom, both of whom had to sit there tapping their feet with lust to get at those luscious babies who spent most of their time latched onto me like lovely little leeches.

In the beginning, I pumped just so they could have that special feeding/bonding time with those precious bundles gripping so tightly with those little fingers. Truly—breastfeeding felt selfish. Which means that more or less subconsciously, I just didn't buy that they'd grow up to be hunchbacked mental deficients without my precious boob juice. There simply had to be too many other variables at play. I'm almost 50, so you know I wasn't breastfed, and I'm pretty smart and pretty healthy, like most folks of my generation. And remember—our parents drank and smoked the whole time (though not my mom. But it wasn't because she thought it would hurt us. Booze and cigs just were never her thing.)

 

My mom couldn't help me with the breastfeeding and, with my ineptitude, the little buggers hurt the hell out of me. I dutifully visited and revisited the lactation consultant but kept peppering her with questions about why formula was so bad, and how much mixing formula with breast milk might hurt them. Finally, she laid down the law:

"Look, I'm not here to tell you it's OK not to breastfeed, Debra."

I thought about that for a minute. Then said, "Fair enough." So I pumped less and less and joined the Enfamil crowd.

As Hanna admits in her piece, feeding time didn't feel any more special to me than any of the other hours I spent dreamily nibbling their toes and pretending to make stuffed animals dance. The time that was most special to me was, after eating, when they'd happily lose consciousness and burrow into my chest. So warm, so content, so secure. That time was sublime to me, that was when I felt most maternal. Breastfeeding was a time-consuming painful chore I didn't think worth it.

And when the folks in my tony, Ivy League crowd gave me the stink-eye as I whipped out a bottle, I just shrugged it off. When you have kids, the world is full of folks telling you you're doing it all wrong. But unless they're willing to walk the floor with my kids all night when they're sick, they can just suck it. Breastfeeding just wasn't high on my list of priorities in an over-stressed life. Besides, I had to work like a dog. Breastfeeding made a difficult career even more difficult, and something simply had to give.

Which gets me to the excerpt I'll leave you with, in hopes that you'll beat feet, in high dudgeon of course, to read the piece in full:

The Bitch in the House, published in 2002, reframed The Feminine Mystique for my generation of mothers. We were raised to expect that co-parenting was an attainable goal. But who were we kidding? Even in the best of marriages, the domestic burden shifts, in incremental, mostly unacknowledged ways, onto the woman. Breast-feeding plays a central role in the shift. In my set, no husband tells his wife that it is her womanly duty to stay home and nurse the child. Instead, both parents together weigh the evidence and then make a rational, informed decision that she should do so. Then other, logical decisions follow: she alone fed the child, so she naturally knows better how to comfort the child, so she is the better judge to pick a school for the child and the better nurse when the child is sick, and so on. Recently, my husband and I noticed that we had reached the age at which friends from high school and college now hold positions of serious power. When we went down the list, we had to work hard to find any women. Where had all our female friends strayed? Why had they disappeared during the years they’d had small children?
The debate about breast-feeding takes place without any reference to its actual context in women's lives. Breast-feeding exclusively is not like taking a prenatal vitamin. It is a serious time commitment that pretty much guarantees that you will not work in any meaningful way. Let's say a baby feeds seven times a day and then a couple more times at night. That's nine times for about a half hour each, which adds up to more than half of a working day, every day, for at least six months. This is why, when people say that breast-feeding is "free," I want to hit them with a two-by-four. It's only free if a woman's time is worth nothing.
How dare she? What an awful woman! Her children should be taken away! Or, maybe, we should all just mind our own business.