Dealing With Crises

Noam Scheiber says "our political system isn't ideally suited to dealing with financial and economic crises."  Ezra Klein begs to differ:

Indeed, I think our political system is actually fairly well-designed for short-term crises. The problem is long-term crises like global warming or health costs. As Peter Orszag wrote back on his CBO blog, "our political system doesn’t deal well with gradual, long-term problems" that require "trading off up-front costs in exchange for long-term benefits." Few Congressmen want to raise taxes tomorrow to reduce carbon a decade from now. Lots of Congressmen don't want the economy to collapse if they have to run for reelection next year. For that reason, I'm much more confident in the system's ability to react agilely and seriously to the economic crisis than global warming. The economic crisis, after all, threatens their reelection. Incumbents often don't survive depressions. Conversely, I think conventional wisdom is that it's fixing global warming, rather than global warming itself, that poses the largest political threat to incumbent legislators.

I think that's right.  In fact, I'd go further: not only can we respond fairly well to short-term crises, we actually have responded fairly well to the current economic meltdown.  There have been plenty of miscues and half measures along the way, but in the space of 18 months the Fed has created an alphabet soup of term lending facilities; Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG have been nationalized; interest rates have been reduced to near zero; TARP was passed and hundreds of billions of dollars pumped into the banking system; the Fed has launched plans to rescue the commercial paper market, the money market, and the consumer loan market; FDIC insurance has been raised to $250,000; Detroit has been bailed out; and an $800 billion stimulus measure has been passed.  Some of these actions might have been late or misguided — it could hardly be otherwise considering the depth and freakishness of the financial implosion — but all things considered, the willingness of our political system to deal with this crisis hasn't been all that bad.  If we could muster half this much energy, mistakes and all, on behalf of global warming I'd be ecstatic.

In the course of one flight from San Francisco to Tokyo I was handed 13 plastic drinking cups, a new one for every drink. When I held onto one and tried handing it back for the next fill-up, the flight attendant handled it like it was radioactive. Hmm. Northwest Airlines claims to be greening itself [pdf] but the disposable aftermath of even one in-flight meal suggests otherwise. Even assuming they might recycle some of this stuff (will they?), recycling ain't cheap. It's energetically expensive and sometimes counterproductive. Can't we just wash some dishes?

Artist Chris Jordan claims with his usual punch-in-the-gut visual impact that the airline industry in the US uses 1 million plastic cups every six hours. Not sure where he got that number but my flight alone must have squandered something like 4,000 cups.

The problem bugs me on the ground too. So here's my solution. I call it my Urban Mess Kit. It's composed of a cool Float messenger bag from Osprey made of PET plastics with a a minimum of 70-percent recycled materials, mostly recycled drink bottles. I throw in two polypropylene doggy-bag containers that came with my Chinese restaurant leftovers. They're designed for one-time-only use but in reality they'll likely outlive me. I add two sets of plastic cutlery picked up from to-go meals and then NOT thrown away. Finally, one Nalgene drink bottle that I use for hot and cold drinks.

Okay, Nalgene isn't perfect. This older bottle I have probably isn't even BPA-free like the newer stuff. It's definitely not trendy like stainless. But it's overwhelming advantage, IMO, is that I bought it used from a thrift store & so did not encourage the creation of any more plastic to clog the arteries of Planet Earth.

I use my Urban Mess Kit for most everything these days: drinks bought on the go (I hand over my bottle); food bought on the go (including deli counters); leftovers; impromptu picnics. Plus there's still room in my Osprey pack for my laptop, wallet, glasses, keys, phone, a book and more. It all nests into a small footprint, pun intended. If I was entrepreneurial, I'd build and sell these kits. But it would be friendlier to the environment if you reused some of the disposable stuff coming your way and made your own.

Oh, and as part of its Triple-R program for US customers, Osprey joins with the Mountain Fund to take back your old (still useable) pack and give it to someone somewhere in the world who needs it: women trying to break into the trekking and climbing industries in Nepal & Uganda; kids in orphanages in Kyrgyzstan who can learn to socialize on treks; city kids who need to see wilderness. In return, they'll give you 10 percent off a new Osprey bag. So if you really need a new bag, this is a good way to mitigate some of your consumption.

White House Invites Right-Wingers to Discuss Abortion Reduction

Right Wing Watch notes the White House has invited anti-abortion representatives from the religious right to a meeting next Tuesday with Josh DuBois, head of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, to discuss ways to reduce abortions. Among those attending will be Tom McClusky of the Family Research Council and Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America.

That's the same Wendy Wright who has declared that President Obama and Congress are "more hostile to unborn children, to marriage, to religious freedom, to free speech, to protecting our country than has ever existed in our history." And when Obama lifted the ban on Federally funded stem cell research, Wright blasted the move, saying it "financially benefits those seeking to strip morality from science. It is politics at its worst."

Considering Wright's disparaging rhetoric—and similarly critical comments from other Evangelical groups—their invitation to meet with the White House puzzled me: The pro-life stance offers very little, if any, middle ground. Why, then, include pro-life hardliners in a discussion on abortion reduction?

At the very least, the move demonstrates Obama's commitment to listening to and talking with the opposition. It also further distances Obama's administration from George Bush, who never reached out similarly to representatives of groups with views as hostile toward his positions. As a spokesman for NARAL told me via email, "Unless you count getting thrown off the grounds of the FDA for trying to deliver petitions on birth-control access, then no, we were never invited to meet with the Bush administration."

Sheerly Avni is a film and culture writer guest-blogging for Mother Jones from Austin's South by Southwest FestivalRead her first dispatch here.

Part Two: One Man's Garbage Is Another Man's Prayer

The best way to introduce the documentary Garbage Dreams is to introduce one of its three protagonists, a young Egyptian named Adham, who addressed an adoring crowd last night during the film's post-premiere Q&A.

"I had to quit working when I was eight," he said through a translator. "I had to drop out of school at age 8 to help my family. I was ashamed of my job as a zaballeen. But after I attended The Recycling School, I also learned computers, health, and hygiene, I became very proud of my profession, and I realized that my job is as important as a job or doctor: If the zaballeen do not collect the garbage every day...cities will stink."

Adham is one of Cairo's 60,000 zaballeen,  garbage collectors who eke out a living gathering, sorting, and recycling 80 percent of the cities' waste. Until recently, their profession afforded them a modicum of economic security, if no real chance at social mobility, but as the city has turned to subcontracting out collections to foreign companies, the entire community has suffered. Director Mai Iskander spent several years following the struggles of three remarkably charismatic boys—now young men—fighting to protect their trade, all under the careful guardianship of a teacher at The Recycling School, a nonprofit dedicated to educating the young zaballeen, academically as well as professionally.

With no preaching, no lazy text placards, and a deep faith in the boys' ability to tell their own compelling story without comment, Iksander offers up a gripping account of what it means to fight for the right to work with honor, as well as introducing you to three young men you'll not soon forget. The future of their profession may be in danger—as well as their vision of all garbage as, in their own words, "a gift from God"—but this movie could help save it. 

Look out for a particularly striking sequence set on a visit to a Wales recycling factory—with Ahmad serving as both enthusiastic tourist ("Cars here stop to let you cross the street!") and skeptical pro ("No precision," he sniffs, watching shards of broken glass make their way down a conveyer belt to a landfill).

See indieWIRE for an interview with the filmmaker. 

In my next dispatch: cultural shifts in the workplace, take 42. "I guess you'll find me when you want to get wasted."—parting words of Cinematical's managing editor Scott Weinbergto two of his bloggers.

Sarah Palin's office moved fast last week to protect her (self-proclaimed) standing as a scourge of earmarks. On Friday, Mother Jones published a story reporting that the omnibus spending bill just passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama contained earmarks requested by the Alaska governor, who last year campaigned for the vice presidency as a foe of wasteful government spending, including earmarks. The article also noted that Alaska will receive roughly $140 million in earmarks, which will make it the biggest recipient of earmark spending among all fifty states in per capita terms.

Hours after the article appeared, Palin's office issued a press release headlined, "Governor Palin Continues Earmark Reform." The main point: since she took office in 2006, Palin has each year requested fewer earmarks and has recently only put in requests for a handful of projects. In other words, it's okay to make some earmark requests, just not a lot.

In addition to quickly putting out that press release, Palin's office went after Jake Tapper, ABC News' White House correspondent, who had blogged about the Mother Jones story.

Palin's communications director, Bill McAllister, contacted Tapper and contended, "The governor never said that earmarks should be abolished or that the State of Alaska wouldn't seek or accept any. Didn't happen. What she said…was that earmark reform was necessary and the state would need to rely less on federal money."

But neither Mother Jones nor Tapper had asserted that Palin had sought the abolition of earmarks. Both stories referred to her speech at the Republican National Convention, when she boasted that she had "championed reform to end the abuses of earmark spending by Congress. I told the Congress 'thanks, but no thanks,' for that Bridge to Nowhere." (That last claim was repeatedly debunked.) Tapper also noted that Palin, speaking to ABC News' Charlie Gibson, had said, "The abuse of earmarks, it's un-American, it's undemocratic, and it's not going to be accepted in a McCain-Palin administration. Earmark abuse will stop." Also in that interview, Palin added that John McCain was a crusader against earmark abuse, and "that's what I joined him in fighting." (McCain wants to end the practice of earmarking, not reform it.)

McAllister told Tapper that Palin made 51 earmark requests in FY 2008, totaling $256 million; 31 requests in FY 2009, totaling $197 million; and will request just eight earmarks in FY 2010, totaling $69 million. But when Mother Jones had asked McAllister to detail how many earmarks Palin had requested in the current spending bill, he declined to respond. And McAllister did not tell Tapper that Palin will turn down earmarks requested and won by Murkowski and Young.

Palin remains trapped between her campaign rhetoric and her governing reality. She denounced earmarks as a candidate; she continues to request and accept them as a governor.

As I anticipated, AIG was not in fact able to gather all the information Andrew Cuomo wanted before the New York attorney general's 4pm deadline. Cuomo wrote a letter to AIG this morning demanding information about the millions of dollars of bonus money it's handing out to employees of its financial services division—the same division that got it into the mess it's currently in. As the deadline passed this afternoon, Cuomo called performance bonuses for AIG executives "oxymoronic" and said he was issuing subpoenas immediately.

OnceIf Cuomo gets the names, you can expect the executives who received bonuses to be very publicly shamed. Maybe then some of them will give the money back.

When I was in the Air Force and 26 or 27, I worked with a civilian named Jim. Nice guy. He was about 45, wife and two kids. He'd recently been forced off active duty due to a weird heart glitch unlikely to flare up, and he was miserable about being forced out of uniform. I, on the other hand, was a total gym rat and fashion plate with an unlimited military future. I worked out so, I had to have my uniform sleeves tailored for my sculpted, Michelle-kiss-my-heinie arms. I monitored everything that went into my body and everything that went into anybody's body around me. I subscribed to magazines like Muscle and Fitness and would have competed in bodybuilding competitions had I not been too busy going to school at night to get ahead. Jim, with his Homer Simpson gut and comb over, got winded just using the copier. One day, he came in wincing and limping. He'd actually hurt himself stretching before one of his infrequent attempts to exercise. I laughed and laughed. Thought it was the funniest thing in the world, and only realized in retrospect that he was not sharing the joke. A callow, overconfident youth, it never occurred to me then that my reaction was cruel. And stupid. What, did I think I'd still be bench-pressing my body weight at 80?

In my late 30s, when my own mystery aches and pains began, and now nearly 50 when I never see the inside of a gym that doesn't have -boree after it, styling in my Walmart stretch pants and feeling my gut pillowing into my lap when I'm naked, I have one burning desire—to tell Jim I'm sorry I was such a bitch. Well, two: I'd also thank him for not slapping me. He respectfully tried that day to convince me that eventually age would catch up with me, too, and I wouldn't always be a young hottie, free to work out all evening, apply careful makeup everyday, and fuss over my complicated hairdo. What nonsense! I believe I actually went 'talk to the hand' on that nice man. He might as well have predicted I'd end up becoming a Buddhist monk or a lion-tamer. Never, ever would I "let myself go." "Never would I age," I must have thought. Never would I lose my zeal, or the time, to take care of myself first. 

Well, much as I'd like to, I can't apologize to Jim and commiserate with him over the follies of youth. That "unlikely weird heart glitch" glitched; and a former coworker called a few years after that to tell me JIm had keeled over dead at his desk.

All of that to say this to the young feminists so offended by this elder's critique: One day, you'll have your own Jim story to tell. One day, when you've lived through more of this bitch called life, but without all that youth and vigor, you'll hear yourself saying something like, "These young women today just don't get it. Not like we did." When you've made hideous mistakes you know were because you talked the feminist talk but didn't walk the feminist walk. When that day comes, if I haven't keeled over at my desk, please have the grace to call me up so we can laugh together at youth's callow overconfidence and refusal to listen with respect, if not agreement.

As my father used to say: Even a fool can give you something you can use. But you have to hear him out. I'm not a fool, so why not ask me what I meant, then sift through those insights for the nuggets you buy into? Or, just go on believing you're impervious to either error or critique.

But wait! I started it, right? I was disrespectful first, no? Grow up, girlies. When all those random grannies on the street criticize the way I've dressed my kids or what I'm letting them eat, I just say "thank you" or "have a nice day" or pretend not to have heard. When my mother gets in my business, I say "yes ma'am," then do exactly as I please. Unless she was right, then I take her advice. But however annoying my mom, however much of a busybody the old lady across the street is, I do not growl back. I do not tell them to mind their own business or point out how their generation might have won WWII but what about Jim Crow?

When I was in the military, I sought out the more senior females, took them to lunch, and listened. Same with the female partners at my firm when I was considering the law. Ditto my elders in publishing and journalism. Ninety percent of it was useless to me (or so I thought), but oh that 10 percent.

But, then, I went in assuming I didn't know everything about being a woman in a sexist world or navigating the currents of a profession as volatile as mine. And I went in with some old-fashioned home training.

I'm not talking about reverence, I'm talking about a thirst for the kind of knowledge that will help in the battles all your responses claim to be fighting so diligently for. Here's my final example: I take seriously the chidings of people who've been dead for as much as 150 years.

European Banks

Paul Krugman thinks Europe is in worse shape than the United States:

On the fiscal side, the comparison with the United States is striking. Many economists, myself included, have argued that the Obama administration’s stimulus plan is too small, given the depth of the crisis. But America’s actions dwarf anything the Europeans are doing.

The difference in monetary policy is equally striking. The European Central Bank has been far less proactive than the Federal Reserve; it has been slow to cut interest rates (it actually raised rates last July), and it has shied away from any strong measures to unfreeze credit markets.

....Why is Europe falling short? Poor leadership is part of the story. European banking officials, who completely missed the depth of the crisis, still seem weirdly complacent. And to hear anything in America comparable to the know-nothing diatribes of Germany’s finance minister you have to listen to, well, Republicans.

There's a third side to this too: fixing the banking system.  I'm not quite sure what's going on here, though.  Back in September and October we heard a lot about how European banks were even more highly leveraged than American banks: leverage of 40:1 or even 60:1 wasn't uncommon among some of Europe's largest banks.  This suggested that their banks were headed for even worse trouble than ours and might very well need even bigger bailouts.

But since then, nothing.  Britain's banks are falling like flies, and Eastern Europe is in big trouble, but I've been reading very little about the big Western European banks that compares with the drumbeat of calls for nationalizing Citigroup or Bank of America.  (Though here's a recent example of just that.)  Is this because European banks, despite their astronomical leverage, are in better shape than American banks?  Or is it because European regulators have their heads in the sand and don't want to deal seriously with their bad banks any more than ours do?

I'm not sure, and I'm going to dig around a bit and see if I can get up to speed on this.  But any way you look at it, this needs to be on the agenda too.

Andrew Cuomo, New York's attorney general, is a demanding man. First he demanded bonus information from Merrill Lynch, which paid out billions to its employees before announcing it lost over $15 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008. When Merrill wasn't forthcoming, he asked for it again and demanded the same information from Bank of America, which bought Merrill Lynch in late 2008. Now he's demanding bonus information from AIG, and he wants it by 4pm today. If Cuomo doesn't get what he wants by then, he'll be issuing subpoenas for it. Given Cuomo's recent history, it's unlikely he's bluffing. In his letter (PDF) to AIG CEO Edward Liddy, Cuomo writes:

We were disturbed to learn over the weekend of AIG's plans to pay millions of dollars to members of the Financial Products subsidiary through its Financial Products Retention Plan. Financial Products was, of course, the division of AIG that led to its meltdown and the huge infusion of taxpayer funds to save the firm. Previously, AIG had agreed at our request to make no payments out of its $600 million Financial Products deferred compensation pool.
We have requested the list of individuals who are to receive payments under this retention plan, as well as their positions at the firm, and it is surprising that you have yet to provide this information.

Cuomo has yet to get the list of individuals he originally requested. If you've been following the attorney general's modus operandi, you'll know what happens next. He didn't get what he originally wanted, so now he's asking for more:

In addition, we also now request a description of each individual's job description and performance at AIG Financial Products. Please also provide whatever contracts you now claim obligate you to make these payments. Moreover, you should immediately provide us with a list of who negotiated these contracts and who developed this retention plan so we can begin to investigate the circumstances surrounding these questionable bonus arrangements. Finally, we demand an immediate status report as to whether the payments under the retention plan have been made.

Judging from AIG's past history and general incompetence, it seems unlikely that the business will want to or be able to put together the information Cuomo wants in the next few hours. It's probably safe to assume that subpoenas will be forthcoming.

AARP stands unrivaled as a public voice for old folks. Yet so much of what they have to say about the current economic crisis, which has hit us geezers especially hard, is just godawful drivel. On my own blog last week, I commented on AARP magazine’s relentlessly upbeat take on being old and out of work. A recent bulletin piece was full of the same kinds of useless pick-me-ups. What really took the cake for me this time, though, was the financial planning advice offered to recession-battered geezers:

Avoid early withdrawals. “Taking hits on your retirement accounts, especially when the stock market is falling, generally isn’t a good idea,” says Matt D’Arcy, of Greybridge Financial in Cleveland. Seek professional help. “There are a lot of strategies that might help people avoid touching retirement investments,” he says. “The point is to sit down with someone who can help you map a plan.” If possible, delay Social Security. Benefits are reduced before full retirement age.

OK, let's just take these statements one-by-one. First, "Avoid early withdrawals." Nice advice if you can afford it. Or maybe not even then: These financial “experts” have been warning us for more than a year not to take our money out of the market. I just checked to see where the Dow Jones Average was a year ago–hovering around 12,000. I don’t need to tell you where it is now. Here’s a chart that tells the story all too clearly:

p

Now, don’t you wish you’d made a couple of “early withdrawals” some time in the last year? Instead, we’ve been told again and again that we have to “hold tight” and “wait it out.” Not very useful for people who are already retired and depending on their savings–and could die before this thing hits bottom.