Just another Reality-based bubble in the foam of the multiverse.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

50% Solution

Obama seems to be getting it half right:

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama promised Saturday to create the largest public works construction program since the inception of the interstate highway system a half century ago as he seeks to put together a plan to resuscitate the reeling economy.

With jobs evaporating and the recession deepening, Mr. Obama began highlighting elements of the economic recovery program he is trying to fashion with Congressional leaders in hopes of being able to enact it shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20. His address on Saturday followed the report on Friday indicating that the country lost 533,000 jobs in November alone, bringing the total number of jobs lost over the past year to nearly 2 million.

Mr. Obama’s remarks showcased his ambition to expand the definition of traditional work programs for the middle class, like infrastructure projects to repair roads and bridges, to include new-era jobs in technology and so-called green jobs that reduce energy use and global warming emissions. “We need action — and action now,” Mr. Obama said in an address broadcast Saturday morning on radio and YouTube...

And then comes the part:

Mr. Obama’s plan, if enacted, would be in part a government-directed industrial policy, with lawmakers and administration officials picking winners and losers among private projects and raining large amounts of taxpayer money on them...

Now I realize the whole tone of the Pravda piece is typical Hooverite free-market republican "let 'em pull themselves up by their bootstraps like I claim I did", but still somehow I think giving billions to private contractors is good news to Halliburton or its latest domestic corporate incarnation.

Of course, there's the realist out there saying the only way to get this past the Republicans and K Street is to set it up so they can skim off some cream. But somehow I think there are some Clintonista and Oborg out there poised to do the same.

Frank Rich names some Oborg names to watch out for, in fact:

... it’s the economic team that evokes trace memories of our dark best-and-brightest past. Lawrence Summers, the new top economic adviser, was the youngest tenured professor in Harvard’s history and is famous for never letting anyone forget his brilliance. It was his highhanded disregard for his own colleagues, not his impolitic remarks about gender and science, that forced him out of Harvard’s presidency in four years. Timothy Geithner, the nominee for Treasury secretary, is the boy wonder president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. He comes with none of Summers’s personal baggage, but his sparkling résumé is missing one crucial asset: experience outside academe and government, in the real world of business and finance. Postgraduate finishing school at Kissinger & Associates doesn’t count.

Summers and Geithner are both protégés of another master of the universe, Robert Rubin. His appearance in the photo op for Obama-transition economic advisers three days after the election was, to put it mildly, disconcerting. Ever since his acclaimed service as Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration, Rubin has labored as a senior adviser and director at Citigroup, now being bailed out by taxpayers to the potential tune of some $300 billion. Somehow the all-seeing Rubin didn’t notice the toxic mortgage-derivatives on Citi’s books until it was too late. The Citi may never sleep, but he snored.

Geithner was no less tardy in discovering the reckless, wholesale gambling that went on in Wall Street’s big casinos, all of which cratered while at least nominally under his regulatory watch. That a Hydra-headed banking monster like Citigroup came to be in the first place was a direct byproduct of deregulation championed by Rubin and Summers in Clinton’s Treasury Department (where Geithner also served). The New Deal reform they helped repeal, the Glass-Steagall Act, had been enacted in 1933 in part because Citigroup’s ancestor, National City Bank, had imploded after repackaging bad loans as toxic securities in the go-go 1920s.

Well, nobody’s perfect. Given that John McCain’s economic team was headlined by Carly Fiorina and Joe the Plumber, the country would be dodging a fiscal bullet even if Obama had picked Suze Orman. But I keep wondering why the honeymoon hagiography about the best and the brightest has been so over the top. Washington’s cheerleading for our new New Frontier cabinet superstars has seldom been interrupted by tough questions about Summers’s Harvard career or Geithner’s record at the Fed. For that, it’s best to turn to the business press: Andrew Ross Sorkin at The New York Times, for one, has been relentless in trying to ferret out Geithner’s opaque role in the catastrophic decision to let Lehman Brothers fail.

No doubt the Pavlovian ovations for the Obama team are in part a reaction to our immediate political past. After eight years of a presidency that valued cronyism over brains (or even competence) and embraced an anti-intellectualism apotheosized by Sarah Palin, it’s a godsend to have a president who puts a premium on merit. I also wonder if a press corps that underrated Obama’s political prowess for much of the campaign, demeaning him as a professorial wuss next to the brawny Clinton and McCain, is now overcompensating for that mistake. No one wants to miss out a second time on triumphal history in the making.

This, too, is a replay of what happened when Kennedy arrived, beating out the more seasoned Richard Nixon and ending eight years of Eisenhower rule. “Rarely had a new administration received such a sympathetic hearing at a personal level from the more serious and respected journalists of the city,” Halberstam wrote. “The good reporters of that era, those who were well educated and who were enlightened themselves and worked for enlightened organizations, liked the Kennedys and were for the same things the Kennedys were for.” They couldn’t imagine that “men who were said to be the ablest to serve in government in this century” would turn out to be architects of America’s “worst tragedy since the Civil War.”

Post-Iraq, we’re unlikely to rush into a new Vietnam. But we ignore the past’s lessons at our peril. In his 20th-anniversary reflections, Halberstam wrote that his favorite passage in his book was the one where Johnson, after his first Kennedy cabinet meeting, raved to his mentor, the speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn, about all the president’s brilliant men. “You may be right, and they may be every bit as intelligent as you say,” Rayburn responded, “but I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

Halberstam loved that story because it underlined the weakness of the Kennedy team: “the difference between intelligence and wisdom, between the abstract quickness and verbal facility which the team exuded, and true wisdom, which is the product of hard-won, often bitter experience.” That difference was clearly delineated in Vietnam, where American soldiers, officials and reporters could see that the war was going badly even as McNamara brusquely wielded charts and crunched numbers to enforce his conviction that victory was assured.
In our current financial quagmire, there have also been those who had the wisdom to sound alarms before Rubin, Summers or Geithner did. Among them were not just economists like Joseph Stiglitz and Nouriel Roubini but also Doris Dungey, a 47-year-old financial blogger known as Tanta, who died of cancer in Upper Marlboro, Md., last Sunday. As the Times obituary observed, “her first post, in December 2006, took issue with an optimistic Citigroup report that maintained that the mortgage industry would ‘rationalize’ in 2007, to the benefit of larger players like, well, Citigroup.” It was months before the others publicly echoed her judgment.

For some of J.F.K.’s best and brightest, Halberstam wrote, wisdom came “after Vietnam.” We have to hope that wisdom is coming to Summers and Geithner as they struggle with our financial Tet. Clearly it has not come to Rubin. Asked by The Times in April if he’d made any mistakes at Citigroup, he sounded as self-deluded as McNamara in retirement.

“I honestly don’t know,” Rubin answered. “In hindsight, there are a lot of things we’d do differently. But in the context of the facts as I knew them and my role, I’m inclined to think probably not.” Since that interview, 52,000 Citigroup employees have been laid off but not Rubin, who remains remorseless, collecting a salary that has totaled in excess of $115 million since 1999. You may be touched to hear that he is voluntarily relinquishing his bonus this Christmas.

Rubin hasn’t been seen in a transition photo op since Nov. 7, and in the end Obama chose Paul Volcker as chairman of his Economic Recovery Advisory Board. This was a presidential decision not only bright but wise.

Wise, but perhaps the wiseguys have simply moved to the back door, the better to avoid the bright lights. Time will tell.

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