Browsing the blog archivesfor the day Monday, August 28th, 2006.


Image and Action

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Bush Administration

Lots of bloggers are linking to this New York Times article by Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Year After Katrina, Bush Still Fights for 9/11 Image.”

When the nation records the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of the twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way from Crawford, Tex., to Washington, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina thousands of feet below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president’s competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Mr. Bush: his compassion.

A year later, he has yet to recover on either front.

Stolberg goes on to say that Bush’s approval raitings never rebounded. You know the story by now.

Josh Marshall Matt Yglesias:

In particular, the centrality of 9/11 to Bush’s political persona has always struck me as under-analyzed. It’s a strange thing primarily because Bush didn’t really do anything on 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Terrorists hijacked four planes and sought to crash them into buildings. They succeeded in doing so with three of the planes. Thousands died. The physical destruction was enormous. It was terrible. But it wasn’t quite as bad as it could have been. The passengers on one plane downed it before it could reach its target. Many people were evacuated from the World Trade Center and their lives were saved. But none of the good work that was done on that day — and there was some good, heroic work done — was done by the president or had anything in particular to do with him.

Rather, the good vibes about 9/11 Bush all, in essence, relate to a series of speeches he gave in the days following the event (his immediate evening-of speech was poorly receieved). And I think they were good speeches. The rubble/bullhorn event was a good event. The address to a joint session of congress was great, too. But what does that all really amount to?

IMO you can say the same thing about Rudy Guiliani. All he had to do after 9/11 was be on television.

His popularity skyrocketed because, having failed to foil a serious terrorist plot, he made a series of pleasing remarks about the plot. And ever since that day, I think this dynamic has been infecting our national strategy. The main goal, in essence, is to do things that signify the adoption of an appropriate attitude toward hostile elements in the world rather than to evaluate possible courses of action in terms of their effects.

The debate on Iraq is just awash in this. The war gets discussed as if it’s a metaphor of some kind. A good opportunity to demonstrate resolve or commitment, or else the lack thereof. A place where our stick-to-it-iveness will show how strongly we feel that democracy is good. A shadow theater wherein we send messages to al-Qaeda or Iran or what have you have. But, of course, Iraq is a real place. The soldiers and civilians in that country are real people. They shoot real bullets and detonate real explosives. And so the question has to be, what, actually, is being achieved? What more might realistically be achieved? What are the consequences — not intentions, not desires, not hopes, but consequences — of our policies?

I’ve ranted the same rant many times. This Administration doesn’t know how to do anything except put on an act. What’s pathetic is that so many Americans didn’t notice for so long.

Other comments:

BooMan:

Bush oh so wishes that we would forget Katrina, forget My Pet Goat, forget the August 6th memo, forget his frantic flight to Nebraska, forget his promise to wage a crusade, forget that he didn’t even know the difference between Shi’a and Sunnis before he asked Richard Clarke to find phantom evidence against Iraq…

Yes, if we can forget all of that, then maybe we can see him again standing on the rubble with his bullhorn, talking tough and making us feel better for a half a moment. Never in history has a politician attempted to get more mileage out of a single photo op. For me, Bush will always be reading My Pet Goat.

zuzu:

Katrina gave even those who were supportive of the president and thought he could do no wrong a much-needed dose of reality: with the horribly bungled response to Katrina, they had to admit that there is no there in this presidency. There was a veneer of resolute strength that was blown away for good by Katrina.

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Time and Tides

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Bush Administration

Tomorrow is the big anniversary of the landing of Katrina. Today the President landed in Mississippi; tomorrow he’s supposed to be in New Orleans. I assume that at some point he will take part in some highly stagecrafted representation of an actual presidential administration featuring Black Persons chosen for their ability to show awe and gratitude to massa the President. At some point the President will take off his jacket and roll up his shirtsleeves. He will talk a lot about how much money the feds have appropriated and about the government’s duty to rebuild the Gulf. It will all be bullshit.

You can read Paul Krugman’s column here.

Last September President Bush stood in New Orleans, where the lights had just come on for the first time since Katrina struck, and promised “one of the largest reconstruction efforts the world has ever seen.” Then he left, and the lights went out again.

What happened next was a replay of what happened after Mr. Bush asked Congress to allocate $18 billion for Iraqi reconstruction. In the months that followed, congressmen who visited Iraq returned with glowing accounts of all the wonderful things we were doing there, like repainting schools and, um, repainting schools.

But when the Coalition Provisional Authority, which was running Iraq, closed up shop nine months later, it turned out that only 2 percent of the $18 billion had been spent, and only a handful of the projects that were supposed to have been financed with that money had even been started. In the end, America failed to deliver even the most basic repair of Iraq’s infrastructure; today, Baghdad gets less than seven hours of electricity a day.

And so it is along our own Gulf Coast.

The Bush administration likes to talk about all the money it has allocated to the region, and it plans a public relations blitz to persuade America that it’s doing a heck of a job aiding Katrina’s victims. But as the Iraqis learned, allocating money and actually using it for reconstruction are two different things, and so far the administration has done almost nothing to make good on last year’s promises.

It’s true that tens of billions have been spent on emergency relief and cleanup. But even the cleanup remains incomplete: almost a third of the hurricane debris in New Orleans has yet to be removed. And the process of going beyond cleanup to actual reconstruction has barely begun.

Most of you know all this already, but I say you can’t repeat it often enough.

Krugman goes on to outline what President Bush could have done, but didn’t do, to expedite Gulf Coast reconstruction.

It strikes me that another parallel between Iraq and the Gulf Coast is the Administration’s lack of urgency. After being in an all-fired toot to invade Iraq right now, the Bushies seemed to think they had all the time in the world to restore order, utilities and infrastructure. In fact, and I know they were warned about this, the clock was ticking as soon as Bush announced the “mission” was “accomplished.” The Bushies had a small window of time in which to restore order and government services before an insurgency picked up steam. The Bushies acted as if they had all the time in the world, while Iraqis went without water and electricity and basic law enforcement. And got pissed.

Early this year Warren Strobel and Jonathan Landay of Knight Ridder reported that by late 2003 U.S. intelligence agencies were warning the Bush Administration that the insurgency was being fueled by “local conditions” and “deep grievances” against the occupation, and was getting out of control. The Bushies ignored this and continued to believe the violence was all coming from foreign fighters and “dead enders.”

I believe that the Bushies had already pissed away their “victory” then. It is possible that, had order been kept and services restored promptly after the “military phase” of the invasion ended, the White House might have obtained the result they say they want — a stable, democratic and America-friendly Iraq. But they failed to hear that ticking clock.

The same thing is true of the Gulf. The Bushies seem to think that people shouldn’t mind having their lives put on hold indefinitely. Meanwhile, countless small businesses are dead and gone because they couldn’t re-open, or if they did re-open they failed for lack of customers. Other residents and small business owners have permanently re-located. Families and marriages are strained. Jobless homeowners defaulted on mortgages, and now the foreclosures have begun.

Let’s see — how many vacation days has the President enjoyed since this time last year?

Much Katrina commentary has been about the Administration’s failure to address the problems of poverty. While I agree in substance, I think the best anti-poverty program would have been a vigorous and uncorrupted recovery program. You know, the kind of program that contracts the work to be done by local companies as much as possible, instead of by the President’s campaign contributors and cronies. A program that emphasizes employing residents and paying them a living wage, instead of importing illegal aliens and then stiffing them. A program in which most of the money allocated to reconstruction is applied to reconstruction instead of disappearing into the pockets of a pyramid of subcontractors. A program that helps people keep their homes (and the equity they’ve built up over the years) before the bank forecloses. A program to help small businesses ride out the dry spell before the customers came back. That would have helped reduce poverty a great deal.

But the way the Bushies are running Gulf reconstruction, it’s more of a pro-poverty program.

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Dirty State Politics.

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elections

Our local state Senate race is between long-time Republican incumbent Nick Spano and Democratic challenger Andrea Stewart-Cousins. Last week the Spano campaign began to run television ads claiming that Stewart-Cousins was responsible for allowing sex offenders to move into a homeless shelter in a nice residential neighborhood in Valhalla, NY. It’s a bogus charge; details here.

I just got a phone call from someone claiming to be taking a poll; he then asked me if I was likely to vote for Stewart-Cousins knowing she allowed pedophiles to move to Valhalla. I told the guy I certainly would vote for Stewart-Cousins because I hate push polls.

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Second Rate Nation

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economy

Who’s number one? Not the U.S. apparently. David Francis writes in the Christian Science Monitor:

The United States is the world’s only military superpower and has the globe’s largest economy. Yet, by some measures, the US is a second-rate industrial nation – at best.

“Compared to other advanced economies, our market-driven model yields highly varied results regarding the living standards of our citizens,” notes a study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a nonpartisan think tank in Washington.

It’s an open question as to whether most Americans are better off than most Western Europeans.

“We leave a lot of people behind,” says Sylvia Allegretto, an economist at EPI.

“We are a dynamic economy,” says Timothy Smeeding, an economist at Syracuse (N.Y.) University. “A lot of people are doing well,” he adds. But for those with median incomes ($40,000 a year) or less, it is a “second-rate” economy. They “are not getting much help.”

Conservatives like to brag about numbers — Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and Gross National Product (GNP) and Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) numbers, for example — and toss in some coefficients and price adjustments, and then they say, ah-HAH. The U.S. is the richest country in the world.

This guy is a prime example. After a dizzying display of numbers, he concludes:

If we accept (as I do) that we do, indeed, need to have a social safety net, and that we have a duty to provide for those incapable or unlucky enough to be unable to do so for themselves, we need to set some level at which such help is offered. The standard of living of the poor in a redistributionist paradise like Finland (or Sweden) seems a fair enough number to use and the USA provides exactly that. Good, the problem’s solved. We’ve provided — both through the structure of the economy and the various forms of taxation and benefits precisely what we should be — an acceptable baseline income for the poor. No further redistribution is necessary and we can carry on with the current tax rates and policies which seem, as this report shows, to be increasing US incomes faster than those in other countries and boosting productivity faster as well.

At the bottom of the article, the author’s blurb: Tim Worstall is a TCS Daily contributor living in Europe. (chuckle)

Compare/contrast with Robert Kuttner, who wrote in April 2006:

Census data show median household income fell 3.8 percent or $1,700, from 1999 to 2004, according to economist Jared Bernstein of the Economic Policy Institute (on whose board I serve.) And this drop occurred during a period when average productivity rose three percent per year.

Moreover, as economist Jeff Madrick has observed in his book ”Why Economies Grow,” , the reality is worse because prices of commodities that make us middle class are rising much faster than inflation generally: housing, college education, health care, and also child care. These very rapid price increases are offset by falling costs of consumer electronics, basic food, and clothing, creating misleadingly low inflation measures.

It’s great that shirts are cheaper than a decade ago, and that we all have cell phones. But that doesn’t exactly substitute for a house, an affordable college education, or health care.

According to economist Bernstein, whose study covers the years 1991-2002, households in the middle fifth of the economy increased their incomes (not adjusted for inflation) by 41 percent. Inflation during that period, as measured by the government’s Consumer Price Index, went up 33 percent. That implies real living standards rose by a not very impressive 8 percent during more than a decade.

But hold on. During the same period, housing, healthcare, education, and child care went up 46 percent, or more than incomes. We cannot afford the big things we need and comfort ourselves with gadgets. The cheaper laptop, plasma TV, and GPS screen in your car make it appear statistically that living standards are not falling as much as they are.

The emblem of the new economy might be a 35-year-old, listening to an iPod, living in a house much smaller than the one he grew up in.

To use a favorite word of my grandmother’s, call it the Tchotchke Economy (a Tchotchke is a small trinket): Plenty of nifty, ever cheaper electronic stuff — and ever more costly housing, education, healthcare. An iPod is swell, but it doesn’t exactly make you middle class.

Why does this describe America in 2006? Don’t blame it on immigrants. Blame it on the people running the government, who have made sure that the lion’s share of the productivity gains go to the richest 1 percent of Americans. With different tax, labor, health, and housing policies, native-born workers and immigrants alike could get a fairer share of our productive economy — and still have the nifty iPods.

Righties pooh-pooh standard of living comparisons as so much socialist hocus-pocus; they prefer numbers. But I would really love to see a side-by-side comparison of how average working people live in several industrialized nations. Take some common occupations, both white and blue collar — e.g., truck driver, cashier, teacher, office administrator — and compare how people in those occupations manage in various countries. Take into account what kind of house they live in; how much of their income goes to pay for housing (mortgage, rent, property taxes); what major appliances they own; how they get around on an ordinary day (car, bus, bicycle) and how much time they spend commuting; how many hours a week they spend on the job; vacation and leisure (how much paid vacation they get, and what they do for fun); the quality of health care they receive and how it’s paid for; how much they spend on child care and education; etc.

Take your numbers and shove ’em, in other words. Show me how ordinary working folks live. I suspect the U.S. would look pretty average in such a comparison — better in some ways, worse in others.

Of course, in the United States there are huge disparities from region to region. Housing is a lot more affordable in most of the South and Midwest than it is in the megalopolis northeast, for example. It might take some doing to figure out what the real “average” is in the U.S.

See also this article from the August 19 Guardian: “Balance of power ebbs away from the US.

… the US economy has already slowed, expanding at an annual pace of only 2.5% in the second quarter. With news this week that the 12-member eurozone expanded at an annualised rate of 3.6% in the April to June period, Europe is suddenly growing faster than the US. Britain, too, has recovered from last year’s slowdown and expanded at an annualised 3.2% in the second quarter.

In the last post I wrote about how the nation’s infrastructure is rotting away. This is not from a lack of wealth; certainly we got wealth up the wazoo in America. No, our infrastructure is rotting away because of a lack of will, as well as greed. A small portion of our citizens are sitting on most of the wealth and don’t want to share it. And the politicians are too corrupt or clueless to insist that infrastructure be maintained. Eventually we’ll have more and more power failures and maybe some spectacular and deadly bridge collapses, and then citizens will want to know why.

Face it; the whole nation is being Katrina’ed. The only difference between the Gulf Coast and the rest of us is time. Hurricanes work fast; rot and rust take longer. But they get the job done eventually.

Update:
Via DemFromCT at The Next Hurrah, Steven Greenhouse and David Leonhardt write in today’s New York Times, “Real Wages Fail to Match a Rise in Productivity“:

With the economy beginning to slow, the current expansion has a chance to become the first sustained period of economic growth since World War II that fails to offer a prolonged increase in real wages for most workers.

That situation is adding to fears among Republicans that the economy will hurt vulnerable incumbents in this year’s midterm elections even though overall growth has been healthy for much of the last five years.

The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.

As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

Here’s an eye opener:

In another recent report on the boom in profits, economists at Goldman Sachs wrote, “The most important contributor to higher profit margins over the past five years has been a decline in labor’s share of national income.” Low interest rates and the moderate cost of capital goods, like computers, have also played a role, though economists note that an economic slowdown could hurt profits in coming months.

Is that saying that corporations are making profits by squeezing workers? I do believe that’s what it says.

The most recent recession ended in late 2001. Hourly wages continued to rise in 2002 and peaked in early 2003, largely on the lingering strength of the 1990’s boom.

Average family income, adjusted for inflation, has continued to advance at a good clip, a fact Mr. Bush has cited when speaking about the economy. But these gains are a result mainly of increases at the top of the income spectrum that pull up the overall numbers. Even for workers at the 90th percentile of earners — making about $80,000 a year — inflation has outpaced their pay increases over the last three years, according to the Labor Department.

I’d like to know what Tim Worstall, TCS Daily contributor living in Europe, has to say about that.

Update: Maxspeak, who understands numbers better than I do, explains why Tim Worstall (TCS Daily contributor living in Europe) is wrong.

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