Monthly Archives: March 2009

GOP Budget

So now the Repugs have a budget.

I haven’t seen it.  Not sure if it’s in sufficient detail.  But they have an alternative they’ll promote endlessly. 

Can you remember when over the six years the GOPers held power on the Hill and at the White House that the Dems offered an alternative vision, let alone a specific budget?

No, I didn’t think so.

But they weren’t even the party of no.  They were the party of “OK, you win, we’ll go along.  Don’t hurt us. We’re sorry.”

UPDATE:  OK. Maybe not a budget.  Just a blueprint.  In this world of red states and blue states, shouldn’t that be a “redprint”?

UPDATE 2:  Ok.  Maybe I’m wrong.  Looks like the Repugs can be as disorganized as the Dems.

Prejudicing the Witness

What do we gain when reporters characterize the politics of those they quote in stories?  There are legitimate arguments on both sides.  By telling us that someone is a Democrat or Republican politician certainly provides useful information by which we can judge their observations.  Politicians place first, obviously, politics.  That provides an overall hue to their observations.  How the issue is perceived is more important than the issue itself.  So we should know if a comment is from a Republican or Democratic politician.

But they aren’t the only ones sought by reporters for comment.  Often, researchers, academics and leaders whose organizations address political issues are sought as sources.  Do they have a prejudice?  Yes, likely. 

Why are these other sources cited by reporters?  One would hope is that they provide perspectives that isn’t wholly political.  They needn’t be political eunuchs, but hopefully they have some expertise or experience that informs their opinions.

But reporters and editors apparently think that they must characterize almost everyone they quote.  A story in today’s Washington Post is an example of what I think is characterization run amok.

Dean Baker, co-director of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, said Obama would have been better off capitalizing more fully on public ire but was being held back by the Rubin protégés.

"He hurts himself enormously by being seen as associated with the bankers," Baker said. "Purely pragmatically, you have an opportunity here where these Wall Street guys are really hated, they’ve been a really pernicious presence in the economy for a quarter-century, and the idea of jumping on them when they’re down makes a lot of sense. This idea that they’re going to help things — well, they’re not our buddies. There’s a real fundamental conflict there, and he’s hoping he can paper it over."

Why do we need to know that the Center is “left-leaning”?  And what does that mean?  That their research is not to be trusted?  More important, Baker seems to be expressing an opinion of the politics of the issue and not a budget technicality.  It’s a legitimate and useful insight.  But by characterizing his organization as left-leaning, the reporter prejudices Baker’s comment.

Another useful observation comes later in the article.

Michael Maslansky, a Republican-leaning pollster, questioned whether Obama could succeed in channeling public anger toward his longer-term goals after having initially helped stir the anger with his vow to retrieve the AIG bonuses. It would have been truer to Obama’s approach if he had right away put the episode in the context of his overall agenda, Maslansky said.

"It was a strategic mistake," Maslansky said. "He’s supposed to lead, to skate to where the puck is going to be. Going after the bonuses was looking backwards. He should have said right away, ‘These bonuses are the last gasp of a dying culture.’ He would’ve been much better off if this AIG thing hadn’t become such a big issue. . . . Now the White House says, ‘Wow, they really are angry, they have the pitchforks out, and they’re trying to kill the people I need [to fix Wall Street].’ And the American people are watching and asking, ‘Is he a populist, or is he a cool, collected leader?’ "

What’s a “Republican-leaning pollster”?  Someone who has his (right) thumb on the scale.  If so, he’s not a very useful pollster.  His comment is legitimate.  Let it stand on its own, and let the reader be the judge of its validity.

As I wrote to the reporters this morning,

Both made comments that are legitimate and insightful.  By telling us how they lean you discount their comments for the reader.  If the comments are not to be trusted, why include them?

[Later in the article is there’s the quote] “Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin said the approach Obama has settled on is the best available: sharing the public’s ire,…”

Now which way does he lean?  Does he believe the Civil War was over states rights or slavery?  Did New Deal regulations work or prolong the depression?  Was Hitler a monster or “what Holocaust?”

If reporters find observations that are helpful to the reader, journalists shouldn’t prejudice the reader before the poor observer gets the words out of his mouth and into the paper.

Prescient Senators

A major piece of legislation that contributed to the cowboy mentality on Wall St. was the 1999 Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.  The vote was 90-8.  One of the eight, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), was interviewed last night on the Rachel Maddow Show.  (I’m having trouble with the embed code, so here’s the link.)

Who were the prescient eight who voted against deregulation?  Some are not surprising, and they were not all Democrats:

  • Richard Shelby (R-Ala.)
  • Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)
  • Tom Harkin (D-Ia.)
  • Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.)
  • Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.)
  • Richard Bryan (D-Nev.)
  • Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.)
  • and Dorgan

But more important, who were among the supporters of deregulation?

Sens. McCain, Feinstein, Dodd, Lieberman, Biden, Durbin, Bayh, Collins, Snowe, Sarbanes, Kennedy, (John) Kerry, Levin, Baucus, Reid, Gregg, Moynihan, Schumer, Edwards, Conrad, Wyden, Daschle, Jeffords, Robb, Rockefeller and a plethora of GOPers.

So there is plenty of blame to go around.

How Many is Many?

Below is a copy of my email to Washington Post reporter Lori Montgomery and Ombudsman Andy Alexander:

“Senate Republicans and many Democrats adamantly oppose reconciliation…”

My reading, from reading Democratic blogs and judging from my emails from Democratic groups, is that many Democrats support reconciliation, which raises the question how many is many? Your including the word suggests that “close to most” (is that the definition?) Dems oppose reconciliation. What would have been wrong with using “some” instead of “many” — especially as Democratic leaders in Congress have made a point of not ruling out reconciliation for the budget?

UPDATE:  Here is the response from Post reporter Lori Montgomery:

Several probably would have been a better word. In the senate, the only place it matters, i think we’re up to 10.

I don’t always note who writes a story to be able to judge a reporter.  But after an earlier exchange with Ms. Montgomery, I note her byline. In addition to being responsive, I find her an objective, balanced and fair reporter.

AIG Bonuses: The Other Side of the Story

I’m not one to defend AIG executives generally, but this letter from a resigning EVP in today’s New York Times gives us a little peak into the other side of this story and brings up some issues that need to be explored.  Some of those issues I outlined in an email to several Washington Post reporters the other day.

His salary is $1 a year.  His bonus is nearly $750,000. 

I started at this company in 1998 as an equity trader, became the head of equity and commodity trading and, a couple of years before A.I.G.’s meltdown last September, was named the head of business development for commodities. Over this period the equity and commodity units were consistently profitable — in most years generating net profits of well over $100 million. Most recently, during the dismantling of A.I.G.-F.P., I was an integral player in the pending sale of its well-regarded commodity index business to UBS. As you know, business unit sales like this are crucial to A.I.G.’s effort to repay the American taxpayer.

The profitability of the businesses with which I was associated clearly supported my compensation. I never received any pay resulting from the credit default swaps that are now losing so much money. I did, however, like many others here, lose a significant portion of my life savings in the form of deferred compensation invested in the capital of A.I.G.-F.P. because of those losses. In this way I have personally suffered from this controversial activity — directly as well as indirectly with the rest of the taxpayers.

…We have worked 12 long months under these contracts and now deserve to be paid as promised. None of us should be cheated of our payments any more than a plumber should be cheated after he has fixed the pipes but a careless electrician causes a fire that burns down the house.

Many of the employees have, in the past six months, turned down job offers from more stable employers, based on A.I.G.’s assurances that the contracts would be honored. They are now angry about having been misled by A.I.G.’s promises and are not inclined to return the money as a favor to you.

Working for a $1 annual salary clearly requires some kind of bonus.  Even if he was not worth $750,000 – and he admits that may be too much – you can’t simply say he should get no bonus.

He is quitting and taking the bonus.  But even then, you can’t beat up the guy if he follows through on his promise.

So what am I to do? There’s no easy answer. I know that because of hard work I have benefited more than most during the economic boom and have saved enough that my family is unlikely to suffer devastating losses during the current bust. Some might argue that members of my profession have been overpaid, and I wouldn’t disagree.

That is why I have decided to donate 100 percent of the effective after-tax proceeds of my retention payment directly to organizations that are helping people who are suffering from the global downturn. This is not a tax-deduction gimmick; I simply believe that I at least deserve to dictate how my earnings are spent, and do not want to see them disappear back into the obscurity of A.I.G.’s or the federal government’s budget. Our earnings have caused such a distraction for so many from the more pressing issues our country faces, and I would like to see my share of it benefit those truly in need.

Questions Not Asked

Matt Yglesias rightly takes the White House press corps to task for questions not asked.

We got no questions last night about the administration’s bank plan, none about its financial regulatory proposals, none about the forthcoming Afghanistan policy review, and really nothing about the suffering of the American people in a time of distress. Instead, the press seemed mostly to have picked up on the fact that congressional Republicans are complaining about the deficit, so they asked some questions about the deficit. It didn’t really occur to anyone that the press conference might be a good time to raise the issues that aren’t being chewed on every ten minutes on cable.

I’d add more specific question:  What are you going to do, Mr. President, to prevent financial institutions from ever again becoming too big to fail?

The Muddled Democrats

Try as they might to position themselves as “moderates,” the Democratic renegades in the Senate are proving they can muddle the message and the budget process as they cower from an electorate who is tired with their half-assed measures.

They are led by North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad.

Conrad also pressed some Bush-era budget maneuvers eliminated by Obama back into service: Instead of a 10-year budget that shows deficits steadily accumulating, for example, Conrad is proposing a five-year spending plan. And Conrad assumes that the alternative minimum tax will strike millions of middle-class families, generating billions of additional dollars in 2013 and 2014, though Congress has acted repeatedly to prevent that.

So they are returning to Bush-era obfuscation of the budget process. 

The muddled Democrats are still winning the nomenclature war in the press as they continue to use the term moderate, a term that works in their favor.  Evan Bayh, who may be called the wimp whip, tried, along with two other senators, to defend the group in The Washington Post this morning.  Without citing his source, he claims that moderates rule.

Beyond the chessboard of the Senate, nearly half of the U.S. electorate calls itself moderate, and more than half of the rest identify themselves as conservative. That means Democrats could capture every liberal vote and half of the moderates and still lose at the polls. Many independents voted for President Obama and the contours of his change agenda, but they will not rubber-stamp it. They are wary of ideological solutions and are overwhelmingly pragmatic. Many of them live in our states and in the states of the other senators who have joined our group.

Set aside the inference that progressives in general and Obama’s budget specifically is not “pragmatic,” I don’t agree with his analysis of the electorate.  The Center for American Progress found a different picture.

…34 percent of the country identifies as “conservative,” 29 percent as “moderate,” 15 percent as “liberal,” 16 percent as “progressive,” and 2 percent as “libertarian.” After moderates are asked which approach they lean toward, the overall ideological breakdown of the country divides into fairly neat left and right groupings, with 47 percent of Americans identifying as progressive or liberal and 48 percent as conservative or libertarian.

So in fact, the electorate is split.  But the government is not.  It clearly has a mandate from voters to enact a progressive agenda.

Most of the ideas with the strongest consensus (approximately two-thirds total agreement  and 40 percent strong agreement), are all progressive positions: the need for more sustainable lifestyles; government investment in education, infrastructure and science; transformation toward renewable energy sources; the need for a positive image to achieve national security goals; and guaranteed affordable health coverage for every American.

Let’s hope this works.

No Option GOP

What to do about the economy?  How do we solve the credit crisis?  What do we do about outsized compensation schemes on Wall St. that encourage bad risks?

These are the questions the Obama administration is trying to answer.  The GOP pretty much doesn’t like the administration plans.  And for much of the debate over the last few months, the GOP hasn’t been pressed on what alternatives they have to offer.  Maybe that’s because when you ask them, they avoid an answer. 

Watch the video below from about 2:30 on.  To their credit, both CNBC journalists yesterday try to get a GOP alternative, but Sen. Jeff Session (R-Ala.) does a little side step.


Then again yesterday on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. guest host Ed Schultz asked Sen. John Barasso (R-Wyo.)

SCHULTZ:  Well, Senator, when you take a look at the numbers that are out there, the president seems to be playing pretty loose with a lot of tax dollars.  But what‘s the Republican plan for fixing this?  If we don‘t do this private and public partnership, if we don‘t invest to get these toxic assets off the books for the banks, what other plan could there be? 

BARRASSO:  Well, you want to have accountability, you want to have oversight, you want to have transparency.  That‘s what was lacking in that first $700 billion bailout last year.  But I‘m concerned about the entire budget, which is what the president was talking about Saturday in his radio message. 

I say, focus on the economy.  It‘s the economy, Mr. President.  It‘s not all of these other things of rebuilding and redoing health care and education and energy and the environment. 

You have two jobs, Mr. President.  One is the economy, the other is to keep us safe at home.  And I say focus all your attention on the economy.  Don‘t deal with this big budget which we‘re debating this week in the Senate, which to me spends too much, taxes too much and borrows too much. 

Schultz then lets him off the hook.  See any alternative plan there?  Of course not.  Which gives any Dem the first retort to any criticism.  Unless you have a better plan, shut up Repugs.

CNBC: Unbalanced Again

Erin Burnett is at it again.  Because she is latest, most popular “money honey” at CNBC, she now has two shows a day.  In her afternoon segment, she again went on the attack against any tax on AIG bonuses.  In fact, she’ll attack anything that jeopardizes her buddies’ compensation on Wall Street.

So to examine the issue ad nauseum, she had two guests on -  The Washington Post’s Steve Pearlstein and Ian Berman of the Eurasia Group — both of whom wrote columns today opposing the tax legislation now making its way through Congress!  Along with her leading questions and snarky comments, bill defenders were at a 3-0 disadvantage. 

I’m not defending the bill, just looking for a modicum of journalistic balance.

Maybe CNBC needs to adopt Fox News’ “fair and balanced” joke.