The Barack and Joe Show

I watched the final Obama-McCain debate. As usual, I found it hard to judge a ‘winner’, despite the fact that I used to debate myself and have judged debates. The problem is that when I was a debating judge, one used evidence, arguments, and coherence as major criteria. Personality traits, quirks, body language, etc, were not really factors to be considered, becoming significant only if they distracted from the major points.

But political debates are not like that. Because they are not an extended discussion focused on a single proposition but jump from topic to topic, the secondary criteria become far more important. It becomes more like a beauty contest, valuing style over substance.

Personally, I thought McCain did a lot better than he had in the past. He seemed more alert and feisty (perhaps a little too feisty at times) but he still gives the appearance of someone barely controlling his anger. Obama as usual seemed unflappable, even though he seemed on the defensive quite often. From what I read yesterday of what the professional pundit class said immediately after the debate, they seemed to roughly share my views.

So what are we to make of the immediate snap polls that show Obama a clear winner? (See here, here, and here.)

In the debates, viewers seem to be largely looking, not so much at issues, but how the candidates comport themselves, which is why the calm and collected Obama is wiping the floor with McCain. I think that what this reveals is not good news for McCain. I think that many people have made up their minds for Obama and their feeling that he had handily ‘won’ the debate simply reflects their sense that his performance affirmed their choice, that they had no second thoughts or regrets.

There is a good analysis by Joe Klein about how the professional pundit class simply has not caught up with the reality that the public’s view of what is important has shifted drastically from what it was in the past, which is why they are caught flat-footed by events like these, not able to gauge the popular reaction.

Like almost everyone, I was startled by the starring role that Joe the plumber played in the debate. For those who haven’t seen the video of the exchange between Obama and Joe that was constantly being referred to, here it is:

There have been suggestions that Joe was a McCain plant. His story seemed a little too conveniently suited to McCain’s needs. A hard-working man, who after 15 years of putting in 12-hour days is finally able to buy a plumbing business that will provide him an income of $250,000, just the level at which Obama’s tax plan raises taxes. He is now aggrieved that just as his hard work is paying off after all these years, he will be paying higher taxes to support poorer people who (by implication) are lazy good-for-nothings unwilling to work as hard as him. It tied in too neatly with what the McCain camp was saying.

DailyKos has done some research on plumber Joe and seems to find that rather than being your regular plumber thinking of starting his own business, three other businesses are owned in the same neighborhood by someone with the same name as him. He also does not have a plumber’s license.

Furthermore he shares the same unusual last name as Robert Wurzelbacher, who is Charles Keating’s son-in-law and also lives in the Cincinnati area like Joe. If you recall, Keating went to jail for defrauding investors in the savings and loan scandal in the 1980s. John and Cindy McCain were Keating’s close friends and McCain was one of the Keating Five senators reprimanded for ethics violations for using his influence to help Keating.

It may be that Joe has no connections at all to Keating, and that Wurzelbacher is a common name in the Cincinnati area. I am sure that further inquiries will bring that information to light.

But while all very intriguing, for the purposes of the point I wish to make, it does not matter if Joe is a McCain plant or not. I had seen the exchange of Obama with Joe earlier this week and had been planning to write about it today. I thought the exchange was interesting and although Joe seemed to start and end the discussion as a McCain supporter, the way that Obama interacted with him was quite revealing about him and his policies.

It supported my view that these ‘debates’ should not be moderated at all but simply a free exchange between voters and the candidates so that we have more of these kinds of Joe-Obama discussions.

The voters could be selected randomly, like juries are, and they could ask the candidates anything they like and be allowed one follow up question, with the only restriction being a time limit for their questions to avoid speechifying. The only role for the moderator would be to keep tabs on the questioner’s time.

I would not bother seeking out only so-called independents either. If people are genuinely uncommitted at this late stage, that means they have not really been paying attention. It should not matter if some of the people selected are rabid partisans out to ‘get’ the opposing candidate with difficult questions or throw softballs at their own or are even nutcases asking off-the-wall questions. How candidates respond to such people says a lot about them, and we are likely to learn a lot more about them in this format than from the current one that favors regurgitation of talking points and bits of stump speeches.

The trouble with having the present professional-journalist-as-moderator format is that these establishment journalists select questions about the kinds of things that they want to talk about and are drearily predictable. As a result, even the people offering up questions at these ‘town hall’ sessions tend to pose the kinds of questions that they think the moderators will like and thus select. No wonder these debates tend to be snoozers.

I think seeing more encounters like Obama and Joe (whether he was a McCain plant or not) would be far more interesting.

POST SCRIPT: Palin supporters

Al Jazeera interviews some of the people attending a Sarah Palin rally. Disturbing.

Sarah, mean and small

Like most people, I was startled by the choice of Sarah Palin as John McCain’s running mate. My first reaction was that it was a bad choice, for reasons that I wrote extensively about earlier. (See list of ‘Recent Entries’ on the right.)

My misgivings with her were mainly because there are too many potential hazards with thrusting an unknown and unexamined person suddenly into the media spotlight. Although I have never been a fan of Joe Biden, his selection did not set off similar alarm bells because he has been around so long that there were unlikely to be any unpleasant surprises surfacing during the campaign

I also knew when her selection was announced that there was an ongoing ethics investigation (‘troopergate’) into Palin’s attempts to fire her ex-brother-in-law and I did not believe that McCain would choose someone with something so potentially serious hanging over her head right in the middle of a campaign
It was not that I did not think she was competent for the position of vice president and potentially president. There are probably many unpolished gems among the population, who could turn out to be great leaders if given the opportunity. I simply did not know enough about her leadership qualities to make such a judgment.

But now the evidence is in. Subsequent events have made it pretty clear that far from being an uncut diamond, she is pure rhinestone, all flash and no substance. Her two interviews with people like Charles Gibson and Katie Couric, well-known for conducting celebrity-style interviews and hardly noted for their aggressive questioning, revealed someone completely out of her depth even in responding to boilerplate questions. She seems to be lacking in curiosity, and unable to string coherent thoughts together or even speak in understandable sentences. Since then she has retreated to the bosom of sycophantic followers, giving interviews only to people like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Hugh Hewitt.

She has not held a single press conference, an astonishing thing for someone who aspires to the second highest office in the land.

But what has really turned me off is that she has revealed personality traits that are unbecoming in a leader. They show that she is a petty, small-minded, and vindictive person, who has few if any scruples about attacking her perceived opponents, willing to sink to depths that are deplorable even by partisan political standards.

She seems to not care about truth and seems comfortable constructing an alternative reality to shield her from it. One sign was her willingness to repeat over and over again to her adoring fans the lie about her saying ‘thanks but no thanks’ to the ‘bridge to nowhere’, even after that assertion had been thoroughly documented to be false.

Another was her recent assertion that the troopergate report released last week completely cleared her of any hint of ethics violations when it explicitly stated: “Finding Number One of the report says: “I find that Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act.”

Such things are amazingly brazen and show a disconcerting disconnect either from reality or from truth. Is it any wonder that the Anchorage Daily News describes her response as ‘Orwellian’ and that it was “an embarrassment to Alaskans and the nation”?

The troopergate report also revealed a degree of startling degree of vindictiveness and abuse of power. The extent that she and her husband went to get her ex-brother-in-law fired, even to the extent of firing his boss for not firing him (which would itself have violated civil service rules), shows a creepy obsessiveness that is disturbing.

The newspaper went on “They had no sense that the power of the governor’s office carries a special responsibility not to use it to settle family scores. They had no sense that legal restrictions might prevent the troopers from firing Wooten. They had no sense that persistent queries from the governor’s office might be perceived as pressure to bend state personnel laws.”

People who abuse their authority over others should never be put in a position of power.

Her casual use of language to suggest that Obama is some kind of dangerous and unknown person who ‘palls around with terrorists’ suggests a reckless disregard for the basic elements of decency. In watching those clips of her saying such things, one did not get the sense of someone performing a distasteful task because of orders from the campaign. She was acting like she thought it was perfectly acceptable, even enjoying it. She actually seems to revel in the muck.

It should also be remembered that the alleged ‘terrorist’ William Ayers, whatever his past, is still alive and living in Chicago as a professor of education at a university there. He is not some fugitive in hiding. Repeatedly and publicly calling him a terrorist in these inflamed times is to encourage some crazy person to try and harm him.

The Republican Party has a range of people from old-style establishment conservatives to right wing extremists. The establishment conservatives tend to value knowledge and expertise and know that one has to deal with reality. They clung on to their party even when George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Karl Rove systematically set about creating an alternative reality, manufacturing ‘facts’ to suit their needs, shredding the protections of the constitution, plunging the country into disastrous and immoral wars, crating skyrocketing budget deficits by massive tax giveaways to the rich, and using torture on prisoners.

But Sarah Palin has proved too much even for these loyal establishment conservatives. They see her as beyond the pale and one now sees a steady stream of them announce that they cannot support her and are either calling for her to be dropped from the ticket or saying they are going to vote for Obama, even as the rabid base calls upon her to increase her vicious attacks.

It is too late for McCain to drop her, of course. The two are now joined at the hip, for better or (more likely) for worse.

Sarah Palin has become the bridge to nowhere for the Republican Party.

POST SCRIPT: John Cleese on Sarah Palin

He finds her even funnier than the other Palin.

McCain’s debate dilemma

It was no secret that the McCain-Palin campaign was in trouble two weeks ago. With the elections looming, they were stagnant in the polls. The Palin boomlet was gone and she was increasingly seen as a liability, firing up the base but alienating pretty much everyone else. McCain’s stunt of ‘suspending’ his campaign to solve the financial crisis was widely viewed as at best erratic and at worst a pathetic attempt to gain attention.

As was predicted by many observers, the campaign tried to turn things around by going nasty, attempting to paint Obama as the ‘Dangerous Other’, the person who is ‘not like us’. There were allegations by McCain and Palin that we don’t really know who he is, that Obama has mysterious past that is unexamined, and that he has perhaps secrets that he wants to conceal.

These kinds of vague suspicion dropping are meant to create a canvas onto which people can project their own fears and phantasms. And the crowds at the McCain-Palin rallies and the third-tier pundit fringe in the media dutifully obliged. Obama is secretly a Muslim, Obama is an Arab, Obama is a terrorist (for some of the more deranged and ignorant, all three are equivalent), Obama is a radical, and so on. Of course, the fact that Obama is black was undoubtedly enough fire up the racist elements. .

Palin’s comment that Obama ‘does not see America like you and me’ and has been ‘palling around with terrorists’ was a particular low point, inciting some people to yell out ‘traitor’.

It is true that anybody in a crowd can shout out unpleasant things. It is the climate that the speaker sets up and how he or she responds that is significant. It is an unfortunate fact of life that it really does not take much talent to be a rabble-rouser. People have pent up latent hostilities and insecurities that they normally keep a lid on for fear of societal disapproval. But when a public figure seems to signal approval of such sentiments by silence and even encourages it in crowds, the top comes off and the hate spews out.

This is what we have seen in the last week or so. The response by the crowds at the rallies to this kind of incitement has been downright ugly, shouting epithets, and for many days McCain and Palin did not rebuke them.

But taking this low road does not seem to have worked. The polls have shown increasing levels of public disapproval of both of them, their support has dropped precipitously, and even their supporters in the establishment have voiced concern at the ugliness. Establishment conservatives are finding the campaign increasingly distasteful and counterproductive and are beginning to say so, further enraging the third-tier pundit brigade.

But even on this issue McCain is erratic. After a supporter at a rally last Monday asked McCain when he was ‘going to take the gloves off’ (i.e., be even more direct about these types of allegations) McCain responded to the delight of the crowd ‘How about tomorrow?” It seemed like was signaling that he was going to be on the attack at last Tuesday’s debate and no doubt many of his supporters tuned in hoping to see fireworks. Instead they saw a seemingly befuddled McCain whose main attack on Obama was that he supported an earmark request for a new projection system to replace the forty-year old one at the popular Adler planetarium.

This opened the door for the Obama campaign to gently taunt him and raise issues of cowardice. In an interview with ABC’s Charles Gibson, Obama expressed surprise that McCain had not said the things he says in rallies to his face. Biden also chimed in that in his neighborhood if you had something bad to say about someone, you said it to his face.

When Gibson later told McCain about Obama’s comments, McCain was clearly on the defensive and said that no one could accuse him of being a coward.

More recently, McCain has rebuked some of the people at some rallies who have raised these issues while at other times has repeated those insinuations, the switch sometimes occurring within the space of fifteen minutes. Then yesterday, McCain has again promised to be aggressive at tonight’s debate.

It seems like either he is not sure what to do or is trying to keep Obama off balance, not sure what to expect.

So which McCain is going to turn up at tonight’s debate? I am told that the format will be like the first, a more free-wheeling format that allows for more digressions and debate and allows the candidates to bring up issues not related to the questions.

His extremist supporters are expecting him to really sock it to Obama and if he doesn’t they are going to be disgruntled, to put it mildly. But history indicates that revealing a nasty side with personal attacks in these debates is a losing proposition.

On the other, the fact that the Obama camp is taunting him with insinuations of cowardice must rankle McCain who likes to portray himself as a hero. The fact that McCain has a volatile temper and flies into uncontrollable rages is well known, although not publicly seen on the campaign so far. The possibility that McCain might be goaded into losing control must be causing some concern to his campaign managers. There must also be the fear that the Obama camp is trying to get him to take the bait and personally attack because they have a response ready.

So while there is a global financial crisis, two wars underway, major problems with health care to be addressed, and large numbers of people losing their homes, what we have is a psychodrama, worthy of a TV show, as to who will win the debate mind game.

We can pretty much expect that the Obama we will see tonight is the same one we have seen all along: cool and cerebral. He is not going to fire anyone up but he is not going to make a fool of himself either.

But which McCain will show up? The sometimes confused grandpa figure, constantly talking about earmarks and how he is a maverick? Or the sneering, disdainful, and arrogant figure, the person who earned the nickname McNasty?

Stay tuned.

POST SCRIPT: Obama = Lisa?

And now a Simpsons metaphor for the candidates.

Solving the mortgage mess

Now that we have the subprime mortgage mess, solving it is inevitably going to create a sense of injustice in some quarters. During the second Obama-McCain debate, I was startled by McCain’s sudden revelation of a new plan to address the mortgage crisis:

“As president of the United States…I would order the secretary of the treasury to immediately buy up the bad home loan mortgages in America and renegotiate at the new value of those homes — at the diminished value of those homes and let people be able to make those — be able to make those payments and stay in their homes.

“Is it expensive? Yes. But we all know, my friends, until we stabilize home values in America, we’re never going to start turning around and creating jobs and fixing our economy.”

He emphasized that this was his very own plan, not Obama’s or Bush’s. But it turns out that Obama had said something seemingly similar in a speech given on September 23, saying:

“For example, we should consider giving the government the authority to purchase mortgages directly instead of simply purchasing mortgage-backed securities. In the past, such an approach has allowed taxpayers to profit as the housing market recovered.”

But while the broad details of the McCain and Obama plans appear similar, apparently the details McCain’s plan, released later, are different enough from his own that the of Obama camp is now criticizing the McCain plan as mainly benefiting the financial institutions that caused this mess.

What McCain seems to be suggesting is this. Suppose someone has a $200,000 mortgage on a home that is now worth only $100,000. McCain’s plan would purchase the mortgage from the banks at the full value ($200,000), and then renegotiate the mortgage with homeowner for $100,000. This enables the banks to be fully bailed out of the consequences of their reckless lending, and also bails out the homeowners. It is the taxpayers who foot the bill for the remaining $100,000.

Critics have argued that there is no reason that the banks should be bailed out this way by buying the mortgages at face value. Instead they should pay them the ‘real’ value of the mortgages. But determining the ownership and real value of individual mortgages is not going to be easy since they have been bundled and sliced and diced on their way to being transformed into easily marketable securities.

Clearly the banks want to get as high a price as they can. But they have no real leverage in this situation except for what they have by virtue of their influence with the government partly purchased through their lobbyists’ contributions to politicians.

The government should use its leverage to say that they will not bail out the banks but will instead take them over (partially or wholly) by purchasing their stock and thus gaining control. Then they will be able to benefit when home values eventually rise and the banks become more stable and their stock values go up. The government can then sell its stock and get out of the retail banking business. But in the interim, they will have effectively nationalized these institutions, the way they have already nationalized Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.

This is the model being practiced by the European countries led by England and is based on the Swedish solution to their 1992 crisis.

Sweden did not just bail out its financial institutions by having the government take over the bad debts. It extracted pounds of flesh from bank shareholders before writing checks. Banks had to write down losses and issue warrants to the government.

That strategy held banks responsible and turned the government into an owner. When distressed assets were sold, the profits flowed to taxpayers, and the government was able to recoup more money later by selling its shares in the companies as well.

It now seems that the US government is adopting this very solution. Of course, this move smacks of socialism and adopting it will be a tacit concession that capitalism has at least partly failed. It will thus be anathema to those ideologues who do not see problems as requiring pragmatic solutions based on whatever realistic options are available but as requiring actions based on an ideological template. The true free-market believers will say that the government should do absolutely nothing and let the chips fall where they may, irrespective of however many banks go under.

But the people who run the US are neither socialists nor free-market capitalists. What the current crisis reveals only too plainly is that they are ‘state capitalists’, who think that the government should serve the interests of the big corporations and financial institutions.

But facing a real chance of public revolt over a blatant giveaway to the very financial institutions and people who created this mess, the government seems to be reconciling itself to the fact that it must adopt some variant of the Swedish/English model, and Paulson’s revised plan seems to reflect that.

However, the way the US government has been itself lurching from one plan to another does not inspire much confidence. As Josh Marshall points out: “[T]he fact that [Paulson] rammed through his bailout bill as absolutely essential to saving the economy, only to decide a few days later that we need something dramatically different, does not inspire me with great confidence in his grasp of the nature of the crisis.”

POST SCRIPT: Tone deafness by the McCain camp

McCain has been getting hammered by Obama for advocating policies that seem to ignore the middle class and cater to the rich. Presumably feeling the need to respond to this charge, the McCain campaign has produced a new tax proposal they say is aimed at the middle class.

What is it? They are proposing a capital gains tax cut!

What are they thinking? It is mostly the rich who worry about capital gains taxes or even know what it is. They are the ones who are constantly asking for cuts in the capital gains tax and even its elimination.

Second, with the current stock market and housing market downturns, people are facing huge capital losses, not gains, so they are unlikely to be paying any such taxes soon.

While this may be just another effort to use the crisis to ram through a policy that will eventually favor the rich when the economy recovers, it is another sign that the McCain has no sensitivity to what concerns ordinary people.

Retirement savings losses

Like most people who have retirement accounts, the beginning of October saw the arrival of my quarterly statements and they did not make for pleasant reading. Mine showed a drop of 12% since the beginning of the year.

I have heard many people express dismay over similar losses. It is, of course, not pleasant to see ones savings drop so sharply. But at the same time, we have to realize that what we may be seeing is a drop from an artificially high and inflated value. Over the past few years, those same retirement accounts have grown at a rapid clip due to the galloping stock market prices.

While reading the quarterly statements back in the good old days (i.e., last year) were fun, I never thought of that as ‘real’ money or wealth, the way I view the money in my bank account. It is like the value of my home. It may go up or down but as long as I am not selling it or trying to borrow against it, it has no effect on my life except psychologically.

Talking of the good old days, wasn’t it was just this summer that $150 billion was given away as $600 to each taxpayer and that this ‘stimulus package’ was supposed to solve all our financial problems by the simple expedient of having people go shopping? Ah, those were the good times.

As I have mentioned before, if we think of the virtual economy of the stock market as being a measure of the real economy, then the Dow Jones Index should only be about 5,500, still below its current value. So, except for people who are forced to convert their stock assets into actual cash, there has been no tangible loss.

What is extraordinary is the effort by some to blame the whole subprime mess on what they claim is the effort by the government to provide loans to poor and minority communities to encourage them to buy homes. They say that this is what encouraged risky lending practices. This is flat-out false.

There were of course many people who did buy homes and made other major purchases based on a false sense of wealth and it is they who are now really feeling the pain. There are those people who bought homes they could not really afford before the real estate market went sour, for which they now owe more money than the house is worth and hence have now defaulted. It is uncertainty both about the scope and extent of this default problem and the worth of the securitized investments made out of bundled mortgages that seems to fueling the loss of confidence in banks and the stock market.

To be sure, many individuals were greedy and took advantage of the chance to buy expensive homes at inflated values based on artificially low introductory rates. Many of them also spent way more than they should have on credit, maxing out their cards. Have we forgotten that people have long been strongly urged to shop, and that it was almost their patriotic duty to do so in order to keep the economy going? Credit card offers were plentiful and so easy to obtain that we were regaled with stories of even cats and dogs obtaining them. Now it seems that credit card debt was also ‘securitized’ like home mortgages were and those debts are also in danger of default, and suddenly people are being lectured to sternly for their thriftless ways.

People seemed to have had an unrealistic sense of what they could and could not afford. Such people are by no means blameless. But what they are guilty of is greed. They cannot be blamed for the mess because they are not the ones who were in control of the situation.
It should also not be forgotten that not all home mortgage or credit card defaults are due to greed. Some people default because of factors outside their control, like loss of their job or a major illness. In fact, the largest factor in personal bankruptcies is due to the cost of medical care.

It is the banks that we expect to be the grown ups in this situation, who should understand what risks are reasonable. They are the professionals. They are not obliged to give loans to whoever asks for them. It is they who are supposed to check on the value of the homes that are being bought and the ability of the purchaser to pay back the loans before they lend money.

But the banks did not practice the kind of due diligence that was called for. So while they, like the homeowners, are also guilty of greed, they definitely bear the major responsibility for the mess.

POST SCRIPT: Crazy prayers

The idiocy of some religious believers never ceases to amaze me. Take this invocation given by Rev. Arnold Conrad, past pastor of the Grace Evangelical Free Church at a McCain rally in Davenport, Iowa.

“I would also pray, Lord, that your reputation is involved in all that happens between now and November, because there are millions of people around this world praying to their god — whether it’s Hindu, Buddha, Allah — that his opponent wins, for a variety of reasons,” Conrad said.

“And Lord, I pray that you would guard your own reputation, because they’re going to think that their god is bigger than you, if that happens. So I pray that you will step forward and honor your own name with all that happens between now and Election Day,” he said.

Apart from the pastor’s ignorance (he mixes up the names of gods with the names of the religions) he is warning his Christian god that this election is being seen as a grudge match between him and his competitor gods and that if he doesn’t act to make McCain win, he wont be able to show his face in the neighborhood again. Unbelievable.

Unbalanced coverage-2: More examples

(I wrote the first post in this two-part series some time ago. I got distracted by the bailout and political coverage.)

There are a few journalists in the US who push the boundaries of the propaganda envelope to the extent that they can to try to get at the facts. What they report is not pretty, which is why the government tries very hard to suppress such efforts.

Seymour Hersh in a speech in 2006 describes how civilian deaths in Iraq get mysteriously transformed into enemy combatants.

[Hersh] described one video in which American soldiers massacre a group of people playing soccer. 


“Three U.S. armed vehicles, eight soldiers in each, are driving through a village, passing candy out to kids,” he began. “Suddenly the first vehicle explodes, and there are soldiers screaming. Sixteen soldiers come out of the other vehicles, and they do what they’re told to do, which is look for running people.” 



“Never mind that the bomb was detonated by remote control,” Hersh continued. “[The soldiers] open up fire; [the] cameras show it was a soccer game.” 



“About ten minutes later, [the soldiers] begin dragging bodies together, and they drop weapons there. It was reported as 20 or 30 insurgents killed that day,” he said. 



If Americans knew the full extent of U.S. criminal conduct, they would receive returning Iraqi veterans as they did Vietnam veterans, Hersh said. 



“In Vietnam, our soldiers came back and they were reviled as baby killers, in shame and humiliation,” he said. “It isn’t happening now, but I will tell you – there has never been an [American] army as violent and murderous as our army has been in Iraq.”

As far as I can tell, this horrific incident did not get much coverage in the major media.

Meanwhile in the other conflict, Russia has recognized the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, a move condemned by the US and western Europe. This has caused predictable outrage from the administration and the media about Russia seeking to forcibly change national boundaries, but don’t hold your breath expecting any reporter to ask Bush (or Obama or McCain) how this differs from US recognition of Kosovo as an independent state, which took place in February of this year, following the earlier breakup of Yugoslavia and the forcible separation of Kosovo from Serbia by NATO.

One can multiply such examples over and over. NPR on August 26, 2008 reported that the people of South Ossetia, who want to secede from Georgia and join up with Russia, justified their case by reporting all kinds of atrocities by Georgian troops, such as ripping open the bellies of pregnant Ossetian women, that justified the Russian response. The reporter rightly said that there had been no evidence produced that such things had actually occurred.

But that reporter’s skepticism in this case made me recall the similar lurid allegations made about Iraqi troops after they invaded Kuwait in 1990, saying that they were taking incubators away from hospitals and taking them back to Iraq, leaving babies to die.

A young woman named Nayirah appeared in front of a congressional committee. She told the committee, “I saw the Iraqi soldiers come into the hospital with guns, and go into the room where 15 babies were in incubators. They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators and left the babies on the cold floor to die.

These reports were uncritically accepted as true by reporters and used to inflame public opinion against Iraq. Human rights groups like Amnesty International reported that 312 babies had died as a result of this atrocity.

Reporters did not seek independent confirmation of this sensational report. They did not even seek to find out who this mysterious young woman was who gave such dramatic testimony. It was only much later that it was revealed that this entire incubator story had been concocted by the public relations firm Hill & Knowlton which was working for the Kuwaiti government and was friendly with then president George H. W. Bush, and that the “eyewitness” Nayirah was actually the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US and had not seen any of the things she claimed she had.

Similar unsubstantiated stories appeared at the UN a few weeks later, where a team of “witnesses,” coached by Hill & Knowlton, gave “testimony” (although no oath was ever taken) about atrocities in Iraq. It was later learned that the seven witnesses used false names and even identities in one case. In an unprecedented move, the US was allowed to present a video created by Hill & Knowlton to the entire security council.

(For some other examples of the media uncritically passing on government lies, see here.)

This is why I always suspend judgment and never believe the lurid stories that come out during times of crisis, especially if they reflect badly on ‘them’. The media simply cannot be trusted to provide balanced coverage and until I hear of real evidence my presumption is that they are uncritically passing on government propaganda.

POST SCRIPT: Mr. Puddles, where are you?

The Daily Show manages to make the boring debate absolutely hilarious.

Reflections on the debates

Here’s an old joke:

There was this old man who had a favorite hunting story that he liked to tell over and over. Even though his friends and family had heard it many times, he was always looking for a suitable opportunity in any gathering to repeat it.

At one function, there was no break in the conversation that gave him the chance, so he took his walking stick and, when no one was looking, struck the ground hard with it, making a loud report.

In the startled silence that followed, he said “What’s that? A gun shot? Well, talking about guns . . .”

Ok, so it’s not a great joke. Not even a good one. I am terrible at telling jokes and don’t even remember them shortly after hearing them.

The point is that that old joke suddenly popped into my head during the Obama-McCain debate, when McCain took whatever opportunity he got to go on about earmarks. It seems like it is his favorite topic, something that he works into every speech and interview, delighting in the details.

He went on about the three million dollar earmark that Obama, as part of the Illinois delegation, had requested for an ‘overhead projector’, implying that this for something you find in any classroom and was a boondoggle. It was actually for a projector for the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, to project the night sky onto the dome. It is the oldest planetarium in the US and whose current projector is forty years old. Those projectors are expensive.

But that was not my point. Sure, earmarks are not good budget practice. But they are not the worst things in the world. In fact, in the grand scheme of things within the US budget, they are rather small potatoes. If you get rid of every earmark, you would still have huge financial problems. McCain’s seems overly obsessed with them even as we are talking of trillion dollar bailouts and while he wants to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts to wealthy people.

At some point, you begin to wonder whether McCain’s focus on earmarks is a way to avoid talking about real budgetary issues. It seems to have become a gimmick, a way to score cheap points.

The debate itself was a rather boring, I thought. The candidates pretty much rehashed the same things they have been saying for a long time. I didn’t think there was a clear winner but the snap polls all indicate that Obama won quite handily. (See here, here, and here.)

The format was awful. So far, only the first debate was a real debate. At times, both candidates seemed to want to break free of the rigid constraints and get more free-wheeling but the smug and self-important moderator Tom Brokaw (easily one of the most annoying people on network news, even worse than Gwen Ifill who moderated the vice presidential debate) kept reining them in, reminding them about the rules that had been agreed upon. His selection of questions was mediocre.

But if the candidates themselves wanted to change the rules in mid-debate, why shouldn’t they be allowed to? (There was a great episode in The West Wing when at the beginning of a presidential debate, just after the moderator had read all the detailed rules about time limits and no cross-talk and the like, the candidates decided to chuck them and simply talk back and forth. Too bad that only happens in fiction.)

One item that irritated me was McCain’s repeated claim that he knows how to get Bin Laden:

He has said this before, and at other times has also said that he knows how to end the war in Iraq. But if he does know how to do all these things, why has he not told President Bush? Surely, if he “puts country first” then he should have told Bush his secret plans a long time ago to get the country out of the current mess, rather than using it as a lure to get people to vote for him. What if he loses? Is he going to take his secret plans and sulk, refusing to share it with anybody, like a spoiled child? Why doesn’t someone question him on the ethics of keeping it secret? It reminded me of Nixon’s ‘secret’ plan to end the Vietnam war.

Meanwhile, last week, NBC news anchor Brian Williams and David Letterman had a surprisingly thoughtful analysis of the campaign so far and the vice-presidential debate (except for some nonsense midway about how great Tom Brokaw and Tim Russert are):

Part 1:

Part 2:

Letterman made a good observation about Sarah Palin taking everyone by surprise with her opening “Can I call you Joe” remark to Biden as they were being introduced. I too thought it a little odd but put it down to a mere affectation. Letterman thinks that she did this in order to set up her planned line “Say it ain’t so, Joe” later in the debate. Since it has become clear that during the debate she was reading much of her responses from cue cards, that kind of set up for a ‘zinger’ would not surprise me.

POST SCRIPT: Train metaphor for candidates

One thing that struck me during the debate was that McCain looked and walked and talked like an old man. His allusions were dated. Some older people have an old-world style is graceful and charming and even reassuring. But McCain just comes across as out of touch and cranky.

electiontrains.jpg

(Thanks to a commenter at DailyKos.)

If you liked the train metaphor, then take a look at this one.

Obama and the Bradley effect

Will attempts by the McCain camp to paint Obama as some kind of sinister and dangerous figure work?

Analysts seem to feel that such smear campaigns can be effective at times. Recall the absurd situation in 2004 where John Kerry’s actual service in Vietnam was ridiculed and called into question by the supporters of Bush and Cheney, both of whom were draft dodgers. Recall also the anti-gay marriage sentiment that seemingly played an important role in that same election.

So far, the normal hot-button issues of sexual orientation and abortion and guns have not played prominent roles in the campaign. This leaves race as the emotional issue that can be exploited. And rest assured it will be, along with all kinds of attempts to impugn the character of Obama using guilt by association.

In trying to run a smear campaign, the McCain campaign is hampered by its own baggage. For every attempt to paint Obama as an elitist, we have the McCains’ dozen (?) homes, thirteen cars, and private plane, and the fact that the outfit that Cindy McCain wore at the Republican convention allegedly cost around $300,000.

If they bring up Rev. Jeremiah Wright, they have Sarah Palin’s own associations with extreme religious groups, including the weird Rev. Thomas Muthee who blessed her gubernatorial campaign and who prides himself on being able to find witches and run them out of town.

For every Tony Rezko they can dredge up from Obama’s past, McCain has his own Charles Keating and his campaign with lobbyists associated with the current financial debacle.

For every allegedly America-hating William Ayers, Palin’s flirtation with the secessionist Alaskan Independence Party can be brought up.

Furthermore, Wright and Rezko and Ayers are now old news, their fifteen minutes of fame come and gone, and it is unclear if they will have a serious effect even if they are dusted off and polished to seem like new.

This leaves only race as a major factor to be exploited. And I am afraid it will be. Some months ago Jon Stewart interviewed Barack Obama during the primaries and asked him whether he had a secret plan to enslave white people if he became president. This got a laugh from Obama and the audience but like much of the humor in The Daily Show, it works because it is based on an uneasy reality.

There are undoubtedly some white people who are afraid of giving power to black people. They cannot hide from themselves the fact that black people have been treated atrociously in this country. They fear retribution and wonder if they should take the chance of putting black people in positions of authority. Such people will never vote for ‘the black guy’.

We saw some of that sentiment expressed in the primaries, where the Appalachian regions went heavily against Obama and in favor of Hillary Clinton. This Al Jazeera report on racism in Kentucky is striking in the openness of those who think racially.

The question is how far the McCain campaign will be willing to go to grow the size of this group of people by stoking their racial animosities and fears. My sense is that they are willing to go to the very bottom of the sewer and will only desist if it seems to be not working or is backfiring on them.

When Obama’s supporters urge him to go for the jugular in response, to take the attack to McCain and Palin, they are ignoring the delicate situation that he is in because of his ethnicity. He cannot take the risk of appearing to be the ‘angry black guy’. He has to be passionate but not angry, forceful but not threatening. It is to his credit that he managed to do that so far.

Obama seems to be by nature a cool, cerebral and thoughtful person, and he has reinforced this perception by surrounding himself with solid establishment figures like Warren Buffett, Robert Rubin, and the like. Of course, this also opens him to the charge of being ‘elitist’, which has become a vague term to suggest that he is smarter than the rest of us and that this is somehow a bad thing.

Then there is the so-called ‘Bradley effect’ that says that in elections in which a black candidate runs against a white one, opinion polls tend to exaggerate the support for the black candidate because some white people are reluctant to tell posters they are voting for the white candidate for fear of being called racist.

The name comes from the 1982 race for California governor in which the black mayor of Los Angeles Tom Bradley was leading in the polls all the way to election day, and even in exit polls on that day, only to suffer a shocking defeat when the votes were counted. Subsequent studies revealed that white voters had voted for Bradley in smaller numbers than the polls had led one to expect. Some analysts argue that Obama needs a huge lead in the polls to compensate for the inevitable swing away from him on polling day.

Other analysts argue, based on subsequent congressional and gubernatorial elections, that the Bradley effect has largely disappeared over time. Note that they are not saying that race-based voting has disappeared. There are definitely people who will not vote for ‘the black guy’ because he is black. What these analysts are saying is that there is no evidence from recent elections that people are hiding their voting preferences from pollsters because of fears of being called racist, and so there is no significant, hidden, systematic racial bias in poll responses.

But there has been no presidential election where the Bradley effect has been put to the test. This election may well be the most heavily polled in history. Right now, Obama leads in the national polls by an average of about 6.0 points which, if it holds up, should be enough of a cushion for him, even if there is a residual Bradley effect at play. The results on election day will reveal to what extent the Bradley effect is still a factor.

POST SCRIPT: Evolutionists flock to Darwin stain!

It’s a miracle and proof that Darwin’s theory of evolution is true.

Brace yourself

Breaking news: Barack Obama is black.

It is quite remarkable how little salience that fact has had in the race so far considering that if he wins, the election of the first non-white president of the United States is an event of major historic significance. While his ethnicity is a complex one, he cannot escape (and has in fact wisely embraced) the shorthand description of being black. For his campaign to have insisted on accuracy would have been to draw attention to trivial questions of race and ethnicity that are at best distractions and at worst would make race too important an issue.

When Obama speaks in a debate or gives speeches or is interviewed, the fact that he is black is not the most prominent impression he makes, at least for me. It is just an incidental item that registers in the background, like that he is tall or slim. Obama is on his way to becoming the Tiger Woods of politics. Just as the latter is no longer ‘the black golfer’, Barack Obama has almost, but not quite, reached the stage of not being ‘the black presidential candidate’. That is quite an achievement.

But the next month will see if he has made the complete transition to Tigerness. We are now entering the last stages of the presidential campaign, something I have been long dreading. With the McCain candidacy declining steadily in the polls and on a direct path to losing despite the Hail Marys thrown by them (selecting Sarah Palin and ‘suspending’ his campaign because of the financial crisis), you can expect them to now do desperate things.

By this I mean going well beyond the standard negative campaigning tactics of distorting your opponent’s record, taking their statements out of context, impugning motives, and focusing on style in order to give misleading impressions. Those things have always been part of politics.

No, I expect them to go nuclear, throwing everything at Obama to make him into the stereotype of the dangerous black man, to seek to change his image from that of a Tiger Woods to more of a Dennis Rodman, to transform him in the eyes of white people from someone whom you would welcome into your home to the kind of person you cross the street to avoid.

The McCain camp has already telegraphed their disgusting strategy and Sarah Palin has started the process:

Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin on Saturday accused Democrat Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” because of his association with a former 1960s radical, stepping up the campaign’s effort to portray Obama as unacceptable to American voters.
. . .
Falling behind Obama in polls, the Republican campaign plans to make attacks on Obama’s character a centerpiece of candidate John McCain’s message in the final weeks of the presidential race.
. . .
Palin’s remark about Obama “palling around with terrorists” comes as e-mails circulate on the Internet with suggestions that the Democratic candidate is secretly a radical, foreign-born Muslim with designs against the U.S. — even though Obama is a native of Hawaii, a Christian and has no connections to Muslim extremists.

McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis (himself now under a cloud because of revelations of his lobbying links to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) spelled out how such character assassinations are done.

The premise of any smear campaign rests on a central truth of politics: Most of us will vote for a candidate we like and respect, even if we don’t agree with him on every issue. But if you can cripple a voter’s basic trust in a candidate, you can probably turn his vote. The idea is to find some piece of personal information that is tawdry enough to raise doubts, repelling a candidate’s natural supporters.
. . .
It’s not necessary, however, for a smear to be true to be effective. The most effective smears are based on a kernel of truth and applied in a way that exploits a candidate’s political weakness.

(Thanks to BarbinMD for the link.)

Ironically, when Davis wrote the above, he was accusing those in favor of George W. Bush of using those very same dirty tactics against McCain in the 2000 Republican primary campaign when Bush was losing to McCain. Bush went on to win. Since McCain has now hired many of those very same Bush operatives to run his 2008 campaign, we should not be surprised to see a reprise of those tactics, now used by McCain against Obama.

One important factor in a successful smear campaign is the ability to create an ‘echo chamber’ for these slurs, to get it widely circulated in the media. The current financial crisis has been getting banner headlines and has been used to scare people into voting for this huge bailout. Given that financial issues are using up so much media airtime, it may be harder to get traction for this strategy. I suspect that people are more likely to be swayed by extraneous things when there are no major issues gripping their attention.

So will the McCain-Palin attempt at raising so-called character issues at such a time work? Or will it be seen as fiddling while Rome burns?

Frankly, I am not a good judge of whether raising extraneous issues will succeed. I don’t have a good feel for the pulse of the people. I really should get out more.

While I am very cynical of the way the government serves mainly the interests of the rich and powerful and influential, I am usually more hopeful about the good nature and good sense of people in general over the long term. Each election time I think that people will not be swayed by trivialities and will vote on the basis of what truly will affect their lives. And while most are like that, unfortunately there do seem to be some people who can be swayed by such appeals to their fears and intolerance.

Whether those numbers will be enough to sway the outcome of this election is something I cannot gauge.

Tomorrow: More on racial politics

POST SCRIPT: And now, live, the vice presidential debate!

Saturday Night Live had its by now obligatory Sarah Palin parody with Tina Fey, with the bonus of Queen Latifah playing moderator Gwen Ifill.

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Government of the Dow, by the Dow, for the Dow

The recent financial crisis and the frantic (and finally successful) attempt by the government and Wall Street to strong-arm the public to provide immediate relief to the very institutions that caused the crisis is striking evidence, if anyone needed it, of exactly for whose benefit the government is run: Wall Street. You can ignore all the blather about how this bailout was needed to prevent ordinary people from financial ruin. That may or may not be true. What is indubitable is that if Wall Street interests were not at stake, nothing would have been done.

As was clearly evident in the past week, while the government can drag its feet for decades, say it is too expensive, and take no action to solve urgent problems like health care, when it comes to giving away nearly a trillion dollars to the financial industry, it can act with lightning speed. And you can be sure that when this money runs out (as it surely will as Wall Street institutions get their greedy hands on it) and next financial ‘crisis’ appears, we will be asked to cough up even more, and told that otherwise the sacrifices we have already made will be ‘wasted’. This is the same argument given for continuing the war in Iraq.

Although I have written quite a bit in recent days about the crisis and the economy and think I have at least some understanding of how things work, one thing I don’t understand is how the stock market works. I understand the mechanics of it, of course, but have long given up trying to understand what makes it go up or down on any given day.

It seems to me that stock prices are only loosely based on the actual health and performance of companies and the general economy, and more on expectations of what will happen in the future. It is not based on current data but on predictions of future data. It is closer to astrology or soothsaying than science.

I can pinpoint the very event that made me give up on the whole business as being hopelessly irrational.

Emperor Hirohito of Japan (1901-1989) was the symbolic head of Japan from 1926 until his death. He was revered by his people and considered by many to be a god-king. He was quite ill during the last decade of his life and close to death on many occasions.

I was intrigued and amused by the fact that the Japanese stock market would go up and down quite dramatically based on rumors about his health, and the news organizations would solemnly report with a straight face things like, “The Japanese stock market dropped sharply today on news that Emperor Hirohito’s health had taken a turn for the worse.”

This was, of course, absurd. The emperor was very old, had been ill for a long time, and was a purely symbolic head of state and had no say whatsoever on how the government or the economy was run. It would be like the British stock indices fluctuating on rumors about the Queen of England. The reaction of the stock market seemed to me then, and still seems now, to be hopelessly irrational.

Although I do not invest directly in the stock market (although my retirement funds are presumably invested in it), I do an experiment on days when there is some fairly big news event, either political or financial. After I listen to the news, I try to predict what that news will do to the stock market that day. I find that there is little or no correlation. If anything, I am more often wrong than right, that what I see as bad news for the economy sends the stock market up, and vice versa. It is clear that I will never get rich speculating as a day trader.

A couple of years ago, Bob Garfield on the show On the Media had a droll report on how the media and financial analysts try to come up with simple explanations to explain the day-to-day gyrations of the stock market, usually based on nothing more than sheer guesswork or story-telling.

This is why I never take seriously those people who urge policies based on the stock market fluctuations. They are usually self-serving rationalizations for what they want to do.

For example, on Monday, September 29, the House of Representatives surprisingly defeated the Paulson bailout plan on a close vote. As you can see from the graph, the Dow Jones index immediately headed down, plunging 777 points, and that drop was blamed directly on the vote.

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People were issuing dire warnings that it would continue that deep decline and we would all have our retirement funds disappear if Congress did not reverse itself and pass the Paulson plan immediately.

The next day the House was not in session due to a religious holiday and the Dow went up nearly 500 points. Did people conclude that sending Congress on vacation was good for the market? Of course not. They found some other fatuous reason.

Then the Senate passed a revised plan late on Wednesday evening and the market should have been happy on Thursday but it wasn’t. (It feels so absurd to ascribe human emotions to the stock market, an institution that deals impersonally with billions of transactions daily but we now take such absurdities for granted.) The stock market declined steeply all through the day, losing about 350 points, for no reason that I could see.

Tension then mounted as the House came back in session on Friday to vote on this new package. The market started the day up and kept rising, gaining about 300 points by 1:00 pm, reaching a peak of 10,766. The House voted at that time and passed the measure quite easily.

Since we were told that the House failing to pass a bailout plan on Monday was the cause of the steep decline that day, you would expect that passing it now would be an occasion for joy. What actually happened was that right after the vote, the market immediately went into a steep decline, losing 450 points to end the day with a net loss.

To me this makes no sense at all. Maybe, to use the phrase coined by MIT professor of business Dan Ariely and which is the title of his book, the market is ‘predictably irrational’, meaning that there is some method in its seeming madness and I am not expert enough to see it.

As long as the stock market was tethered to the underlying real economy, that may have been true. But I think that the present out-of-control virtual economy, generated by financial institutions that have been allowed to speculate wildly using debt-based securities that were free from regulations and oversight, has resulted in the stock market being connected to the real economy by the slenderest of threads, making rational decision-making impossible.

Maybe it is truly rational and there are people who actually understand it. I know I don’t.

POST SCRIPT: Paulson’s history

This article points out the little publicized fact that Treasury Secretary Paulson, while head of Goldman Sachs, advocated the very policies that led to the current crisis. And now he has been given a huge check from the taxpayers to ‘solve’ the very problem he helped create. Nice work if you can get away with it.

Paulson, according to a celebratory 2006 BusinessWeek article entitled “Mr. Risk Goes to Washington,” was “one of the key architects of a more daring Wall Street, where securities firms are taking greater and greater chances in their pursuit of profits.” Under Paulson’s watch, that meant “taking on more debt: $100 billion in long-term debt in 2005, compared with about $20 billion in 1999. It means placing big bets on all sorts of exotic derivatives and other securities.”

According to the International Herald Tribune, Paulson “was one of the first Wall Street leaders to recognize how drastically investment banks could enhance their profitability by betting with their own capital instead of acting as mere intermediaries.” Paulson “stubbornly assert[ed] Goldman’s right to invest in, advise on and finance deals, regardless of potential conflicts.”

In testimony in 2000 before the Securities and Exchanges Commission, Paulson as head of Goldman Sachs, argued that Wall Street should be allowed to regulate itself.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Sherman of California describes the horror scenarios painted for lawmakers in private sessions before the Monday vote to try and scare them into voting for the bill.