State of the Union

The Bonus Agony

Michael Lewis has an incredible column today on the AIG bonus scandal. The author of “Moneyball” points out that the insanity over the $165 million in bonuses to AIG executives is just that: insanity. The government has already agreed to pay out $173 billion. The bonuses make up approximately less than .1% –that is they constitute barely one one thousandth of the total. There is (regrettably) a solid consensus in the political class that the bailout of AIG is necessary for a recovery. But instead of complaining about the bucket, we’ve gone mad about a few droplets:

But when AIG itself pays out $165 million in bonuses — money it is contractually obliged to pay — the entire political system goes insane. President Barack Obama says he’s going to find a way to abrogate the contracts and take the money back. A U.S. senator says that AIG employees should kill themselves.

Every recriminatory bone in the political body is aroused; the one thing you can do right now in Washington without getting an argument is to rail against the ethics of AIG’s bonus payment.

Apart from Andrew Ross Sorkin at the New York Times, it occurs to no one to say that a) the vast majority of the employees at AIG had as little as you or I to do with its quasi- criminal risk taking and catastrophic losses; b) that the most- valuable of those employees can easily find work at AIG’s competitors; and c) that if the government insists on punishing those valuable employees they will understandably leave, and leave behind a company even less viable than it is, and less likely to give the taxpayer back his money.

And also — oh, yes — that if the government can arbitrarily break contracts made by firms in which it has taken a stake no one in his right mind will ever again make a contract with one of those firms. And so all of the banks in which the government has investment will be damaged.

Indeed. Lewis even points out that most people have a difficult time separating millions from billions.

Read More…

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Negotiate with the Taliban, Free John Walker Lindh?

President Barack Obama has made it clear he is willing to talk with “moderate” members of the Taliban in an attempt to gain control — and perhaps bring to an end — the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. Afghan President Karzai has been reportedly negotiating with members of the Taliban for a year and according to  one recent report, is opening dialogue with key al-Qaeda linked insurgents there. If the U.S joins Karzai in communicating with Taliban who might have harbored and trained with al Qaeda prior to the 9/11 attacks, does that mean we can now spare John “American Taliban” Walker Lindh another 15 years of prison?

Has enough time gone by that I won’t be considered “un-American” for even suggesting it?

There have been mixed reviews, but the enormous buzz around the possibility of negotiating with Taliban elements hints that it will happen on some level, and in fact today there is a report quoting senior administration officials saying that is exactly what we plan to do.

Aside from acknowledging the failure of previous approaches, the new spirit of negotiation underscores the real bootprint that Gen. David Petraeus has left on military thinking in Washington today, as evidenced by  President Obama when he recently justified his willingness to talk to the enemy:

“If you talk to Gen. [David H.] Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of al-Qaida in Iraq.”

Petraeus accomplished the stabilization of the horrific security situation in Iraq in part by putting the Sunni insurgency on the U.S payroll, arming some 90,000 fighters to drive al Qaeda from Anbar. It took three years and more than 2,200 U.S soldier deaths to settle on this path. His “victory” in Iraq has allowed for what we are now seeing as the fashionable approach:  “peeling off” enemy elements through  co-optation and concession.

So it’s no surprise then that Petraeus devotees on the Right are much less bombastic now over the possibility of Obama talking to the Taliban. It’s not like they’re Iranian. Here’s what Ed Morrissey, a favorite on, had to say about it last week:

It’s worth exploring, however, and if we can peel off significant numbers from the Taliban and reconcile them to the Karzai government (and whatever follows in the upcoming elections), it will go a long way towards isolating the dead-enders, making it easier to defeat them.  In the end, as in Iraq, this is a political problem, and eventually will require a political solution.

So what about John Walker Lindh? Read More…

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American Pipe Dream

As the U.S. financial crisis broadens and deepens, wiping out the wealth and savings of tens of millions, destroying hopes and dreams, it is hard not to see in all of this history’s verdict upon this generation.

We have been weighed in the balance and found wanting.

For how did this befall us, save through decisions that brushed aside lessons that history and experience had taught our fathers?

It all began with the corruption called sub-prime mortgages.

The motivation was not wicked. Democrats wanted to raise home ownership among African-Americans from 50 percent to the 75 percent of white folks. Rove Republicans wanted to do the same for Hispanics.

Banks were morally pressured by politicians into making home loans to folks who could not remotely qualify under standards set by decades of experience with mortgage defaults. Read More…

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Keep Calm And Carry On


Here’s an interesting phenomenon from Britain, reported by Jon Henley in the Guardian. Apparently, the above image–an old government poster brought out in 1939 to keep the population calm in the event of a German invasion–has, since the financial crisis began, started popping up all over the country — and even in the U.S. embassy in Belgium.

Writes Henley:

The Lord Chamberlain’s Office at Buckingham Palace, the prime minister’s strategy unit at No 10, the Serious Fraud Office, the US embassy in Belgium, the vice chancellor of Cambridge University, the Emergency Planning Office at Nottingham council and the officers’ mess in Basra have all ordered posters. Even David Beckham has the T-shirt, we are told. …

Dr Lesley Prince, who lectures in social psychology at Birmingham University, is blunter still. “It is a quiet, calm, authoritative, no-b****t voice of reason,” he says. “It’s not about British stiff upper lip, really. The point is that people have been sold a lie since the 1970s. They were promised the earth and now they’re worried about everything – their jobs, their homes, their bank, their money, their pension. This is saying, look, somebody out there knows what’s going on, and it’ll be all right”

But will the people of Briton stay calm again in a deep depression? In the latest issue of TAC, Theodore Dalrymple gives plenty of reasons why they–and the other peoples of Europe–might not. (Subscribers can read it here).

Perhaps, however, faced with economic doom, the Brits might avert social upheaval thanks to that curious “emotional unity”–the bond that Orwell described in 1941 in his great essay, “The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius”– which this poster is designed to elicit.

Of course, Britain is a very different country to what it was in Word War II. For all its modern problems, though, the nation does still seem to possess, to an extent, that “invisible chain” — that revivifying and strangely British blend of sentimentality and common-sense. The popular and nostalgic revival of this curious piece of old patriotic propaganda suggests as much.

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“Terror Begins at Home”

Philip Jenkins’s article on militia panics and liberal paranoia about right-wing extremism is now on-line. Already Jenkins looks prophetic: two days after we went to press with this essay, news broke that the Missouri State Police think Ron Paul supporters and Constitution and Libertarian Party members are potential terrorists. (Says one Missouri activist, Tim Neal, interviewed by the Associated Press: “I was going down the list and thinking, ‘Check, that’s me,'” he said. “I’m a Ron Paul supporter, check. I talk about the North American union, check. I’ve got the ‘America: Freedom to Fascism’ video loaned out to somebody right now. So that means I’m a domestic terrorist? Because I’ve got a video about the Federal Reserve?”) That may be just the beginning, if Jenkins is right.

Also, don’t miss John Carney on the AIG mess and Michael Brendan Dougherty on Kathleen Sebelius’s ties to the Kansas abortion industry.

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A Dead Debate?

The perennial “Pope opposes condoms” fake-controversy can be so tedious that nowadays it has even become boring to say how boring it is.

A difference with today’s story, though, is that, aside from the predictable outrage of the media, the French government has publicly attacked the Pope for saying that encouraging and funding condom-use among Africans is ineffective, and even harmful, in the fight against AIDS.

This is almost certainly an attempt by President Sarkozy’s administration to curry favor with French Left-liberals. But it is surely a risky a strategy for any government to attack directly the Pope, especially in a country that retains a small, yet influential Catholic base.

That aside, the good news for the Catholic Church’s supporters is that–even if, inevitably, the Pope’s counterintuitive suggestion enraged the liberal establishment–many editorialists now accept at least part of the Catholic position that the best solution to AIDS in Africa is fundamental behavior change, rather than condoms. This was not necessarily the case five years ago, when Pope John Paul II was regularly accused of being a murderer in the press for teaching abstinence to Africans.

This shift in opinion is partly thanks to the painstaking research of scientists like Helen Epstein, whose informative book, The Invisible Cure, published last year, is a valuable addition to this complicated discussion. Epstein comes at the issue from a liberal, indeed perhaps anti-Vatican, perspective. But her thesis shows the futility of the endless condoms vs Catholics row.

In the book, Epstein argues convincingly that AIDS spreads most furiously in African societies because of the particular behavioral patterns of “sexual concurrency”—not the same as promiscuity—among Africans. These social habits tend to provide the virus with the perfect conditions to spread–far more ideal, say, than the environment created by sexually irresponsible groups, gay and straight, in the West, who can be just as (if not more) promiscuous. It’s very complex stuff, but fundamentally, the problem is societal as well as individual. It cannot be solved simply by secular aid workers bearing condoms.

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Tortured Truth

“Why are we talking about this at the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
—Attorney General John Ashcroft

Mark Danner’s 14,000-word scoop in the April 9 New York Review of Books will turn your coffee cold. Read it anyway. He got a copy of the Red Cross report on torture at CIA black sites and wants to ruin his readers’ day with blood and shit and shame. Abu Ghraib was amateur hour.

Americans hoped this had all been packed off to Texas with an unlamented ex-president. But Danner drags it out: “the monumental decisions taken after the attacks of September 11, 2001—decisions about rendition, surveillance, interrogation—lie strewn about us still, unclaimed and unburied, like corpses freshly dead.”

Back when George W. Bush announced, in a show of public cleansing, that “high-value detainees” shuttled between secret facilities would be sent to Guantanamo where the Red Cross could vouch for their wellbeing, did he think they wouldn’t mention their lost years? The similarity of the prisoners accounts’ attests to their veracity.  Read More…

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The debate Commentary doesn’t like

The Chas Freeman affair continues to reverberate and for good reason—a lot is at stake. The coalition of pro-Israel bloggers that started the campaign against him wished things would end there. He would go quietly and be replaced by a pliable figure who would put no roadblocks in the way of their desired war with Iran. But he didn’t. He named the Israel lobby in his withdrawal statement, and much of the mainstream media agreed with him.

The lobby sits uneasily now: Israel’s new government is naming an out-and-out racist as foreign minister, President Obama supports a two-state solution, boycotts against goods produced in the occupied territories are gaining traction in Europe. Its essential instinct is defensive, to try to block all discussion. America should go on as before, giving Israel $4 billion dollars a year, blocking critical resolutions in the UN, saying that peace with the Palestinians would be nice while doing nothing serious.

But discussion is happening anyway. It can no longer be contained or marginalized. Still they try. Commentary blogger Noah Pollak has produced a post attacking TAC for what he considers “un-American” language criticizing the lobby. TAC takes its polemical manners seriously, and Pollak’s charge deserves an answer.

He links to one Pat Buchanan syndicated column, on the TAC website, though he flags another website’s title for the column. He claims the magazine “repeatedly” refers to “Jews” as a “fifth column”—asserting “the attempt to write one religious or ethnic group out of the debate by assigning them membership in conspiracies and imputing to them dual loyalties is indeed un-American, and there should be nothing controversial about saying so.”

But TAC had done nothing of the kind. It published the phrase “fifth column” in a Justin Raimondo piece four years ago about convicted spy Larry Franklin. This was a focused and limited usage—unless Pollack wants to imply that all American Jews support Israeli espionage against the United States, a position that really would be absurd. Another syndicated Buchanan column, published in TAC last summer, said, “Israel and its Fifth Column in this city seek to stampede us into war with Iran.” One can debate the language—though it sadly obvious that Israel hopes for an American war against Iran—but clearly “Israel and its Washington fifth column” refers to a very specific group of people, including bellicose Christians. No honest reader could conclude that it referred to “the contribution of Jews to the public debate”—unless, of course, Pollak seeks to insinuate that all American Jews are pushing the United States to attack Iran, a truly loony proposition.

There is a deeper motive to Pollak’s attack. A monumental sea change is underway in the American Jewish community. For many years, liberal Jews more or less let AIPAC or Commentary or The New Republic speak for them on the issues of Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East. That’s over. J Street has emerged as a new pro-peace PAC to challenge AIPAC. It opposes the war with Iran that Pollak would like to start. So do dozens of important bloggers—M.J. Rosenberg, Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein, Philip Weiss, Tony Karon, Josh Marshall, and David Bromwich, to name a few. Joe Klein, the popular Time writer has been challenging Freeman’s attackers. Taken together, these writers are challenging the entire Likudnik ideological complex that stretches from Jerusalem to the offices of Commentary and The Weekly Standard.

The Iraq War probably initiated this springtime of debate. Walt and Mearsheimer pushed it along, and no, they haven’t been marginalized—though not for lack of trying. Just last night, at the 92nd Street Y, liberal Jews were debating what their loyalties are, what it means that Israel now has a quasi-fascist government and hopes to have continued American support for its colonization policies. Noah Pollak’s view—that any raising of these questions is un-American—is losing out. He’s worried, and he seeks to fight back by misrepresenting us.

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History Gets Bushed

Our ex-president (or maybe his pal Andrew Roberts) is “writing” a book:

“I’m going to put people in my place, so when the history of this administration is written at least there’s an authoritarian voice saying exactly what happened,” Bush said.

H/t The Washington Examiner.

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Debunking St. Paddy’s Day

Slate posts David Plotz’s 2000 column about how little we know of St. Patrick.

Eamon Forde’s piece in today’s Times Online is perfectly sensible:

The celebration originally marked the arrival of the Catholic faith on Irish shores, but in an increasingly secular country, it now celebrates the futility of drunkenness. It says everything about what it means to be Irish these days that the biggest parades take place hundreds of miles from Irish soil where a once-proud diaspora’s celebration of its past has been hijacked by anyone who has seen The Quiet Man and wants to get noisily bladdered. They may as well wear their heart on their sleeves and pay a gaggle of pale-faced colleens with pigs under their arms to spray the streets with whiskey and potatoes.

Indeed. I feel ashamed to admit that I once spent St. Patrick’s Day watching The Quiet Man and eating corned beef and cabbage (not an Irish dish).

I now greet March 17th with dread. The options seem to be these: Join my fellow Catholic reactionaries in cloying piety, saying St Patrick’s prayer 100 times in his honor. Or join the revelers who wear green and white hoops under green and white bunting at the bar, even if they are Lithuanians and the bar is owned by Russians. Somehow I don’t think dear Patrick would recognize either as related to his life. I’m still searching for the mean between Lenten austerities and Erin Go Puke.

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