Saturday, October 08, 2005


Poll of the Day

Some firsts for Bush—

President Bush's overall job approval rating has reached the lowest ever measured in this poll, and evaluations of his handling of Iraq, the economy and even his signature issue, terrorism, are also at all-time lows. More Americans than at any time since he took office think he does not share their priorities.

President Bush's job approval rating has fallen to his lowest rating ever. 37 percent now approve of the job he is doing as president.

President Bush also receives his lowest ratings ever on his handling of the economy and Iraq, with only a third approving of either.

And for the first time in this poll, fewer than half the public approves of the way he is handling the campaign against terrorism. 46 percent now approve, but 46 percent disapprove.

—CBS News Poll released October 6


German election update

The German electoral contest continues. Oh, the voting is over; the results have been accepted; it's just that they can't form a government. If you're not interested in the arcana of European parliamentary democracies, this election is still a little bit special. The narrow victory of Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) over Gerhart Schroeder's Social Democrats virtually guarantees that Europe's largest economy will make a shift rightward, but by how much? This question underlies ongoing negotiations to form a ruling government and name a chancellor.

CNN's Chris Burns writes that Schroeder is fighting so hard to retain the chancellorship not for reasons of ego but for the very survival of the moderately leftish Social Democratic Party. The "market-oriented reforms" that were enacted under Schroeder lost the party enough support from its left wing (who defected to the Left Party) to cost it the majority in this election. The Left Party is now the fourth largest, having advanced over the Greens.

The struggle for Schroeder's party is not to cede too much to the Right and make itself irrelevant—

Political pundits and observers say that if the SPD caves too quickly to the conservatives' demands and are in effect co-opted in a grand coalition that takes them hostage, they could further lose their rank and file to the Linke, the Greens or other smaller parties.

And Judy Dempsey of the International Herald Tribune writes,

The Social Democrats are increasingly concerned that Schröder and Müntefering will cut a deal that could undermine Germany's generous social security system and introduce labor laws that would allow employers to hire and fire with greater ease.

"Any horse trading and haggling over people are completely unacceptable," said Ralf Stegener, the Social Democrat interior minister from Schleswig-Holstein, where Merkel's party won a dramatic election in March, forcing the Christian Democrats into a conservative-led coalition government.

Stegener warned Schröder not to compromise over workers' rights and the social market economy nor to reverse the party's policy over phasing out nuclear power.

"Of course every grand coalition has to make compromises, but not for a price that damages low earners but gives the managers what they want," Stegener said.

Likewise, the rightist CDU/CSU needs to show that it actually won something when it gained a majority in the election—

The Christian Democrats are becoming nervous, too, since they harbor the same concerns as the Social Democrats: Some fear that Merkel will give too much away to become chancellor.

Kurt Lauk, president of the Christian Democrats' economic council, said the grand coalition would have to tackle "big reforms," adding: "We have three big problems - the labor market, tax policy and the federal system. These are urgent. It is time to deal with the problems of the country."

Christian Wulff, state premier of Lower Saxony and one of Merkel's strongest rivals, repeated his warning that the Christian Democrats would compromise neither on the chancellor, who will be Merkel, nor on the president of the Bundestag, or Parliament.

Supposedly a deal is in the making that will be solidified Sunday night. The meeting is said to involve only four participants—Schroeder, Merkel, Edmund Stoiber, the head of the sister CSU party that supports Merkel, and Franz Müntefering, who heads Schroeder's Social Democrats. They say they'll let the world know on Monday.

And thus the course of Europe's most powerful democracy comes down to an agreement reached among just four people.

Previous post
The German stalemate (9/23/05)


Sorry I haven't been posting more

My connection to the net has been extremely iffy over the past few days. The phone company tells me I have a "short." I hope to find out more today.

Friday, October 07, 2005


Ithaca found: Odysseus, please come home

The "mythic" isle of Ithaca described by Homer in the Odyssey has been found, or so many classical scholars are convinced.

For many years there were those who doubted that Ithaca actually existed. Not me. If the story had appeared in the NY Times, I would have questioned it. But Homer? Never!


Quote of the Day

I think what you really have here is an insurgency that's been hijacked by a terrorist campaign.
—Army Major General Richard Zahner as quoted by Ehsan Ahrari in "The indefatigable insurgency"

Thursday, October 06, 2005


Church of Sweden blesses gay unions

The Church of Sweden, an evangelical Lutheran church, was a state church until 2001 when it was "disestablished" in deference to the 20% of the population who do not belong to it. Until that time, church and state were so intertwined that only the parliament could change the prayer book or appoint a bishop.

After divorcing the government they've decided to join each other. A church committee has recommended the church blessing of gay civil unions. The proposal hasn't yet passed through all the hoops but is expected to survive. According to The Local,

The liturgical committee of the Church Assembly has said that a service of blessing for gay partnerships should be included in the church's official guidelines.

The final decision will be taken by the full Church Assembly later this month, but the proposal won a large majority on the committee, with twelve out of fifteen members supporting the blessings.

Gay rights groups have welcomed the announcement, but Sören Andersson, chairman of Sweden's largest gay organisation, RFSL, told The Local that he would have liked the church to have gone further.

"While I think this is a positive step that they are acknowledging relationships is this way, I think it's sad that they won't offer the same ceremonies to all couples."

"It has taken 30 years for us to come this far; I hope it doesn't take another 30 years for us to be offered the same ceremonies."

Gay couples in Sweden can currently sign registered partnership agreements, which give them most of the same rights as heterosexual couples. Some individual churches in the Church of Sweden already offer couples prayer ceremonies after they have gone into a partnership, but this is not currently regulated by the church's ruling organs.

It will probably surprise many Americans that gay marriage is not yet legal in Sweden. But they're working on it—

A government enquiry, expected to take several years, is currently looking into whether gay people should be offered full civil weddings, as in a number of other European countries.

Update on "Some thoughts on Harriet Miers"

Wednesday, October 05, 2005


Some thoughts on Harriet Miers

The most important thing to know about Harriet Miers is that George Bush picked her. I don't know why they let him do it. Maybe the Valerie Plame affair, which should break open this month, has left far wiser heads in the White House distracted. Or maybe George was getting testy because nobody would let him decide anything. But there is something genuinely different about this candidate, and the difference is that George made the decision himself.

No one in the media seems to be making this point out loud. But from the subtly snide remarks I've heard from Righties on the talk shows, I believe they grasp this fact better than many on the Left, and they are genuinely aghast. To be hand-picked by George Bush is the worst recommendation a nominee could receive.

Why do I think the Miers selection is George's handiwork? Foremost because she did not endure the vetting to which John Roberts was subjected. Any number of people had a finger up Roberts' rectum before he was nominated, whereas Miers sprang forth like Minerva from the head of Zeus. Miers, of course, came not from Bush's head but from his gut, which is his principal organ of thought.

Bush's own remarks also confirm this: "I've known Harriet for more than a decade. I know her heart, I know her character." This is similar to "What I have done is understand the type of person she is and the type of judge she will be."

And what type of judge does Bush think she'll be?

Harriet Miers will strictly interpret our Constitution and laws. She will not legislation [sic] from the bench.

That's the official version. But this report makes more sense and is absolutely chilling—

Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee, yesterday held a conference call with conservative leaders to address their concerns about Miers. He stressed Bush’s close relationship with Miers and the need to confirm a justice who will not interfere with the administration’s management of the war on terrorism, according to a person who attended the teleconference.

Bush expects Miers to help thwart any efforts to control the Executive Branch by the Congress or the courts. He says he doesn't know what her view on abortion is, and I believe him. The truth is that he doesn't give a damn what her view on abortion is—or gay rights or any other of the hot-button cultural issues the Religious Right lives for. He does, however, care what sort of limits—or even criminal charges—his administration may one day face.

What do I think of Miers? Well, if it's true what right-winger David Frum says, that "[Harriet Miers] once told me that the president was the most brilliant man she had ever met," she is either pig-ignorant or a toady of the worst sort. I believe she is the latter, which is what Bush and company are counting on.

Should the Democrats form a coalition with the Right to oppose her? Only if they can stall another appointment until they gain control of the Senate. They can't, so they shouldn't. The nominees on the Right's wish-list could be even more disastrous.

11:07 am

After stating above, without documentation, that the Right appreciates how disastrous it can be to leave anything in George Bush's hands, I was happy to read George Will. In yesterday's column titled "Can This Nomination Be Justified?" Will writes,

.... The president's "argument" for her amounts to: Trust me. There is no reason to, for several reasons.

He has neither the inclination nor the ability to make sophisticated judgments about competing approaches to construing the Constitution. Few presidents acquire such abilities in the course of their pre-presidential careers, and this president particularly is not disposed to such reflections.

Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that Miers's nomination resulted from the president's careful consultation with people capable of such judgments.

In other words, all appearances suggest that Bush was acting on his own.

Now if you really want to understand in what regard the Right holds the President, consider this—

In addition, the president has forfeited his right to be trusted as a custodian of the Constitution.1

And they call me radical!? The very wingers who portray themselves as zealous guardians of the Constitution now suggest that not only does the Senate have a right and a duty to vet the President's nominee (which is true, however belatedly they've come to recognize it) but that the President himself doesn't have the right to select his own nominee. Delicious!

George Will then asserts a qualification for Supreme Court appointees nowhere to be found in the Constitution—"constitutional reasoning." Will says that it is—

a talent — a skill acquired, as intellectual skills are, by years of practice sustained by intense interest. It is not usually acquired in the normal course of even a fine lawyer's career. The burden is on Miers to demonstrate such talents, and on senators to compel such a demonstration or reject the nomination.

Isn't it wonderful how the good people on the Right just make it up as they go? They claim that liberals find "rights" in the Constitution that do not exist—a dubious claim, of course. But there can be no doubt that Conservatives invent requirements2 for office-holders that most certainly do not exist under the Constitution.

One thing is known for sure about Harriet Miers: She's a born-again Christian, and it's said she would be the first to serve on the Supreme Court since the 1930s. While that seems somewhat frightening to the Left—for fear of what insults to human rights she might support, among the many reasons—few people appreciate how truly frightening a born-again Christian can be to the larcenous Right. Once her nomination is approved, the only voice to which she'll need to attend is the Voice of God, and on the road to Damascus you never know what God is going to say.

Related post
My view of John Roberts (7/24/05)

1According to Will, Bush forfeited that right by signing the McCain-Feingold law regulating campaign finance. [back]

2Perhaps the best known of these right-wing requirements is that the office-holder be "a person of faith." This is not only not found in the Constitution, it is expressly forbidden by the Constitution. (See Article VI, "... no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.") In any case, Miers satisfies this unconstitutional requirement in spades. [back]

Tuesday, October 04, 2005


How a dictatorship works

I suspect that many of my readers are not old enough to remember the Cold War, that epic but metaphorical war between the forces of Good (the U.S., of course) and the forces of Evil (that would be the U.S.S.R.).

One of the sure signs of the malevolence of the Soviet regime was that they did not have a free press; it was controlled by the government. Pravda (meaning "truth") was the official paper of the Communist Party, and Izvestia (meaning "news") was the official organ of the government. Any story that appeared in them was "propaganda" and could be dismissed out of hand, which saved the American public from the confusion that can arise when people are exposed to more than one viewpoint.

It was the work of Sovietologists to pour over every word and photo to try to glimpse the truth behind the headlines. If a Soviet official didn't appear in a lineup with other Kremlin officials, it was speculated that he'd been "purged." If a Soviet minister appeared but occupied a different seat in relation to the prime minister, he was assumed to have been either promoted or demoted depending upon the distance between the seats. Soviet attitudes toward foreign leaders were reflected by the tone of the news reports and by the accompanying photos.

This sort of analytical work continues today, only now we apply it to the NY Times, the semiofficial organ of the Republican Party, and the Washington Post, which fills that role for the government. As with the Soviets, Party and government are really one and the same, so the roles of the two newspapers are largely interchangeable. (Views of the Far Right faction of the Party and government are reliably presented by the Washington Times.)

With that in mind, I bring you an example from one of those organs of propaganda that is almost embarrassing in its lack of subtlety.

This was a headline in yesterday's NY Times: Venezuelan Strongman's New Gig: National Disc Jockey

Let's enquire first about the meaning of "strongman." Wikipedia has this—

A strongman is a political leader who rules by force and runs an authoritarian regime. The term is often used interchangeably with "dictator."

A strongman is not necessarily always a formal Head of State, however. Sometimes the term is used to describe a military or political figure who exercises far more influence over the government than is constitutionally allowed. General Manuel Noriega, for example, was often dubbed the "Strongman of Panama" for the enormous amount of political power he exercised over Panama, despite the fact that he was not the formal president of the state.

Jumping Jehosaphat! They must be referring to Hugo Chávez, the twice-elected President of Venezuela, who won the second election by better than 59% of the vote after an attempt to oust him in a U.S.-supported right-wing coup.

Let's give the headline writer the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps he didn't mean to call Chávez a dictator at all. Maybe he was trying to draw attention to the strength of Chávez' electoral mandate. Maybe he meant to draw a contrast with President Bush, who—even if you wildly assume him to be legitimately elected—could never be referred to as a "strongman" after receiving a minority of the popular vote in his first election and a likely minority in the second. You think?

Well, reporter Jose Forero, the NY Times man in Latin America, probably had nothing to do with the headline, so the article itself should clarify matters. It begins—

Deep in Venezuela's new, cumbersome1 Social Responsibility Law is an item that requires radio stations to play more - much more - Venezuelan music. The idea, the fiercely nationalist government says, is to promote Venezuelan culture over foreign culture, particularly American rock, which has dominated radio airplay for years.

The problem for Mr. Forero, as he attempts to represent the views of the Bush administration, is that the law is quite popular among Venezuelan musicians, who suddenly are having an opportunity to be heard again—

If the measure seems obscure,2 its effects have not been. From the techno-pop wizards of cosmopolitan Caracas to the folksy crooners of this cattle town, Venezuelan musicians say they are reaping benefits from President Hugo Chávez's efforts to regulate culture.3

For Huáscar Barradas, 40, a flute-playing magician who mixes the traditional with pop, the law has ensured that he is now booked solid at concert halls across the country. Simon Diaz, 77, a playful troubadour who enjoys international fame, is pleased that the songs he popularized decades ago are now on the airwaves once more. And halfway across the country from Caracas's eclectic music scene, Anselmo López, 71, with his traditional white liqui-liqui suit and four-string bandola, says he is comforted to know that some of his old forgotten songs are now being heard again.

Carlos Tapia, another Barinas resident and one of Venezuela's best-known harpists, said he welcomed the law because his brand of music had in recent years received little notice, as radio stations turned to rock, rap and pop. "The music situation was very poor," he said. "It was just hard to get heard."

But now, big-name musicians who do traditional music, from Scarlett Linares to Reynaldo Armas, have contracted him for concerts and recordings. "There is much more work than before," he said, explaining how he constantly travels Venezuela's winding roads to get to concerts.

Franklin Cacique, a keyboardist with Saladillo de Aguierre, a famed 16-man group that performs the folkloric gaitas of the northwest, said the law had spawned fresh, new music as bands scramble to take advantage.

"It's leading to the creation of more imaginative music, as musicians try to interpret Venezuelan music in different ways," he said. "People have awakened and they want to hear this music."

Now it's time for some balance. Here are the problems that Mr. Forero has been able to find—

1. "Not everyone is pleased."

2. Radio stations don't like any conditions put on their use of the public airwaves—4

For radio stations, it has been a headache, handled grudgingly but expeditiously by some and with an air of rebellion by others, like Caracas's 92.9 FM, which responded by playing vulgar folkloric music, much to the government's distaste....

3. Those musicians who are benefitting most are those who were already enjoying some measure of success—

Those who are making the most of the law are the few musicians who, in recent years, had already found success. Those musicians, mostly based in Caracas, have producers and press agents, and they have momentum and enterprise, having recorded in recent years.

There's a strange irony at work here. President Chávez is called a dictator for instituting a law that prevents radio stations from playing 24-hour, non-stop rock, rap and pop. Yet isn't that the very music our military uses in its psychological warfare operations to drive the enemy crazy?


1As you've probably noticed, the Bush administration regards almost any law as "cumbersome" if it restricts the activities of government or "business." Only laws that restrict the freedoms of private citizens are considered legitimate. [back]

2Obscure? When even folk musicians understand it, how is it "obscure"? [back]

3 Just in the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that the dictatorial regimes known as the Province of Quebec and the Republic of France have gone much further in their efforts to regulate culture than has Hugo Chávez. [back]

4The United States used to have similar requirements, though they did not apply to music per se. There were silly requirements that radio license holders had an obligation to present a certain amount of educational programming and to present all sides of political questions. Ronald Reagan's administration got rid of all that. [back]


Happy days are here again

Happy days are here again1
The skies above are clear again
So let's sing a song of cheer again
Happy days are here again

—Jack Yellen

I ask you: How do you have two major hurricanes costing enough to pay for another war plus an increase in energy prices to an all-time high (along with the budget deficit and the trade deficit) while consumer confidence goes down the tubes and expect to go on living as you've been living? You listen to the Republicans.

Soft-pedaling the economic news is to be expected. After all, if the public realized the situation we're in, it would only get worse—and besides, they wouldn't be so likely to vote Republican at their next opportunity.

The situation is actually so bad that even the AP reporters are beginning to wonder out loud. Yesterday Tom Raum wrote,

Things are going so badly for President Bush and his fellow Republicans that it is hard to imagine what could come along and make it worse. Think recession.

The "R" word is being heard more often among economists, especially after recent reports showed tumbles in consumer spending and confidence.

New home sales are down. Auto sales have slowed. Higher energy prices - due partly to the hurricanes that damaged drilling and refining installations along the Gulf Coast - have eroded consumers' buying power. Inflation is trending higher. Interest rates, too.

"Recession risks are rapidly rising," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of, an economic analysis service in West Chester, Pa. The last recession was in 2001.

Zandi is not forecasting a recession. But he said a cold winter, a further pullback in consumer spending, a terrorist attack and other variables could tip the scales. "And if we are going into a recession, by time we get around to figuring that out, it will be too late," he said.

As I read it, Zandi is saying there will be no recession so long as we live in a perfect world, so don't be alarmed.

I've been trying to alert readers to the coming economic disaster over the past year, but like everyone else in the gloom-and-doom business, I could not say what would be the precipitating event. And while our problems cannot be laid at the feet of Katrina, I believe Katrina may be identified as the event that marked the beginning of a steeper economic decline.

I haven't been alone in my pessimism. In April economist Paul Krugman was reminding people of a condition that arose during the Jimmy Carter presidency of the 70s, another time of high oil prices. It was a condition that economists didn't even believe could occur until it did occur, so they had to invent a new name for it—stagflation, a high rate of inflation paired with high unemployment.

Krugman thought we were in a mild stagflation in April, then added

We shouldn't overstate the case: we're not back to the economic misery of the 1970's. But the fact that we're already experiencing mild stagflation means that there will be no good options if something else goes wrong.

Suppose, for example, that the consumer pullback visible in recent data turns out to be bigger than we now think, and growth stalls. (Not that long ago many economists thought that an oil price in the 50's would cause a recession.) Can the Fed stop raising interest rates and go back to rate cuts without causing the dollar to plunge and inflation to soar?

Or suppose that there's some kind of oil supply disruption - or that warnings about declining production from Saudi oil fields turn out to be right. Suppose that Asian central banks decide that they already have too many dollars. Suppose that the housing bubble bursts. Any of these events could easily turn our mild case of stagflation into something much more serious.

All of Krugman's suppositions are coming true, though the housing bubble has still to be popped. Further bad news is that Krugman doesn't see a way out of this jam—

How do we get out of this bind? As the old joke goes, I wouldn't start from here. We should have spent the years of cheap oil encouraging conservation; we should have spent the years of modest growth in medical costs reforming our health care system. Oh, and we'd have a wider range of policy options if the budget weren't so deeply in deficit.

So if any of these things does come to pass, we'll just have to see how well an administration in which political operatives make all economic policy decisions, and the Treasury secretary is only a salesman, handles crises.

In other words, we're screwed.

Related economic news ...

Last week President Chavez pulled all of Venezuela's substantial foreign currency reserves out of U.S. treasury bonds and moved them to European banks—a smart move as the dollar sinks but also a wise move given the U.S. propensity for freezing assets held by foreigners it doesn't like. At the same time the transaction further weakens the dollar but was hardly noted in the MSM.

The American auto industry, which insists that the only reason they sell gas guzzlers is that the American public wants them, has suddenly found that SUVs and trucks have fallen from favor. GM reports SUV/truck sales down 30% and Ford took a similar hit of 28%.

And a word from a currency and precious metals trader

You would expect Jim Sinclair to be bullish on gold, but he has his reasons

1. The US Federal Budget deficit as a result of really bad weather and worse contingency planning is not going to be as advertised - under $360 billion - but rather over $550 billion. The idea that you can fight multiple wars, rebuild decimated cities and lower taxes is madness of world-class proportions. Lets' also not forget that cities and states as good little children are following the example of their Federal Daddy and deficit spending their tiny rear ends off as well.

2. The Trade balance thanks to ever escalating energy prices is also going off the scales on the deficit side.

3. The mad, mad, mad, world of US conspicuous consumption has landed US saving rates at below zero.

So how can all this be financed? Don't look at China as China bashing has finally bashed the dickens out of the theory that because Asia has so much US paper it has to buy as much as the US can print. Not so! Asia may not be functionally able to sell what they have but their continued consumption in order to allow the US to offend them is simply not going to happen. Asia will off-load their US paper by massive international corporate acquisitions outside of the US.

It happened again as the US put pressure on China for a more vigorous revaluation of their currency at the recent Washington get together. This is like a person (the financial management of the US) slitting their own throat and demanding a sharper knife so they can cut a few other necessities off as well.

So as currently presented, US financial managers intend to peddle US federal paper to people who are fed up financing the US, producing a backlash that no one really expects. More federal paper means more dollars. More dollars mean more supply on the market as interest rates rise as a direct result of smaller and smaller purchases by non-US interests of the much bigger supply of US Treasuries for sale.

The classical result that will happen by mid 2006 is:

1. A sharply lower US dollar.

2. Sharply higher interest rates.

3. Former Chairman Volcker's prediction that we would have a financial crisis within the next five years (one more year to go) could actually unfold tomorrow.

I just thought you should know while you can still convert to euros and buy that foreign real estate.

Previous posts
Something you should know about your dollars (9/24/04)
More comment on the dollar (10/11/04)
Buying a used Mercedes (2/8/05)


1This was Franklin Roosevelt's theme song during his first campaign of 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression. It is also the title of a column that appeared May 5, 2005 in the Wall Street Journal, written by Claudia Rosett, who apparently lacks a sense of irony. [back]

Monday, October 03, 2005


Quip of the Day

That is the way the empire ends, not with a bang, but a Winnebago. —"Spengler" in "Do you call that an empire?"

Question of the Day

Why are Americans condemning foreign fighters in Iraq? Are they including themselves in this category, or considering themselves native fighters of Iraq? —Lebanese journalist as quoted by Ehsan Ahrari in"The indefatigable insurgency"

How low can he go?

Republican Governor Bob Taft of Ohio must be looking at George Bush's 40% approval rating with envy. A poll taken by the Columbus Dispatch found that Taft is enjoying the approval of only 15% of the good citizens of Ohio. This is the lowest approval rating ever for an Ohio governor, and only three governors are known to have polled below that. When three quarters of Ohio Republicans disapprove of you, you know you've messed up.

Phi Beta Iota

The FBI has renovated the old Sigma Nu fraternity house that stands along Greek Row on the LSU campus, and about 50 FBI agents displaced from New Orleans plan to live there. Happily for the neighboring Greeks, since 2000 the FBI has investigated 45% fewer criminal cases including a 70% drop in drug cases. They've been on the lookout for terrorists, you know.

Sunday, October 02, 2005


Poem of the Day


When I carefully consider the curious habits of dogs
I am compelled to conclude
That man is the superior animal.

When I consider the curious habits of man
I confess, my friend, I am puzzled.

—Ezra Pound

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