October 2009: Fuzzy stimulus math, mixed signals on free speech, Hannity’s sad double standard, and other observations

A tip of a Yankees cap to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

THE WHITE HOUSE ANNOUNCED THAT FEDERAL STIMULUS SPENDING HAS “SAVED OR CREATED” 640,329 JOBS SO FAR. Not 640,328 or 640,330, but 640,329. Of course this is nonsense—there’s no precise way to accurately calculate any job creation or job savings impact and the Obama Administration opens itself up to mockery for its fuzzy math.

The problem for President Obama is managing perceptions: after passage of a $787 billion spending bill the Administration claimed would keep national unemployment at 8 percent, the reality has been jobless figures in the 10 percent range and fears of a jobless recovery or a “W” shaped recession, despite GDP growth of 3.5 percent in the third quarter of 2009.

Has economic stimulus spending worked? The impact of cash-for-clunkers, first-time home buyer tax credits, and other cash injections into the economy clearly impacted the third quarter growth numbers. As to the other stimulus spending: a focus on propping up education and public sector employment, rather than heavy investments in infrastructure projects, may prove misguided in the long-term. If unemployment remains in the 10 percent range, voters will punish Congressional Democrats in the 2010 elections.

THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION IS SENDING MIXED SIGNALS ON FREE SPEECH ISSUES. In early October, the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Human Rights Council decided to “support Egypt in recognizing limits on free speech for those who insult or denigrate religion,” a move law professor Jonathan Turley and other free speech advocates denounced as ill-advised pandering to Muslim nations. Near the end of the month, however, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled that the U.S. will resist a push for an international convention barring “religious antidefamation.

Are members of the Obama team too comfortable with international legal standards that suppress free expression? Stuart Taylor Jr. of the National Journal Magazine warns that the U.N. resolution concession is representative of an administration “seeded with left-liberal thinkers who have smiled on efforts to punish speech that is offensive to favored racial and religious groups.”

IF SEAN HANNITY OF FOX WANTS TO PROVIDE FAR RIGHT AUTHOR JEROME CORSI with a platform on his cable show, he owes it to his audience to disclose Corsi’s extremist views. Corsi, who turned up on Hannity’s Oct. 13 show to promote his latest book, is a Birther and a Truther—that is, Corsi questions whether President Obama was actually born in Hawaii and consequently his eligibility to hold high office, and he has supported the “9/11 Truth Movement” in claiming that jetliners did not bring down the World Trade Center towers.

Hannity’s double standard is troubling: he challenges those on the left who voice 9/11 conspiracy theories (Sean Penn, Rosie O’Donnell, Mark Cuban) but remains silent when right-wingers like Corsi express similarly noxious views.

IS RUSSIAN PRESIDENT DMITRY MEDVEDEV’S REJECTION OF THE CULT OF STALIN A SINCERE DISTANCING FROM “PUTINISM”? On October 30, the day of remembrance of victims of political repression in Russia, Medvedev “called on Russians to remember the political terror under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, distancing himself from the historical ambivalence of his mentor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin,” according to Lucian Kim of Bloomberg News.

Will Medvedev’s comments make a difference? The recent arrest of Mikhail Suprun, a Russian historian researching the fate of Germans sent into Stalin’s Gulag during World War II, and the seizure of his personal archives, raises questions about the openness of Russian authorities to confronting the past.

FROM JAY LENO’S ROUTINE (Oct. 26): “Former Vice President Dick Cheney accused the White House of “dithering” over the strategy in Afghanistan. Today the White House said they’re thinking it over, and they should have a response within six to eight weeks.”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM COME FROM THE BIBLICAL KING SOLOMON (Proverbs 29:23): “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honor shall uphold the humble in spirit.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

September 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Naming the Great Recession, Paul Robeson’s tragic American life, the limits of international law, and other observations

With a tip of the hat to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

WILL THIS GLOBAL ECONOMIC DOWNTURN BE KNOWN AS “THE GREAT RECESSION”? The term has become ubiquitous, appearing constantly in the mainstream media—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Time magazine, and that traditional arbiter of journalistic practice, the Associated Press. Back in March, Catherine Rampell in the Economix blog looked at the etymology of the phrase and found “Great Recession” had been applied to nearly every downturn since the Great Depression.

But should this slump be called the Great Recession—a near-Great Depression—or is it just another very severe economic downturn? Its relative severity depends, in part, on your perspective. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Recession is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours.” (He went on to add the punch line: “And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.”) Judged by some economic yardsticks, the use of the adjective “great” seems overblown. National unemployment has hit 9.8%, but falls short of the 10.8% level of 1983. Employment has held up in some sectors of the economy (biotech, education, government) while cratering in others (construction, real estate, financial services). Now economists say that quarterly GDP is growing again.

Yet there are aspects to this downturn that are unique and historic—especially the stress on the financial system caused by the real estate bubble bursting and the crisis on Wall Street in September and October of 2008. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke announced on September 15 that the recession was “likely over” and that “it’s still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time, as many people still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was.” The prospects of a jobless recovery make the impact of the 2008-2009 recession long lasting. Two Rutgers economists now say that employment levels could remain disappointing until 2017!

Based on the lingering effects of this downturn, and its persistence negative effect on the job market, perhaps the phrase used should be the Long Recession, not the Great Recession.

PAUL ROBESON (1898-1976) WAS AN AMAZING RENAISSANCE MAN—A SINGER, ACTOR, SCHOLAR, ATHLETE, CIVIL RIGHTS ADVOCATE, AND, SADLY, AN UNREPENTANT STALINIST. Peter Applebome of the New York Times recently reported on a concert to celebrate Robeson’s life in Peekskill, N.Y., near where local thugs disrupted a planned Civil Rights Congress concert in August 1949. (The Civil Rights Congress was a Communist-dominated organization that often clashed with the NAACP and ACLU over emphasis and tactics).

Robeson’s life was tragic in many ways—his turn to Communism largely a response to the racism he faced despite his out-sized record of accomplishment. His ideological commitment caused Robeson to turn a blind eye to Stalin’s excesses, and there’s evidence that he had firsthand knowledge of the Soviet purges. Tim Tzouliadis’ recent book The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia relates the story of how American emigrants to the Soviet Union experienced the horrors of Stalinism, and recounts Robeson’s encounters with persecuted expat Americans and Soviet Jews and his public silence about their plight. Robeson never renounced the Soviet experiment, even after Nikita Khrushchev’s speech in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes.

UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO LAW PROFESSOR ERIC A. POSNER ARGUES THAT HUMAN RIGHTS AND PEACE AREN’T ALWAYS BEST SERVED BY FOCUSING ON INTERNATIONAL LAW in a provocative essay in Foreign Policy. Posner notes that:

International law is only as strong as the states with an interest in upholding it. Ambitious schemes that seek to transcend countries’ interests routinely fail. The 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact outlawed war shortly before the worst war in world history. The League of Nations was bypassed and ignored. The United Nations has never lived up to its ambitions and has only proved effective for narrow projects after expectations were scaled down to a realistic level. The greatest achievement of international law — the modern trade system institutionalized in the World Trade Organization — depends for its vitality on the good faith of a handful of great powers relying on weak self-help remedies.

Human rights fare best in affluent countries, Posner notes, and suggests that economic development is more important in protecting those rights than what he calls global legalism. Posner also predicts that President Barack Obama will disappoint the liberal-left with a realpolitik approach to international law.

ALONG WITH BABE RUTH, DEREK JETER WILL BE SEEN AS THE CONSUMMATE NEW YORK YANKEE. On Sept. 11 Jeter passed Lou Gehrig for the most hits (2722) ever as a Yankee, and the hard-working shortstop “plays the game the right way.”

SEPTEMBER’S UNITED NATIONS GENERAL ASSEMBLY WAS GOOD FOR SOME LAUGHS. As Jay Leno joked: “Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi-duck, this moron, was at the U.N. today. He talked forever. He talked on Israel and the swine flu and the JFK assassination. Where was Kanye West to grab the microphone away?”

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM THE MAN FROM INDEPENDENCE, PRESIDENT HARRY S. TRUMAN (1884-1972): “I have found the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and then advise them to do it.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders

May 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Those helpful higher oil prices, Sinbad and snipers, an explosive ‘Iron Man,’ and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THERE IS A CONTRARIAN VIEW, TO WHICH I SUBSCRIBE, THAT MAINTAINS SUSTAINED HIGHER OIL PRICES could prove to be a positive development in the end. To the extent that elevated oil prices encourage industrialized nations to shift away from fossil fuels and turn to alternatives like wind, solar and conservation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), the recent price surge could represent the proverbial blessing in disguise.

While I’m not ready to join MarketWatch columnist Chris Pummer in rooting for $8-a-gallon gas prices, the positive “green” ramifications of increased demand for oil, and pressure on prices, are hard to ignore. It will make it easier for Congress to support tax credits for alternative forms of energy, and it should spur private sector efforts for solar and wind power.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report suggesting that the U.S. could derive 30% of its electricity from wind power by 2030 (up from the current 1%). For the market to work its magic, however, the cost of wind power must be competitive with that of oil and coal generated electricty.

WILL FUTURE HISTORIANS SEE COMEDIAN SINBAD’S DEBUNKING OF HILLARY CLINTON’S BOSNIAN SNIPER story as the pivotal moment in the Democratic Party 2008 presidential race? Sinbad, who had accompanied Clinton to Bosnia in 1996, refuted the New York Senator’s claim of a harrowing, corkscrew landing at the Tusla airport, and a harrowing dash across the tarmac to avoid possible snipers (“She lied. It’s on video. There’s no other side to it, because it’s on video.”) The exposure of Clinton’s fabrication helped deflect attention from Sen. Barack Obama’s emerging problems (Bittergate, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) and raised renewed questions about her own credibility at a critical juncture in the campaign.

WHEN IS A RECESSION NOT A RECESSION? It doesn’t raise confidence in practitioners in the dismal science to learn that economists can’t agree on whether the U.S. has slid into a slowdown or is suffering from a recession. Deciding where in the business cycle we are is an academic question, in one sense, but that designation carries great significance in an election year.

HAVE THE MERITOCRATIC ORIGINS OF THE SAT BEEN FORGOTTEN? As Smith College and Wake Forest University decide to abandon the SAT Reasoning Test as an admissions tool, let’s not forget that the SAT was originally established to introduce greater fairness in college admissions. A standardized test, it was thought, would allow schools to compare talented public high school students with those educated in elite private schools.

IN A GREAT HOLLYWOOD TRADITION, THE NEW FILM “IRON MAN” HAS IT BOTH WAYS, attacking the violent business of war and yet delighting in high tech pyrotechnics and massive explosions. Best moment of the movie: Jim “Mad Money” Cramer’s over-the-top cameo where he complains: “It’s a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons!”

SPEAK, MEMORY? HOW PLASTIC ARE OUR MEMORIES? Rob Walker’s Sunday New York Times Magazine article “Can a Dead Brand Live Again?” has a fascinating take on the question of human memory. Walker reviewed research on consumer’s memories of brands from the past.

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates.

If the research is to be believed, then it is frighteningly easy to mold our memories of the past. Shades of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being revised.

FROM PHILIP K. DICK, SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
All rights reserved

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