Wednesday, March 30, 2011

March 30, 2011

Several items on the web this week illustrated the condition of the news media. The last contained a comment with broader application.

1. One of the most popular online news sites, The Huffington Post, has been acquired by AOL, which may not be good news. I respect Arianna Huffington, and have read two of her books, but The Huffington Post already had drifted downhill. In addition to running, typically in the right-hand column, various junk items (celebrity scandals, oddities, anything to do with sex, etc.), the writing frequently has been cute, i.e., barely literate. Headlines often use the word “fail,” apparently meaning “failure.” Monday’s example: “The funniest Fox News fails.” *  (One of the examples was a Fox caption, under a shot of a female reporter: “Awaiting President Obama’s Arrival in Me,” with the comment, “adding ‘ain’ is just too much work.” Adding “ure” apparently is as well.

On Tuesday there was a link on the main page, “Death of the New York Times Book Review Good for Books?” Clicking on it led to a page on which the caption was “Death of the New York Times Book Review?” That changed the question, but both implied that the Review was about to be, or might be, dropped, as did the title of the article, “The Death of the New York Times Book Review: And Why That Is a Very Good Thing for Books.” The matter was not exactly clarified by the article’s opening statement: “This week, the New York Times goes behind a paywall. Good riddance. The section that will least missed is the book review....” Eventually it dawned on me that this referred to the Times’ decision to sell subscriptions to its web edition and limit free access, which doesn’t quite equate to the demise of the Review. (The “Good Thing for Books?” part of the caption referred to the author’s opinion that the Review is a wretched publication with no taste).

* Postscript 4/26/11.  The Huffington Post ran a feature today on grammatical errors. In itself that’s a little ironic, but it added the perfect touch by asking us, as to each example, to "rate this grammar fail."

2. Newspapers and other publications have had a dilemma ever since the internet became a major form of communication. If all of the content is available on line, will people cease buying the paper? If there is a charge for online access, will viewers simply go elsewhere? A common solution is to make some content available on line free of charge but require a subscription for the rest. This can be done by designating which articles or features are free and which not, or by allowing a certain number of free readings, but charging for complete access.

The New York Times has opted for the latter model, requiring a subscription for full access, but allowing everyone twenty free “article views” per month. (The definition of that term is complex, to say the least). The new system may have begun operation, although the references to it are remarkably opaque. On Tuesday’s web page, there was this announcement: “The Times’s plan for digital subscriptions to and mobile apps began Monday.” Does that mean it went into effect Monday? We were referred to a statement by the publisher, which informed us: “On Monday, The New York Times took a major step forward as we introduced digital subscriptions in the United States and the rest of the world.” Does that mean that the limit of twenty began Monday? If so, do I get twenty through Thursday, or does my first limit include April? Are we dealing with calendar months or does each period begin on the twenty-eighth? How does the Times keep track? Does this mean more cookies? One would think that the Times could write a clear description.

For me, at least, this timing is ironic: with the departure of Frank Rich and now of Bob Herbert from the op-ed pages, and the announcement that the Week in Review section will be “reinvented” (an ominous sign), twenty per month probably will be sufficient for my needs.

3. In an op-ed 24 on the Washington Post Tuesday, Katrina vanden Heuvel asked “Are there no standards for punditry?” She was referring not to columnists but to former officials who, though disgraced, are invited to tell us what to think, and to the media which give them a platform. Her examples, all apt, were Donald Rumsfeld critiquing the attack on Libya, Alan Greenspan on how the administration is holding back a recovery and, best of all, Oliver North on the need for Congressional approval of military actions. She noted the contrast between the easy forgiveness of public figures and the frequent demands for accountability and personal responsibility aimed, for example, at teachers and students.

“Public officials who have failed spectacularly in office should have the common decency to retire in disgrace.“ Their continued influence is indeed an odd phenomenon. She joked that in Britain, disgraced officials are dumped onto the House of Lords. We seem to have the same mind set — once an official, always in some sense a respectable member of the club — but, lacking a titled aristocracy, we treat ours as elder statesmen. “In America, they become pundits and are offered a stage to argue the same ideas that earlier brought the nation to near-ruin, rewriting history to fit their theory.”

4. Ms. vanden Heuvel ended her column with this observation as to those retired eminences: “As Talleyrand said of the restored French monarchy under Louis XVIII, they have ‘learned nothing and forgotten nothing.’ ” That leads me to economic policy. I just finished a book by Paul Krugman entitled The Return of Depression Economics. Its lesson, easily verified by observation, is that those in charge of fiscal and monetary policy seem to learn little from experience, but vividly remember discredited theories, in many cases because their ideology requires that. Not only are we seeing a return of Depression economics in the sense that the economic situation resembles that period, but our leaders, especially members of Congress, are intent on implementing policies which bring on or prolong depressions. ___________________

Friday, March 25, 2011

March 24, 2011

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama didn’t make much sense, and it became ironic immediately as he devoted his acceptance speech to a discussion of war. It has become more so as we have escalated the war in Afghanistan and now have joined, in some ill-defined way, in bombing Lybia. In an interview on Wednesday, the President acknowledged this: he “noted the irony of being a Nobel peace prize winner who ordered the US military into action on the eighth anniversary of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but he said the goal in this case was humanitarian.” The “immediate goal” was to prevent Qaddafi's army from conducting an attack on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi.22 What is the ultimate goal? Is it merely humanitarian or is it strategic: a desire, to borrow a phrase, for regime change? If it is the former, it is selective; if the latter, dubious.

General Carter Ham, the US commander for Africa, seems to believe the first. He has said that the mission is to protect civilians, not to support the opposition, that Qaddafi has not been targeted and that we are not looking for him. The General said that Qaddafi might remain in power after this exercise.

However, the President said on Tuesday, “It is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go.”23 He has stated that, at least as an aim, before. On Wednesday, although making the statements above, he returned to the regime-change mantra: "Keep in mind we don't just have military tools at our disposal in terms of accomplishing Qaddafi's leaving. We've put in place strong international sanctions. We've frozen his assets. We will continue to apply a whole range of pressure on him."

Mr. Obama added this to his comment about the Nobel Prize: "I'm accustomed to this contradiction of being both a commander-in-chief but also somebody who aspires to peace. We're not invading a country, we are not acting alone. "We are acting under a mandate issued by the UN security council." Possibly apart from the denial of an invasion, that statement, and the one above, are straight out of the Bush playbook: Mr. Bush also told us that, though patient, he had lots of tools at his disposal; although a war president, he declared himself to be a man of peace; we did not act alone in Iraq but had a vast coalition; although there was no direct UN mandate, violation of earlier UN resolutions was sometimes the excuse for the Iraq war. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq received the blessing of Congress, however indirectly stated and, in the case of Iraq, deceptively acquired and imprudently granted. The current operation was launched by the President with no pretense of advice and consent, let alone a declaration of war. The criticism that he was too slow or irresolute could be defended only on a world-policeman theory, and is inconsistent with the complaints now emerging about not seeking Congressional approval. The decision was, if anything, made with too little thought and reflection; it seems to have been almost off-handed, and it has engaged the President’s attention only occasionally.

Perhaps the results will be positive on balance, but if so, that will be by accident.


22. gaddafi-military-mission-libya

23. obama-gaddafi-video . The statement by Gen. Ham is on the same video clip.

Friday, March 18, 2011

March 18, 2011

In his willingness to compromise with the Republicans in Congress and in his unilateral budget cuts, President Obama may be falling into the error FDR committed in the midst of the Depression. Worried about deficits and influenced by cautious advisors, he cut back on spending in 1937 which, along with tightening by the Fed, brought the recovery to a halt. He repented before long, and the economy improved even before the war took the curse from deficit spending.

Even though the current recession — technically it’s over, but no one believes that — isn’t as deep as that of the thirties, Obama’s challenge is, by some measures, greater. Another war isn’t an option. The deficit and debt were out of control before the recession began, thanks in no small part to the Bush wars and tax cuts. The economy is structurally weaker now; manufacturing, the obvious base for a recovery, has been gutted by foreign competition and outsourcing.

The President faces an opposition as wedded to the past as in the thirties and he doesn’t have much support for such measures as public works, even if he were inclined toward them. However, public spending is necessary, even if unpopular, and despite the worries — perfectly legitimate but for now secondary — about the deficit and debt. The clear solution is to wind down the wars much more rapidly than planned and spend the savings on infrastructure, research and other useful projects. That probabaly would stimulate the economy more than the wars and would create a base for further expansion.

I know, I’m practicing economics without a license, but some things seem obvious. For (I hope not misplaced) support, I appeal to the experts:

Today, no serious economist holds the view that war is good for the economy. The economist John Maynard Keynes taught us how, through lower interest rates and increased government spending, countries can ensure that the peacetime economy operates near or at full employment. But money spent on armaments is money poured down the drain: had it been spent on investment—whether on plants and equipment, infrastructure, research, health, or education—the economy's productivity would have been increased and future output would have been greater.21

We need to focus on survival, with luck on prosperity, and forget about hegemony.

21. Joseph E. Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes, The Three Trillion Dollar War, p.115.

Monday, March 14, 2011

March 14, 2011

The op-ed pages of the two most consequential newspapers, The Washington Post and The New York Times, have sustained losses, the Post by the death of David Broder and the Times by the resignation of Frank Rich.
Rich provided insightful, common-sense liberalism, of which there never is enough. I have criticized Broder in recent years, and at times his centrism seemed to me to be undeclared conservatism, but moderate conservatives are even more an endangered species than liberals so, by whatever label, he will be missed.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

March 13, 2011

There has been a fair amount of comment to the effect that President Obama isn’t taking enough action in response to the uprising in Libya. What that should be isn’t always clear, but establishing a no-fly zone is one demand. The criticism probably is encouraged by the fact that Obama hasn’t been very active about anything, but part of the impetus is the usual armchair militarism.

There is one prominent dissenter, however. George Will, in a column on March 8, set out sixteen rhetorical questions, all suggesting that intervention would be as bad idea. As to the no-fly proposal, Will asked, reasonably, “Could intervention avoid ‘mission creep’? If grounding Gadhafi's aircraft is a humanitarian imperative, why isn't protecting his enemies from ground attacks?” More fundamentally, “The world would be better without Gadhafi. But is that a vital U.S. national interest? If it is, when did it become so?“ It’s unfortunate that the last question was not asked — and answered by Bush and Co. — before invading Iraq.
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