Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Palinator meets Katie

Here's an excerpt from the actual CBS interview with Katie Couric in response to a question about using the $700 million bailout to help middle-class families. Note that it's repeated almost verbatim in the above SNL version:
That's why I say I, like every American I'm speaking with, were ill about this position that we have been put in where it is the taxpayers looking to bail out. But ultimately, what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health-care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping the—it's got to be all about job creation, too, shoring up our economy and putting it back on the right track. So health-care reform and reducing taxes and reining in spending has got to accompany tax reductions and tax relief for Americans. And trade, we've got to see trade as opportunity, not as a competitive, scary thing. But one in five jobs being created in the trade sector today, we've got to look at that as more opportunity. All those things under the umbrella of job creation. This bailout is a part of that.
Okay, now I get it...

Monday, September 22, 2008

Into the tank = $2.5 billion bonus at Lehman

This is a stunning development, as reported by David Prosser of the London Independent:

Up to 10,000 staff at the New York office of the bankrupt investment bank Lehman Brothers will share a bonus pool set aside for them that is worth $2.5bn (£1.4bn), Barclays Bank, which is buying the business, confirmed last night.

The revelation sparked fury among the workers' former colleagues, Lehman's 5,000 staff based in London, who currently have no idea how long they will go on receiving even their basic salaries, let alone any bonus payments. It also prompted a renewed backlash over the compensation culture in global finance, with critics claiming that many bankers receive pay and rewards that bore no relation to the job they had done.

A spokesman for Barclays said the $2.5bn bonus pool in New York had been set aside before Lehman Brothers filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States a week ago. Barclays has agreed that the fund should continue to be ring-fenced now it has taken control of Lehman's US business, a deal agreed by American bankruptcy courts over the weekend.

Barclays is paying $1.75bn for the US operation of Lehman and is keen to retain its best staff. It said it had made no promises to individual staff members about how much they will receive but that the bonus fund would be paid out. In addition to the $2.5bn cash pool, Barclays is also in negotiations with about 30 executives it considers to be Lehman's best assets and plans to offer them contracts worth tens of millions of dollars. British employees of Lehman described the bonus payments as a "scandal" as they waited anxiously yesterday to see whether a deal could be struck with buyers circling the bank's European operations.

Many of Lehman's UK staff are particularly angry about the US payouts because it has emerged that in the days running up to the bankruptcy, some $8bn in cash was transferred out of the account of the bank's European business into accounts at the New York head office.

[With a H/T to Digby at Hullabaloo.]

Standing small

In the most recent survey (September 16-19) on Bush's approval ratings, The American Research Group reports:

Overall, 19% of Americans say that they approve of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president, 76% disapprove, and 5% are undecided.

Among Republicans (33% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 48% approve of the way Bush is handling his job and 46% disapprove. Among Democrats (40% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 3% approve and 95% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job. Among independents (27% of adults registered to vote in the survey), 8% approve and 87% disapprove of the way Bush is handling his job as president.

Overall, 17% of Americans say that they approve of the way George W. Bush is handling the economy, 78% disapprove, and 5% are undecided. Among registered voters, 18% approve and 78% disapprove of the way Bush is handling the economy.


Overall, 68% of Americans say they believe that the national economy is in a recession, 28% say they do not believe the economy is in a recession, and 4% are undecided.

With only 8% of independents approving, and Republicans getting the blame for the current crisis by a 2-1 ratio, this can only be bad news for John McCain and Sarah the Impalin.

[With a H/T to Paul Campos at Lawyers, Guns and Money, who notes that Bush's approval rating is "lower than Nixon's the week he resigned."]

Saturday, September 20, 2008

You pays your $700 billion bailout, you takes your pick...

Version #1 - An excerpt from an article [.pdf] by John McCain in the September/October 2008 issue of Contingencies, a journal for actuaries:
Opening up the health insurance market to more vigorous nationwide competition, as we have done over the last decade in banking, would provide more choices of innovative products less burdened by the worst excesses of state-based regulation. [Emphasis added.]
From an interview in the Wall Street Journal (March 2008):
As far as a need for additional regulations are concerned, I think that depends on the legislative agenda and what the Congress does to some degree, but I am a fundamentally a deregulator. I'd like to see a lot of the unnecessary government regulations eliminated, not just a moratorium.
Version #2 - After his recent epiphany, the Wall Street Journal (September 17th) describes McCain's latest position:

"Under my reforms, the American people will be protected by comprehensive regulations that will apply the rules and enforce them to the full," Sen. McCain said in Florida Tuesday. "There will be constant access to the books and accounts of our banks and other financial institutions. By law, it will reduce the debt and risk that any bank can take on. And above all, I promise reforms to prevent the kind of wild speculation that can put our markets at risk, and has already inflicted such enormous damage across our economy."

The sentiment is a far cry from Sen. McCain's antiregulation record. On the stump, he didn't explain how he would distinguish legitimate investment from "wild speculation" or exactly what steps he would take to eliminate the latter.

His campaign announced a new TV ad with the senator saying: "I'll meet this financial crisis head on. Reform Wall Street. New rules for fairness and honesty. I won't tolerate a system that puts you and your family at risk."

Groucho Marx said it best: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others."

McCain's latest about-face presents yet another variation on the perennial questions of U.S. politics:
  1. Will it play in Peoria? And, related to that,
  2. Is anyone outside the netroots really paying attention to this stuff?
[H/T to dday at Hullabaloo for the Contingencies link.]

Saturday, September 06, 2008

In case you missed it...

Fortunately these shameless performances didn't go completely unnoticed.

BTW, Wassila is hardly the "second largest city in Alaska," as Karl Rove claims. It's roughly one-third to one-quarter the size of Fairbanks (#2) and Juneau (#3). Depending on whose numbers you accept, Wassila is somewhere between 4th and 8th on the list. Question: can a town of 7,025 to 9,236 souls really be described as a "city?"

Monday, September 01, 2008

Escape to (and from) New York

A few weeks ago I traveled from Oregon to New York for the third time in the last year. This was my longest visit — a full two weeks including a brief excursion to Buffalo and Rochester for a family reunion. In Manhattan, we stayed with five friends from Geneva, Switzerland — two of whom had never been to the city before and spoke no English whatsoever. So I had the chance to practice my French and serve as an informal tour guide — an enjoyable duty, to be sure. Nearly four decades after moving away from the city, it's still a huge treat to go back.

The deterioration of New York's infrastructure has been abundantly recorded and condemned (most recently by the Times' Tom Friedman, whom I hesitate to mention in any context due to his disastrous misjudgments on other issues). So I'll confine myself to an anecdote that invites an extended comment on the state of our national transportation network.

On August 11th, we and our Swiss friends were scheduled to fly to Buffalo from JFK on separate flights. Severe thunderstorms developed that morning, as forecast, and dumped heavy rain on the NY region. At LaGuardia airport, for example, nickel-sized hail fell and winds reached 60 mph. There were tornado warnings farther out on Long Island.

Not surprisingly, a number of flights were canceled (including our friends' flight to Buffalo) or postponed. We were scheduled to leave later from JFK via JetBlue, but the flight was rescheduled three or four times. For reasons far too annoying and complicated to recount, we (like our friends) finally rented a car at the airport and drove the 450 miles to Buffalo.

The airport delays were inevitable, of course, given the fierce weather conditions. No blame there. Refugees from canceled flights roamed through JFK searching for alternatives, overwhelming the lines filled with people (like us) trying to board postponed departures. People were in tears and, at times, it looked like scuffles were about to erupt. The airlines did little, it seemed, to respond to these predictable frustrations.

In the midst of all the chaos, it occurred to me that there must be far better ways to transport large numbers of people. Many of the canceled flights on the boards were for short and medium distances: places like Boston, Washington, Richmond, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Albany and, of course, Buffalo — our destination.

And of course there is a better way: trains. In Japan, I traveled on the high-speed shinkansen system from Kyoto to Tokyo at 125 mph. Trains on a few routes that are unimpeded by Japan's typically mountainous terrain can reach 188 mph. Some 375,000 people travel on the shinkansen every day. The trains are quiet, comfortable, beautifully engineered and run on time almost without exception. A proposed maglev (magnetic levitation) version has, in tests, reached speeds of 361 mph. The shinkansen system has an impeccable safety record.

A few years ago, I also rode the French TGV (train à grande vitesse, or "train of great speed") system on the Lausanne-Paris-Geneva routes at speeds up to 200 mph. On the flat farmlands southeast of Paris, the TGV passed cars on the adjacent freeway like they were hardly moving at all. The TGV trains are even faster than the shinkansen. In 2001, a TGV traversed France from Calais to Marseille, a distance of 663 miles, in just 3 1/2 hours.

For short and medium distances, these speeds are highly competitive with air travel. Most train stations are in the centers of cities, avoiding long and often aggravating trips to and from airports. In a standard TGV, my trip to Buffalo would've only required about 2 1/2 hours.

High-speed trains are far less vulnerable to weather delays than airplanes and automobile traffic. Trains can run on electricity rather than aviation fuel, whose price has increased by 62.5% over the last year. Amtrak's engines, many of which are still diesel-powered, use only 2/3 as many BTU's per mile as cars, buses and airplanes. While the federal government subsidizes Amtrak at the rate of $40 per passenger each year (for a total of $1.4 billion in 2006), "highways are subsidized at a rate of $500–$700 per automobile."

In a rational universe, the U.S. would've invested in sytems like the shinkansen and TGV decades ago instead of defunding and neglecting Amtrak, the last vestige of a once-proud passenger rail system. The U.S. is now 31st in per capita rail miles per year, far behind other industrial and industrializing nations. Outside the northeast corridor, private automobiles account for 99.9% of all intercity passenger miles. Incredibly, cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, Tulsa, Nashville, Des Moines and Boise have no passenger rail service at all.

Not surprisingly, this year's enormous increases in the cost of oil have raised demand for rail service. Still, there is little evidence of the kind of strategic planning that produced the shinkansen, the TGV or the Transrapid maglev system that currently operates, with great efficiency, in Shanghai. Short-term thinking — the bane of the U.S. economy and political system — rules, as usual, in D.C.

[PHOTO by the author.]