Saturday, January 26, 2008

It would be a cliché to call Peggy Noonan a concern troll

Although the diva of Wall Street Journal punditry is definitely concerned, and trolling in troubled waters.
Bill Clinton, with his trembly, red-faced rage, makes John McCain look young. His divisive and destructive daily comportment—this is a former president of the United States—is a civic embarrassment. It is also an education, and there is something heartening in this.

There are many serious and thoughtful liberals and Democrats who support Mr. Obama and John Edwards, and who are seeing Mr. Clinton in a new way and saying so. Here is William Greider in The Nation, the venerable left-liberal magazine. The Clintons are "high minded" on the surface but "smarmily duplicitous underneath, meanwhile jabbing hard at the groin area. They are a slippery pair and come as a package. The nation is at fair risk of getting them back in the White House for four years."

That, again, is from one of the premier liberal journals in the United States. It is exactly what conservatives have been saying for a decade. This may mark a certain coming together of the thoughtful on both sides. The Clintons, uniters at last.
But "concern troll" seems too shopworn a term to do justice to Noonan's sanctimonious hectoring of the Clintons. Leave it to Digby to nail it. She calls Noonan a Pecksniffian Twit. That pretty much says it all. She's also good on why people should lighten up and not get so worked up about the Democrats saying nasty thing about each other in the primaries.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reading between the lines in The New Yorker's story about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama

There's not much new in George Packer's article in this week's New Yorker about the contest between Hillary Clinton and Barrack Obama, except for a few little tidbits like the fact that old Clinton friend Greg Craig, who was Bill's defense attorney in the Senate impeachment trial, now is an Obama supporter. Rather, the article is another exposition of the standard mainstream media narrative that the Obama-Clinton contest pits vision against pragmatism, a big-picture visionary against a secretive control freak and micromanager. Again, not much new there.

Every good journalist knows the value of a telling detail in summing up an argument and packaging it so it will be remembered. Packer is no exception. He conjures up the usual cliché that Hillary is driven by the emotional damage of her childhood and youth, which left her controlling, manipulative and withholding -- a view heavily influenced by Carl Bernstein's book, "A Woman in Charge."
In the nineteen-nineties, Republicans, taking aim at an all-too-human Democratic President, liked to say “character matters”—a phrase that has been bitterly reprised by Democrats during the Bush years. If there’s a flaw in Hillary Clinton’s character which could keep her from becoming a successful President, or President at all, it is what Carl Bernstein, her best biographer, described to me as a tendency toward “subterfuge and eliding.” In the deep and sympathetic portrait “A Woman in Charge,” Bernstein’s recent biography of Clinton, a constant theme is her fear of humiliation; as the daughter of a harsh, often cruel father, she learned early to conceal any weakness and, ultimately, to protect her very humanity from exposure.
But that wasn't the end of the paragraph, which instead concluded with a kicker, the telling detail that embodied the "damaged Hillary" hypothesis. What was it? Some new revelation about her troubled marriage? Something about the fear of failure that supposedly drove her every waking moment? Something about the compromises she made in her Senate career to protect her very humanity from exposure? Well, no.
In the recent Las Vegas debate, when Clinton was asked to name a weakness, all she could come up with was her impatience to get things done.
Talk about a Catch-22 reading of the standard employer's trick question. I wonder what George Packer said the last time an interviewer asked him this question. Did he open up? Did he allow his humanity to show? And what about his editors at The New Yorker? When was the last time they gave an honest, revealing answer to a question like that?

The whole point of this kind of question is to test the applicant's social awareness, ability to read unwritten rules and conform to unspoken social conventions. And the social convention is to answer a question like that in terms of a "weakness" that's a safely trivial downside of your key strengths. For Obama to say he has a cluttered desk is a coded message that he's a big picture thinker. For Hillary to say she is impatient to get things done is meant to convey that she gets things done. Any answer other than that to this old chestnut just means you're a loose cannon. Ask any job coach.

Of course, character matters in presidential campaigns, but how about treating readers -- and voters -- like intelligent adults? Maybe then we wouldn't have to inflate meaningless details into contrived, artificial significance and could just settle for some honest political reporting.

TGIF Presidential Countdown: Just 361 days and finally our long national nightmare will be over

At noon on January 20, 2009, George W. Bush will leave office, and our long national nightmare will be over, or at least the country will be able to start waking up. And Kafkaesque nightmares like this might become a thing of the past. (Via)

FLORENCE, Ariz. — Thomas Warziniack was born in Minnesota and grew up in Georgia, but immigration authorities pronounced him an illegal immigrant from Russia.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has held Warziniack for weeks in an Arizona detention facility with the aim of deporting him to a country he's never seen. His jailers shrugged off Warziniack's claims that he was an American citizen, even though they could have retrieved his Minnesota birth certificate in minutes and even though a Colorado court had concluded that he was a U.S. citizen a year before it shipped him to Arizona.
Less than a year to go, and counting . . .

NOTE: This is a regular Friday feature, counting down the days left until the day when George Bush leaves office, which can't come too soon. Is there a Bush outrage that has you counting the days until it can't happen anymore? Leave a note in the Comments.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Wisconsin insurance commissioner suddenly has some very big, Ambac-size shoes to fill

When Wisconsin governor James Doyle appointed Sean Dilweg state insurance commissioner a year ago, I doubt he imagined his appointee would be called on to help save the U.S. financial system. If he had, I imagine he might have looked for someone with a little more more hardcore financial experience.

Don't get me wrong. Mr. Dilweg looks like a nice guy, and as a former English major myself, I'm always happy to see an English major play a significant role in public life, especially when his educational credentials are butressed by a Masters in Public Administration from the La Follette Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But it's not immediately clear what his resume of jobs in state government contributes to his ability to help keep bond insurer Ambac Financial Group Inc, the troubled Wisconsin-chartered insurance company he regulates, afloat. (Nor is it immediately clear why Ambac, which is based in New York, is chartered in Wisconsin in the first place, but I'm sure it's related to the informed regulatory oversight we here in the Midwest can provide to such a complex business.)

In a quick Google News search, it's hard to find much of anything about Mr. Dilweg prior to this week. He apparently kept a pretty low profile as insurance commissioner. But he's all over the news pages now, in stories about Ambac, which is one of two bond insurers -- the other is MBIA -- that have been hard hit by the downturn os the subprime mortgage market.

The NYT had an eye-opening lead story this morning about how the anticipated downgrade by the ratings agencies of the two insurers' ratings threatens the state and municipal bond markets, which they also insure, along with the big banks that hold many of these securities. In short, it threatens the stability of the whole financial system, and the article seems to suggest the crisis may have been behind the Fed's sudden, precipitous interest rate cut earlier in the week, which may have been intended to prop up stock prices long enough to complete the recapitalization of the troubled insurers.

Eric R. Dinallo, the New York insurance superintendent who regulates MBIA, is taking a lead role in meeting with Wall Street executives to arrange for a capital infusion for the two companies. But as the Times notes, Mr. Dilweg is also involved, because he regulates Ambac.
Sean Dilweg, the commissioner of insurance in Wisconsin, which regulates Ambac, sat in on the meeting but said he would be working with Ambac directly. Mr. Dilweg said he met separately on Tuesday with executives at Ambac, which is based in New York but chartered in Wisconsin.

“Eric is looking at the overall issue, but I am pretty confident that we will work through Ambac’s specific issues,” Mr. Dilweg said in a telephone interview. “They are a stable and well-capitalized company but they have some choices to make.”
That's what he told the Times yesterday, and he seemed equally optimistic today when he was interviewed by Reuters.
But the second-largest bond insurer in the United States is still well-capitalized, said Commissioner Sean Dilweg in an interview with Reuters.

To the extent that Ambac needs to raise capital to maintain its debt ratings, it should be able to, Dilweg said.

"I'm not concerned with capital coming in in the future here," Dilweg said. "They've been having some very positive discussions."
Reassuring words. Trouble is, they're coming from a state insurance commission that was as surprised as anyone that Ambac's insurance portfolio turned out to be as risky as it was. Are you reassured?

When the Realtors' chief economist mentions the Great Depression, you know these are strange days

The median price for an American single-family house fell nearly 2 percent in 2007. It was the first annual decline in the lifetime of many Americans, the first annual decline in at least four decades, in fact, possibly the first annual decline since . . . well, I'll let the chief economist of the National Association of Realtors say it.
The median price declined 1.8 percent to $217,800, the first annual decline since reliable records began in 1968. “It’s the first price decline in many, many years and possibly going back to the Great Depression,” said the group’s chief economist, Lawrence Yun.
When even the real estate cheerleaders are reduced to implying parallels with the Great Depression, you know these are strange days indeed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who would you rather have running The New York Times: Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. or Google?

A couple years ago, Business Week ran a lengthy cover story about the future of The New York Times at a time of weaker earnings, a changing media world, and the aftermath of the Jayson Blair scandal. The story, which ended on a note of guarded optimism, almost seems quaint today.
The New York Times, like all print publications, faces a quandary. A majority of the paper's readership now views the paper online, but the company still derives 90% of its revenues from newspapering. "The business model that seems to justify the expense of producing quality journalism is the one that isn't growing, and the one that is growing -- the Internet -- isn't producing enough revenue to produce journalism of the same quality," says John Battelle, a co-founder of Wired and other magazines and Web sites.

Today, Sulzberger faces an even bigger challenge than when he took charge of the Times in the mid-1990s. Can he find a way to rekindle growth while preserving the primacy of the Times's journalism? The answer will go a long way toward determining not only the fate of America's most important newspaper but also whether traditional, reporting-intensive journalism has a central place in the Digital Age.
And that was before things really started going to hell. Since then, the Times' stock has continued declining -- losing 70% of its value in the last five years. The Judy Miller scandal tarnished the paper's journalistic reputation (nobody died when Jayson Blair lied, to paraphrase a popular bumper sticker). The experiment with hiding the paper's columnists behind a paywall flopped, succeeding only in eroding the relevance and impact of the opinion section. And the appointment of neocon apparatchick Bill Kristol had not yet further dimmed what luster the Op-Ed page once had.

Still, even under the floundering leadership of "Young Arthur," as publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. is known to his family, The New York Times is a national resource. No other newspaper in the world devotes the financial resources to reporting that the Times does -- as much as $300 million per year. There's a lot of talk these days about new media, but new media don't come close to devoting resources on such a scale to reporting.

The muddle can't continue forever. Although the Sulzberger family has treated its control of the Times as a public trust far longer than any of the other great American journalistic families, if stock prices keep falling, their principles will be sorely tested. If the market cap drops below $2 billion, the stock will be put into play. The company will need a white knight to save it from the predators like Rupert Murdoch (who, in any case, recently acquired the paper's chief national competitor, The Wall Street Journal). Who would make sense as a purchaser? Jim Ellis asks, why not Google? (via)
The company that has the most to gain from buying the New York Times is Google. If it proffered a Murdoch-like, no-auction bid of $4 billion, wouldn't the Sulzberger family have to accept it? Every single class B shareholder would accept the offer. It's their only exit. It is also likely that Times employees and retirees would enthusiastically support the deal; it's their only exit as well. So it would all come down to whether the Sulzberger family (smaller in number and not as far-flung as the fractious Bancroft clan that owned Dow Jones) would accept the deal.

The choice for the family would be basically this: double your money or double down on "young Arthur," as the NYT's Chairman and CEO is sometimes called. In the back of their minds, the prospect of doubling down on "young Arthur" could only mean that the company's stock will continue its relentless decline. The prospect of doubling up with Google offers realized value, a global platform and thus a much clearer path to future growth. Everyone would be a lot richer than they are now. Assuming a cash/stock transaction, some might be a whole lot richer in the future.
Interesting idea. Of course, as Ellis notes, the Sulzberger family has no intention of selling. But until recently, neither did the Bancroft family that owned The Wall Street Journal. Things can change.

Certainly Google is far from perfect. But they have been spectacularly successful at running one of the most successful businesses of the information age, and more to the point, they understand the playing field on which the future of the Times will be determined. They should -- the playing field is in part their creation.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Midwinter Cinematheque withdrawal ends this weekend

Cinematheque-sm
Hardcore UW Cinematheque addicts tend go into a state of uncomfortable withdrawal during the winter semester break, as their favorite film venue shuts down for the duration and DVDs hardly fill the void. Fortunately, the spring (lovely word, that, isn't it?) season kicks off this Friday by showing a restored print of John Ford's "Stagecoach," part of a comprehensive Ford retrospective covering 40 years of the director's work. Saturday night they'll begin a series of weekly showings by the German-born, Austrian-raised director Michael Haneke. I can't wait.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Postal whimsey at the Goodman Pool

Postal Whimsey at the Goodman Pool
Somebody at the Goodman Pool has a sense of humor -- and is good with their hands. I drive past the pool on Olin Ave. on the way to work, but the other day was the first time I actually noticed their mailbox and the fact that what held it up was a miniature diving platform and board.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Looking for warm weather in all the wrong places

Looking for Warm Weather In All the Wrong Places
It may be great weather for the Packers in their conference championship game against the Giants later today (windchills of more than 20 degrees below zero are predicted), but it's awful weather for a cat. Indoors, the dryness makes his fur electric and sparky. Outdoors, the cold bites his nose, and he comes racing back into the house. So he sits in the window, looks at the sun and wonders why it isn't warmer.