When Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel fame comes out of the woodwork to play songs to vast crowds of people who hate you... well, Wall Street financiers, you should know you're on the wrong side of history.
President Obama should acknowledge publicly that China has a weak-renminbi policy, that this harms American manufacturing employment and this needs to change. He can be milquetoast otherwise, sounding sad that Chinese foot-dragging has led us to this and wishing it could all be worked out in a respectful manner. But he needs to imply that he favors action.
Congressional Democrats, on the other hand, have no reason to pull their punches. They should loudly point out that the Republicans are again siding with their rich friends who make money importing cheap goods from China, wealthy interests that have little in common with the American people.
China has domestic political incentives to let the renminbi gather strength (a stronger renminbi makes imports into China cheaper at a time when inflation is a tremendous concern.) The public long-term policy is that eventually the renminbi will float without manipulation. Making a stink is likely to help those in China who want this to happen more quickly. If Europe and Latin America and India get on board, all the better.
(I should mention that I get paid in renminbi and buy more imports than most people in China, so a better exchange rate for the renminbi is helpful to me, personally.)
Was Barack Obama a naive waif who came to Washington untested and unready, and then struggled to control his White House staff? That's the portrait Ron Suskind paints, and to a certain extent I imagine it's true. In fact, I imagine it's true of every president. There's just no training position for the presidency, and no one walks into the job fully prepared.
ALTER: I have a whole chapter in my book where I talked to all the former Clinton people who now work for Obama. I asked them all, compare Clinton and Obama.
ANCHOR: They said?
ALTER: They gave a sophisticated answer. They thought Clinton was more creative and his policymaking, but they prefer to a person Obama in a crisis, which was what they were in. He was decisive and making as many decisions in a week as Bill Clinton made in a year, and making the decisions crisply. The idea that somehow all the former Clinton officials working for Obama were longing for Bill Clinton because they had this inexperienced president who didn't know what he was doing is not what they were saying at the time.
Right. Like the last president, this one is plenty willing to make decisions. Unlike the last president, he likes to hear various points of view before making a decision. But if he calls you in for advice and then he takes someone else's advice, how are you going to feel? If President Obama then makes the wrong decision-- and his ask on the stimulus package was definitely too small-- what are you going to say about him?
That he got rolled due to inexperience, maybe? Ah, but that's kinda silly. The last administration to go thru a similar economic downturn was Franklin Roosevelt's. Not much hands-on experience just sitting around. Nor did he run on the platform that he'd be the right guy to have at the helm during a severe recession. Obama's goals are long-term and trend toward the moralist, which is quite at odds with Larry Summers' summation of the situation:
(T)he central irony of financial crises is that they’re caused by too much borrowing, too much confidence and too much spending and they’re solved by more confidence, more borrowing and more spending.”
That's how I see it and I just don't think President Obama is comfortable with that particular irony. Frankly, I think he chose to listen to the advice he thought would be good for America in the long run, ten and twenty years out. Like Drum and Karl Smith, I don't buy this notion that Obama got rolled. If he'd seen himself as the Infrastructure President, then we'd have the stimulus we need. He didn't, we don't.
It's not my first choice, but I'll take it. I have three major concerns about the US economy, two long-term and one short-term.
The short-term concern is this lingering recession. I'm disappointed that President Obama (D-Hyde Park) has made too little effort to explain why the situation is ripe for the Keynesian solution of the federal government spending loads of money right now. If you need to be convinced, just keep reading Paul Krugman columns until it makes sense. But you know what? No other major politician is confronting the Republicans on this issue, either. Why expect the president to go out on a limb until he has to? If you want him to make the case for short-term deficit spending, find a politician to challenge him from the left. Where's our Keynesian hero? If one appears, the President will start moving left.
But the President has made major strides in the two long-term issues that make me worry and they both involve a spending gap where the US spends a greater percentage of GNP than any similarly situated nation. The first is health insurance. It may be counterintuitive, but the fact is that developed economies which cover everyone find it easier to bring health care costs under control. The health care bill the President signed wasn't perfect, but it's likely to save 30,000 lives a year and begin chipping away at health insurance costs. The US can't stay competitive if we continue to spend 16% of our GDP on health care while other nations spend a third less.
My other major worry is the overcommitment of American armed forces. The US spends 42% of the world's military expenditures. That's 4.7% of GDP when most European nations and Japan and mainland China spend closer to 2.5%. The US overwhelms the world with soft power; no other nation has such solid first amendment industries (Hollywood and universities and ministries). Spending on military power led to relying on it to solve too many problems. It's just too easy to send in the troops and oh so difficult to call them home. But these engagements eat away at our soft power and are overwhleming the treasury.
Imagine my surprise to read that the budget cuts in the final deal are half domestic/half defense. I'll take that over half domestic/half revenues. And with the Bush tax cuts expiring at the end of 2012, we have a chance for fiscal sanity. What's happened here is that the Republicans have expensive consituency groups to care for. The defense industry and social security recipients and the wealthy all cost a lot of money per voter to satisfy. They chose to protect two of the three. The rich come across with campaign cash while seniors cast more votes. Defense industries just cost too much per vote. The Democrats' constituencies are less expensive; a little goes a long way with students and Medicaid recipients and food stamp folks.
This deal also puts off a rank unfairness that we still have to watch out for. The Republicans and far too many Democrats still want to cut Social Security and Medicare, which I'm not entirely opposed to. But the deals in the works-- like raising the retirement age again-- swindle future generations while protecting current recipients from this so-called "shared sacrifice". If seniors are going to vote Republican, they should look to them for protection. Democrats should look out for the age cohorts that vote Democratic. But this deal puts off that generational swindle, which is the best we can hope for in the current climate.
The President's team made a major blunder when it mis-calculated the size of this recession and asked for too small a stimulus. But, as often happens, they only had one shot at this and they screwed it up. It may cost him a second term. But on health care and this budget deal, the pundits are missing how much the President walked away with.
And now I'd like to say a few words about a topic close to my heart. Me.
Aye, it's been a lovely four months in Beijing. Soon, I'll venture back to Chicago for work meetings and then out to Kansas to see my Dad. Then I'm planning to return to this land of strange writing, tonal phonemes and scrumptious vittles. I'd like to stay long-term and my workplace would like to keep me here, so it's mostly a matter of getting a deal worked out and satisfying the Chinese government of my fitness for residency. There could be a hurdle too high to jump over, but I know which track lane I want to run-- which might be a poor metaphor for a man of my girth.
Should everything come together, this blog's title will make zero sense. After posting almost every day for the last six weeks, I'm going to take it easy while I negotiate these transitions.
My adult life, I've moved from Austin to Philly, back to Austin and then to Hyde Park. Each move gives me a chance to reinvent myself a bit. I wish I'd been able to reinvent myself into someone who dances & sings, but only so much is possible: sloughing off stuff I'm bored with and picking up new interests. This time, I get to choose a new name.
When I moved to Chicago, I wondered whether I was too old to keep moving from city to city every few years or whether I was too old to stop. I guess I'm about to find out.
(Photo of me at the 798 Arts District, taken by Jessica Bibbee.)
It's been a very busy week for me, what with a super event on Monday and an afternoon spent looking at apartments in addition to the usual stuff. But, I can always find time to rant about parking. David Biello reports:
City gurus estimate there are eight parking spots for every vehicle in the U.S. today... But according to the first nationwide count of parking spots, conducted by civil engineers from the University of California, Berkeley, last July, that might be a bit much, which is good news for the environment. It's more likely there are only three parking spaces for every car and truck in the U.S., or some 800 million spots to choose from.
Ah, only three. <sigh> That happens to correlate perfectly with the notion that people need three places for themselves-- one home, one workplace and one playspace. But do we really need three parking places for each car? Couldn't most of those spaces be eliminated with more mixed use planning, so that A uses a parking space during his worktime and B uses the same space during her playtime? Probably too much to ask that home parking spaces could actually be shared...
(I)t is eminently possible to eradicate guns from a society -- even in a society where nearly every single adult men is familiar with guns (during their military service.) And eliminating guns from a society is easier than eliminating crazy people.
I'm against eradicating guns from society and against the City of Chicago's ban on handguns. However, we have a functional first amendment and, simultaneously, a prohibition on yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. You'd think a functional second amendment could co-exist with restrictions that would ban a 22-yr-old (possible) schizophrenic from buying 9mm Glocks with 30-round magazines.
I snapped this photo of a neat-o baby stoller near the Drum & Bell Towers. The kid has a 360-degree view and gets to stand up in it. A toddler could do worse, don't you think? If the parents are smart enough to make their own roomy stroller, I bet they figure out a way to get the kid thru college. Just guessin'.
Jingshan Park is a tier two attraction for tourists, after the Forbidden City and Tian'anmen Square in Beijing and the Great Wall nearby. But I had a terrific time visiting Jingshan on a clear Autumn Sunday.
The older folks in pic-left are playing the accordion and singing patriotic songs from days gone by, but most visitors are attracted to the 45 meter-high man-made hill at Jingshan. Why would the 14th century Chinese build such a large hill in a city? Feng shui, really. It sits on the north side of the Forbidden City and protected the muckety-muck from chilly winter winds. (The hill was constructed from earth and shale removed to build the moat.)
On clear days, the views at the summit of the man-made hill are terrific in all directions. And there's a huge Buddha statue at the summit, too.
I don't take taxis in Beijing much. I can walk to work and I enjoy strolling around the city in decent weather. Plus,the subway gets me where I need to go, speeding along underneath the clogged streets. Beijing taxis are super cheap, too, but unless it's after the subways close down (around 11pm, sadly enough), I don't need them. But mostly it's just personal habit. The ten years I've been in Chicago, I think I took a taxi for just myself a total of one time.
I think I'd like Beijing cab drivers if I spoke their language. They have a reputation for honesty & feistiness, a beautiful combination in a person, if you ask me. The blog Sinoglot/Beijing Sounds records normal conversations for language learning and in one a taxi driver refers to the Chinese saying: "老乡见老乡,两眼泪汪汪" ("when you meet someone from the old village, you cry many tears"). But in today's rapidly urbanizing China, rural customs are going thru a transition phase.
You know the saying: you meet a fellow villager — you know why the tears flow freely? Because they’re bleeding you dry!
The taxi driver explains that the newcomer from the village expects the settled acquaintance to be helpful, but the settled urban dweller can only afford so much. Thus, we have this awkward situation where newcomers go to friends and expect a break, so the urban dweller lets him think he's getting a break while helping him in such a way to profit.
The whole conversation is worth a read, a document of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.