Monthly Archives: October 2006

A measure of gloom

Thomas Carlyle’s supposedly called economics the “dismal science” He was, in fact, referring to

The controversies on Malthus


“Population Principle”, “Preventative Check” and so forth, with which the public ear has been deafened for a long while, are indeed sufficiently mournful. Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next, is all that of the preventative check and the denial of the preventative check.

A precise measure of how far mournfulness and dreariness could go can be seen in yesterday’s (Monday 23 October) editorial column in The Wall Street Journal. The measure is two columns wide and a broadsheet long.

Malcolm finds the WSJ has the fascination of the rabbit for the stoat. How can anyone be so bloody-mindedly and consistently soul-less?

The main leader was entitled The Cut-My-Salary Standard. It was a response to a judgement in New York State, last week, in which New York state Justice Charles E. Ramos ordered Dick Grasso to repay part of his “generous compensation package” (the WSJ‘s description).

No, no … wait, don’t switch off. This one’s worth the effort, and Malcolm (still in the — former — Land of the Braves) appreciates that British readers may not be up-to-speed on the topic.

Until September 2003, Grasso — though, you might like to read “Grosso” — was the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Stock Exchange. In other words, he ran the “Big Board”, and to his own great benefit.

Malcolm has an aside here: he remembers, a quarter-of-a-century ago, painted in letters two-feet-high, across the back of the Odeon, Muswell Hill:


Well, Grasso was so greedy, even Wall Street brokers noticed. There was a rebellion, and Grasso was going to be eased out. He negotiated a “compensation package” of $140M, and has since been claiming a further $40M is due to him. Pause for thought: that’s winning a triple-rollover Lottery half-a-dozen times, or the combined GDP of the smallest two nations in the UN. He negotiated this settlement with the heads of the pension funds which he was regulating. As the WSJ might, and does say: go figure. The state Attorney for New York, Elliot Spitzer (watch this space) took an interest.

Now for another of those delicious ironies Malcolm so savours: in Grasso’s time, the NYSE was [gulp … swallow … intake of breath] a “non-profit institution”. So Grasso claimed this precluded Spitzer pursuing the NYSE.

But, says Malcolm, let’s stick with the WSJ.

So, yesterday’s first editorial in the WSJ was a defence of Brasso — sorry again, Grasso — and an attack on Judge Ramos:

Whether Mr Grasso was paid a dollar or $187.5 million, the decision was the NYSE board’s … this is an unhelpful judicial intrusion in private pay decisions.

and also on Attorney General Spitzer because:

… the judiciary now feels entitled to set executive pay standards.


Mr Spitzer left out of his suit the influential Democrat … whose support … he might have to run … in the Democratic primary for Governor.

Oh, we got there at last: Spitzer’s true failing (as the WSJ sees it) is that, next week, he is likely to become the next Governor of New York.

Now, let’s flick past the WSJ‘s second leader (an attack on the California Proposition 87, to impose a 6% levy on oil extraction to pay for Green measures). And so we arrive at:

Ohio’s Bad Proposition
… Issue 2 that would amend the state constitution to raise the minimum hourly wage to $6.85 from $5.15

Malcolm hopes that was understood: it is presently legal in Ohio to pay about £2.76 an hour. The WSJ believes raising that to about £3.68 would:

… lift low-wage earners out of poverty, … reduce employment propects, particularly for younger, less-experienced and less-skilled workers … something a state like Ohio can hardly afford.

Good grief, says Malcolm, you need “experience” and “skill” to be worth $6.85 an hour? And, should workers settle for “poverty” as the price of a job, any job? And, at $6.85 an hour you only need to work non-stop, day-and-night for 312 years to approximate Grasso’s pay-day.

‘Dreary, stolid, dismal, without hope for this world or the next’: that’s about the length of the Wall Street Journal and its view of the world.

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Overly optimistic?

The Democrats have been getting quite antsy in recent days, as the commentators report. The national organisation has (apparently) been hoovering up any loose funds, tapping its usual contributors, and borrowing wherever possible. This is in part to counter the usual disparity of a flood of money from Big Biz to the Republicans, but it is also to finance extended campaigns in new territory — those constituencies where (up till now) the Republican incumbent was seen as impregnable.

This may not entirely be a good thing.

First, the Dems run the risk of spreading the jam too thinly. Instead of focusing on the fifteen to twenty winnable House seats (and that critical handful of Senate seats), the Dems — according to the commentators, at least — feel that at many as forty Republican seats may be vulnerable. Thank you, Mr Foley.

Second, as always, there may be unexpected long-term consequences of a Republican implosion. Today, Thursday, for example, the San Francisco Chronicle front-pages (below the fold) an article by its Washington Bureau reporter, Zachery Coile. This discusses the problem Chris Shays is having in defending his long-term seat as a Republican Congressman for a Connecticut district. Shays is a liberal Republican, with an adequate record on social policy: he is not a diehard backwoodsman. In Connecticut, the Republicans have an honourable tradition of liberalism (and the old Dems used to be horrendous sons of Tammany). He is one of the educated Republicans on Iraq: and therein lies his weakness. His constituency would be with him on the usual Republican topic of taxation (this is the New York stockbroker belt, after all). But, as always, the Iraq issue is festering, and Shays is wriggling. What happens if Shays and his like are eliminated? Their seats are not long-term holds for Democrats, and the wind will change. Are there moderate Republicans eventually to take their places, or will the trend to the Right continue? For all his partiality and partisanship, Malcolm believes there is a need for moderates in the legions of the night.

And one last thing: Malcolm has been taken by the negativism of the national Republican campaign. Karl Rove (and Malcolm assumes that was the fine Italian hand) went negative from the off. The last series of The West Wing was centred on a fictitious campaign between Santos and Vinnick, both decent, positive and honourable men. By all accounts, the audience appreciated this (as did the critics). The reality is not like that: there is a lot of down-and-dirty gutter politicking on the air-waves, and most of it is coming from the Republican side.

But, as the total death toll of US service-personnel in Vietnam nears the psychologically-critical mass of those who died on 9/11, where else is there for the Republicans to go?

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Walkin‘ with my baby …

Malcolm has been larupping his way down the West Coast these last few days, Seattle to Portland by Amtrak, then driving from Portland to San Francisco. As a result, he has been having difficulty making time (and a good web-portal contact) for his bloggery.

Doubtless, his thoughts derived from this experience will be conveyed to an expectant planet in due course.

In brief, though, these are his passing observations:

  1. The profound difference between town and country about the forthcoming Mid-Term elections. All the froth and frazzle in the Big City newspapers do not seem to have percolated through to the boondocks. Hence, Malcolm feels, the discrepancy between some of the expectations at national level.
  2. The sheer size of the task imposed on individual voters. Malcolm took the opportunity to look over a lady’s shoulder as she was completing her voting book — yes, book. The range and sophistication of the options open to her were astounding. Out in California, it is not just the candidates at national, state, and county level to be chosen. There is a plethora of “propositions” to be considered, including some with major environmental impact. The pressures on voters are heavy, and the various lobbies (investing heavily in TV advertising) do not make them any easier.
  3. Candidates seem to be keen to disguise their party allegiances. Many simply use a red/blue code on their posters.
  4. It does not feel like a red-hot (or true-blue) election yet.
  5. It was disconcerting to read (in the San Francisco Daily yesterday) the mock- horoscope column (can there be a real thing?) that:

Aries: Right now someone is re-writing your wikipedia entry.

Malcolm was surprised to discover that, yes, he has a wikipedia entry. And it’s partly accurate. He wonders which of his little elves has had too much spare time on his little hands.

On the other hand, Malcolm had a heart-warming half-hour. After forty years of trying, he finally made it to the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. Poetry upstairs, and dissident politiics in the basement. Lovely, just lovely.

Next weekend to Pasadena, then back to the East Coast, and perhaps more opportunity for hard-core blogging.

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For Heaven’s sake, why?

Can this be true?

  1. Six of the former Soviet Republics (Kazakhstan, Kyrgyztan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan) have created a nuclear-free zone in Central Asia.
  2. The United States, Britain and France refused to be represented at the signing ceremony, which was held in Almaty, the Kazakh capital.
  3. The reason for the three western nuclear powers not attending was a 1992 treaty between Russia and four of the five signatories. The treaty allowed nukes to be deployed in the region.

Now, this area was the centre for Soviet nuclear experiments. The research centre at Semipalatinsk, in Kazakhstan was used (between 1949 and 1989) for some 500 nuclear detonations. In other words, about 2o,ooo Hiroshimas. The Kazakh President ( Nursultan Nazarbayev) might know what he is talking about: he reckoned that one and a half million Kazakhs have suffered health problems as a result of those tests, while huge areas have been sterilised for agricultural use.

So, who, asks Malcolm, is the main beneficiary of the 1992 Treaty? It sure ain’t Russia.

Surprise, surprise! According to the May issue of Foreign Affairs, Manas in Kyrgyztan is one of the six most important US bases around the world. Its location gives the US a foothold near the Caspian oil reserves, as well as being adjacent to the Russian and Chinese borders. In an extreme scenario, were the US to strike at Iran, the Manas base would be critical.

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Why it matters

When the world was young, we all had fires in our bellies: we knew who the enemy was, and why it all mattered. There were books, for Malcolm notably little blue ones published by Victor Gollancz to keep us straight. The books had definitive titles like Guilty Men and Why Not Trust the Tories. Their authors were people like Michael Foot and Aneurin Bevan.

Tories hated them, because of the truths they contained. Indeed, Tories held these little monographs, along with the Army Bureau of Current Affairs, responsible for the 1945 Election.

Malcolm keeps those little books on his shelves, even though the years have faded the blue covers, and foxed the war-emergency paper on which they were printed.

Just when we are relapsing into our comfortable bourgeois lifestyles, before our plasma TVs, a reminder comes through of what drove us in the first place, why we felt there were battles to be won, dragons to be slain, and why we sang along with Joan about seeing Joe Hill last night.

Last Friday, 6th October, Paul Krugman’s op-ed column in The New York Times sent out such a signal. And this message has as much relevance in the UK as to its original audience in the US. Particularly so when, behind the plastic P.R. grin of Cameron hides an unsmiling Redwood-Vulcan, unreconstructed voodoo economics, and unlimited privatisation. [Perhaps it is relevant that Malcolm’s rhetoric is presently pontificating from seven miles high, on a flight to Seattle.]

Paul Krugman started by noting the “new record” of the Dow. At this point Brits might need to be reminded that the Dow is based on the New York Stock Exchange’s valuation of just 30 blue-chip companies. Krugman observed that the reason for this record was not because the US economy had seen “exceptional” performance in recent years:

The Dow is doing well largely because American employers are waging a successful war against wages … after-tax corporate profits have more than doubled, because workers’ productivity ism up, but their wages aren’t – and because companies have dealt with rising health insurance premiums by denying insurance to ever more workers.

To re-read that in the UK context, substitute:

  1. corporate success in exporting profits,
  2. using EU legislation to diddle UK regulations, and – of course –
  3. rewriting pension commitments.

Krugman’s illustrates this with Wal-Mart, a company which:

already has a well-deserved reputation for paying low-wages and offering few benefits … last year, an internal Wal-Mart memo conceded that 46 percent of its workers’ children were either on Medicaid or lacked health insurance. Nonetheless, the memo expressed concern that wages and benefits were rising, in part, “because we pay an associate more in salary and benefits as his or her tenure increases”.

The solution:

  • have 40% (up from 20%) part-time workers,
  • cap wages, and
  • making life (literally) uncomfortable for older employees: “managers have suddenly barred older employees with back or leg problems from sitting on stools” (that, in the article, originally in quotes, and “according to workers”).

Krugman describes this as

… a brutal strategy. Once upon a time a company that treated that treated its employees this badly would have made itself a prime-target for union organizers. But Wal-Mart doesn’t have to worry about that, because it knows in these days the people who are supposed to enforce labor laws are on the side of the employers, not the workers.

This is because the Republican hegemony has neutered one of the last monuments of the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act:

… political appointees are seeking to remove whatever protection for workers’ rights the labor relations law still provides.

The latest attack on employee rights is a declaration that anyone giving (even occasional) direction to other workers (for example, by co-ordinating rosters) is a supervisor, and has no right to be unionised. The National Labor Relations Board, with Democrats opposed, made this decision on nurses, but the implications are obvious. Malcolm notes that the New York Times saw this as sufficiently significant to return to the point in an editorial on Saturday.

Such a decision is as momentous as was, say, the Taff Vale Judgement; and it will have to be corrected if unionism is to survive in the American work-place. Otherwise the Unions are reduced to a pressure group defending the minimum wage for the lowest tier of workers.

Malcolm hopes that the message will not be lost “back home”. The right to organise in Britain increasingly is one that is observed only in the public sector. Private sector employers are demolished the achievement of generations of employees in gaining welfare and pension rights. Worse still, the right-wing media denounce continuing these rights in the public sector as “greed” and “privilege”.

So Malcolm’s devout wish is that:

Where working folk defend their rights,
That’s where you’ll find Joe Hill.

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On digestion:

Anyone, like Malcolm, who remembers the incomparable Theodore H. White will recognise the style of Tom Moran in today’s New Jersey Star-Ledger:

US Sen. Robert Menendez slid into the corner booth at his favorite diner in Union City, and reached for his coffee.
His eyes were a bit puffy from lack of sleep. The man looked like he needed a jolt.
With five weeks to go, the incumbent Democrat is slightly behind in most recent polls against a raw upstart, state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.

Malcolm got that while he, also, was in a New Jersey diner, drinking his coffee, and indulging in a cholesterol-heavy breakfast. And he knew he was getting value for money, the characteristics of good journalism — a story with information and opinion.

Moran does a great job in depicting the grit in the sandwich, the wasps in the marmalade:

Chris Lyon, a political hit man who was last seen fleeing New Hampshire after the attorney general there deemed his tricks too sleazy for the Granite State.
It seems Lyon was spreading rumors that the wife of a gubernatorial candidate in New Hampshire was a member of a cult that worshipped orgasms. That is not a joke.

Lyon, it seems, is now working for the Republican challenger, Kean, and has:

… become pen pals with Robert Janiszewski, the former Hudson County executive who is now in prison on corruption charges.
Yes, Janiszewski is a liar with a grudge against Menendez. But Kean needs dirt, and he’s not real fussy about the source.

Moran’s punch-line is worth the build-up:

Is Menendez corrupt? This is New Jersey and you can lose a lot of money betting on the integrity of any politician.

(Malcolm read that, and pointed it out to a Rhode-Islander: the response was, in effect and polite language, that RI claims precedence on any relative corruption index).

The significance of all this, apart from being a stylish column which warmed Malcolm’s vitals, is that Menendez could be the Democrat’s stumbling block. As things stand, the Dems stand a good change of taking both Houses of Congress (thank you, Mr Foley!), needing fifteen gains in the House and five in the Senate. If Menendez goes down, that screws up the arithmetic.

Meanwhile, the Op-Ed page of today’s New York Times deserves Brownie points: anyone in search of some real ginger should reach for Maureen Dowd. Here’s her intro:

Tom Lehrer said that political satire was rendered obsolete when Henry Kissinger won a Nobel Peace Prize for prolonging the Vietnam War.
But even the inventive Lehrer could never have imagined that Dr Strangelove would get a second chance to contribute to misleading the public about a military catastrophe in a misunderstood land — a do-over in scarring the American psyche and reputation in profound ways.

Dowd’s theses are that, first:

  • Kissinger deliberately extended the Vietnam war up to the 1972 Election, “so that if any bad results [of a peace plan] follow they will be too late to affect the election.”

And that’s quoting Bob Haldeman [gulp, swallow]. She then ties this into Bob Woodward’s new book:

“State of Denial”, the sequel to “Bush is a Genius”:

  • The second thesis is that Dubya has a Freudian thing about his father, and turned to Rumsfeld and Kissinger to overcome this demon:

As Mr Woodward notes, part of Rummy’s allure for W. was the fact that Poppy Bush considered him an arrogant, Machiavellian sort who could get you in deep doo-doo.

The real Tabasco. The NYT make Dowd subscription only, and sadly but rightly so, she’s 24-carat. And she’s alongside Thomas L Friedman’s column:

It is so important that the Republicans lose [in November], because if the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice team can get away with the grotesque incompetence they hav exhibited in Iraq — a war that was not preordained to fail, but was never given a proper chance to succeed — it makes this country look like a banana republic.

So Malcolm had a lovely brekkie at the Milburn Diner. Every one of his prejudices was burnished by marvellous prosesmiths. More! More! he cries.

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Where’s Alice, when we need her?

The Mark Foley affair has been well-and-truly aired, both sides of the Atlantic (and, at the moment, Malcolm is the western side). Yesterday, Monday, the WSJ‘s David Rogers was summing up the weekend’s developments. In the sixteenth of nineteen paragraphs we got this:

Republican leaders issued a joint statement Saturday describing Mr. Foley’s actions as an “obscene breach of trust” and saying his resignation “must be followed by the full weight of the criminal justice system”.

Monday’s first leader was a lengthy discussion of the successes and otherwise of the 109th Congress. Just two paragraphs (of eleven) identified the achievements: they amount to two Supreme Court Justices, and “financing the war”:

Toss in bankruptcy and class-action reform, and some free-trade agreements. That’s about it for the good news.

Then comes the grief:

… the list of flops is extensive, starting with making the tax cuts permanent, repealing the estate tax and immigration reform. … Social Security reform was never going to be easy … the most puzzling abdication was … healthcare.

A Brit could easily read this as the Tebbit-Leigh-Daily Mail shopping list. The difference is that in the UK these are the aspirations of the barking Right: in Washington, the Right had all the levers of power and still failed to pull them. Hence, the lamentation of the WSJ. But, as always, there are excupations for failure: the WSJ lists them as “the troubles in Iraq” (nudge, nudge, wink, wink), Hurricane Katrina and “ethical troubles” which “created a leadership vacuum”. This seems awfully familiar to anyone who lived through the dying days of the last Tory regnum: except them it was called, more concisely, sleeze and drift. Why does Malcolm instinctively sense that a Cameron régime, so far without any inconvenient stated-principles or policies has all the makings of the recipe as before?

However, says Malcolm, let’s move on.

One of the definitions of chutzpah is the guy who murdered both his parents, then threw himself on the mercy of the Court because he was an orphan. Today’s Wall Street Journal has another editorial which comes close to having that much brass.

The WSJ manages to disdain Foley for “showing a more than friendly interest in underage boys”, but substantially to exculpate Speaker Hastert (who, since he may have known of Foley’s infamy for up to a year, but did nothing, is now properly the main target in the cross-hairs). After all, (and this one is a loo-loo):

… in today’s politically correct culture, it’s easy to understand how senior Republicans might well have decided they had no grounds to doubt Mr. Foley because he was gay and a little too friendly in emails. Some of those liberals now shouting the loudest for Mr. Hastert’s head are the same voices who tell us that the larger society must be tolerant of private lifestyle choices, and certainly must never leap to conclusions about gay men and young boys.

As the WSJ must know, and if it doesn’t that’s because it is too noble to read the gutter-press, Foley went somewhere way beyond all of that. And Malcolm cannot believe that, however liberal the viewpoint, one might miss the abuse of power, not the mere difference in age, in Foley’s behaviour.

Yet, to the WSJ, the fault lies with us liberals, because a quarter of a century ago, a Democrat was only censured for similar behaviour to Foley’s. So that’s all right then.

John Junor, of the once-all-powerful Sunday Express, would have known the right expression (and, sadly, it is now a cliché and its originator forgotten): “Pass the sick bag, Alice”.

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