Saturday, August 07, 2004

Laura Bush as a Psychological Study...or a Liberal Mole?

What an interesting person Laura Bush is.

A lot of people are fascinated. She is a central figure in the egregious screed, "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," by Tony Kushner. As described in the NYTimes article ("The Dead and Dostoyevsky, in a War With Bush," August 4, 2004, by Randy Kennedy"), we see several things. Consider this passage from the NYTimes story:

It might not have swayed many swing voters: a playlet in which a man portrays Laura Bush, talking passionately about Dostoyevsky and moral relativity to the ghosts of Iraqi children, cursing occasionally and revealing at one point that she sometimes calls her husband "the Chimp." ("You know, those ears," the character of the first lady says, smiling impishly.)

But at a benefit performance Monday night at the American Airlines Theater, this extended scene by the playwright Tony Kushner served as the backdrop for a kind of joyous cultural pep rally for those who want to see Mr. Bush turned out of office.

The scene, from a planned longer work to be called "Only We Who Guard the Mystery Shall Be Unhappy," was also part of a continuing effort by the liberal activist online group to try to harness the arts more firmly to its political cause and to mend what the group sees as a rift between populist politics and popular culture....

...In the first scene, which has been published and read at other anti-Bush, antiwar events around the country, John Cameron Mitchell portrayed Mrs. Bush, and Patricia Clarkson an angel who is presiding over Mrs. Bush's reading to the children's ghosts.

But in the next scene Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Clarkson switched chairs, with Mr. Mitchell portraying Mr. Kushner himself as he speaks with a character who is supposed to be the "real" Laura Bush. Played by Ms. Clarkson, Mrs. Bush is angry at her portrayal in the preceding "skit" by the playwright. In an obvious reference to the evening itself, Mr. Kushner has the "real" Mrs. Bush criticize the use of art for low purposes like politics.

In the question-and-answer session, a man in the audience asked Mr. Kushner whether he had difficulty writing such a politically engaged work when he knew it would expound "ideas that this room certainly already believes."

Mr. Kushner said he did, but added that he believed the work was not just straightforward polemic and that it asked larger, more difficult philosophical questions about suffering and responsibility. He also explained that he simply found Mrs. Bush a compelling character. He said he was fascinated that she was "a librarian and a very big reader," but that she had decided to marry a man who had obviously inherited his family's "language-processing problem," a remark that drew huge laughs from the crowd.

He said he decided to write the scene especially after the first lady had mentioned in an interview that her favorite piece of fiction was the Grand Inquisitor scene in "The Brothers Karamazov," one of the more ambiguous in literature. (Mrs. Bush has said, however, that she does not consider it ambiguous but finds it to be about Christ and to be reassuring.)

Well. The reason this play address "larger, more difficult philosophical questions" is that the playwright also makes jokes about the President's locution. I guess a polemic would simply say, "I hate the President." But a play that treats large philosophical issues would apparently say, "I hate the President because he talks funny. I know all of you already hate him, too, or you wouldn't be here. Let's laugh."

Seems to me a more interesting point is made by Michael Bronski, in the Boston Pheonix. This is a much more sympathetic and nuanced, though still savage, treatment of the first lady. For example, Bronski elaborates Ms. Bush's view of the Grand Inquisitor in a much fairer, and more interesting, and to my mind more damaging way.

Laura Bush is an interesting character. The reality show she is acting in in the White House is the one thoughtful people might focus on.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Random Election Thoughts

1. I thought Kerry and co. did a good job when the donkeys convened. Now, hard to say that they did. David Broder seems to have got it right, first. Consider this excerpt from the end of the article, "Punting of First Down," Wapo, Aug 4.

Normally the challenger to an incumbent president has two main tasks to perform during convention week. The first is to present a fuller picture of himself, one that is more comfortable to the voter. The other is to lay down in strong terms the case why the man in office should be replaced.
Kerry and other speakers fixated on one brief shining moment in his pre-political career: his valiant service as a Navy officer in Vietnam. It became the all-purpose metaphor -- "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty." But it never really merged with the story of his later life, and the American people are plenty smart enough to remember that throughout the 1990s, Democrats insisted that Bill Clinton's avoidance of military service during Vietnam was no disqualification for his serving as commander in chief.
Left largely unanswered -- or only vaguely outlined -- was the question of what Kerry had done with his life in the decades since he came home from Vietnam, particularly in his 20 years of Senate service. President Bush immediately pounced on the omission, suggesting in his very first speech since Kerry's nomination that the senator has few "results" for which he can claim credit as a legislator. The charge is unfair, but Kerry left himself wide open to it.
As for indicting the incumbent administration, Kerry and other speakers soft-pedaled their criticism -- or couched it in cliched terms. And they left unanswered what might be the single biggest question on the minds of undecided voters: What exactly would Kerry do differently to bring the bloodshed in Iraq to an end and secure a stable democracy there? The answer, apparently, is to ask allies for more help, but that calls for a leap of faith. It is not a political strategy.
Iraq was the almost unmentionable subject in Boston, and voters may well have felt cheated.
What the Democrats did do was to challenge Bush directly on two of his assets -- his reputation as a strong leader and a man with strong values. Kerry said -- and others affirmed -- that he too is strong of character and strong of will. It is unusual, to say the least, to build a challenger's campaign on the incumbent's main strengths, but that is what the Kerry team has done.
It does not appear to have worked this past week, and now the news focus shifts to the Olympics, the Republican convention and the continuing threat of terrorism. It will be weeks before Kerry has another such opportunity.

2. If the Dems think that military service is key to serving, why didn't Bill Clinton just concede to Bob Dole in 1996? Charles Krauthamer ("Muffing the Bounce," Wapo, Aug 6) may have gone a bit over the top on this, but he probably gets it right.

No bounce for Kerry. The Democrats and their pollsters will tell you this is because the electorate has already made up its mind. But if that is the case, why are they campaigning? Why have a convention in the first place? In reality, at least 10 percent of the population is undecided, and John Kerry's convention appears to have gotten none of them.
The other explanation is stylistic. Kerry rushed his speech, stepping on his applause lines. Then there was the sweat on his brow and chin, not quite Nixonian lip sweat, but enough to distract.
Hardly. The explanation that respects the intelligence of the American people is that Kerry had nothing to say. Well, one thing: Vietnam. His entire speech, the entire convention, was a celebration of his military service. The salute. The band of brothers. The Swift boat metaphors. The attribution of everything -- from religious values to foreign policy wisdom -- to Kerry's five-month stint in Vietnam 35 years ago.
The problem is that the association of fitness for the presidency with military experience does not withstand five minutes of reflection. If that were the case, Abraham Lincoln would have failed as commander in chief in the Civil War, and Franklin Roosevelt would have failed in World War II. By that logic, Ulysses S. Grant should have been -- as Douglas MacArthur would have been -- a great president.
And, for that matter, Bob Dole. The most cynical moment of the four days was provided, naturally, by Bill Clinton when he implicitly reproached himself for having sat out the Vietnam War, a smug self-congratulatory way of attacking President Bush and Vice President Cheney for doing the same. It was sheer Clintonian shamelessness. After all, in the 1992 campaign, he adamantly denied that he dodged the draft. And according to what Clinton says now about the centrality of military service, the 1996 election should have logically and honorably gone to Dole, the Max Cleland of his time.
The whole claim is, of course, ex post facto disingenuousness. For all his fawning imitation of John F. Kennedy, Kerry missed the central irony: Who was it that sent Kerry and the others into the disastrous Vietnam War if not Kennedy (Navy and Marine Corps Medal), Lyndon Johnson (Silver Star) and an entire political establishment that had served in World War II and Korea?
Yes, Vietnam service gives Kerry a credential for high office. But beyond that, what is there? His biography, as presented to the world, was this: He was born, went to Vietnam and is now running for president. Just about his entire adult life is a 30-year void. The hagiographic film at the convention omitted his first entry into politics (his failed run for Congress in 1972, an attempt to cash in immediately on his Vietnam/antiwar service). There was no mention of the fact that his first elected office was as Michael Dukakis's lieutenant governor. And practically nothing was said about his 20 years of deeply unmemorable service in the Senate.

Heres the problem, if Kerry really wants to emphasize Vietnam:

Let's get out of Iraq. Fire up the Hueys.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004


St. Petersburg, Fla. laptop maker Jabil Circuit Inc. was awarded $8.9 million in a lawsuit it had filed against a supplier of special hinge grease that destroyed the plastic in the Jabil computers. Reell Precision Manufacturing Corp. of St. Paul, Minn. supplied the grease to lubricate the hinges it manufactured for Jabil, which had a contract to make AN700 laptops for Epson Corp. When the machines left Jabil's plants they were fine, but engineers found they developed cracks around the hinges, often before they'd even been used by consumers. Jabil replaced the plastic in thousands of machines, only to have the cracks mysteriously reappear. Although another Reell client, KeyTronic Corp. of Spokane, Wash. had had the same experience with the killer grease two years earlier, Reell never told Jabil, and it took engineers there 18 months to figure out the cause of the problem. (St. Petersburg Times 29 Jul 98)


Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Change in Header

Yes, I took off the "Sed Victa Catoni" bit in the title.

There is only so much space in the header.

And, I figured the picture that took its place is MUCH more interesting. Obscure to hoi polloi, beloved to the cognescenti.

The body language of the twosome is interesting indeed, for those of us who know them.

Is There Hope for Russia?

Things seem to be picking up for Russia, heart of the former Soviet Union and the world’s only third-world superpower. This year, using a purchasing power parity basis, Russian GDP stands at $1.287 trillion, or 11th largest in the world. Their real growth rate in 2003 was 7.3%. The growth rate has averaged 6.5% per year over the past five years, after the 1998 crisis.

Since 2000, demand by consumers and investors have been consistently strong. Real fixed capital investments have gained more than 10% per year, on average, over the last four years. Real personal and family incomes have seen increases that average more than 12%.
Financially, Russia has also moved a long way toward putting its house in order. Its foreign debt has declined from 90% of GDP during the 1998 crisis to around 28%. (The “foreign debt as percent of GDP” figure for the U.S. is 23%, and climbing fast). (data source)

Much of this boomlet is due to increased oil prices, of course. Recently oil has been trading at more than $40/barrel, with the end of July seeing prices of nearly $45. Russia has significant exports, making it the world’s second largest exporter of crude (after the Saudis). These oil export earnings have meant that Russia has increased its foreign reserves from only $12 billion to some $80 billion. Given how soft the ruble has been (often, it has been a non-traded currency), these foreign reserves go a long way toward establishing Russia as a legitimate global economy.

So….what is the problem? There are three problems: oil prices, credible commitments to guarantee private investments, and the survival of democratic institutions.

Oil prices: Petroleum giant Yukos, and its embattled former CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, both face legal problems for tax evasion and fraud. Yukos pumps about a fifth of Russian oil exports, or 1.7 million barrels per day. This is a short-term problem, because it drives up oil prices in the near term, but few believe the effect will last more than a month or two. Higher oil prices are more of a problem for the U.S. than for Russia, of course, since increased prices and the extremely low short-run elasticity of demand for petroleum products mean Russia will lose little in terms of revenue, and may well gain in terms of profits.

Credible Commitments: The “crime” of Khodorkovsky, and Yukos, was non-payment of taxes. But no Russian companies, or citizens, pay taxes. The rates are confiscatory, and the authorities openly wink when they make tax collection demands. What Khodorkovsky really did was openly support, both personally and financially, the political opposition to Putin’s increasingly repressive government.

Don’t get me wrong: Khodorkovsky has engaged in practices that most of us would call corrupt, and his initial seizing of oil assets marked him as one of Russia’s notorious “Oligarchs.” The Oligarchs are a type of Robber Baron but without the warm and fuzzy side displayed by John D. Rockefeller in establishing Standard Oil.

The best way to describe why this is a problem is to quote from David Storobin’s July 21, 2004 post on The Eurasian Politician, which is the best and most succinct summary I’ve seen:

In 2000, Vladimir Putin came to power and offered a sort of amnesty program where the Oligarchs were forgiven their "sins" if they ended their corrupt practices and stopped meddling in political affairs. The compromise made a lot of sense to those familiar with Russia. Communism corrupted the nation beyond what is imaginable in the West. One could not do anything – buy a refrigerator, take a test in school, go on vacation – without paying a bribe. Naturally, to be able to pay bribes, one had to have income other than your regular monthly pay – which was not even enough to buy food, much less pay for housing, clothes and other expenses. It was simply impossible to prosecute the whole nation and it was clearly better to break with the past, so long as people did not commit unlawful acts in the future.

Yet, almost immediately, Putin went after the Oligarchs who threatened him politically. His enforcement of law was very selective, punishing only those he was afraid of.
First came Vladimir Gusinsky, the owner of a major media conglomerate Media-Most, who opposed Putin during the 2000 elections. Putin simply took over Media-Most and Gusinsky was forced to flee Russia.

Next came Boris Berezovsky, who actually helped Putin in 2000, but was seen as a king-maker, and thus, too powerful for the Russian President. He was followed by a number of less high-profile businessmen, including Platon Lebedev – Khodorkovsky's right-hand man. Finally, Khodorkovsky was arrested and his company assets frozen.
Meanwhile, the Russian government took over all major TV channels and almost all independent media of any significance, leaving only a few minor stations and newspapers, many of which support Putin anyway.

In an attempt to gain even more power, the President went after the weak opposition parties and by 2003, Yabloko, SPS and the Fatherland found themselves outside the Duma. Fatherland was a moderate party, while Yabloko and SPS were American-style parties that supported capitalism and human rights. Part of Putin's strategy in sidelining these parties was to intimidate and destroy anyone – including Khodorkovsky – who helps the opposition.

As Russia's wealthiest man with a fortune of $8 billion, Khodorkovsky had the means to politically harm Putin today and replace him in the future, even hinting his (Khodorkovsky's) desire to be elected President some day. That could not be tolerated by the current Russian President – a career KGB officer. What Vladimir Putin wanted was to become such a strong President that nobody would be able to stand up to him and he'll be able to push through the program that he thinks will save Russia.

From the start, Putin understood that private ownership of major business and the profits that result from it, major media and opposition can all limit his power. By offering a "compromise" in 2000, he lulled businessmen into hibernation, while "picking them off" one by one, and taking over their money and media ownerships.

By 2003, Russia had become a "managed democracy" where elections were held, but the media was controlled by the government, opposition was threatened, and the only people who could challenge the President – the wealthy elites – were on the run outside the country or in jails.

When Khodorkovsky was arrested, he was a model of a businessman. More than anyone else, he had taken the "Putin Compromise" to heart and ended his corrupt practices. Yukos subscribed to American-style accounting – the most intense and accurate way to calculate corporate activities; he kept only one set of accounting records; his employees were well paid and he gave a tremendous amount of money to charity.

I’ll come back to Storobin in a minute, but the point is now clearly made: The only way to attract foreign investment is to make a credible commitment not to expropriate assets. This points up the classic time consistency problem in economics: “Time consistency is a phenomenon that occurs when it is not in the best interest of a player to carry out a threat or promise that was initially designed to influence the other player’s actions.” (Economics, Stiglitz-Walsh) In our case here, the government promises investors it won’t steal their assets, or extort payments that reduce the value of those assets.

At the time the promises are made, the government means these promises. It really wants to attract outside investment, and everyone is better off if the deal can be struck: I promise not to steal your stuff, and you buy a lot of stuff and set it up in my country in a way that it can’t be cheaply or easily removed.

But once the “stuff” (factories, complex systems of wiring and pipes, large machines) is in place, the temptation to steal becomes overwhelming. Worse, in a democracy with no history of rule of property law, a President cannot bind future leaders, and his promise is worthless.

The result can be a complete market failure: investments that would be very profitable, and would make money for all concerned, don’t happen because the promises of the government are not credible.

Russia has invested nearly 15 years in trying to make the “we won’t steal your stuff” promise credible. Now, one could argue that all the stuff was stolen to begin with, by the Oligarchs. But it is important that the government be seen not to be the most dangerous source of theft, because the government has the tanks and the troops. Private investors might be willing to take their chances on fighting back private theft, if the government backs them up. But if Putin’s government is the one taking assets, foreign investment will dry up completely.

Survival of Democratic Institutions: David Storobin continues, in his July 21, 2004 post.

[Khodorkovsky’s] arrest signaled to the world that Russia is turning autocratic. After all, why didn't Putin go after less reformed businessmen? Why Khodorkovsky, the most honest major businessman in Russia today? And why was it done right before the elections?

Immediately $8 billion were taken out of Russia in the last quarter of 2003, compared to $100 million in the first quarter. This also reduced the power of the business class in favor of Putin, who swept the elections in March 2004 with a spectacular victory over sub-par opposition.

It would be wrong to say that Russia is no longer a democracy. It does hold elections with opposition. But what Putin's Russia lacks is equality under the law, total and complete individual and property rights, as well as free and independent media and opposition that is not harassed and assaulted by the government.

In the wake of the 2004 elections and Khodorkovsky's arrest, the Putin Administration is omnipotent. There is nobody to stand up to Putin -- every other businessman and opposition member is threatened to wind up in the same jail as Khodorkovsky. If Russia's wealthiest and most reformed businessman may be imprisoned and have his property confiscated (which will almost definitely happen in the near future), why not anyone else? Why not everyone else?

This is the most interesting problem, because it is uniquely Russian. It has become common to cluck and shake one’s head at the problem Russia has had creating democratic institutions. The failure is sometimes explained as “cultural”: The Russians simply don’t want democracy, because that is not their nature. They choose the strong man over freedom, order and security over the divisions democracies create.

In light of this claim, one might begin to suspect that “Russia is becoming an autocracy” might actually be what the Russian people want. But an interesting, and (I think) very important article in the New Republic (May 31, “Velvet Glove: Why Russians Want Democracy”) calls this claim very much into question. Since the piece is open only to subscribers, let me paraphrase some parts.

First, the democratic impulse is extremely strong in Russia, particularly among urban youth and elites of all ages. They enjoy, and have come to expect, democracy, and they are angry that Putin’s government is choking off democratic institutions.

Second, poll results indicate that Russians are far more concerned about human rights, financial security, and peace then the anti-democratic shibboleths, order and stability. These were unstructured choices, mind you: “Here are 24 things you might care about; rank them.”
Gessen issues a scathing indictment of the economic authorities, from the U.S. and other nations, who arrogantly and stupidly miscalculated the effects of economic reforms on fledgling political institutions. Derogatory names, such as dermokratiya (crapocracy would be one way to translate this) for the system of government, and demshiza (demoschizoids) for those who advocated democracy, permeated the Putin campaign. In short, according to Gessen, the West was complicit in creating a set of circumstances where Putin’s cronies ran not just against Yeltsin, but against the very institutions of democracy that Yeltsin had tried crudely to put in place.

So, those who think Russians don’t want democracy confuse cause and effect. To the extent that Putin was able to associate the economic disasters and disintermediation of the late 1990’s with “dermokratiya”, he was able to tar those particular advocates of democracy as ridiculous failures. But democracy itself is still the core value (again, according to poll results) of nearly ¾ of all Russian citizens. Putin’s actions are not subtle, but they are not what Russian’s want.
Gessen finishes with a call to arms. “If foreign observers respond to the ongoing destruction of Russia’s democratic institutions by reassuring themselves that Russians didn’t want democracy in the first place, they will be betraying the Russian people’s valiant, if unsuccessful, years-long struggle finally to live in a democracy.”

Monday, August 02, 2004

Hopping Down the Bunny Trail

Hard to imagine the bunny suit having legs. Little footies, with rubber pads, maybe, but not legs.
In case you missed it, what happened was that John Kerry visited NASA for a town hall meeting, and did a tour of some of the facilities and equipment. Everyone who does this has to wear a clean suit. Clean suits look funny. They are sometimes called "bunny suits."

Well, things happened, just like some of those frat parties I attended in the 70's. Pictures were taken, and dignity was lost.

The Dems aren't handling it well.

Mary Beth Cahill (Kerry's head keeper) actually accused NASA, and (presumably) the Repubs of leaking these pictures. She claimed that there was a promise that there would be no pictures. But, if you look at the pictures, it is clear that these were posed. Team Kerry may even have asked for the photos to be distributed.

Mr. Kerry should perhaps get some training in camera recognition, maybe study silhouettes so he can tell the different types (still photo, video, movie, etc) , and then see if he can pass the crucial "no camera at all" test that Ms. Cahill has in mind.

People seem worried that the bunny suit will evoke Dukakis, and the bobblehead in a tank film. That is certainly what the Repubs are going for. But Bush wore a bunny suit also. Still, Kerry could look bad, by comparison, I suppose. But the comparison doesn't work very well. What about Bush in a flight suit?

Rush Limbaugh claimed that Kerry looked like a sperm cell from Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex." He may have a point.

But the real problem is the possible violation of the Hatch Act. It is not clear that the Hatch Act was violated by Kerry's town hall meeting at NASA, and that is the problem. How in the world are you supposed to campaign, if you can't tell what the law is?

Al Gore's "No controlling legal authority" bit, on using White House phones to call out for fundraising was widely mocked, but he was right. Our campaign finance system is nuts. It needs to be taken apart, and then blown up. Reinstate the First Amendment. The current system? No bunny understands it.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Convention Bounce, or Flop?

"Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my convention bounce...." (apologies to Billy Wilder)

Two polls in the last two days suggest that Kerry may be in unique, and uncomfortable, position of going for his convention bounce and just breaking off the diving board.

Now, it's important to remember that what we are talking about here is the "convention bounce." There is no evidence that polls this early, before the second convention even takes place, tell us ANYTHING about the election, which is of course what matters.

Having said that....holy cow! What we have is two polls: Newsweek says Kerry gets a four point bump (though it could be more), and CNN/USA-T/Gallup say Kerry lost a point, but more importantly Bush gained (they have it Bush 50%, Kerry 46%, compared to Kerry 47% and Bush 46% two weeks ago). (Though, as the comments to this post point out, it is important to remember the resident statistician for "Car Talk," Marge Inovera)

One way to read that is that the convention bump was much weaker than normal. The other way to look at it is that Bush is just showing more strength, and it happens to be at the time of the Dem convention, so it all gets mixed up. (See Bloomberg story for more background)

Here is what MSNBC/Newsweek had to say:

Kerry’s four-point “bounce” is the smallest in the history of the NEWSWEEK poll. There are several factors that may have contributed to the limited surge, including the timing of the poll. On Thursday, Kerry had just a two-point lead over Bush (47 percent to 45 percent), suggesting that his Friday night speech had a significant impact. Additionally, Kerry’s decision to announce his vice-presidential choice of John Edwards three weeks before the convention may have blunted the gathering’s impact. And limited coverage by the three major networks also may have hurt Kerry.

My own diagnosis: The lack of TV coverage mattered. The Dems sang a lot of Kum-ba-ya, and talked about how the Repubs were "negative." But you can only get away with that if you are the incumbent. If you are the challenger, you have to attack. Kerry is so sure he is better that he is running as if he were the front-runner. Remember who said this? "This election is not about ideology. It is about competence." If Dukakis was right, the "competence" vote lost him all but a paltry 11 states. The utter self-confidence of the Dems that people will flock to their non-message is surprising, and may kill them again, just like 1988.

In the headliner speech at the convention, Kerry's chowdah had too much butter and not enough clams. He failed to accomplish his key task: project strength in foreign policy. We all know that Kerry will improve U.S. relations with other nations. The question is whether Kerry can be trusted to DEFY other nations if U.S. interests demanded it. The answer, in some key voters' minds, seems to be "no."