Sunday, March 30, 2008

Memories of war

I am sorry, but this I just don’t get.

”I remember landing under sniper fire. There was supposed to be some kind of greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.”

Turns out there was a greeting ceremony. With a little Bosnian girl bearing flowers. So the story was altered a bit.

”I was told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac, but that there was this eight-year-old girl and I said, ‘Well, I, I can’t. I can’t rush by her. I’ve got to at least greet her. So I greeted her. I took her stuff and I left. Now that’s my memory of it.”

But then the videotape emerged, showing Hillary Clinton and Chelsea greeting the U.S. officials, stopping for photos, then moving on.

In politics, as Michael Kinsley once noted, a gaff is when a politician tells the truth. When they tell a—well, a non-truth—they misspoke. And so it was here according to campaign aids. For the candidate herself, it was a mistake.

"I made a mistake. I have a different memory."

But the purpose of the story was to impress upon listeners the candidate’s experience and bona fides to be commander-in-chief, to convey a sense that she has faced the fires of war. If the story was not true, a better explanation would have been to tell us of the experience that she was thinking about. After all, running from a plane across a tarmac under sniper fire—with one’s daughter no less—does not appear to be something that one would forget. So either she had that experience—but confused the circumstances—or she never had the experience and recalled the event from whole cloth.

This matters. After all we are in the midst of an historical period when chief executives are granted wide latitude to go to war or not. George Bush wore his flight suit for the media when he landed on the carrier Abraham Lincoln—with the banner Mission Accomplished draped as the backdrop—because he intended to convey a sense of competence to lead and seriousness of purpose. Hillary Clinton’s story of a Leader Under Fire is designed to accomplish a similar, visceral purpose.

Fair enough. Unless it is not true.

I for one do not particularly care if Hillary Clinton was under fire in Bosnia. Unless she was never under fire. Anywhere. If she was under fire, then she misspoke. If she was never under fire, she lied. And that is what matters. After all, we have three candidates from which we will chose our next president, and at the end of the day issues of judgment, honesty and integrity matter.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Palpable fear

The question is this: When we look back on this moment, will it mark the beginning of the end of this economic cycle, the market bottom of a regular, if turbulent, economic downturn. After all, the S&P500 is 20% off its highs of last fall. The yield curve, once inverted and predicting a downturn, has a strong positive slope. And fear is palpable in the markets, and in the public square. All of these can be signs of a market bottom.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps this is just the end of the beginning. With the collapse of Bear Stearns and the plummeting dollar, is what we are seeing in the flight from the dollar into hard assets just the first stage in the final reckoning, for the United States and for the world. Could this be the moment when the dollar’s slide marks more than the balancing of accounts as envisioned at Bretton Woods a half-century ago? Could this instead accelerate the movement away from the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and the basis of economic transactions far beyond our shores. Is this the moment that Eurocentrism is to be put to the test, and the question raised at Versailles and put to rest at Nuremburg will once again be on the table. Is Europe really able to lead the world?

Despite the rhetoric, this is not yet the Asian century. The threat of a collapse in the American economy has given the lie to the pretense of a multi-polar world. For all of their assets, their reserves and their sovereign wealth funds, the Asian economies still live on the margin of the American economy. Nothing has made this evident than the plight of the dollar, with the emerging fears that a 3% downturn in America could become a 20% downturn in Taiwan, and the realization that China, with 500 million people living in poverty, remains a mercantilist nation decades away from being ready to turn her attention to the plight of her neighbors.

This week, all of the questions remain unanswered. Ben Bernanke has bet the house on stanching the tide of the sub-prime crisis. Tuesday, the Fed will drop the Fed Funds target rate by 75 or 100 basis points, a move that will further exacerbate the dollar's decline. The Fed has placed its bet, and would rather see the dollar go down than the banking system. This is coming in the wake of the busiest week on record for the Fed. This past Tuesday, the Fed announced a $200 billion program to take illiquid mortgage-backed securities back from the banks, and then on Friday arranged for JPMorgan—the Whitest of the old White Shoe investment houses—to acquire Bear Stearns, a firm whose roots are from a distinctly different tradition. But the Fed did more than arrange this marriage, it provided the dowry as well, agreeing to share with JP the downside risk.

Some will balk at the notion of a bailout, but the stockholders and employees of Bear Stearns would challenge that description of the deal. After all, at a price of $2 per share, the employees at Bear—half of whom stand to lose their jobs—saw the value of their 35% stake in the company fall by 99% from $8 billion to around $80 million, with much of that decline coming since the closing bell on Friday. Instead, this should lead to calls for reregulation of the financial sector, which was largely deregulated in 1999.

Ben Bernanke has given the lie to the notion that deregulation in the banking sector is a balanced policy, and it is hard to imagine who in his shoes would act differently. Faced with the looming collapse of the financial sector, the problem of moral hazard—the risk that failing to let those who made bad bets suffer will contribute to future bad behavior—will not prevent intervention. In the moment, when the world is collapsing around you, there is just too much at stake to dwell on ethical and market theory. But don’t blame Bernanke, after all, we went through Continental Illinois, Long-Term Capital and the Savings & Loan mess ad seriatum. Same story. Same result. More or less.

Thus, the question of whether we sit at the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning is not an academic one. Our country—which has been living beyond its means for decades—may actually have finally bitten off more that we can chew. With a $3 trillion war and a $2 trillion financial crisis both in full swing, and both requiring massive infusions of foreign capital, the fix this time might involve some pain. Maybe it is time to set some new rules, for the private sector and for the public sector as well.

But at the end of the day, the rest of the world has a stake in our survival—at least for the moment—because we are kind of like a big Wall Street investment bank that has done some stupid things. Many people may want us to pay the price for our conduct, but they don't want to get hurt in the process. They don't want to play a game of chicken when their own future is at stake.

So you tell me, is this the time to buy, or what?

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Geraldine's moment of lucidity

What was your moment of epiphany, Geraldine, when you realized that society had bent over backward for the Black Man? What was the moment when the resentment of one caught looking upward at the glass ceiling boils over into a rage of the privileges offered to those who were offered instead the legacy of the lynching tree?

It is no fault of Hillary’s that the candidate that has emerged as her antagonist is a Black Man. Surely, Geraldine Ferraro believed that she was signing up for the Great Campaign that would pit Hillary against the best Man the system might put forward. And certainly she is not alone in having failed to truly grasp the significance of the historical moment. But in her lashing out, her words betrayed her. To suggest that being Black in American politics is an advantage is curious. Point if you will to the ranks of African American Senators or Governors, or those elected to majority White districts whose residents looked beyond color to elect the man or woman.

Our system remains rife with the symbols of centuries of the abject oppression of Black Men. Our criminal justice system educates more Black Men, by some counts, than our great universities. Affirmative action, once viewed as a critical tool to redress past and current disadvantages, lies but a shell of its former self, its demise at once a symbol of America’s commitment to egalitarian values and denial of the cruelty and ugliness of its past. But meanwhile, Title Nine lives on. Ironically, it is OK to offer White Woman a free ride for their prowess at lacrosse but not to the descendents of the African slave trade.

I would have thought that the intellectual prowess of the icons of the Women’s Movement would have shown greater insight. To condemn Obama’s rise as one more manifestation of the Old Boy’s Network rising up to defend the status quo against the rise of a woman warrior fails the tests of intellectual honesty. Why not instead move the conversation forward rather than backward. Why not question why America’s fixation with racial identification fails to accept Obama as bi-racial. Why not—if we are to be true to our commitment to our children who view the world with far greater nuance and acceptance of difference—let this moment deepen and animate our understanding of identity.

If Hillary loses the nomination battle, the scars will be bitter and deep for her supporters, whose belief in her is firm and deep. But Ferraro has fallen prey to her own demons. Barack Obama is not Jesse Jackson. Barack Obama’s base was not Black until Bill Clinton made it so. Before Iowa, a majority of Black voters were for Clinton. But the world of identity politics is part of Democracy, not a creature of this race. And Hillary’s strategy has been built on that reality. Clinton chief strategist Mark Penn early on articulated their calculus being to win the 48% of the electorate that is Democratic, and pull up to 20% of Republican women—and when push comes to shove, that will be the case that they will make to the super-delegates.

That is the case they will make, and the case that they are making now. Plus, they will argue, America will never elect a Black Man to be president. Despite whatever Geraldine might think.