January 27, 2009

Stimulus Package, or Stimulus Interruptus?

After the American Century

Politics is the art of the possible, and a good politician can parlay one success into widened possibilities. Surely the desire to widen his consensus is what has Obama going to visit the Republicans, seeking their support for the $825 billion stimulus package. The Republicans, having learned nothing much from the failure of the Bush approach to the economy, want more tax cuts, while the Democrats point out that if you don't have a job, a tax cut is useless. The Obama plan does include tax cuts of $275 billion, so that is part of the package, but the majority of the money would be spent on projects. Since a staggering 75,000 layoffs were announced yesterday alone, the need for direct government spending, priming the pump, seems obvious, though not to Republicans, evidently. Most economists agree on this.

But where is the 800 billion going to be spent? The particular projects the Democrats support are in line with Obama's call for a greener society with a comprehensive Internet that reaches all parts of the United States. In effect, he wants to create the equivalent of a Rural Electrification program to link up all parts of the US with cyberspace. This idea has real merit, because studies have shown that better communications reduces the need for as much physical movement, increasing energy intensity. The obvious example would be the shipment of documents as email attachments rather than as special delivery or FED-EX packages. A comprehensive information system will improve productivity and put the entire nation into contact with cyberspace.

Other spending would improve the electrical transmission system, which has not been growing much at all. In fact, deregulation slowed down the building on transmission lines, for reasons that would require a long Blog - actually that required about 3,000 words in chapter five of my new book. But leaving aside the mistakes of the past, the present need is to replace old equipment and expand capacity, because the connections are simply not robust enough.

The Democratic plan does have some pork in it, however, and perhaps Obama can use the Republican complaints to cut out some of that fat. But one man's useless pork is someone else's bacon. Or, in this case, condom. For some of the stimulus plan was originally intended to go to family planning, which included purchase of large numbers of condoms. I call that recontaining the stimulus. Obama has apparently agreed to drop the condoms. (Sarah Palin and her oldest daughter could only agree). After all, a baby boom would stimulate the economy both immediately and in the long run.

Now that the condoms are off, as it were, let us hope the Republicans get more excited. Without their support, we might have a filibuster, or stimulus interruptus.

January 25, 2009

The Honeymoon

After the American Century

New presidents have a honeymoon with the public that lasts a few months in most cases. Obama certainly is having a good honeymoon, with an approval rating of 73%, with only 14% disapproving. Another way to look at this is to recall that Bush's rating fell to around 25%, with some fluctuations. So there is one quarter of the public that supported Bush no matter what he did, and presumably this same group does not like Obama much. He has probably achieved the highest rating possible in the wake of the Republican debacle.

Furthermore, the public is not equally enamoured of Congress, which therefore is in a weak position to oppose his agenda. The chance to achieve real change exists, but the opportunity will not outlast the spring - at least if history is any guide. Were these normal times, Obama could move immediately on creating a new medical system. Instead, he has to use this precious time to fix the Bush economy, and one can only hope that some innovative programs are part of the stimulus package.

Look on the right column of this Blog, and each day you can see precisely how much of Obama's first hundred days remains. That is roughly the honeymoon's length, though the term 100 days comes from Roosevelt's New Deal. FDR accomplished an incredible amount in 1933, in good part because the Depression had already lasted for more than three years, and Congress felt a great urgency to repond. This suggests that, paradoxically, Obama may benefit, in the short term,. if the economy remains weak for a few more months, forcing Congress to act.

January 23, 2009

Obama: The Change is Real

After the American Century

I must admit that I wondered if the inauguration of Obama would make a visible mark on daily life. But landing in Boston yesterday and talking to people, the random encounters of an ordinary day, strongly suggest that Americans really do sense a major change. At least in New England, George Bush was experienced as a burden that has dropped away, even a nightmare from which they now have awakened.

President Obama's first acts underline the sense of change. His staff, should they leave the White House before he does, will be prohibited from lobbying so long as Obama remains president. This is a much higher ethical standard than before.

Obama has also insisted that government be more open, and that the federal officials should obey the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act. That is, they should give out information in all cases unless there is a clear and definite reason not to. Not incidentally. this may reveal some less than noble activities of the Bush Administration. But as time goes on, this openness will become a constant pressure on Obama's appointees as well.

Most significantly, Obama has ordered that the Guantanamo Prison be closed and its inmates either released or placed in American prisons where they will have the protection of the Constitution. He is returning the nation to the rule of law, including a repudiation of any form of torture - which the Bush Administration pursued both in Cuba and through other nations outside the United States.

Finally, Obama has set an example by freezing the salaries of those on his staff who make more than $100,000. Counterpointing this gesture and making its symbolism all the more necessary, it came out today that literally days before Merrill Lynch was purchased by Bank of America, the virtually bankrupt Merrill Lynch gave selected executives huge bonuses - several billion dollars in bonuses. With one hand they were begging for and getting a Federal bailout and with the other they were lining their own pockets. Quite possibly this was not a crime, legally, but ethically it stinks. That was the end of the Bush era, the wage freeze is the ethical beginning of an Obama era that stands for fair play, the rule of law, the abolition of torture, and the end of cozy relations between lobbying and governing.

Not bad for just two days work.

January 12, 2009

Americans Are Reading More

After the American Century

A new Census study revealed that more Americans are reading fiction and poetry than they were in 2002, the first time that number has gone up in decades. Slightly more than half of all adults read a literary work last year, though unfortunately the study did not differentiate between those who read just a single short story and those who read for several hours every day.

Men still read considerably less than women, but even they were reading a bit more. Given the competition with TV, film, computing, and the vast leisure industry, any gain is worth celebrating. As an author, I have worried that this might be the last generation that really reads books.

But the celebrating should be muted. The Association of American Publishers reported sales down more than 3% for 2008, wiping out a corresponding gain from 2007. If people are reading more, they may be borrowing books from libraries or friends rather than buying them. Compared to the huge losses in many industries, the bankruptcies, the foreclosures, and the rising unemployment rate, however, a 3% fall seems like nothing at all.

E-books still are a tiny segment of the market, less than 1%, though Amazon has made an effort to develop this area, selling its own special reader, The Kindle. Waiting lists are long for that device, however Meanwhile, many classic texts are available on-line for free, and to the extent that people go to sites like Bartleby and get their literature there, they will not be counted.

Overall, publishing is doing better than the music industry, which has seen sales of CDs decline drastically, by 45% since 2000. On-line sales have increased, but not as rapidly, so there is shortfall that is hurting the big music companies. Overall, the book publishers seem to be in a more stable situation. Thus it turns out my decision not to seek stardom in rock star back in the 1960s has finally been vindicated.

January 06, 2009

Are There Any Good Investments Left?

After the American Century

In 2008 no matter where you lived, chances are you lost money. Houses lost value, stock markets fell most places by a third or more, and if you were unlucky enough to hold many British pounds or Swedish kroner then you lost an extra 20% compared to everyone else.

Perhaps the natural thing to do in 2009 is to put any of the money that is left in a savings bank and wait for the economy to stabilize. But most assets are not liquid. For example, few are eager to covert their homes into cash, as they are worth less now than a year ago, and they have to live somewhere. Likewise, people who have money tied up in pensions typically have to keep putting money in and they cannot take it out until they retire. In other words, most feel they have few options, other than holding on to their shrinking pension and their deflating house and hope for better economic weather. Many people I know are playing the lottery, just a couple of tickets, here and there. hoping to hit it big. They lose maybe $20 or $30 a month that way.

But the options are not all bad. For years I had trouble getting skilled workers to the house to put new tiles in the bathroom or make repairs, because there was so much other work to be had. When the economy cools off, these guys may actually show up, as they have promised to do several times over the last two years. This is a good investment, because I get to enjoy it, and the house keeps its value.

By a similar logic, people should buy art in troubled times. In part this is to help artists, but also I realized some years ago that by the time you purchase a good reproduction of a famous work of art and have it suitably framed, the cost is almost always more than $100. Yet after a year or two, I find myself tired of most such prints, and so replace it and find myself out another $100. Eventually, you have a closet full of nicely framed, somewhat faded copies of famous paintings. Worthless clutter that may easily have cost $500.

Instead, spend a bit more for a lithograph or painting that is authentic. I bought a lithograph on an impulse last week, for less than $200 (framed, too). It's better than lottery tickets, that usually lose all their allure in a couple of days. OK, the litthograph is not that large, but I once met the artist, so it feels a bit personal, and he has regular exhibitions. It is interesting to look at, and I am not likely to get tired of it, at least not soon. Also, there is a chance that it will still be worth something years from now. I am not saying go and buy art as an investment, because that is hardly a sure thing. But buy art rather than posters, and you get to enjoy it., and you will have more closet space. After a couple years, an art dealer may trade you for somethingh you are tired of, for something else.

There is a small hidden agenda in these two suggestions. If we all used a bit of money on home repairs and on art, it would help the local economy,. Why give the money to some charlatans who claim they know which stocks are going to rise in Asia or Eastern Europe or New York? Maybe you can frame stock certificates and put them on the wall, but will you really enjoy that?

For us small fry without fortunes, there are still good investments, things right in front of us, things we can enjoy for years. And I don't mean lottery tickets.

Precision Bombing? Nonsense

After the American Century

Once again, official spokesmen are chanting a technological hymn. The words have been much the same for more than half a century. A serious, well-groomed person wearing nice clothing, who seems like a good middle-class person, tells us that the military must defend its civilian population. But not to worry, s/he continues, because with the fabulous new accurate weapons being used, the bombing is precise. Sometimes they say "surgically precise."

This is nonsense. The religion of accuracy was preached in Vietnam and again in every war since then, and in every case many more civilians die than enemy soldiers. In fact, the twentieth century was a disaster for civilians in warfare. During World War I civilians accounted for one out of every seven deaths. But then weapons got far more powerful (and accurate of course), and in World War II civilians accounted for two out of every three deaths - 67%. With each subsequent conflict the proportion rises further. In Iraq it appears that more than 90% of the dead are civilians.

I certainly hope that the weapons do not get any more accurate and precise, or we will no doubt reach that perfect state where the bombs always go where they are intended to go, and 100% of those killed are bystanders. We have almost reached this point now.

Some will read this column as a criticism of Israel, for invading the Gaza Strip, and for the "accurate attack" on a target which turned out to be a UN school. But my point is that all the world's powerful military establishments use these "accuracy" arguments. It is a comforting thought that shooting the bad guys resembles a video arcade game, and there is a nice euphemism for civilian deaths - "collateral damage."

Extremists on both sides are happy when the missiles start to fly and the heavy artillery wheels into place. Neither side can bomb its way to peace. But the arts of peace are more difficult and less glamorous in this action-film fantasy world than the martial art of war. Indeed, the New York Times recently reported that the US military is now using arcade games as a recruiting technique. The nice thing about video games is there is no blood on the floor, no matter how many precision shots are squeezed off.