Wednesday, May 05, 2010

The Sun's Page 3 girls endorse the Conservatives

It's not terribly surprising that the Sun, one of Rupert Murdoch's tabloid rags, should be supporting the Tories. But in the May 6 issue they've announced their endorsement with a touch of cheerful absurdism (and self-parody). At least, I hope this is supposed to be tongue-in-cheek:
Sixteen Page 3 Girls in all their glory represent the very image of freedom in this country.
But if Labour or the Lib Dems win the election, this could be the last time they are allowed to pose together.
MPs Harriet Harman and Lynne Featherstone will move swiftly to change the law and ban Page 3 forever.
Our national treasures - who even enjoy the Royal seal of approval from our future King Prince Charles - will be no more.
And at a stroke the very liberties that put the Great into Great Britain will be torn asunder.

The radical ideas of the 17th-century philosopher John Locke helped shape our freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights and, later, America's Constitution. [....]
"His thinking underpins our ideas of national identity and society. Please don't let those who seek to ban our beauty win. Vote to save Page 3!"
If you don't know who, or what, the Page 3 girls are, click HERE.

(Can I imagine Murdoch's New York Post endorsing the Republicans in quite the same manner? No, not really. It seems that national cultures haven't been totally homogenized, after all.)

--Jeff Weintraub

Gordon Brown's last, best shot (in full)

In my last post I included a video with part of Gordon Brown's speech to CitizensUK. In case that video clip got lost in the post, which was a long post, here the whole speech, with less surrounding clutter. As Gordon Macmillan says (at Harry's Place), "It is a barnstorming speech, a great performance, and it is Brown at his very best." Jonathan Freedland described it in The Guardian as "completely riveting.”
Brown was passionate, fiery, moved and moving – and utterly compelling. Even Brown-sceptics admitted they were transfixed. He spoke of justice and equality, of the great social movements for change, linking the activists of Citizens UK to the great civil rights struggles of the past. His language was scriptural, perfectly judged to move and inspire the people of faith gathered before him.

The pity of it was that it had not come much, much earlier. [....] What we saw on Monday was Brown unleashed, making an urgent plea for office delivered in a speech that was short on policy technicalia but long on populist passion and righteous fury. Maybe this is the last hurrah of a candidate who knows he's going down. But it is also a tantalising glimpse of what might have been.
Among other things, it strikes me as a powerful expression of the outlook and sensibility of a whole British political tradition (with all its distinctive strengths and weaknesses). It's worth watching.

--Jeff Weintraub

=> UPDATE, 11/20/2010: I later discovered that my friend Maurice Glasman had a hand both in helping organize this event and in helping write Gordon Brown's speech. Small world, I guess. All this was confidential for a while, but apparently no longer. For more details, see HERE.

Harry's Place
May 5 2010
Our shared belief
Gordon MacMillan

If you haven’t seen this speech made by Gordon Brown to to London Citizens, movement of trade unions, religious groups and community organisers, I urge you to watch it. It is a barnstorming speech, a great performance, and it is Brown at his very best. It is an impassioned plea to vote Labour and shows he is the only real leader in the race putting David Cameron and Nick Clegg in the shade.

It has come late in the day and maybe is a reflection on the strategy pursued by the campaign team.

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian put it well: “Of course, the more passion Brown could have mustered the better. And something happens to the prime minister when he is in a house of worship. Perhaps he channels the spirit of his father, a Church of Scotland minister. But when the son of a preacher man gets going, he is unstoppable – and completely riveting.”

Brown’s speech is currently the 2nd most popular video on YouTube in the UK (was 1st earlier) and #imvotingLabour is currently trending in the UK and worldwide on Twitter. There’s a lastminute surge on the way.

Gordon Brown's last stand?

Unlike the situation here in the US, land of the permanent campaign, Britain's national election campaigns are short and sharp. Prime Minister Gordon Brown dissolved Parliament on April 6, and voters go to the polls tomorrow, May 6.

However, they've managed to pack quite a bit of drama into just one month. For the past several years, the almost universal consensus of informed opinion held that the next general election would produce a crushing defeat for the Labour Party, and that the Conservative Party's David Cameron would be the next Prime Minister. Then around February, to many people's surprise (certainly mine), the Conservatives' lead in the polls seemed to have evaporated. Perhaps this meant that, even though a lot of British voters are unhappy with the Labour government or simply tired of it, the imminent prospect of actually voting the Conservatives into power gave them pause? So when the campaign began, its outcome was far from a foregone conclusion. Then, after the first of three US-style TV "debates" between party leaders, there was a sudden surge in support for the perennial third party of British politics, the Liberal Democrats. Lib-Dem leader Nick Clegg made a strong and attractive impression in the first debate, and as his party moved up in the polls, it no doubt offered many people the enticing option of not having to vote for either of the two main parties. So for a few days it looked possible that the Liberal Democrats might pull ahead and actually achieve their long-held aspiration to "break the mould" of British politics.

Probably not. According to the polls, the Conservatives have again pulled ahead, while support for the Liberal Democrats subsided a bit. But the outcome still looks genuinely unpredictable. Actually, all three parties' support seems to be within 3 or 4 percentage points of 30%, with the Conservatives above that level and Labour and the Liberal Democrats neck-and-neck below it. But one can't always rely on polling numbers. And given the patterns by which voters for the different parties are distributed between Parliamentary districts, it would be quite possible for one party to get fewer votes than another but more seats in Parliament. To complicate matters further, some minor parties (e.g., the Scottish Nationalist Party) will pick up some seats, too.

The latest number-crunching from Nate Silver at projects
an unusual situation in which Conservatives alone could not form a majority, but Labour and Liberal Democrats could also not combine to form a majority. My personal view is that the most likely outcome of such a scenario would be a Conservative minority government, possibly followed by new elections in relatively short order as Conservatives sought to win an outright majority.
On the other hand, Silver is careful to add that this projection is quite speculative, based on a methodology that is controversial and unproven (but then so are the alternatives). So who knows?

=> I don't pretend to know myself. But it really does look most likely that Labour will probably lose this election, and that this will be Gordon Brown's swan song. He went into the campaign with the odds against him, and most observers seem to agree that the campaign he's waged hasn't helped him a lot.

Before we say goodbye to Gordon Brown, though, I think it's worth having a look at what may prove to be his last, best shot. On Monday Brown, Cameron, and Clegg all addressed a meeting of CitizensUK, Britain's largest coalition of community activist groups. A number of reports described this event as, in effect, the "unofficial fourth TV leadership debate"--and suggested that, in this venue, Brown had finally found his voice. The Guardian's Allegra Stratton, who clearly found herself unexpectedly impressed, put it this way:
Gordon Brown today put in one of the most extraordinary performances of his tenure as prime minister when the three party leaders took part in an unofficial fourth debate – addressing community groups in the largest live audience of the election campaign.

As the Labour party battles to avoid coming third on Thursday, Brown appeared to find an emotional range and vocabulary previously unheard from him. Prompting repeated standing ovations, he told the audience: "As you fight for fairness, you will always find in me a friend, a partner and a brother." The speech, before 2,500 voters in a large church hall, may end up having been the most electrifying event of the campaign. Critics of the prime minister described it as one of the best speeches they have seen by a politician.
Was it that good? You can watch this clip from his speech and see what you think. My guess is that, if nothing else, it really does convey some of the values and concerns that took Brown into public life:

=> Not being British, I don't have to decide how I'd vote in this election myself, though my guess is that I would vote Labour--with mixed feelings. (I certainly wouldn't vote Conservative, and I have feelings about the Liberal Democrats that are even more mixed, both tactically and substantively.)

The Guardian, the premier voice of left-liberal British opinion, just endorsed the Liberal Democrats--which, according to Martin Bright, could actually have some an impact on undecided middle-class voters. Much of the tabloid press has endorsed the Conservatives, and so have more serious publications like the Economist and the Financial Times.

Matthew Yglesias pointed out, correctly, that although those last two endorsements are not surprising, there's still something peculiar about them. And, more generally, he offers some plausible reasons why we might feel some sympathy for Gordon Brown:
[....] Under the circumstances, it’s worth pointing out that whatever Brown’s flaws and despite the very real problems with the Labour government (Iraq, e.g.) he’s largely being punished for an economic crisis he didn’t cause, couldn’t have stopped, and has actually handled quite well. The global financial meltdown was not unique to Britain and the United Kingdom’s status as a country that’s unusually exposed to the ups-and-downs of the financial industry is extremely longstanding. The country has mostly been suffering from bad luck.
Well, yes and no. But that's certainly true to some degree.
And thanks to the combination of the fact that Brown, as Chancellor, kept the UK out of the Euro and as Prime Minister has presided over substantial stimulus the British economy is actually weathering the recession pretty well. The latest news is that the manufacturing sector is surging forward and recovery is under way. Conditions aren’t great—they’re actually quite bad—but the situation is much better than what you see in other European countries.

It’s interesting that [the] fundamentals-driven [response] that ignores all this seems to impact not only the mass public, but also elites. The FT, in the course of endorsing David Cameron, concedes that “As a crisis manager, Gordon Brown has been a better premier than his critics claim” and simply doesn’t say anything about the substance of the Tories’ opposition to stimulus, a policy that had it been adopted would have sank the economy. The Economist does take this issue head-on and concludes that the Tories “were wrong to oppose the economic stimulus after the banking crash” but endorses them anyway.

Basically, Britain confronted a giant economic challenge and the center-right party responded with such bad policies that even center-right business-focused newspapers think they were wrong, but conditions are bad so voters are urged to vote Tory anyway. [....]
So what else is new? Paul Krugman follows up:
Yglesias is right. For sure, Gordon Brown — like the Rubinites here in America — made the great mistake of buying into the promises of high finance. But is there any doubt that a Tory government would have done the same?

And I understand the sense that Labour has been in office too long. If I were British, I might well consider voting Lib Dem.

But in the current crisis, Brown’s policies have been sensible, whereas the Tories wanted to slash spending in the face of recession, which would have been disastrous. And The Economist agrees — then endorses the Tories.

Is The Economist of the belief that there will be no future crises? That this gigantic failure of judgment in the face of a defining moment for economic policy offers no hint about how well the Tories will perform in dealing with other issues?

It’s utterly bizarre.
But so it goes.

=> I'll give the last word to Norman Geras, who does have to make a practical decision about whom to vote for in this election. Here is his brief explanation for why he will vote Labour (with a follow-up here):
I always do vote Labour but that doesn't mean I don't have reasons - like I'm tribal and all that - and since the national papers are now declaring their hand, I feel that normblog should declare mine. Not to make a meal of it...

(1) The Conservatives are the party of the rich - always have been, still are.

(2) As the Guardian says, even in announcing its own support for them, 'The Liberal Democrats are a very large party now, with support across the spectrum. But they remain in some respects a party of the middle and lower middle classes. Labour's record on poverty remains unmatched, and its link to the poor remains umbilical.'

(3) See above at 2, Labour's record on poverty unmatched - and social justice trumps other considerations unless these are of an exceptional and urgent kind.

(4) Labour is the party most closely associated with the doctrine of liberal interventionism, a doctrine which should be supported.

(5) The Guardian has come out for the Lib-Dems - and the Guardian is now a moral swamp, where poisonous vapours are allowed to circulate freely.

So... Gordon Brown notwithstanding, and my support for electoral reform ditto, normblog recommends voting Labour.
(Reasons #1-#4 are clearly the most significant, and I assume that #5 was tacked on half-facetiously ... but I can certainly sympathize with #5, too.)

Well, it's all in the hands of the British electorate. Stay tuned for tomorrow ...

Yours for democracy,
Jeff Weintraub

Alan Greenspan and the housing bubble revisited

One of those brilliant financial "innovations" that helped produce the bubble-and-crash in the US housing market, which in turn helped trigger the larger financial and economic crash of 2008, was the widespread, aggressive, and often blatantly predatory marketing of adjustable-rate-mortgages that suckered too many home-buyers into unwise and eventually disastrous gambles. It is now embarrassing for Alan Greenspan to be reminded that, back when he was Chairman of the Federal Reserve, he not only blocked efforts to deal with this problem--among other problems--but was actually a cheerleader for this orgy of financial recklessness. Here is one notorious example from early 2004 (which now seems long ago):
Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said Monday that Americans' preference for long-term, fixed-rate mortgages means many are paying more than necessary for their homes and suggested consumers would benefit if lenders offered more alternatives.

In a standing-room-only speech to the Credit Union National Association meeting here, Greenspan also said U.S. household finances appeared generally sound, despite rising debt levels and bankruptcy filings. Low interest rates and surging home prices have given consumers flexibility to manage debt, he said.

"Overall, the household sector seems to be in good shape," Greenspan said.

Americans have been buying homes and refinancing mortgages at a record pace in the past several years, lured by low interest rates. Most mortgages are fixed rate, so consumers can prepay when rates go down but do not face higher costs if rates rise. Under adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs), which made up about 28% of mortgages in January, borrowers usually have lower initial rates but face the risk of higher payments if rates in the broader economy rise.

While borrowers can refinance fixed-rate mortgages, Greenspan said homeowners were paying as much as 0.5 to 1.2 percentage points for that right and the protection against a potential rate rise, which could increase annual after-tax payments by several thousand dollars.

He said a Fed study suggested many homeowners could have saved tens of thousands of dollars in the last decade if they had ARMs. Those savings would not have been realized, however, had interest rates shot up.

"American consumers might benefit if lenders provided greater mortgage product alternatives to the traditional fixed-rate mortgage," Greenspan said. [....]
No doubt Greenspan feels it's unfair for people to keep harping on this blooper. I'm not so sure. Of course, the point is not that this one speech, by itself, somehow produced a stampede that created the whole debacle (though I have seen published discussions by allegedly serious people who appeared to believe this was the issue). Rather, this is one especially conspicuous and revealing illustration of a larger pattern of systematic failures in policy and analysis.

=> I notice that another revealing illustration of this larger pattern, also potentially embarrassing to Chairman Greenspan, has come to light. Several people picked it up, but since I can't quote them all, I'll just quote Paul Krugman's comments:

Via Ryan Grim and Matthew Yglesias, some seriously disturbing Fed transcripts. Basically, back in 2004 staff members presented data seriously suggesting a housing bubble; not only were the data disregarded, Greenspan wanted no hint of the discussion made public:
We run the risk, by laying out the pros and cons of a particular argument, of inducing people to join in on the debate, and in this regard it is possible to lose control of a process that only we fully understand.
Can’t have outsiders joining in on the debate, can we? Hoo boy.

A technical note: those charts would have been even more striking if the staffers had differentiated by regions; big contrast between Flatland and the Zoned Zone, with the latter much more clearly in a bubble.

Yes, our economy was definitely in good hands.

--Jeff Weintraub

UPDATE & RETRACTION: No, that second item I passed on was incorrect. It seems that the quotation from Greenspan was taken out of context. He did say that, but it was in the context of discussing another topic, not the housing bubble. (Ryan Grim appears to have misread that passage in the transcripts.) Apologies to Chairman Greenspan and the rest of you.

Everything about Greenspan's cheerleading for ARMs was correct.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"Drill, Baby, Drill" - The paranoids strike back

Perhaps mentioning the latest nutcase conspiracy theorizing from Rush Limbaugh gives him more attention than he deserves (though it's not entirely groundless to describe him as one of the most important and influential Republican spokesmen these days, so he may rate a little attention for that reason alone) ...

... but here's an item that beautifully illustrates how difficult it is nowadays for parody to keep one step ahead of the lunacy pervading so much actual political discourse right now. Who can resist?

=> A few days ago, in connection with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the public-relations challenge it poses for the "Drill, Baby, Drill" crowd, I quoted a comment by my friend Perry Deess:
This spill was orchestrated by the Democrats as a prelude to introducing energy legislation, just as the Goldman Sachs investigation was a sham to move forward with the socialist regulation of the finance industry.
That was supposed to be ironic, of course. And I added some sarcastic elaboration:
That analysis sounds right to me ... but, of course, what Sarah Palin and her friends call the "lamestream media" have largely ignored this obvious connection. I expect that Fox News (with help from assorted Republican pundits and bloggers) will break through the cover-up.
=> Well, so much for irony. Here's Rush Limbaugh on April 29:
I want to get back to the timing of the blowing-up, the explosion out there, in the Gulf of Mexico, of this oil rig. [ Blah, blah ....] What better way to head off more oil drilling, nuclear plants, than by blowing up a rig? I'm just noting the timing here.
To be fair, Limbaugh's free-association here doesn't necessarily point to the Obama "regime" itself. It might have been "hard-core environmentalist whackos" even more extreme than that. And the timing is certainly suspicious, isn't it?

Previously: Rush: "Jury's still out" on whether it's a "coincidence" that an oil rig exploded just before Earth Day

Stay tuned ...

--Jeff Weintraub

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Palin: "Drill Here, Drill Now"

A few days ago, I wondered
how the Republicans, who have gone out of their way to brand themselves the party of "Drill, Baby, Drill", are going to manage the public-relations challenge posed by this accident--which appears likely to turn into a significant environmental and economic disaster.
Whatever effect this disaster in the Gulf of Mexico does or doesn't have on their practical policy agendas, it seems clear that their propaganda will have to be adjusted, and a lot of Republicans will now be trying to pretend that they never favored unrestricted drilling in the first place.
New slogans and talking-points are no doubt being crafted behind the scenes, and I suspect we'll be hearing the phrase "Drill, Baby, Drill" a little less frequently.

On the other hand, I may be wrong about that last point, since by now it is well established that Sarah Palin's sloganeering is largely unaffected by empirical reality, or by the kinds of embarrassments that affect most politicians. [....] So we may get a chance to see how fully that applies to the rest of the Republican Party, too.
=> Well, as far as Sarah Palin is concerned, we already have the answer: She continues to repeat the same slogan, in a slightly modified version she's used before, without embarrassment or second thoughts:
I repeat the slogan “drill here, drill now” not out of naiveté or disregard for the tragic consequences of oil spills – my family and my state and I know firsthand those consequences. How could I still believe in drilling America’s domestic supply of energy after having seen the devastation of the Exxon-Valdez spill? I continue to believe in it because increased domestic oil production will make us a more secure, prosperous, and peaceful nation.
(Increased domestic oil production will make us a more "peaceful" nation? If one takes that seriously as a factual claim, which of course is a mistake, none of the things it might mean seems very convincing.)

On the other hand, as far as I can tell, so far the rest of the Republicans seem to be keeping quiet about this subject, very quiet. It remains to be seen how they'll try to spin it.

=> Meanwhile, the Obama administration, which probably wishes it hadn't announced a policy of relaxing restrictions on offshore drilling a month ago, can learn its own lessons from this incident. Compromises, even painful and unpleasant ones, are often a necessary part of the process of legislative sausage-making. And the broadly moderate and centrist inclinations of this administration, which further encourage it to search for accommodations, are not always misplaced. But they can easily get carried too far--as Obama and his team eventually had to recognize themselves during the health care reform fight. Making pre-emptive concessions to the Republicans, and/or to powerful economic interests, in the hope of reaching accommodations and defusing potential conflicts may look tactically clever or 'responsible', but experience shows that in practice these pre-emptive concessions often blow up in your face. Make the compromises when you have to, not before.

--Jeff Weintraub