Saturday, January 31, 2009

Oh no, Tom Daschle is a tax cheat, too!

Daschle heads from his appointment to catch up on unpaid taxes

OK, I give up. Former Senate Democratic Leader and top Obama political guru Tom Daschle is still slated to become Secretary of Health and Human Services and White House "health czar," despite the discovery that he evaded paying $128,000 in income taxes on unreported income of $255,000.

Like his soon-to-be Cabinet colleague, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Daschle is apparently regarded as indispensable to the work of the nation's government. An Administration source immediately dubbed the tax cheating a "stupid mistake," and Majority Leader Harry Reid gave him a renewed vote of confidence.

Daschle failed to declare as income the free use of a Cadillac and driver for several years, the sort of in-kind perk that everyone who has served in government knows full well must be reported to the IRS. Possibly even worse, he failed to declare $83,333 of consulting income for 2007 and overstated his deductions for charitable contributions by nearly $15,000. This cheating Uncle Sam comes from a man who made millions of dollars during the period in question.

Daschle is supposed to get points for bringing his tax delinquency up himself during the transition, but in all honesty, all that proves is that he knew he had cheated.

Daschle was an outstanding Senator and is by all accounts handily qualified for his new job. But his and Geithner's obviously willful efforts to evade taxes really ought to disqualify them from holding high appointive office. No one is indispensable. It's a matter of basic personal ethics.

What do you think? Post a comment.

UPDATE - 2/1/09 - Daschle knew he had a tax problem last June, but didn't tell the Obama transition team until after his nomination was announced. Why the long wait? Supposedly, he thought his accountant was handling it. Why do I think I would have checked with my accountant? No...wait...I would have paid the taxes in the first place!

Friday, January 30, 2009

What Larry Summers proposed on stimulus: make it timely, targeted and temporary

In his column today, David Brooks reminds us what Larry Summers, Harvard economist, former Democratic Treasury Secretary, and now President Obama's chief White House economic guru, said throughout 2008 about fiscal stimulus:

Summers warned that a “poorly provided fiscal stimulus can have worse side effects than the disease that is to be cured.” So his proposal had three clear guidelines.

First, the stimulus should be timely. The money should go out “almost immediately.” Second, it should be targeted. It should help low- and middle-income people. Third, it should be temporary. Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”


Now Barack Obama is president, and Summers has become a top economic adviser. Yet the stimulus approach that has emerged on Capitol Hill abandoned the Summers parameters.

In a fateful decision, Democratic leaders merged the temporary stimulus measure with their permanent domestic agenda — including big increases for Pell Grants, alternative energy subsidies and health and entitlement spending. The resulting package is part temporary and part permanent, part timely and part untimely, part targeted and part untargeted.


...[T]hey’ve created a sprawling, undisciplined smorgasbord, which has spun off a series of unintended consequences. First, by trying to do everything all it once, the bill does nothing well. The money spent on long-term domestic programs means there may not be enough to jolt the economy now (about $290 billion in spending is pushed off into 2011 and later)...

Second, by pumping so much money through government programs, the bill unleashes a tidal wave on state governments. A governor with a few-hundred-million-dollar shortfall will suddenly have to administer an additional $4 billion or $5 billion...

Third, the muddle assures ideological confrontation. A stimulus package was always going to be controversial, because economists differ widely about whether or how a stimulus can work. But this bill also permanently alters the role of the federal government, thus guaranteeing a polarizing brawl at the very start of the Obama presidency.

Fourth, Summers’s warnings about deficits have been put aside. There is no fiscal exit strategy. Instead, permanent spending commitments are entailed with no permanent funding stream to pay for them.

Fifth, new government expenditures on complex matters are being designed on a hasty, reckless timetable...

Wise heads are now trying to restore structure and safeguards to the enterprise. In testimony this week, Alice Rivlin, Bill Clinton’s former budget director, raised the possibility of separating the temporary from the permanent measures and focusing independently on each. “A long-term investment program should not be put together hastily and lumped in with the anti-recession package,” Rivlin testified. “The elements of the investment program must be carefully planned and will not create many jobs right away.”

The best course is to return to the original Summers parameters — temporary, targeted and timely — thus making the stimulus cleaner and faster.

Amen to that. As Rivlin's testimony shows, there can be a truly bi-partisan approach to enacting a needed and effective stimulus program.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Stimulus plan" still needs more stimulus

I have supported -- and still support -- a massive fiscal stimulus to restore an atmosphere of confidence, avert a continued, severe downward spiral, and give the economy a big enough jolt to jump start a recovery.

But the $819 billion plan (really a $1.2 trillion plan including interest on the debt) adopted by the House of Representatives yesterday isn't it. A large part of that plan dresses up a Christmas tree of programs sought by Congressional Democrats as "economic stimulus." I like a lot of these programs and might well support them on their own merits; but many are not "stimulus."

The problem with cramming everything you'd like to do into a single bill under the pretense that it's "stimulus" is this: with a trillion dollar federal deficit already on the books, $700 billion almost out the door to shore up the financial system (and according to recent reports, much more dough still needed on that front), we may only have one shot at a really effective stimulus program. So we need to be as sure as we possibly can that it will work.

As we listen to pols, pundits, economists, and self-appointed analysts, we should keep in mind that no one has a very good idea of how to make a comprehensive counter-cyclical fiscal policy work. No one. We haven't really done it before! Consequently, the arguments about it are largely theoretical debates between competing groups of academics or, as in the present instance, a confused jumble of claims in which all parties insist their favored programs are more stimulating than the other guy's.

As a practical matter in recent decades, monetary policy won out as the principal tool of decision makers, Democrats and Republicans, because it could be wielded in a carefully calibrated and timed fashion. The knock against fiscal policy was that by the time we knew the economy was headed down, Congress got its act together and did something, and that something bore fruit, it would probably be too late. The economy would already be headed back up, and the fiscal stimulus would hit just in time to drive inflation.

Well, guess what? That appears to be exactly what's happening today.

A new report by the Congressional Budget office projects that about 65% of the total funds in the House bill, spending and tax cuts, will be out the door by September 30, 2010, or within 19 months. The Obama Administration contends that 75% will be spent by that time. (See the graph above for the CBO's year-by-year projection of federal deficit spending.)

This is really a distinction without much of a difference. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the average length of recessions in the U.S. over the past 100 years has been 13 months, with recent recessions shorter. The last prolonged and deep recession was that of 1980-82, which lasted two years. The current recession is already in its 13th month. Most analysts expect it to continue through the first half of 2009, after which there are divergent views on the speed or length of the recovery.

Of course, anyone who actually knows how long or deep it will be is bound to get rich. Everyone is guessing, so it's critical to assume it will be worse, not better, to ensure that we stimulate enough.

The House plan, as it stands, simply does not do that -- not because it's not big enough, but because it dribbles out too much of the money too slowly and fails to put enough money where it will have the greatest impact. In that CBO bar graph, we should see the tallest bar for 2009, so we deliver a big jolt this spring, summer and fall, not next year. The 2010 bar should still be up there, with the larger share out during the first half. After 2010? There is just no excuse for planning to spend $200 billion in those out years and calling it "stimulus." (If the programs are sound, given that the Democrats have the votes they need to approve anything, those expenditures can be taken up separately and passed anyway.)

There are many ways to ensure that the stimulus impact is felt in 2009 and, at the latest, 2010 -- but accelerating the spending side of proposals in the House bill may not be one of them. The CBO has told Congress that speeding up outlays for infrastructure projects and the like would "not be easy" because such projects take time, often more time than thought at the outset.

That advice was contained in a letter to Senate Budget Committee Chairman Conrad (Dem-N.D.). Conrad and other Democrats in the Senate are looking closely at ways to make sure the stimulus is really stimulating. As Sen. Byron Dorgan (Dem-N.D.) put it, “We’re not interested in promoting employment five years from now. We’re interested in promoting employment five months from now.”

One proposal that I think has merit is to slash the roughly 13% payroll tax for employees and employers. As of the next paycheck, that would put money into the hands of workers who would spend it and businesses who would invest it. The program could be designed to sunset after 10 or 12 months or more, unless renewed by Congress.

Harvard economist Martin Feldstein has some good ideas for directing stimulus to sectors of the economy where a boost is most needed. For example, he suggests tax incentives for consumers to spend on big ticket items, such as a temporary tax credit to purchase a car or make home improvements. I'd go a step further with that concept and consider a tax credit -- also temporary -- against the purchase of a primary residence to stimulate home building and help stabilize housing prices.

Alas, there may already be too much water under the bridge to expect that the House-approved package can be fundamentally altered. Hopefully, the Senate will make improvements and the final bill signed by President Obama will be more front-loaded and more on target.

I strongly suspect that Obama and his economic team clearly understand the importance of speed and targeting but had limited control of the bill developed by the House Majority. Obama is also keenly aware of the fact that the success of his Presidency will be closely tied to success in stimulating an economic recovery. Let's hope the Senate gives him what he and the country need.

NBC bans sexy PETA ad from Super Bowl

PETA's banned Super Bowl ad, "Veggie Love"

It seems NBC doesn't think this commercial from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is OK for the Super Bowl next week. I'm not sure exactly what NBC's beef, um, problem is with the ad. It does give you a different slant from what your Mom had in mind when she told you to eat your vegetables.

Anyway, pass the broccoli!

What do you think? Should NBC allow PETA to air the spot? Post a comment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama's new Afghan policy: more war, less development and reconstruction

U.S. troops under fire in the endless mountains of Kunar Province, Afghanistan

President Obama said in the campaign that he would shift U.S. attention to the war in Afghanistan and rethink American strategy there. It's clear he intends to do just that. But according to a New York Times story sourced to "senior administration officials," in a somewhat surprising move, Obama plans to take a "tougher line" toward Afghan President Hamid Karzai and "put more emphasis on waging war than on development."

Mr. Karzai is now seen as a potential impediment to American goals in Afghanistan, the officials said, because corruption has become rampant in his government, contributing to a flourishing drug trade and the resurgence of the Taliban.

All that development and "nation building" stuff will be left to NATO, most of which shows little interest in contributing more troops or engaging in combat:

They said that the Obama administration would work with provincial leaders as an alternative to the central government, and that it would leave economic development and nation-building increasingly to European allies, so that American forces could focus on the fight against insurgents.

“If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who served under Mr. Bush and is staying on under Mr. Obama, told Congress on Tuesday. He said there was not enough “time, patience or money” to pursue overly ambitious goals in Afghanistan, and he called the war there as “our greatest military challenge.”

The U.S. is shifting its strategic focus away from lofty goals for Afghanistan's future and protection for Karzai -- who has been called the "Mayor of Kabul" because he doesn't wield authority beyond the capital -- so the planned doubling of U.S troop levels by this summer can be used to battle the Taliban in the countryside and ratchet up the military pressure on al Qaeda in hiding across the Pakistani border.

As the "senior official" (I get the feeling it's Gates) put it:

"What we’re trying to do is to focus on the Al Qaeda problem. That has to be our first priority.”

Amen to that. What do you think? Post a comment.

Recommended further reading: This report by Stratfor, the private intelligence provider, sees U.S. policy evolving quickly along the lines suggested by the Times report.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Veteran Albany reporter calls Governor David Paterson a "liar" in Kennedy fiasco

Governor Paterson: Did he lie about Caroline Kennedy's withdrawal?

As his appointee to the United States Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, was sworn in by Vice President Biden, New York Governor David Paterson was still on the hot seat for what some think was his shabby treatment of Dame Caroline Kennedy even after she withdrew from consideration.

Mayor Bloomberg, a Kennedy ally, dumped on the accidental Governor, who got the job when Client #9 resigned in disgrace. Kennedy family members and Camelot torch bearers were reported to be "furious" about Paterson's asking Dame Caroline to lie for him and then tossing stink bombs at her through unidentified aides telling stories to reporters.

Now, the New York Post's veteran Albany reporter, Fred Dicker, calls Paterson is a "liar" for claiming he doesn't know who fed "slime" to reporters on the Kennedy heiress. Dicker, who is obviously in a position to know since he passed along some of the "slime," reported today:

Gov. Paterson yesterday insisted he had no idea who did the slime job on Caroline Kennedy - although the source of the information is about as close to him during the day as his wife is at night.

He's a liar.

The person responsible for the smear was an individual whose identity is well known to the press, whose full-time job is to do the governor's bidding, and who is intelligent enough not to call reporters to damage Kennedy's reputation without approval from the top - and that means Paterson.

The "person responsible" had told some embarrassing tales about Kennedy:

Kennedy was "mired in some potentially embarrassing personal issues," the source told reporters Friday. "She has a tax problem that came up in the vetting and a potential nanny issue. And reporters are starting to look at her marriage more cosely.

"The governor had no intention of picking her because of the botched roll out eecuted in recent weeks," the source continued.

But Paterson said he "doesn't know who said this?"

"I would love to know who is responsible, but at this point, I've been unable to determine that," Paterson insisted yesterday, while maintaining a straight face.

"Obviously, if I ever found that that was the case, I would," he said, when asked if he'd discipline an aide who was responsible.

Dicker goes on:

The truth is that not only does Paterson know who the source of the leak was, but that Paterson is the only person in a position to have given the information to the leaker.

That's because all the disclosure documents that were handed over by Kennedy were given to Paterson's legal counsel's office, which is under a professional obligation of secrecy. The counsel then passed whatever might have been damaging in the records on to Paterson.

The information on Kennedy leaked hours later to news organizations with the understanding the source was someone "close to the governor."

Dicker's not giving Paterson "the benefit of the doubt" either:

That's because Paterson's latest denials are merely the latest installment in a long series of lies told by the governor that many in government have started to call pathological.

Who can forget Paterson's press conference denying that he had said ugly things about Mayor Bloomberg, when he was as close to the source on the story as one could be.

Remember last week, Paterson claimed on one network that he was close to a Senate selection, only to deny it on another two hours later?

Dicker turns to a presumably different unnamed source to go in for the kill:

The governor's word is as good as the last person who speaks to him, and he talks to a lot of people who have different positions," said one of Albany's best-known lobbyists.

"That means his word is good for nothing . . . and how can you run a state with a reputation like that?" the lobbyist continued.

Dicker and his paper have been known to stick it to public officials and candidates they don't especially like, particularly Democrats. But Dicker isn't the only reporter hammering Paterson about his Senate appointment process and the clash with Kennedy.

Paterson is going to have to offer a major public mea culpa to Dame Caroline before this goes away. What makes that so crazy is that, IMO, he was right not to appoint Kennedy, who was manifestly not ready for the job. Be that as it may, governors have to treat people well -- even annoyingly self-important people.

What do you think? Post a comment.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Poll: NY voters think Caroline sank herself, approve Paterson's choice of Gillibrand

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand applauds her patron

Amidst some bitter, highly public squabbling over who did what to whom, a new Quinnipiac poll finds that New York State voters believe that Caroline Kennedy and her retainers are more to blame in Dame Caroline's aborted bid to be anointed a Senator than Governor David Paterson by a margin of 49-15, with 12 percent faulting both sides equally.

What's more, voters approve Paterson's selection of upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, 46 to 30 percent, with 24 percent undecided. These results may prove fleeting, since Gillibrand is still largely unknown to New Yorkers outside her district, but it's a good start for the smart, attractive Gillibrand, who is an aggressive campaigner with a record of raising a lot of money and winning tough elections. With a year in the Senate to travel the state and adjust her "Blue Dog" record on some issues to head off liberal downstate opponents, she'll likely be a round for a long time.

Any thoughts about Gillibrand? Post a comment.

Senate confirms tax cheat Timothy Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury, 60-34

Geithner at Senate confirmation hearing: "The software ate my tax return"

The Senate has voted 60 to 34 to confirm Timothy "Honest Mistake" Geithner to be Secretary of the Treasury. That's a comfortable margin, and Geitner's nomination was never in any danger of going down. But according to Bloomberg News, it's also the closest margin to confirm any of the 24 Treasury Secretaries who have served since World War II.

The 34 "nay" votes included leading liberal Democrats Tom Harkin, Russ Feingold and Robert Byrd, as well as respected Republicans, such as John McCain, Susan Collins, Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter, who are among those on the GOP side of the aisle that President Obama is eager to draw into a post-partisan coalition to tackle the nation's economic and financial crisis together.

Building that coalition may be a bit harder though, when you've nominated a tax cheat to oversee the aggressive and far-reaching federal actions that may be needed. Obama has all but called Geithner an indispensable man -- in effect, the only person in America with exactly the right skills and experience to run Treasury at what is unquestionably a very challenging time. When Obama announced his economic team, like so many others, I was impressed that he had assembled such an outstanding, professional and pragmatic group, including Geithner, Larry Summers, Christina Romer, Peter Orszag and Paul Volcker.

However, I agree with the 34 dissenters that no one is indispensable. There are many men and women in this nation of 300 million who have not tried to avoid their taxes and who would do as fine a job as Geithner. As Republican Senator Collins said of Geithner's attempt to blame his failure to pay four years worth of payroll taxes on "careless mistakes" arising from the complexity of the tax code, "It has become clear to me that this is not merely a matter of complexity leading to mistakes, but of inexcusable negligence."

I'd go further than that. I don't believe for a moment that Geithner didn't know that he owed these taxes. His employer, the International Monetary Fund, informed him clearly about this tax liability, and he actually applied to the IMF for reimbursement of the employer portion of the FICA tax, even though he had not paid the tax. I think it's obvious that, for whatever stupid or crazy reason for a man in his position, he tried to game the "complex" tax system and only ponied up the money he owed when he got caught, first, by the IRS and, later, by the Obama transition vetting process.

Democratic Senator Harkin summed up what was wrong with this nominee by asking, "How can Mr. Geithner speak with any credibility or authority?" How indeed.

The remaining mystery is why Obama and his team stuck with Geithner even though they knew about his tax transgressions way back in December. Of course, I assume that Obama feels that Geithner's credentials and suitability for the job are so much better than those of anyone else he might name that running through some flak to get him confirmed is worth it. But that's not really the issue.

Presidents are often willing to contend with some controversy to get appointee they want. Currently, Obama may face worse opposition to his choices for Attorney General and Secretary of Labor (and perhaps Director of the CIA). Geithner's job, though, entails conceiving and mounting an unprecedented effort to turn around the economy. The success of Obama's Presidency rests, for all practical purposes, on the success of this effort.

So why would Obama obdurately insist on an appointee who starts off with something less than the solid confidence of the public, the press and the Congress? Geithner will remain an easy target for mockery and scorn, when what's needed is someone who can forge cooperation and engender respect, even when unforeseen but probably inevitable missteps or setbacks in implementing new policies occur.

What do you think of Geithner's appointment? Join the discussion by posting a comment.

Report: Kennedys "furious" at Paterson for asking Caroline to "lie"

Uncle Ted and Caroline share a chuckle

I'm not surprised that Caroline Kennedy is ticked off at New York Governor David Paterson for (a) not picking her for a freebie Senate seat; and (b) fumbling the way her "withdrawal" was handled and tossing brickbats at her on the way out.

But the latest story from the New York Post's Fred Dicker, well known for his gnawing-at-your-ankles approach to reporting, would, if true, make the whole thing even more bizarre:

An "apoplectic" Kennedy family is seething over the rough treatment that heiress
apparent Caroline got from Gov. Paterson's office and is spoiling for revenge, several sources close to the clan have told The Post.

"The governor's going to pay for this," said a well-placed Democrat. "Ted is furious. The family is furious. The Kennedys are now against the governor."

Among Paterson's offenses was a request that Caroline lie about her unexpected withdrawal for "personal" reasons, according to NY magazine.

"You can't withdraw. You've got to stay in this thing, and I'll just not pick you," Paterson reportedly told her over the phone late Wednesday.

Blagojevich considered offering Obama's Senate seat to Oprah!

The Blagovernor sits down with Dianne Sawyer on GMA

The Illinois Blagojemess is the story that keeps on giving...and giving...

As his impeachment trial begins in the Illinois State Senate, Blago is boycotting the proceedings and taking his case to everyone with a TV set. Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," Hot Rod revealed that he had thought about offering President Obama's old Senate seat to Oprah Winfrey. Since he decided against giving Oprah a ring, as far as anyone besides Blago knows, he's just making stuff up. On another network show, he compared himself to Nelson Mandela. The guy may be a crook (alleged! alleged!), but he sure knows the kind of stuff TV networks like to hear when they book guests for their high-profile interview shows.

Blago is all over the little screen -- on "The View," "Larry King," "Nightline," you name it -- telling his side of the story to every possible member of a federal jury.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Not enough stimulus in the stimulus package?

Obama and Congressional leaders: not a happy group

Following President Obama's meeting today with Republican Congressional leaders about his proposed stimulus package, Obama is still seeking Republican support, but he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi restated their commitment to move forward with the plan. Pelosi said it could be passed by the House as early as next Wednesday.

The plan is sure to encounter more opposition in the Senate, where the Republican Minority has more clout, and not all Democrats are committed to the Obama-House proposals.

Obama, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could probably manage to ram through most of the current package with a few modifications to placate moderate Senate Democrats and attract a few Republicans. In this first and arguably most important act of his Administration, however, Obama wants more than marginal GOP support. An sizable bi-partisan vote in both Houses would be a major victory for him and his politics of "post-partisanship," and would ensure that the GOP shares ownership in, and political responsibility for, the results, whatever they may be down the road.

The big sticking point is how much of the plan is really fiscal stimulus to shore up the economy, spur renewed growth and create jobs and how much may be spent too late or in ways that are not all that stimulating.

According to a leaked report by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, "Less than half the money dedicated to highways, school construction and other infrastructure projects in a massive economic stimulus package unveiled by House Democrats is likely to be spent within the next two years...meaning most of the spending would come too late to lift the nation out of recession."

The report "found that only about $136 billion of the $355 billion that House leaders want to allocate to infrastructure and other so-called discretionary programs would be spent by October 1, 2010. The rest would come in future years, long after the CBO and other economists predict the recession will have ended." The CBO also projected that only $26 billion of the total infrastructure and discretionary funds would be spent by the end of the current fiscal year.

But the CBO analysis applied to less than half of the $825 billion package hammered out by the Obama White House and House Democrats. That proposal also includes $275 billion in tax cuts and nearly $200 billion for jobless benefits, food stamps and other entitlement programs. These funds would be injected into the economy more quickly than the infrastructure spending. The White House today stood firmly behind the plan, noting that 75 percent of the total amount "will be spent in the next 18 months to create jobs and to get people working and to get the economy moving again."

In any case, the CBO report has given a boost to the Republicans' argument that a significant part of the House package consists of programs that have little to do with fiscal stimulus and much to do with other Democratic agendas.

This debate recalls the reasons why many mainstream economists began as early as the 1960s to downplay fiscal policy, as opposed to monetary policy, as an effective tool of government to infuence the business cycle. It was thought that by the time Congress realized a downturn was in progress, legislated, and money actually began to circulate in the economy, it would probably be too late to have the desired salutary impact.

In addition to the issue of speed, it's important to remember that fiscal policy has two dimensions: first, the federal government must run a deficit, in effect printing money to expand the money supply; and second, to gain the most advantage, it should target its spending to activities that will maximize the multiplier effects of the newly printed money in circulation.

The House plan does a good job of printing money, but it's not clear how well the spending has been targeted or how quickly it will make an impact.

Here's my suggestion: divide the package into two parts. The first $500 billion or so should include all the spending that can be implemented with effect quickly -- the tax cuts, expanded job benefits, aid to states, and truly "shovel ready" infrastructure. Pass that part right away -- maybe even before mid-February -- with substantial GOP support. The second part of about $250 or $300 billion, including all the rest, can be taken up as soon as the first part is approved. The Democrats will still have the majorities they need to pass the whole thing, but at least we'll know which batch of spending is supposed to do what.

Obama Inaugural quartet: world-renowned musicians "finger-synched" to a recording

Itzhak Perlman and Yo Yo Ma saw away as recorded music plays

It's been revealed that the quartet of famous musicians who played just before Barack Obama took the Oath of Office were faking it -- playing along as the crowd listened to music they had recorded a couple of days before.

OK, I know this is no big deal, but it's really kind of annoying, isn't it? In the extreme cold of January 20, the musicians, particularly violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Yo Yo Ma could not have played as well as they would wish on such an occasion, and their valuable instruments would have been at risk (the violin and cello they used for the "visual" were cheaper substitutes).

Since the Presidential Inauguration is set for January 20 in the Constitution, didn't anyone anticipate that it might be cold? And since this Inauguration cost $170 million, couldn't those responsible (Dianne Feinstein, that means you)have figured out some way for some of the world's leading musicians to play shielded from the cold? How about a transparent plastic structure with heaters inside? How much could that have added to the bill?

If you're going to try to inject a bit of lofty music into such an otherwise totally live national ceremony, why not do it right?

Paterson to name upstate Blue Dog Democrat, Kirsten Gillibrand, to Senate (well, maybe)

Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand has reason to be smiling

Lots of reports out tonight (like one in the New York Daily News) that New York Governor David Paterson will appoint upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (pronounced JILL-a-brand) to fill the Senate seat vacated by Hillary Clinton. Still, reporters seem to be hedging their forecasts after weeks of being wrong about Dame Caroline Kennedy of Camelot having a lock on the appointment. The New York Times, for example, noted that some in-the-know sources believed that Gillibrand was the frontrunner, while others thought Paterson might be pulling another head fake.

If it's Gillibrand, I will eat a little crow myself for predicting a week ago that Attorney General Andrew Cuomo would get the nod, because otherwise Prince Andrew would wage a primary against Paterson for the Governorship in 2010. I still think that is a distinct possibility. But Paterson has been under a lot of pressure all along to name a woman to replace Mrs. Clinton, a fact that gave Caroline Kennedy the opening to offer herself. Also, it's notable that all along, Paterson has said consistently that he was looking at women and upstaters to ensure a representative Democratic ticket.

Gillibrand, 42, is a lawyer who once worked for Cuomo at HUD and raised money for Hillary Clinton. She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2006 when she took on and defeated a GOP incumbent in a heavily Republican district. She ran a tough campaign and demonstrated that she could raise millions of dollars. A member of the Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats, she's raised hackles among some of her colleagues for staking out some centrist positions and, in particular, her pro-NRA opposition to gun control. A couple of her downstate more liberal colleagues are already grumbling about running in the primary against her next year, if she gets the Senate slot. On the other hand, she's close to Hillary Clinton and is being championed by Senator Chuck Schumer.

Of course, in addition to her being a woman, it is precisely her upstate appeal and Blue Dog credentials that would give the 2010 Democratic ticket -- which will have at least four downstate men -- some added breadth. She's also smart, tough, young, attractive with two young children (one a baby born last May!), and knows how to raise dough.

We'll know by late morning today.

UPDATE -- At a mid-day event, Paterson appointed Gillibrand.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Thousands headed for Inauguration trapped in "Purple Tunnel of Doom"

Hapless crowd waits in "Purple Tunnel of Doom" as Obama speaks

Not everyone was happy at the Obama Inauguration. Thousands of holders of the much-coveted 240,000 tickets, which supposedly gave them entry to prized locations for the festivities, were instead marooned for hours, unable to move into or out of the Mall. Stuck, cold and frustrated, they missed the Oath, the Inaugural Address, the whole shebang.

Ticket holders were each assigned to a color-coded section (Yellow, Blue, Purple, etc.) and told to go through security at a specific gate around the Capitol. Most of the trouble affected those with purple or blue tickets. Thousands of the "Purple People" were packed inside the 3rd Street Tunnel from which they failed to emerge until after the ceremonies were over.

Temporary denizens of this "Purple Tunnel of Doom" included Obama foreign policy advisors, campaign volunteers and journalists, as well as whole families who travelled far to be on hand for the historic occasion. At least 1,500 of them have joined a Facebook group, "Survivors of the Purple Tunnel of Doom," to share their experiences and console each other.

The Inaugural Committee apologized, attributing such a huge SNAFU to the huge crowds (not as if huge crowds weren't expected or anything!), and Dianne Feinstein, who chaired the Inauguration and had overseen the ticket arrangements, promised a full investigation.

It would come with ill grace to suggest that those millions of us who watched the affair on TV had better seats.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dame Caroline Kennedy "withdraws from consideration" for Hillary's Senate seat

It's being reported that Dame Caroline Kennedy has called New York Governor David Paterson and withdrawn from consideration for appointment to fill the Senate seat vacated today by Hillary Clinton. Supposedly, Kennedy doesn't want the appointment any more, due to the poor health of her uncle, Senator Edward M. Kennedy. But Ted Kennedy has been very sick since the outset of the Lady of Camelot's pursuit of the high office. More likely, Dame Caroline learned that the Governor intends to appoint someone else and was given time to gracefully withdraw and avoid further embarrassment.

Only two days ago, there were reports that Kennedy had the Senate seat sewed up.

In her brief mini-campaign, Dame Caroline failed abysmally to garner public support or to convince anyone other than close friends that she had any particular qualifications for the job, as I noted here, here, here and here.

Paterson has a long list of highly qualified Democrats from which to make his choice, including Long Island Rep. Steve Israel, Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, upstate Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, and Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney. I'm still betting that it will be Attorney General Andrew Cuomo for the reasons I outlined here. We'll know in a couple of days.

UPDATE - 1/22/09 - After the initial news reports about Caroline withdrawing, for several hours, contradictory stories emerged to the effect that she had not withdrawn or was back in. Early Thursday AM, however, she issued this statement: “I informed Governor Paterson today that for personal reasons I am withdrawing my name from consideration for the United States Senate.” The New York Times published an account pointing to some possible confusion or miscommunication among various Paterson and Kennedy aides. The New York Post reported, "Two sources said Paterson had conveyed to Kennedy on Tuesday that she wasn't likely to get picked." I suspect what happened is that Paterson told her of his decision on Tuesday and set in motion an "I-am-withdrawing" plan to allow her and her supporters to save face. Someone then leaked the story Wednesday evening, messing up the rollout.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Aretha sings "America" at Obama Inauguration

It was an inspired choice to have "The Queen of Soul" sing America's oldest anthem, "America" (also known as "My Country 'Tis of thee") at the Inauguration of Barack Obama today.

My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty,
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From every mountainside
Let freedom ring!

Our father's God to Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright,
With freedom's holy light,
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our King.

Inauguration Day, January 20, 2009

Video: Barack Obama takes the Oath and delivers Inaugural Address

President Obama calls for "a new era of responsibility"

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends — hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism — these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship. This is the source of our confidence — the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny. This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent Mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world ... that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet (it)."

America, in the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Thank you. God bless you. And God bless the United States of America.

Complete text of President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address

Inauguration Day...March 4, 1865

Above: Lincoln, the man standing at the center with paper in hand, addresses the crowd
Below: The crowd and Union troops, including African-American soldiers (blue jackets, foreground) marching at an Inauguration for the first time

The inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States today has prompted a host of recollections of Abraham Lincoln. Many expect Obama to deliver an Inaugural Address worthy of Lincoln. As can be seen from the portions of Lincoln's Second Inaugural reproduced here, The Great Emancipator set a high standard for American oratory:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.' If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether'.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Martin L. King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington, August 28,1963

No question about it. That was one heck of a speech. I was there in August 1963, which actually doesn't seem like all that long ago. Dr. King was an extraordinary leader, murdered in his prime. But there were many others, now all gone, without whom the vast changes in American society that laid the groundwork for Barack Obama's election to the Presidency might not have happened: A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, Jim Farmer, Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, among many others. The only principal March speaker still alive today is John Lewis, then Chairman of the the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and now a Georgia Congressman. Still, King was Primus Inter Pares and handily the best orator on hand that day. Everyone expected his speech to be the high point of the March, and no one was disappointed.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Coast Guard video of US Airways Flight 1549 in ditch landing in the Hudson River

An extraordinary sight, Coast Guard surveillance video shot from the Jersey side of the Hudson River shows (at about the 2-minute mark), the aircraft coming in for a landing from the left side of the picture. Almost immediately, you can see people filing out onto the wings, and the camera zooms in on them. Shortly, a ferry boat makes its way toward the stricken plane from the Manhattan side.

A footnote: it's encouraging to know the Coast Guard is watching the harbor in real time.

Obama courts the GOP, as the Left throws shoes, demands prosecutions

President-elect Obama and McCain at their post-election meeting in Chicago

As the Inauguration looms, Barack Obama continues to talk, plan and act as if he's every one's President and intends to govern from the center -- with respect to both domestic and foreign affairs. He has been aggressively courting Republicans and conservatives, inviting their input and working hard to gain their support. As Politico sums it up, Obama is not only "trying to seduce Republicans these days," but also courting conservatives in an effort that "runs much deeper and wider than is publicly known:"

Obama has had meetings with his former opponent John McCain, GOP congressional leaders and some of the country’s leading conservative commentators. He’s also honoring McCain and Colin Powell in high-profile pre-inaugural dinners, where Obama is expected to toast the Republicans.

Behind the scenes, Obama and his team are working just as hard, courting prominent Republicans and conservatives through frequent phone calls, e-mails and private sit-downs.

The selection of evangelical pastor Rick Warren for the inaugural invocation and Obama’s dinner with right-of-center writers at George F. Will’s home drew significant buzz. But the transition also has quietly reached out to other prominent figures atop the Southern Baptist Church, Charles Colson’s Prison Fellowship Ministry and the Jewish Orthodox Union.

What's more, Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel have been reaching out to and meeting with House Minority Whip Eric Cantor and other key Republicans, including the Senate GOP leaders, Mitch McConnell and Jon Kyl, McCain pal Lindsey Graham, key committee ranking members Charles Grassley and Judd Gregg, and such moderates as Olympia Snowe.

Obama knows the country faces huge problems that can only be addressed, much less solved, if we genuinely "turn the page" on the often vicious and paralyzing partisan battles of the past 30 years. Most Democratic leaders -- and surely most Democratic voters -- understand this and are on board with it. Unfortunately, though, there are still those in the left wing of the party who would rather score points with their narrow constituencies, throw a few more shoes at Bush, or even try to criminalize politics and policy differences than join with Obama to govern the nation effectively. And it's not just DailyKos and a few other lefty bloggers.

Leading the way down this bitter path, veteran Michigan Representative John Conyers, Jr., Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, released a 486-page report entitled "Reining in the Imperial Presidency" and wrote an op-ed about it in the Washington Post in which he took issue with the inclination of many (including Obama) to "move on" and called for various investigations and possible prosecutions, not only about the Bush Administration's war policies but the supposed "politicization of the Justice Department," "the ravaging of our regulatory system and the use of signing statements to override the laws of the land," among other things.

Conspicuously, however, Conyers did not call for an inquiry into how or why the most sweeping act of financial deregulation in recent history and a powerful contributor to the present financial crisis, repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act, passed the House by huge bi-partisan majorities of 343-86 and 362-57 and was signed into law by President Clinton in November 1999.

Over at The New York Times, columnist Paul Krugman urged Obama not to "forgive and forget" and to "reconsider his apparent decision to let the previous administration get away with crime." What crime? Going beyond even Conyers, Krugman wants probes into "abuses [that] extended from environmental policy to voting rights" and "involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies." Krugman cites, among other things, the alleged "political" hiring at Justice and the award of "no-bid contracts to politically connected companies" in connection with reconstruction in Iraq.

I'm equally offended by purely political hiring and hanky panky in government contracting, and there are ways to control or eliminate perennial abuses of this kind. Still, I'll be surprised if the Obama Justice Department hires many lawyers who belong to the Federalist Society. And we'll see whether government contracting -- in Iraq or Afghanistan, all those "shovel ready" public works to be funded by the stimulus plan, or anywhere else suddenly becomes above board because a Democrat is in the White House.

Beginning in three days, President Obama will need to focus all of his, the Congress's and the nation's energies on surmounting tough challenges at home and abroad. He'll need the help and support of Republicans, as well as Democrats, and the sustained good will of moderate and conservative voters, as well as liberals, to get anything much done. A renewed descent into constant quarrel and division could be a disaster. He knows that. It's a pity that people like Conyers and Krugman remain oblivious to it.

Friday, January 16, 2009

How bad is the recession, really?

Pretty bad, right? Turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper and you'll quickly find people calling it the worst ever, another Great Depression, and so on. Gloom and doom are the order of the day. Unemployment is up. The stock market is down. As President-elect Obama and the House Democrats revealed their unprecedented $825-billion plan to stimulate the economy (that's on top of the $700 billion to bail out Wall Street, etc. etc.), no one seems to be confident that even that will work. Obama himself said today in Ohio that he doesn't have a crystal ball and things might get worse before they get better.

Fair enough, no one can predict the future and if you believed the economic forecasts made a year ago, you'd have been misled. But that doesn't mean that there are no hard numbers to get a fix on just how bad the current recession is. To provide a little perspective, the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis has produced a set of graphs that show very clearly how this recession -- now in its 13th month, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBEC) -- compares so far with past recessions through which many of us lived.

Two of these graphs are reproduced above. The one on top depicts total change in output (real gross domestic product) during the current and 10 prior recessions since World War II. Each bar represents the low point of each recession -- the point of deepest descent from the pre-recessionary peak output. You can see that the deepest recession was in 1957 with the 1973 and 1981 downturns bottoming out pretty far down too. In 2001, the economy barely dipped at its worst point. The bar for the current recession shows where we were at the end of the third quarter of 2008 -- when the economy was still pushing into positive territory, although not by much.

Of course, the fourth quarter of 2008, for which neither the Minneapolis Fed nor anyone else yet has data, isn't on the graph. That data will be out January 30, but most analysts are projecting a sharp drop of about 5% on an annualized basis. If correct, that would make the bar for the current recession plunge, possibly past the depth reached in 1957.

The second graph compares changes in GDP for the current recession, the harshest of the 10 recessions and the median for all 10 over time. You can see that output in the current recession -- again, tracked only through the third quarter of 2008 --was chugging along fairly nicely on a level path. In contrast, output in the harshest recession plunged rapidly during the first couple of quarters. Based on what we know about the fourth quarter of 2008, the red line would turn sharply downward.

Most economists also expect that that will not be the end of it, with at least two more quarters of contracting GDP in 2009.

So what does it add up to? A "mild" recession through the third quarter of last year, with the decline accelerating up to the present day. Beyond that, no one knows.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

It's January 15: did you pay your quarterly taxes?

Tim Geithner with his (maybe) soon-to-be boss

Chances are pretty high that you did -- all of them, including those payroll taxes for Social Security and Medicare that millions of self-employed individuals must pay.
You'll hear from the IRS if you don't!

But the man President-elect Obama has nominated to be Secretary of the Treasury, as critical post a post as exists in government in these trying times, failed to pay his 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 payroll taxes. Supposedly, Geithner was too busy or distracted or didn't understand his responsibilities or made what the Obama team is calling "a honest mistake. Such a mistake may have been somewhat easier to make because at the time he worked for the International Monetary Fund, which does not withhold such tax payments, because it's a international organization.

However. the IMF did routinely give Geithner and its other America employees clear notice that they, as Americans, had to pay these taxes themselves on the same basis they are paid by self-employed individuals. Yet, Geithner skipped this liability until the IRS sent him a notice in 2006 informing him he owed the taxes for 2003-2004. He paid those but unbelievably, considering he was at the time President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and a former Under Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, he did not pony up for 2001 0r 2002. Ostensibly, this was because the statute of limitations on those back taxes had run by the time the issue caught up with him (that gives him the lame excuse that "they didn't catch me"). A couple of months ago, when Obama's team was vetting him for his new post, they discovered the unpaid 2001-02 taxes and forced him to pay those with the interest owed. Then, they kept the issue a secret until The Wall Street Journal found out about it.

It also has been reported that the IMF actually reimbursed its American employees for the employer half of the Social Security tax, and that Geithner specifically applied for this reimbursement and got it. Thus, he received compensation intended to "gross up" his salary to cover part of the taxes; he took the money; and then didn't pay the taxes anyway!

As of today, this tax delinquency (along with an also inexplicable lapse in employing an immigrant housekeeper whose legal residence had expired) is being passed over by most in Washington. Obama stands by him. Senate Democrats stand by him. Key Republicans like Lindsay Graham and Orin Hatch are standing by him. Their line is that Geithner is so clearly the man needed to manage the ongoing Wall Street mess that these "minor" and "honest mistakes" ought not to deprive the nation of his critically important services in this key position.

I'm not so sure. Geithner doubtless will be confirmed, and it may well be that he is the best appointee. After all, no one's perfect.

But gee whiz! Isn't paying your taxes one of the most elementary responsibilities of citizenship? Tax returns can be complex and demanding, which is why nearly everyone who doesn't file the short form employs an accountant, a simple precaution that Geithner ignored in most of the relevant years, filing his taxes himself. What about his apparently taking the dough from the IMF and still not paying the taxes? Is it possible for that to have been an "honest mistake"? And why did he not clear his record by paying all of the back taxes, regardless of the statute of limitations, before being obliged to do so by Obama? Did he not believe that the President of the New York Fed, with great responsibility to oversee the banking center of the world, should dot every "i" and cross every "t" in his personal finances?

may be a whiz -- and I initially applauded Obama's choice of him -- but no one is indispensable. The prospect of a tax cheat presiding over the IRS at a time of financial and economic crisis should give everyone pause. Geithner is already being pilloried on the late night talk shows. If everything does not go smoothly with the economy, he'll take a lot of heat -- and his ability to withstand it has been compromised before he even starts the job.

I'm not saying Obama should withdraw the nomination, but with confirmation hearings postponed until next week, Obama has time to rethink the whole issue. He is going to need a Treasury Secretary who inspires confidence whenever he speaks, not one who inspires derision. There is always Larry Summers, after all, who has vast experience as a former Treasury Secretary and high standing on Wall Street and is reputed to be Obama's key economic and financial advisor anyway.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Senator Cuomo looms as Dame Caroline fades

Prince Andrew Cuomo in a contemplative moment

"A son can bear with equanimity the loss of his father, but the loss of his inheritance may drive him to despair. " - Niccolo Machiavelli

In just a few days, New York Governor David Paterson will appoint a successor to Hillary Clinton in the United States Senate. I'm going out on a limb to forecast that he will name state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, not the person on whom all eyes have been trained for more than a month, Dame Caroline Kennedy (that's a prediction, not necessarily a preference).

Like Dame Caroline, Prince Andrew regards the holding of high office as a matter of ordained privilege. Specifically, he almost certainly wants -- and expects -- to sit in the Governor's chair once held by his father. He ran for Governor once and lost; then settled for Attorney General but only as a stepping stone; and is virtually certain to run for Governor again unless he gets a better offer.

And therein lies the problem for David Paterson. Paterson is an accidental Governor who will face a host of problems of the sort that make governors unpopular in the year or so leading up to the 2010 election when he'll have to win a full term by himself. Ahead of him are deep cuts in state programs, tax increases, and constant battles with the state legislature, New York City and other local governments, and every constituency whose support he'll desperately need. The last thing David Paterson wants to face on top of all this is a Democratic primary waged by a smart, ambitious, well-known, well-financed and popular elected official who will have the luxury of being on the sidelines in all those fights over money. He'll have a big enough challenge beating his Republican opponent, especially if the GOP manages to field a formidable candidate like Rudy Giuliani.

But a primary is just what he'll get, if Andrew Cuomo is still Attorney General in 2010. By then, Prince Andrew will be, at 53, no longer a young upstart. He'll have served in a President's cabinet and in statewide office, and he'll see himself pushing 60 or 65 when the next chance to move into the Governor's office comes along. He'll want his inheritance, so he'll run.
On the other hand, Paterson could tap his shoulder and make him a Senator! That gets him out of Paterson's way and, not incidentally, gives the New York Democratic ticket some added appeal to voters in 2010.

In a race against Rudy, running with Cuomo would give Paterson a strong boost. In recent weeks, the compelling logic of this appointment for Paterson was undermined by the unexpected push for Dame Caroline. Pressed by various Kennedy family members, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and others, none of whom hold David Paterson's interests uppermost, the Kennedy boomlet picked up a lot of media-driven momentum for a while, then gradually deflated as the Lady of Camelot showed herself to be such a novice at politics and public affairs that she might lose the Senate seat in 2010, much less help Paterson and the Democratic ticket.

Voters have been paying attention as Kennedy embarrassed herself. In a new Quinnipiac poll released today,voters preferred Cuomo over Kennedy by 31% to 24%. This represented a sharp decline for Kennedy from a December 23rd poll -- taken before she travelled the state and tried answering some reporters' questions -- when she edged Cuomo 33-29. Given that Kennedy almost totally monopolized media attention for a month, an even more significant result from this poll may be that 62% of voters who had any choice picked someone other than Dame Caroline. She's also lagged Cuomo badly in other recent polls. Even more damaging is Quinnipiac's finding that voters say, 48% to 37%, that Kennedy is not qualified to be a U.S. Senator.

has played his cards carefully, avoiding any public acknowledgement of the fact that he was even seeking the Senate seat out of deference to Paterson. In contrast, Kennedy's high-profile mini-campaign, in addition to revealing her deficiencies, was reported to have angered Paterson who understandably resented the effort to steamroll him on what may be the single most important political decision he makes before his 2010 candidacy.

So, if I had any money (I am still waiting for my bailout!), I'd bet it on Prince Andrew.

UPDATE - 1/15/09 - A new Marist poll out Thursday paints a worse picture for Dame Caroline, with Cuomo beating her by an even larger margin, 40% to 25% among all New York voters and 39 to 31% among Democrats. That's also a big decline for Dame Caroline from Marist's survey a month ago, when the two were deadlocked 25-25. Marist also finds that many more New Yorkers believe Cuomo will do a good or excellent job as Senator.

Monday, January 12, 2009

It's Senator Burris!

Burris triumphs but says he's humbled

Harry Reid and the Senate Democrats have folded their weak hand and cleared the way for Roland Burris to be sworn in as the junior Senator from Illinois later this week.

The only real question surrounding this strange episode is why it took them so painfully long to to accept the inevitable.

Senate Republicans are not going to cause Burris any trouble. Indeed, they're happy! Senator John Cornyn, Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has already marked the 2010 Illinois Senate contest, when Burris will presumably run for a full term, as a "priority." Fools they would be not to do so, since whatever Burris's assets, he can readily be assailed for accepting the appointment from the deeply tainted Governor Rod Blagojevich, who likely will have been removed from office and either on trial or already convicted as that campaign unfolds.

Still, Burris's combination of toughness and low-key civility over the past couple of weeks signal that he might turn out to be a harder man to beat than he's been credit for in the past. The missing pieces of the picture are whether one or more other Democrats will challenge Burris in a primary and who the GOP might get to run the race. A primary could prove divisive and damaging and give a clear opening to a well-liked moderate like Rep. Mark Kirk to win for the Republicans.

"Slumdog Millionaire" wins four Golden Globe Awards

"Slumdog" star, Freida Pinto

This has nothing in particular to do with politics. It's just that Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" is a terrific movie, and posting about its winning four Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture, gives me an excuse to put up this photograph of Freida Pinto, who has a starring role in the film.

A newspaper bailout? Maybe they're not kidding

Good old days: "Stop the presses" "Get me rewrite" "Hold the front page"

Many newspapers are in trouble. But that's not news. Once popular and highly profitable papers have been merging, failing and disappearing for the past 60 years (examples of those gone long ago in New York alone: the Herald Tribune, the Daily Mirror, the Journal-American, the World-Telegram and Sun, all of which except the Mirror were consolidations of earlier independent papers).

Competition among papers and from radio and television took a toll on the business, winnowing down the number of publications, typically to one or two in each major urban market. Now, with the Internet stealing away the audience for news, entertainment and advertising, the industry is in such a steep decline that the current recession may finish off the weakest and cripple even the seemingly robust.

Just recently, the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News announced that they would cease providing daily home delivery. The estimable Seattle Post-Intelligencer was put up for sale with a warning that it may shut down in a couple of months if a buyer doesn't materialize. And the Grey Lady herself, The New York Times, appears to be in a financial squeeze, forced to start selling advertising on its front page and taking out a mortgage on its headquarters building. In the past couple of years, the Times has also cut the size of the broadsheet on which it is printed, eliminated a great deal of the space previously devoted to business and other specialized news, and cut its headcount. Sharp workforce reductions have also hit the Los Angeles Times and other big city papers.

Meanwhile, smaller dailies are still folding left and right, which is what was about to happen to two Connecticut papers until a buyer came forward a few days ago. Before that, a Connecticut lawmaker, apparently caught up in the current bailout fever, actually proposed that the state prop up the papers because "the media is [sic] a vitally important part of America."

I'm sure that's how the Politburo thought about the importance of Pravda, too. What's sort of scary about this is that it stirred something of a "debate" about the wisdom of bailing out newspapers, instead of prompting laughter and derision. When push comes to shove, however, newspaper publishers are as likely to want government favors, even bailouts, as any other businesses. In fact, many newspapers and magazines prospered for a century or more because of favorable postal rates.

The harsh reality facing the industry is that you can read the entire content of The New York Times and other publications online for free, while the printed paper costs $1.50 at the newsstand. You can also find everything you used to look for in lucrative classified ads online. And you can look up the weather forecast or check stock prices or the sports news online. Increasingly, advertisers are looking to the Internet instead of print for audiences. Each year, the number of younger people who rely mostly or entirely on the Internet grows and the number of older people tied by habit to the print publication shrinks. Throw in a prolonged recession, and no paper is a sure thing to survive.

I will probably keep buying the printed Times as long as they publish it. It's a habit; I like to read it, whenever and wherever I feel like reading it, without being tied to a desk, lugging a laptop around, or squinting at the screen on a tiny hand-held device. But it's clear that the future lies online.

Within a few more years, any publication that has not migrated its content and its ability to generate revenue to the Internet will die. It's that simple, but it's not going to be easy to get the revenue. Faced with financial failure, publishers and their friends in government may well look for ways to get public support. Cash handouts won't look good, so the likely approach will be to secure less in-your-face subsidies, such as loans, favorable tax treatment or even "public service advertising." After we've dished out a trillion dollars to banks, auto companies and whomever else, it may be hard to reject the argument that the local hometown newspaper is any less worthy of some taxpayer moolah.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Durbin on Burris: “This thing just keeps gnawing at us”

Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois practices the evil eye

I'll say.

Appearing on the tube Sunday, Senate Majority Whip and Illinois Senior Senator Dick Durbin allowed as how the Senate may not refer Roland Burris's fate to the Rules Committee after all, but merely check to see if his papers are in order, as supposedly is routine for all new Senators ("Your papers please!").

After last week's events removed the only fig leaf of a argument against the legality of Burris's appointment, taking no chances, Burris announced that he would go to Washington again this week to claim his seat. Durbin and Harry Reid sure don't want any more wall-to-wall media coverage of Burris knocking on the door, so it's beginning to look as if this is that last chapter in the Saga of Roland.

Still, you never know. As Durbin told his TV audience, “This isn’t easy stuff,” Durbin said. “This thing just keeps gnawing at us.”