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obama2

Obama really got one on the Bushies without looking like a partisan hater. You have to hand it to the guy, he knows how to be smooth.

In one of his first presidential directives — given on his very first day in office — O declared that former presidents cannot declare executive privilege:

The new president effectively reversed a post-9/11 Bush administration policy making it easier for government agencies to deny requests for records under the Freedom of Information Act, and effectively repealed a Bush executive order that allowed former presidents or their heirs to claim executive privilege in an effort to keep records secret.

Yay! The new president is for transparency, an absolute necessity in democratic government. But let us ask ourselves, what are the practical implications? This paragraph is pregnant with unspoken danger for the Bushies:

Experts said Mr. Obama’s moves would have the practical effect of allowing reporters and historians to obtain access to records from the Bush administration that might otherwise have been kept under wraps.

Obama — and the Congress — don’t need to start an investigation and open themselves to accusations that they are as partisan as the last administration. There are plenty of independent scholars and public advocates who will find all the damning evidence of illegal activity on their own. And once that information is out in the clear light of day, Congress may be reluctantly led to open a criminal proceeding, long after the charge of partisanship has become irrelevant.

Goooo ‘Bama!

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I work downtown, near Wall Street. It’s cold today, somewhere in the mid-twenties, and I decided to get some soup from the Hale and Hearty Soup place over on Beaver. The soup place is close enough to the NYSE to hear the moans of traders still recovering from yesterday’s bloodletting.

 

Over the last week we have discovered that the banks are in worse shape than ever, and the government doesn’t have much of a clue about how to fix it. The New York Times is reporting that even the Obama people, who we hope are smarter than the newly ousted Bush people, aren’t sure about what to do. I think the market fell yesterday – led by bank stocks – because it knows banks are still hiding losses. If they’re hiding something it’s because they want to secure their own fortunes before the shareholders – and the country – figure out they’re bankrupt. Or as the last sentence in the times piece says, “Banks may not want that kind of openness, because accurately valuing the toxic assets could force many to book big losses, admit their insolvency and shut down.”

 

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By J.D. Oxblood

Fox News, approx. 12:15 EST:  Bill Hemmer and Bret Baier covering the inaugural balls.

Video coverage of President Obama and First Lady dancing at Southern Inaugural Ball:

Obama:  Let’s go change America.

(crowd cheers)

Bret:  Ok by my count they have one more, is that right?

Bill:  One more ball.

Bret:  One more inaugural ball.  They’ve got the dance steps down, it is down to under a minute, it seems like everything’s being sped up just a bit on the routine, but uh, they have one more and as you see them wave to the southern ball there at the DC armory, uh we will bring you every step of every official ball.

Bill:  This time she’s doing the waving and he has his head back behind her head so that the camera’s can’t see and he’s like, “honey I cannot wait to get some sleep.”  Don’t you know he was?

Bret:  I mean—we were just talking during the break there that uh… I mean it’s kind of like a wedding… a giant wedding—

Bill:  On acid.

Bret:  Yeah but— (indistinct laughter in background) —times a thousand, you know, if—if—(flubs)

A few unnecessary comments:

1.  While “acid” is not one of the famed seven words you can’t say on television, I feel fairly confident that “on acid” is not a phrase newscasters are generally encouraged to use on the air.

2.  Who would ever expect a Fox News correspondent to know what “on acid” means?

3.  Am I the only pundit in America who’s done enough acid to catch such a reference?

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I had to be at work and didn’t see the speech. What did everyone think?

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By J.D. Oxblood 

“I can promise you, if LAST CALL AT THE STARLINER LOUNGE isn’t one of the most original shows that you’ve ever seen, then I will eat a pack of cigarettes.”  With an offer like that, how could I refuse?  Yes, that was the inimitable Snuffy Patterson, and I was half hoping the show would suck so that I could watch him suck ‘em down.  No dice, but it turns out I still won:  he eats a cigarette in the opening as an ad for “Turkish Cigarettes—the cure for halitosis.”  The sourpuss face on this kid is priceless.

We’re back at Corio, another night of hopeless debauchery, shaking off the post-holiday season delirium tremens.  It’s a Wednesday night and cold enough to freeze the rye on my breath.  Seems that all the gorgeous dames in this place only work the Pontani shows; the skirt serving us hooch is looking a little long in the tooth.  Maybe it’s a good thing that she’s not in a corset.

Brian Newman and his band loosen the crowd with a couple of standards, starting with “All of Me.”  This kid looks about two days past getting his draft card, and so thin you could pick your teeth with him.  He can warble, though, so damn well I wondered if the horn in his hand was just a prop.  But he made a sucker of all of us and blew the damn thing better than Gabriel.  He’s backed by keys, skins, a bull fiddle who can lay down a bass line that walks with a ten incher down the left leg, and a sharp-dressed urbanite blowing a thoughtful motif on a tenor sax.

I settle into a cold one and tried to follow the convoluted plot.

Snuffy, our narrator, picks up as Softy Malone enters

 

Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi

 What kind of kool-aid is Nancy Pelosi drinking? CNN reports that Pelosi has said she thinks the Bush tax cuts should be repealed immediately, and that Congress should press forward with an investigation over whether Bush et al. pressured their people at the Justice Department to make illegal hiring decisions based on politics and ideology. President Obama — of course — wants to take a middle road, let the tax cuts expire on their own, and is against any investigation of the Bush administration.

In the first place, we know that the imperative to hire RTAs (right thinking Americans) at the Justice Dept. came from the highest levels of the Bush government. <cough, Dick Cheney, cough> It’s not a matter for investigation. In the second place, there are a lot more important crimes to investigate, like the illegal wiretapping program, the infiltration of protest groups by government spies, no bid contracts to war profiteers, and the lies (told with malicious intent and knowledge of wrong doing) that led us to wage war in Iraq. Finally, raising taxes on the obscenely wealthy isn’t nearly as important as stripping out the ridiculous and worthless tax breaks to businesses included in the Obama plan. Paul Krugman puts the case as succinctly as possible here and here.

You may have thought the kool-aid I referred to in the title of this post is the kool-aid of liberal revenge. Oh no! This country swung so far to the right at the end of the 20th century that to get back to the middle we’re going to go pretty far left. Militarism, free market fundamentalism, and the cult of the individual (with its attendant cult of personality) reached a fever pitch under Bush, and the residual effects of that “conservative” kool-aid are obviously still infecting Obama and the Congressional Democrats. Disaffected whites and greedy globalizers united to turn this country into a banana republic — and not the good kind where you can find urban professional clothing at reasonable prices. No, they wanted a country where the rich are a law to themselves, the Constitution has been replaced by the Articles of Confederation, and the Southern Gentleman planter (complete with an economy run on the brown backs of a institutionalized underclass) replaces the middle class citizen.

I think there may be one bright spot in the disturbing political timidity shown so far by both the Congressional leadership and Obama. If Obama choses to be the uniter we didn’t get eight years ago, counseling peace and reconciliation, the Congressional Dems might be given the opportunity to play the bad cops and put the nastiest Bush aparatchiks into jail. And if that plays well (as it might if the recession gets really bad) hopefully Congress will remember that it does not have to be the political punching bag it has become in recent years. It might grow a pair and become what it was intended to be — the primary branch of government; the voice of the people; the genius of democracy. Only when Congress asserts its constitutional rights will we get the government Lincoln promised us: of the people, for the people, and by the people.

I can hear the hater chorus already saying that Congress under Gingrich asserted itself, and look where that got us. To you I say this: Gingrich was (like Cheney) a member of Congress but not of it. He asserted the power of Congress because Clinton as president was too weak for his taste. He was really paving the way for Bush’s “unitary executive”, a.k.a. king. A representative legislature is the soul of liberal democracy. Let the new Congress take up the mantle of freedom, and prove their mettle. In the process they just might save the Union.

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Ok, it’s not a great picture. I took it with my iPhone. At 1 p. m. today (January 16th 2009) I walked down to where the plane is submerged in the Hudson. If you look at the base of the vertical crane, the little rhombus of grey is the tip of the wing. I was jostling with reporters interviewing not-so-eye-witnesses and emergency personelle, and of course, a hundred gawkers like me who braved the bitter cold (12 degrees F) to get a look at the history that landed in a river yesterday. This is as close as we could get. The smell of jet fuel was obnoxious. Maybe that’s why there were so many fire trucks parked at the curb? Also, check out Oxblood’s tribute to the pilot.

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By J.D. Oxblood

I have a new hero, and his name is Chesley Sullenberger III.  As anyone in the New York area who doesn’t live under a rock should know by now, “Sully” is a commercial airline pilot.  Yesterday, making routine flight #1549 from LaGuardia to Charlotte for U.S. Air, Sully’s plane struck something—most likely a flock of birds—and one of his engines erupted in flames.  Sully quickly decided that he didn’t have time to make it to the nearest airfield, Teterboro, and instead ditched the plane in the Hudson River in midtown.  There were no fatalities.  This is a clear case of incredible judgment and the skills to pay the bills.  “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking… uhhhhhh… we seem to be… uhhh… on fire… I’m going to drop this puppy down on the Hudson… uhhhhhh… we might get a little wet.”

As a veteran traveler, this story makes me all warm and giddy on the inside.  Not for nothing, the LGA-Charlotte route is exactly the ticket on U.S. Air that I tried to purchase in December but found it sold out—it was the cheapest way to get to Mexico.  And speaking as someone who has been in some uncomfortable airplane moments—emergency landings, blown tires on landing—there is no currency more valuable than a pilot who knows how to roll with the punches.

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evilknevil

It ain’t easy for a pimp. It’s less easy for the rest of us. Check it out people

sorry-grandma

This editorial at Marketwatch.com would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad. The jist is this: through colossal selfishness and criminal mismanagement, the lifetime of work our grandparents put into securing their retirement has been spent — and then some — by our parents. This paragraph is priceless:

The Fed, in a bid to stimulate the economy through consumer spending, has cut interest rates to zero. That’s wiped out yields on Treasuries, destroying a traditional safe haven in the process. Meanwhile, years of gutting Social Security has reduced the nation’s retirement program to a shadow of its intended self, and what’s left is about to be swept away by a tsunami of baby boomers just entering retirement.

That “gutting Social Security” part is particularly funny, cuz it happened on Bush’s watch. Remember when they increased the payroll taxes in the 90s? Greenspan told Clinton that the boomers would bankrupt us if we didn’t beef up Social Security, so Clinton, like a dutiful Conservative-lite, raised taxes. Of course, this was another covert scheme by freemarket fundamentalists to discredit the government so they could shrink it and drown it in a bathtub. But at least Social Security was in the black.

And then the Iraq war came along, and Bush (courtesy of widespread venality among us, the American people) raided Social Security to wage a vanity war while lowering taxes for his soon-to-retire boomer cronies. And who paid for this joyride? The parents who suffered through the Great Depression and the Second World War. Thanks boomers!

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oil-fields

Dubai is a palace of excess and contradition. It is a mushroom that paradoxically bloomed under the whithering rays of the sun. But the leadership of the UAE is a lot smarter than anyone in America today. From today’s New York Times:

[The UAE’s] new investment [in renewable energy] aims to maintain the gulf’s dominant position as a global energy supplier, gaining patents from the new technologies and promoting green manufacturing. But if the United States and the European Union have set energy independence from the gulf states as a goal of new renewable energy efforts, they may find they are arriving late at the party.

The irony that the most wasteful and oil dependent part of the globe should be on the cutting edge of green energy is unremarkable next to the ambition — characteristic of the Gulf states — to go all the way all at once. Consider Masdar City, a planned community outside of Abu Dhabi that claims it will have a zero-carbon footprint. Even though skeptics doubt this claim, it is notable not for its complete success in execution, but for its audacity.

According to the Times article, Qatar has invested $225 million into a British research fund, and Saudi Arabia has invested untold millions into American universities, including $25 million for Michael McGehee an associate professor at Stanford, to develop cutting edge technologies. That is fifty times the amount invested by Western governments or industry.

Finally, the Times tells us Masdar City “goes beyond creating new materials and is in fact exploring a new model for urban life.” To wit: “The city will have no cars; people will move around using driverless electric vehicles that move on a subterranean level. The air-conditioning will be solar powered.” As a New Yorker I take exception to this. After all, we also have subterranean electric cars that move people around. It’s called the subway. If only the city, state, and federal government could get their posteriors and capitals wired together they could see that a massive investment in the New York City subway is a necessary good faith effort to putting America into the 21st century.

It’s true. These guys really rock. If you’re in Dubai, they’re at the Seaview Hotel in the Marine bar. (Sorry if the video resolution is crappy. It’s Youtube’s fault. I’m working on improving it.)

obama2

We all knew Obama was no Nader when we voted for him. But it still comes as a shock to this New Yorker to be reminded of exactly how conservative the traditional “Liberal” media is. And it is disappointing to see Obama waste his political capital and his mandate by falling into bad old Democrat habits. How many times do we have to say it? Do not pander to self-identifying conservatives!

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From the CNN news desk:

“As a public official, I expect criticism and I expect to be held accountable for how I govern,” Palin said in a statement released by her office Friday. “But the personal, salacious nature of recent reporting, and often the refusal of the media to correct obvious mistakes, unfortunately discredits too many in journalism today, making it difficult for many Americans to believe what they see in the media” (emphasis mine). Yeah! Salacious! When did she pick that one up? Surely not studying for the SATs. I’m glad she’s gone to the trouble to hire a vocabulary coach. Sadly, she’s about twenty years too late.

Mama Grizzly also said she got up on her hind legs when Tina Fey made a crack on her daughter. I say amen. Tina Fey almost single-handedly saved the republic by exposing Palin’s idiocy — and in the process the idiocy of American conservatives.

Speaking of which, check out Sam’s comment on this CNN blog post: “Why do we need Congress anyway? When the Constitution was written, people needed others to represent them in making policy decisions. Now we have the technology to vote and represent ourselves directly.”

OMG. I know that some secretly bad stuff lurks in the hearts of men, but I didn’t think anyone would have the bad judgment to expose himself in public as a monarchist. That’s right people. If you enjoy your liberty, you better stand up with Harry Reid and the Congress, and say we want government of the people, for the people, and by the people. Congress — a legislature — is the only way to have such a government. If Sam’s plan were implemented, and we all voted individually for every piece of legislation that was proposed (by whom?) — as if government were like American Idol — first there would be deadlock, then there would be a breakdown of government, then the executive would assert him/herself to become a king.

I blame the miserable state of American education for comments like this. No one who has studied history, government, or politics would say such a perniciously stupid thing.

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Muslim women buying Barbies

Dubai, unlike it’s neighbor Abu Dhabi, does not have oil riches. Though oil and gas were discovered in the 1960s, the Al Maktoum Emirs of Dubai knew early on they had to capitalize on oil money in the 80s, 90s, and 00s before the gravy train ran out of steam. Dubai creek was dredged several times over those decades so that today Dubai is the largest deep water port in the region.

Dubai’s rulers have also worked hard to make their town a financial center, giving sweetheart deals to major western financial houses to locate offices there. With finance comes real estate, which, according to Wikipedia, accounted for 22% of Dubai’s GDP before the housing bubble of started to inflate in 2004. It is difficult to find up-to-date figures on the financial situation in Dubai, probably for two reasons: first, if its economy was driven by a bubble, those interested in it do not want to spread the news it has popped and cause a panic; second, the government of Dubai and the UAE does not seem to be particularly transparent, at least if you are looking at the official website. (This article is indicative.) That said, my eyeball estimate of the economy in Dubai shows three salient categories of economic activity: commerce, service and tourism, and finance, under which I include real estate. (If you don’t like my categories, go talk to a professional economist.)

1) Kelly McEvers of Marketplace reported a couple of months ago that confidence in the Dubai’s real estate market has evaporated. 2) If players like Morgan Stanley are in trouble here, then you can be sure they’re in trouble at the Dubai satellite office. 3) And news that China is rethinking its investment in USD bonds should make any country with its currency pegged to the dollar (like the UAE) think twice about its future purchasing power. That leaves us with the service and tourism sector.

Kareoke machine in the Emirates Mall

Kareoke machine in the Emirates Mall

It’s true, everyone loves kareoke. And in the Mall of the Emirates you can record yourself in sound and vision doing a cover of Bowie to send to your friends back home.

Indoor skiing at the Emirates Mall

Indoor skiing at the Emirates Mall

I was particularly thrilled to know I could leave cold, rainy New York to go to the warm, sunny desert, and not have to miss a day of skiing. Not that it was so cold in New York. On the day we left for Dubai a friend who lives near Whiteface ski resort upstate lamented in a Facebook status update that it was unnatural to have 60 degree days at the end of December. But that makes indoor skiing in the desert all the more desirable.

Westerners working at the ski slopes in the Emirates Mall

Westerners working at the ski slopes in the Emirates Mall

When they close down mountain resorts in the US for lack of snow all the ski bums will be able to get jobs at the Mall in Dubai. The Dubai Mall also has ice skating and hockey…

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Ice rink in the Dubai Mall

… and a massive indoor aquarium.

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Dubai Mall Aquarium

Cool huh?! Notice all the folks in Western dress. That’s because most of the people in the malls were either Indian/Pakistani or European. I saw a few Emiratis, but not enough to keep these massive emporia open. Most of the shops are Western too, from Hardee’s and KFC (the writing is Arabic)…

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YUM brands

… to lingerie.

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This may be what Emirati women wear under their black robes, but I wouldn’t know.

Lingerie shoppers?

Lingerie shoppers?

The malls all have a space for “local” stuff, either tourist kitch or jewelry that is dressed up in a faux souk.

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Gold "souk" in the Dubai Mall

If you have any problems shopping, any disgruntled counter help or problems with your credit card, you can appeal either to the mall management or to God.

A higher power

A higher power

In sum, as long as tourists can afford to spend money, as long as novelty and kitch can last, as long as a flower can grow in the desert, Dubai will have a future.

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Burj Dubai

The Burj Dubai is the tallest building in the world and holds records for many “biggest” and “most” categories including tallest structure, tallest freestanding structure, building with the most floors, and highest vertical concrete pumping for any structure. The picture above was taken (by me) from the roof of Al Ghaya Residence on Sheik Zayed road, a pitiful 30+ story building. In the foreground you can see several other buildings in various stages of construction.

dubai-skyscraper

This is the building next door to Al Ghaya Residence, some 80+ stories tall. It has been under construction for more than a year, and it looks complete from the outside. It is empty, however, and the entrances are sealed. This building became emblematic, for me, of our unique historical moment.

The Baharain Tribune noted on October 2nd 2008 that Dubai’s growth is “founded to some extent on a burgeoning property market heavily dependent on borrowed money”, and Norton Rose, a corporate law firm specializing in investing, said on its “credit crisis blog” that “there are rumors that some large projects will be placed on hold.” The analyst at Norton Rose is optimistic, if not in the near term, at least in the medium term:

The “real” market, that is where construction has commenced (and therefore finance is in place to complete the project) or the property has been completed, is suffering a short term state of confusion although the medium term view is that the market will bounce back particularly in quality sectors in quality locations.

But this may be a species of optimism ridiculed by Paul Farrell (my new favorite Wall St. contrarian) in his Marketwatch.com editorial today. Norton Rose thinks the fundamentals of Dubai’s growth are strong, and that the financial problems of the last year will clear up soon, but one could also make the case that demand in Dubai has always been artificial, and that its incredible ten (really five) year growth spurt is an effect of the global bubble that has driven over-production in all sectors to astonishing, never-before-seen levels. As the New York Times reported recently, globalization led to global growth, and now it is leading to a global contraction. Is it implausible to postulate that globalization, growth, and blowing bubbles were interconnected, self-reinforcing phenomena?

But beyond a global contraction, Dubai has other worries. Norton Rose again spins the situation in positive terms:

Dubai has built itself as a trading hub, financial centre, tourist resort and is an attractive and exciting place to live. The number of expatriates moving to Dubai from throughout the world is staggering; all of these people will need a home. Office space still remains in very short supply with heavy demand. Rents in all sectors have continued to increase and demand remains strong, however owner occupiers are struggling to find lenders to accommodate them.

On one hand, many of the immigrants to Dubai are from India and Pakistan, and those people are definitely not the people Dubai wants filling up its empty towers. Certainly, Dubai’s planners have gone to great lengths to lure Western investment. Investment banks are able to run by Western laws — within the walls of their own buildings.

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

The lush courtyard of the Dubai Financial Center

But outside the walls Dubai is still a theocratic state run under Sharia law. The world chuckles at Vince Acors and Michelle Palmer who were caught having sex on the beach and sentenced to three months in prison. The situation is made human and poignant, however, by the case of Marnie Pearce who was accused of adultery by her estranged husband and consequently convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. As a result she may lose custody of her two children entirely. In the print version of the article from January 5th, Ms. Pearce tells the reporter for the Telegraph with obvious passion that Westerners need to remember that Dubai is not a liberal state. A woman — any woman — can be punished for being alone in the company of a man who is not her husband or kinsman. And that is a kink in Norton Rose’s projection of continued demand for Dubai properties.