Monthly Archives: July 2010

An Agnostic Manifesto. Ron Rosenbaum, Slate. An irreligious reply to the New Atheists. “At least we know what we don’t know.” (Missed this first time round. Thanks to A&L for the pointer.)

Hysteresis makes a comeback. Tim Duy, Fed Watch. The danger that high unemployment is self-sustaining. See also Fed urged to adopt aggressive easing by Robin Harding in the FT.

Where we stand on Basel III. Douglas Elliott, Brookings. (Read alongside his primer on the Basel talks.) “Overall, the news is good…” The banks seem to agree. Elliott is more generous than I would be, but let’s see the capital ratios.

Too many laws, too many prisoners. The Economist. An eye-opening look at America’s harsh, dysfunctional, and potentially tyrannical system of criminal justice. The essay by Alex Kozinski referenced in the article — “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal” –  is worth seeking out in this excellent Cato volume.

Decades ago I worked in the British civil service. I remember a colleague once got into trouble when security guards, patrolling the office one night, found he had left a secret paper on his desk. To be exact it was a single empty page — a blank continuation sheet, stamped “secret”. The guards, following procedure, had recorded a “breach”, and sealed the room. (The stray page was not from a document about biological weapons or terrorist cells, by the way. It had fallen out of a note about monetary aggregates, or some dull thing. Even the pages it belonged with, the ones with text on them, said nothing sensitive.)

Governments are so routinely intent on withholding information that one wants to cheer whenever somebody leaks a stash of material. But I had mixed feelings about the WikiLeaks archive from the beginning, and nothing I have read in it or about it has made me feel any more comfortable.

I think this is the best piece yet by the ever-impressive Atul Gawande. He reports on cases — one, in particular — where almost hopeless efforts to prolong a life succeeded only in making death more miserable. The article is especially strong on the pressure every doctor feels to mislead dying patients about their prospects, keeping hope alive where there is no hope. They allow and even encourage patients and their families not to face reality. As a result, the last days are far more dreadful than they need to be.

The simple view is that medicine exists to fight death and disease, and that is, of course, its most basic task. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually, it wins. And, in a war that you cannot win, you don’t want a general who fights to the point of total annihilation. You don’t want Custer. You want Robert E. Lee, someone who knew how to fight for territory when he could and how to surrender when he couldn’t, someone who understood that the damage is greatest if all you do is fight to the bitter end.

More often, these days, medicine seems to supply neither Custers nor Lees. We are increasingly the generals who march the soldiers onward, saying all the while, “You let me know when you want to stop.” All-out treatment, we tell the terminally ill, is a train you can get off at any time — just say when. But for most patients and their families this is asking too much. They remain riven by doubt and fear and desperation; some are deluded by a fantasy of what medical science can achieve. But our responsibility, in medicine, is to deal with human beings as they are. People die only once. They have no experience to draw upon. They need doctors and nurses who are willing to have the hard discussions and say what they have seen, who will help people prepare for what is to come—and to escape a warehoused oblivion that few really want.

Well said. The money wasted on ill-advised end-of-life-care — colossal though the sums may be — ought not to be the main focus of discussion. It will have to be talked about, of course, but that framing of the issue is disturbing and divisive. Before we get to that, we should be talking about the patients’ interests, as those interests would be judged by patients themselves, given all the facts. This is not about death panels. It is about patients’ rights.

FT column: Action on carbon is down the drain

My latest column is on climate change and the US

The Democratic leadership in the US Senate has suspended efforts to pass a climate change bill. It abandoned not only its planned comprehensive cap-and-trade measure, similar to one already passed by the House of Representatives, but also a more modest bill aimed at electric utilities. The Senate will most likely pass an energy bill of some sort, but this will barely even pretend to make progress on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

Here is an interesting and dare I say important article about the media’s role in the Sherrod scandal by John Harris and Jim VandeHei at Politico. Race was a factor in what happened, self-evidently: in this case, specifically, sensitivity to the charge of racism. (See Jonathan Chait on the White House’s terror of being accused of favouring blacks over whites.) Polarisation was part of it too– but, say Harris and VandeHei, multiplied by a new force.

What is different these days is the emergence of an industry — a political-media complex — for which ideological conflict is central to the business model.

In other words, anger sells.

Conservative Democrats are wondering whether it makes sense to raise taxes on high-income households next year. You recall that the Bush tax cuts are due to expire in 2011. The administration wants to extend them for most Americans, but not for those making more than $250,000.

This week, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate budget committee, joined fellow Democrats Evan Bayh of Indiana and Ben Nelson of Nebraska in saying that the tax cut expiration for high-income earners should be delayed in the light of the weak economic recovery.

Tim Geithner is unimpressed. He has affirmed the administration’s preference to let taxes on high incomes go back up, and said a wider reform was planned. A wider reform would certainly be good — the system needs it desperately — though one wonders what a Republican-controlled House would make of the idea.

Meanwhile I’m still hoping that Martin Feldstein’s proposal — extend all the tax cuts for 2011 and 2012, then reverse all of them the following year — might catch on. This would not supply all of the needed short-term stimulus or all of the needed long-term  tightening, but the sign is right in both cases.

To agree to this, Obama would have to break his promise not to raise taxes on the middle class (sooner or later he will have to break it anyway). Congressional Democrats would have to let high earners off the hook for two more years (they could concentrate on the idea that if the Bush tax cuts were so reckless and irresponsible, there is much to be said for cancelling them all). Republicans would have to drop their idiotic opposition to any and all tax increases under any and all circumstances.

It’s a tall order, in other words. Sad if politics rules out such a simple and sensible idea.

I find the fuss over JournoList — Ezra Klein’s now-defunct email network for liberal writers — perplexing. The idea that 400 journalists, academics and assorted hangers-on could plot to do anything, even if they agreed they wanted to, is laughable.

On the contrary, says The Daily Caller. It has uncovered evidence of a conspiracy. What was its aim? To organise an open letter complaining about media coverage of the Jeremy Wright affair. I think the plan must have been to write a secret open letter — in invisible ink, to be burned at a gathering in Adams Morgan. Owing to a slip-up, however, the letter was published, and the whole scheme was blown.

Somebody on the list says the best way to blunt conservatives’ attacks on Obama is to accuse them of racism (see previous post). In another email, somebody says she would laugh to watch Rush Limbaugh die. Hard to believe that a network of just 400 might include some people with views like this.

Klein says the list included not just writers but

grad students, low-level editors, midwestern academics, and many others I’d never met or known of before they joined. If I had thought there was some deep and dark conspiracy to protect, I can guarantee you I would’ve been a bit more selective.

That seems plausible. You’d surely want to filter out anybody low-level or midwestern. As it is, I fail to see the scandal. If avowedly liberal opinion writers from publications such as the Nation — or for that matter the New York Times — were comparing notes on how best to restore Republican majorities in Congress, that would be a story. If the emails showed they were pretending in their published work to believe things that they don’t, that would be a story. In fact, the emails strongly suggest that members of this progressive social network are progressives who like to chat with other progressives. It’s pretty shocking.

Of course, too much like-mindedness can make you lazy. When liberal or conservative writers close their minds to opposing points of view and settle for recycling the talking-points of their respective tribes, that’s not good journalism. But you don’t need to listen to their private conversations: you who can tell who they are by reading their copy.

It’s difficult to say who has behaved more discreditably in the Shirley Sherrod affair, Andrew Breitbart or Tom Vilsack.

Breitbart’s blog started the scandal by showing a clip of Sherrod’s speech, in which she confessed to letting racial prejudice once guide her decisions as an official 20-odd years ago. Video of the whole speech shows how misleading the clip was. She was renouncing her earlier view, and explaining how she came to see her error. She was talking about overcoming racism, not surrendering to it. (And it turns out that the white farmer who had sought her assistance came to regard her as a friend.) If Breitbart had seen the full video and knowingly twisted this story inside out, it was disgraceful.

With the clip circulating, Tom Vilsack, Sherrod’s boss and Agriculture Secretary, summarily sacked her. Before long, with the issue dominating the news and the whole story coming out, the firing was under review. Shame the decision was reviewed after it was executed not before. It seems Sherrod was given no chance to explain herself. Apparently Vilsack has now apologised and offered to hire her back.

The whole thing is depressing. Part of the country is not just sensitive to the charge of racism, as it should be, but hyper-sensitive, even to the point of intellectual paralysis. That is how I see Vilsack’s initial reaction on behalf of the administration. On the other hand, hurling the charge around–knowing how offensive and enraging the accusation is–is something that many political combatants of both left and right are only too happy to do. How’s that for a toxic combination?

FT column: Obama has angered the centre and the left

My latest column is on US politics.

Democrats in the US are worried about November’s mid-term elections, and they are right to be. On current numbers, Republicans will regain control of the House. The possibility that Democrats might also lose control of the Senate, in a year when the seats in play should rule this out, is taken seriously.

Remarkably enough, bearing in mind the size of the bill (call it 2,300 pages) and the inordinate amount of time needed to pass it, the financial reform that the Senate sent to the president’s desk on Thursday is only one more marker on a long and winding road.

The bill leaves multiple regulators with wide discretion across a range of critical issues. The argument over precisely what the new rules will be is barely getting started. Some of the most important questions — such as the amount of capital financial firms will have to set aside — are scarcely even addressed. Again and again, the bill calls for studies to be undertaken. No matter how these open issues are resolved, unintended consequences will come thick and fast. The whole thing is unfinished work with a vengeance. Nonetheless, better this than nothing.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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