Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A View From Oregon

Over the weekend, a canvasser left us a door hanger in support of Obama: “Vote for change. It’s easy.” And here in Oregon, you get the feeling that it is, in fact, easy. We vote by mail-in ballot, starting as early as October 17.

This system has been in place since I moved here from New York City seven years ago, and they’ve got the kinks pretty well worked out. Although I dearly miss the communal aspect of heading to the polls on Election Day, I have to admit that the Oregon system seems quite straightforward and free from drama in comparison to the rumors and concerns we hear from other states.

Outside of a couple of ballot measures – always with the ballot measures in the Northwest – and one hotly (and nastily) contested U.S. Senate race, I would say that “calm,” “straightforward,” and “drama free” accurately describe the 2008 election in Oregon, at least in the greater Portland area where I live.

According to recent polls, Oregon is tracking 57% for Obama and 38% for McCain. And only 3% “undecided,” which somehow makes me feel better. As David Sedaris brilliantly noted in his recent New Yorker column titled “Undecided”: “I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?” But I digress…

Unmistakably blue this year – at least as pertains presidential politics – Oregon has seen no recent visits from the Obama or McCain camps, or even from their more noteworthy lieutenants. (We’re not complaining, Oregon did have a rare moment of national political glory during the Democratic primaries, delivering Obama his largest crowd to that point (70,000+) and helping to solidify his delegate lead.) I do get e-mails from the Obama campaign describing Oregon as a crucial battleground state, but not much else echoes that. It’s clear at this point that the campaign is marshaling volunteers to help place more calls from Oregon to get out the vote in true battleground states.

Oregon is an interesting conundrum, and I would argue a microcosm of America as a whole, boasting a clear and sometimes polarizing division between the more dense urban areas and the idyllic pockets of what Sarah Palin deems the “real America.” Oregon has seen extensive population growth and transformation over the last 10-15 years. Like Washington to the north, Oregon has been transformed by a steady influx of people – and money and values – from other states.

Ultimately, although Oregon is politically diverse, it clearly does not qualify as anything approaching a swing state this year. And to an extent, one might argue that this is an important indication of how little traction the McCain-Palin ticket has.

Independent and conservative voters in the West would seem as likely as anyone to embrace a uniquely Western Republican ticket and the “maverick” mindset, but that’s where people surprise you: they are really not that simple. And while it’s been slower to hit here than many places, Oregon is definitely feeling the impact of the collapse of the housing market and, with increasing severity, the job market.
In Oregon, like New York and the handful of other uncontested states, we continue to work diligently to get out the vote.

We express quiet but steady support for our candidates through lawn signs, bumper stickers, blog posts and mail-in ballots. We anxiously digest and dissect the latest polling data and analysis from the swing states. And we wait, with a mixture of optimism and apprehension, for November 4.

Jennifer Kelley, who does account strategy and management for high-tech companies for CMD Agency, lives in Portland, Oregon. A proud alumna of Columbia University and New York University, she moved out of Brooklyn with her husband Colin on 9/10/2001.

Regulation Q

Do you remember Regulation Q, the Federal Reserve limitation on the maximum interest banks could charge? That was phased out in the 1980s. Or how about the bevy of state usury laws, that set a maximum percentage for interest banks and financial companies could charge their gullible customers, or limits on branch and interstate banking? They were phased out around the same time. And you no doubt remember the Bretton Woods Agreement, that effort to set exchange rates and control international capital flows, that was born in a New Hampshire Hotel in 1944, and died in the 1970s? (And was Harry Dexter White a Communist agent?)

All are gone, gone with the wind, to coin a phrase, blown down during the gale of free marketeering in the 1970s and 1980s. There are many calls these days for new regulations of security markets. The Nightly Business News on PBS sounds increasingly like the editorials in The Nation. But are they really serious? Will it be a mere prohibiting of the worst excesses of our recent capitalist excesses, or a fundamental rethinking of how our economy should work? In particular will there be a serious effort to limit capital flows and interest? The old arguments against regulation will be trotted out—any effort to seriously impede the flow of capital will just create a black market, and with the “return of the repressed” the free market will assert itself with a vengeance. At best, many will suggest, we cannot regulate financial markets as much as we can suggest and insinuate, and offer little helpful hints. I don’t agree. The problems of black markets will never be fully eliminated, but if nations work together, and our securities regulators are vigilant in closing newly emerging loopholes, they can be minimized.

But what is needed is a more fundamental fix to our housing priorities, first by starting again to rebuild affordable rental and limited-equity cooperative housing in sizable quantities, and then by, as much as possible, eliminating speculation from the issuing of home mortgages, and returning them, as much as possible, to the golden age of the 1950s and 1960s, when small banks and savings and loans issued the majority of mortgages. The reasons for this go beyond the economy to basic questions about the nature of democracy in America. Let me quote Ross McKibbin from the latest issue of the London Review of Books (speaking of Britain as much as the US.) “Fundamentally, private housing has become a compensation for the increasingly gross maldistribution of income. Inadequate incomes mean that large numbers of people don’t have access to the style of life that has always been the ultimate justification of neolioberalism and to which, reasonably enough, they now believe they have a right. What it does give them access to (in the short term) us credit.”

But this credit has to be secured by housing prices and this only works if housing prices continue to go up. As McKibbin argues, we have replaced social democracy with credit democracy and universal access to credit—but the right to borrow money is a poor substitute for the right o decent and affordable housing. The speculative genie in the economy can only be put back in the bottle if the free flow of credit is strictly limited for the good of society as a whole, and not a handful of speculators. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can be earned, it cannot be borrowed.

Monday, October 27, 2008

When Obama Wins

Total strangers will embrace, and, for that brief instant, fall in love
There will be new noises, a new din that will replace the usual cacophony,
An expectant gurgle, drool falling from the lips of a new born
The moment when we are finally born, our lungs filling with air,
As we learn how to breathe, in a new atmosphere
When Obama wins

New planets, new constellations, new heavens, and a new earth
A new Securities and Exchange Commission
A new Home Owners Loan Corporation
Will sprout, unbidden, full grown,
Like Athena from the head of Zeus
When Obama wins

And no one will get sick or die, or at least,
No one’s money will get sick or die,
As new jobs spontaneously generate
Like maggots on rotting meat
When Obama wins

There will be singing and dancing,
Joe Sixpack will drink
And Soccer moms will boast of their Peles and Maradonas.
Russia will reclaim Alaska , and the ocean’s waves will part
And we will walk barefoot from Maine to Oahu
When Obama wins.

No longer black and white
But green and gold, indigo and scarlet
No longer from Europe or Asia,
But from Oz or Middle Earth, or Klingon
Each with a new imaginary ethnicity,
And no one will be from Kansas anymore,
When Obama wins.

Lions will lie down with the lambs
And no one will object, if they want to get married,
Every person will be of a different gender
And every state will be united, ecstatically,
When Obama wins

The Tigris and the Euphrates will flow into the Mississippi
And there will be blissful forgetting
Of central Asian geography
And with their newly fashioned pruning hooks
Our soldiers will come home and tend to our gardens
When Obama wins

Church bells will peal, muzzeins will chant
Buddhists will plan their next reincarnation
Atheists and evangelists will switch creeds
And rabbis will decide that it is good for the Jews
When Obama wins

A trumpet will sound,
There will be a calm and generous madness
A dethroning and undoing
Our Bastilles destroyed
And we will round up the rounders up
Of the usual suspects
When Obama wins

All will be a blur, a great Bacchanalian whirl,
A vast dance in every city center, filling every mall,
On Wall Street, on Main Street, on Mean Street, on Easy Street,
And we will all be drunk
V-J Day in Times Square
Kissing strangers with abandon
And new Eisenstaedts with cell phone cameras
Will take our pictures as mementoes
When Obama wins.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Bad Vote on Term Limits

Somewhere, the ghosts of Tammany Hall sachems are laughing at the chicanery and irony of it all. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who long posed as a man above the pettiness of politics, has dodged the city's voters and figured out how to get a shot at a third term in City Hall. The Daily News calls this "A win for democracy." I call it an abuse of lawmaking and a sad day for democracy.

As I have said here before, term limits are a terrible idea. They substitute law and timetables for the voters' judgment. But if we are going to get rid of them, let's get rid of them openly and fairly, in the same kind of public referendum where they were voted in. But that wasn't enough of a quick thing or a sure thing, so the mayor pushed for legislation in the City Council. He got it. Term limits have been permanently extended from twelve years to eight, although the bill passed by 29-22, a narrower margin than expected.

The vote reflects a certain lack of courage in the council. Our city, and the world, are in a financial crisis. That frightens lawmakers, so they reached for a way to keep in office a mayor who impresses them as fiscally astute. (Never mind the groaning levels of inequality that are part of the Bloomberg years.)

The eagerness to keep Bloomberg is the great man theory of history in action. New Yorkers have embraced this idea since Rudy Giuliani won credit for bringing down crime. But giving all credit to one mayor, on crime or finance, underestimates the strong contributions of the rest of the city.

No one is indispensable. As Charles de Gaulle once observed, cemeteries are full of indispensable men. Given a choice between honest law and keeping Bloomberg, we could have showed Bloomberg out the door and allowed him to stay on as a dollar a year man to advise the next mayor on financial matters. But that would not have satisfied the mayor.

While the history of Bloomberg's mayoralty is yet to be written, the council vote yesterday underscores a tendency of Bloomberg's that needs to be recognized in any long-term evaluation of the man: his contempt for democracy.

Bloomberg would counter, of course, that he has contempt for politics. But in a democracy, as E.J. Dionne has observed, people who hold contempt for politics eventually wind up living in something other than a democracy. That is what is happening to us today in New York City.

For a long time, Bloomberg has impressed me as a character straight out of the technocratic strain of the Progressive Era: a top hat reformer who values corporate-style efficiency and technocratic government over democracy and social justice. I still think that holds. But in his connivance with the City Council to prolong his chance of staying in City Hall, Mayor Bloomberg ran away from the law and the will of the people like any ordinary ward heeler.

There will be challenges to this in the courts, and there is no guarantee that Bloomberg will be re-elected. But on the morning after the City Council vote on term limits, New York looks like a city afraid of its own future and afraid of governing by the will of the voters.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

One of the pleasures of being a fan of financial history, like one of the pleasures of being a fan of NASCAR racing, is waiting for the crashes. Bull markets and prosperity are dull; bear markets and bankruptcy are exciting. And of course the first law of finance, is that what goes up slowly, usually comes down with a bang and terrifying swiftness. I have been re-reading Roger Lowenstein’s When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management (2000), a crisp well-told tale of the spectacular collapse of Long-Term Capital Management (LTCM) in 1998.It was good reading the first time, and even better the second time around.

LTCM, for those who are rusty on their financial panics, was a hedge fund created in the 1990s to speculate in bond and currency markets, and to do so with great mathematical sophistication. There were two Nobel Prize winning economists on its staff, and they were the best and the brightest “quants” that the world of high finance had to offer. Of course, their favorite method of investment were complicated derivative products. Of course, they traded these products with many of the biggest investment firms on Wall Street. And of course, LTCM was ridiculously over-leveraged and under-regulated. And of course, they were a bunch of insufferable sons of bitches, and they made fantastic profits for a while, and everyone wanted in, and then, the market for the Russian ruble started to collapse, they found themselves near bankruptcy in a matter of weeks, and they were treated like dirt by other Wall Street firms, like Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, who refused to come to their rescue, muttering something about “moral hazard.” But of course, with derivatives worth $1.4 trillion in notional value on the books of their trading partners, there were fears that the illiquidity of a bankruptcy would cause a financial crisis, and so the New York Fed, helped arrange a “bailout” by other Wall Street firms, and though all of LTCM’s partners and investors lost their shirts, their holdings were liquidated in a reasonably orderly manner.

There were investigations, but no laws were broken, just imprudent investments made, so the travail of LTCM was soon forgotten. There were big reports issued, calling for closer regulation of derivative markets, of hedge funds, worries about a dangerously overleverged banking system, and fears about how close one poorly managed firm had come to seizing up the international banking system, but Alan Greenspan, Robert Rubin, and Lawrence Summers all refused to panic, and rejected all calls to regulate the derivative market, and of course this free market bias only became more pronounced under W. And ten years after LTCM, a nearly identical set of circumstances, but on a larger scale, but this time in mortgage securities, did what the LTCM collapse could not, utterly seized up the credit and lending markets, and led to the failure and/or shotgun marriages of many of Wall Street’s most venerable firms. Wall Street and its supposed regulators learned absolutely nothing from the LTCM, and you know what George Santayana has to say.

We will hear in the weeks and months to come calls to go slowly in regulating the securities markets, appeals to be cautious, not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But if the baby is made of derivatives, it is Rosemary’s baby, the spawn of Satan. Everyone will scream, as they always do, “liquidity, liquidity, liquidity.” But if recent events show anything, it is there can be too much as well too little liquidity, and too much liquidity, too much money chasing too few solid investments, always creates an excess of speculation. The great suburban housing boom of the 1950s and 1960s was accomplished without mortgage backed securities and collateralized debt swaps. Times have changed, and I don’t know if we can return to the status quo pre- bellum, but I sure would like to try, and see derivatives go the way of all financial pipedreams and Ponzi schemes. In any event, if regulators, politicians, and we the American people, had been paying attention, and not been either so bribed, intimidated , or awed by Wall Street during the turn of the millennium bull market, we might been able to fix our financial system in the late 1990s, and avoid the crisis of 2008.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

As Goes New York, So Doesn't Go Pennsylvania

For geographers and historians New York State, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey form the region generally known as the Mid-Atlantic, and much has been written on the characteristics the states share, such as their political, ethnic, and racial heterogeneity, a key role in the forefront of industrialization in the 19th century, big cities that have helped define the American urban experience since colonial times(Go Phillies!), and so forth. So my question is (with apologies to New Jersey), why is Pennsylvania a battleground state, and why is New York State a battle finished state, one in which peace reigns, an enforced peace that intimidates and routs potential challengers? If Pennsylvania is Stalingrad or Antietam, New York is Agincourt and the Six Day War. (The Jewish vote is always important.)

I don’t know. I know a lot about New York State, and very little about Pennsylvania. I do know the cliché is that politically Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburg with Mississippi in between. But New York State also has its large rural and Republican stretches. New York as a firm Democratic state in presidential elections is fairly recent—I’ve told frequently told this little nugget of trivia over the past four years, and this might be the last time; since 1856, when the GOP first ran a national candidate, there have 38 presidential elections in New York State, 19 won by the Democrats, 19 won by the Republicans, though the Republicans have not won statewide in NY since 1984, and the Dems are almost certain to make it seven in a row on Nov 4th. Big city Democrats don’t have nearly as big cities in Pennsylvania as in NY, where NYC makes up about 44% of the state’s population. Upstate Republicans in New York, to generalize wildly, are primarily of the country club suburban type, the sort that have been tending Democratic in recent elections, while rural Pennsylvanians, to once again generalize wildly, are more Appalachian than suburban.

Who knows? Pennsylvania is a tad more southern than New York, and of course shares the Mason-Dixon Line with the border southern state of Maryland , In any event, there is no doubt that upstate New York has been trending Democratic in recent years, and there may a Democratic pick-up of as many as three seats in Congressional races in western New York this year. And the local Rochester paper reported this morning that new registration figures for Monroe County show that over the course of this year, the number of registered Democrats have increased from 153,00 to 170,000, while the Republicans have only increased from 138,000 to 140,000. (Go Obama.) I would be interested if anyone has any other thoughts on the different voting patterns between the two states, but here’s hoping that Pennsylvanians follow their northern neighbor into Democratic blueness on election night.

Grant and Lee in War and Peace

The Civil War fascinates Americans because it raises so many unsettled questions from our national past, especially the meanings of race and democracy. Now, a fine new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society looks at two iconic figures of the Civil War--Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee--to ask fascinating questions about the war, our military, and our past and present.

Grant and Lee in War and Peace, a collaboration of the Virginia Historical Society and New-York Historical Society curated here by my friend Kathleen Hulser, explores the relationship between civilians and the military before, during and after the Civil War through the lenses of Grant and Lee. But unlike most U.S. history survey courses, it doesn't end with Reconstruction.

Instead, the show asks difficult questions, implicitly and explicitly, about the lessons of this history for today. "The exhibition asks us to reflect on the application of military power to the achievement of our national goals," asks Louise Mirrer, president of the New-York Historical Society, in an opening statement. "The U.S. Army today faces challenges in Iraq that may recall its efforts in occupation and reconstruction of the post-Civil War South."

If the Iraq question haunts the end of the exhibit with contemporary relevance, one of the great strengths of this show is the way it situates Grant and Lee in the broad context of nineteenth century history. The exhibit extends back to the Mexican War, through the Civil War, and forward to Reconstruction and the wars against western Indians to establish the full context and impact of both generals' lives.

The show is animated by strong audiovisuals and some excellent objects, including Grant's saddle, John Brown's bowie knife, and drawings executed by Grant and Lee. (Both men learned to draw at West Point, where drawing was taught to give officers the ability to depict landscapes and enemies in the field.)

Yet the dynamic heart of Grant and Lee in War and Peace is its searching examinations of the historic tensions that define the place of the military in the United States: citizen soldiers versus professional officers; making war in Mexico versus policing supporters and opponents of slavery in Bleeding Kansas; the polished Lee versus the plebeian Grant as Civil War commanders; justice versus reconciliation after the Civil War; and memory versus history in the post-Civil War myth of the Lost Cause.

For me, these debates reached their height in the final third of the show. In a strong audiovisual presentation that takes the form of an actor playing a man reminiscing about Reconstruction-era Louisiana, visitors learn about the White Leagues, the Ku Klux Klan, and their massacres and intimidation of Blacks and Republicans.

President Grant opposed these effort to destroy Radical Reconstruction in the South, and went so far as to deploy Federal troops there. But his efforts were uneven and ineffectual.

This lesson in a too-little-known chapter in American history concludes with an admonition to visitors: when you are told about two hundred years of democracy in the United States, remember "the sad story of Louisiana and war after the war." In the background flash headlines that recall the Iraq War, with its sectarian violence.

This is a great warning against an uncritical pride in American democracy that obscures its uglier realities. As a policy proscription for the use of the military today, however, it is ambiguous.

When I look back on Reconstruction, I wish that Grant and his successors in the White House had kept Federal troops in the South long enough to guarantee full citizenship for Blacks. At the same time, I think the invasion of Iraq was a catastrophe and that we need to pull out sooner, not later. And if we are going to compare Reconstruction-era Louisiana and Iraq, who are the Iraqi counterparts of the freed Blacks of the South?

Grant and Lee in War and Peace
doesn't offer hard and fast answers to such present-day questions, but it does make you think about the strengths and limits of the military in our politics and our culture. Like any good book, or any good exhibit, it raises more questions than it answers.

The exhibit, which is well worth visiting, runs through 29 March 2009.

Illustration: Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, Let Us Have Peace, 1865, ca. 1920, courtesy Virginia Historical Society.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Free Riders

Rob has been on my case, rightly, to get more involved in the Obama campaign, to canvass, to make phone calls, to make a pilgrimage to a “battleground” state, to do something, to assert myself politically. Me, I’ve been reluctant to make a commitment of this sort, because I am genuinely busy (I will be away from Rochester the last two campaign weekends) and because something is definitely holding me back , a certain diffidence that I don’t really understand—after all, I have done this in the past, why not now?

I suppose this is a matter that of interest to me and perhaps my therapist, but really isn’t something I need to bother the faithful readers of Greater New York about. However Rob’s eloquent appeal for political participation was on my mind when I read an interesting article in the latest issue of the London Review of Books by David Runciman on the nature of political participation. There is a major school in political science that holds that voting is essentially irrational. In almost all cases, people have a good idea who is going to win and lose before they vote. For instance, it is clear that New York State’s electoral votes will be going to Obama. Therefore, why should any one individual take the trouble to vote for president in New York State. One more vote will not make a difference. Therefore, why not spare yourself the time and the bother of voting, and just stay home, and let others send Obama to his certain victory or McCain to his certain defeat? This is the problem of the so-called “free rider,” the parasite who lets others do their work for her. A school of analysis has developed that views the free rider as a rational political actor, and the voter as essentially irrational, making a “symbolic” statement by voting, knowing all the while that their particular vote is essentially irrelevant and superfluous.

There are standard answers to the problem of the free rider. One is to merely assert that voting is a duty, and that, on Kantian grounds, if everyone followed your examples, no one would vote. But this merely shuts down the question by asserting a moral obligation; and indeed—why work if someone is willing to provide you with a salary without working, and why vote if there will be the same outcome whether or not you vote? Some would argue that you need to vote because you don’t actually know who is going to win the presidential race in New York State, and with a reminder about Florida in 2000, a caution that there are close elections, in which every vote counts. But neither part of this makes sense; some elections will not be close, and everyone knows this before the election is held. Even more than presidential races, there are myriad local elections in which the outcome is absolutely not in doubt, but many people vote nonetheless. And Florida, if anything, proves the reverse, that in close elections what matters is not counting but discounting votes, and in truly dead heat elections, like Florida in 2000, both sides will do whatever they can to disqualify as many questionable ballots as they can to help their cause.

If there is an answer to the free rider question, it lies in questioning the relation of the voter to the candidate. In a consumer society, we of course sell our candidates like soap, as something we don’t have, that we need or we should need. But this is the wrong model; our candidates shouldn’t sell themselves to us, as if there was no prior link between us and the candidate, but we should vote because the candidate already is us, that we share an essential tie, and voting becomes, not a statement of choice, but an exercise of our identity. We are part of a political collective, a union, a volunteer army, a political party, an obligation freely entered into to come to the aid of others. Party identity has become extraordinarily attenuated in modern American life, and few people feel the imperative of party, and those who run parties do all they can to mute or submerge the continuing allegiance of party. But as Hillary Clinton pointed out in her convention speech, the reason to vote for Obama (certainly for many Hillary supporters) was that Obama was the standard bearer of the party that best epitomized and encapsulated our political interests, that, in some fundamental way, we are all Democrats. (Though this argument works equally well for Republicans, Greens, States Righters, whatever.) All of this is to say when politics is reduced to mere individual choice- what is better for me—it does become paradoxical. And working for a candidate establishes the connections we need to remind ourselves that voting is ultimately is collective and therefore a rational act. So, okay Rob, I will make calls for Obama.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Attacking the World Trade Center

Look, I like destroying New York City as much as the next guy, and on Rob’s and others recommendations, I read and rather liked Max Page’s The City’s End, his well-illustrated chronicle of fictional attempts to destroy the city, and I agree with his main thesis, that most of the attempts to destroy New York City were in some sense affectionate, the product of people wishing to see the city correct its flaws and deal with its problems, rather than by those who would have been happy to see the city laid low and prostate. But I took strong exception to a few paragraphs, in which he attempted to make a general statement on the causes of the city’s “decline” in the 1960s and 1970s. He argues that the city did not so much decline at much as it was “assassinated,” and he sees as the main culprit “the massive effort to remake lower Manhattan as an office and financial center.”

It would have been helpful if Page provided readers with any evidence or statistics for this bold claim, but he doesn’t. I don’t have the numbers either, but of course the World Trade Center wasn’t built by the city, but by the Port Authority, which jealously guarded its independence and its finances, so it hard to see how building the WTC, single-handedly, plunged the city into a thirty year decline. For one with a penchant for economic arguments, he makes rather short shrift of the structural arguments for the city’s post war decline, the rise of the suburbs, the second great migration, and the decline of the city’s manufacturing base, and argues that the city’s manufacturing base was “destroyed in large measure by public policy” by which he evidently means building the WTC. This is a complex issue, and public policy was certainly involved in the decline of manufacturing in the city after WWII, but it seems to me rather silly to single out the building of the WTC. (For a much more sophisticated account of the post-war manufacturing shift than Page’s, also written from a decidedly left of center perspective, see my friend Tami Freidman’s article in the current issue of Journal of American History.)

Page also combats a straw man in the form of the consensus among “contemporary scholars, conservatives and liberals alike” who see in spiraling labor costs, and questions of crime and welfare at the heart of the city’s decline in the 1960s and 1970s. (It seems to me that every liberal scholar I know sees labor costs as an effect, and not a cause of the city’s economic woes, which they attribute to deeper structural causes. ) Page in a classic turn of vulgar Marxism, emphasizing hidden economic forces and hidden conspiracies, wishes to transcend the difficult and messy realities of crime, welfare, resentment over labor contracts, racial tension, as so much “superstructural” twaddle, and point to a single, simple economic cause, the building of two big buildings. Its hard to criticize the details of Page’s argument because he doesn’t provide any, but I had hoped the era of such simplistic explanations of the city’s decline was past. This is Robert Caro’s Manichean vision of New York, with Robert Moses replaced by the Port Authority’s Austin Tobin. The WTC, needless to say, has been though enough already without having to bear the burden for everything that went wrong in the city from the 1960s through the 1990s.

Where Have All the Antisemites Gone?

One of the advantages of studying history is however depressed you feel, and however depressing is the current historical moment, you can always find things to read about that are still more depressing. That is why, I suppose, I have found myself reading about the Holocaust recently, in particular Saul Friedlander’s magisterial two volume history of Nazi Germany and the Jews. And in reading it, a question occurred to me relative to the current problems on Wall Street; where have all the Antisemites gone?

Now I will acknowledge that I don’t spend a lot of time trolling Neo-Nazi websites, but as far as I can tell this is the first major financial crisis in American history that has been without open or even covert Antisemitic accusations directed as Jews and “Jew York.” And yet this is probably, to use Jon Stewart’s term, the most “Jewy” of all of America’s financial crises; Jews in the news include the last two chairmen of the Fed, Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, Hank Greenberg of late lamented Bear Stearns, and Ace Greenberg of mortally wounded AIG. The most heated phase of the crisis was catalyzed by the failure of another famous Jewish firm, Lehman Brothers, and while Treasury Secretary Paulson is not Jewish, he is the former CEO of the most famous Jewish firm of them all, Goldman Sachs, and if you like you can throw in Clinton’s last two pro-free market Treasury secretaries, Robert Rubin (also of Goldman Sachs) and Lawrence Summers, and prominent commentators on the crisis, such as Kenneth Rogoff, Paul Krugman, and Nouriel Roubini.

So where are the Antisemites? Jews are certainly profoundly overrepresented in those in the highest echelons of responsibility for this scandal, and there is little doubt that many have acted disgracefully. Sure, so did the gentile bankers, but the fact that most of the most powerful financiers in this country, like J.P.Morgan, have almost always been non-Jews, has never prevented Antisemites from seeing Wall Street as a Jewish plot.

I don’t have any good explanations. Perhaps Jews are really no longer thought of as pariahs, and those seeking to cast racial or ethnic blame for the financial meltdown have turned their attention to the usual suspects in America’s recent bouts of racial blame-gaming, the blacks and the illegal immigrants, through willful misreadings of the history of the Community Reinvestment Act. And support of Israel has become such a byword among conservatives that it is hard to segue from seeing Israel as a bastion of American values amid a swarm of Islamofascist terrorists to denouncing Jew bankers. And while plenty on the left despise Israel, its sort of hard to tie Israel’s unfortunate policy toward the Palestinians to the events on Wall Street. So this seems to be bear market for Antisemitism as well as for stock prices, which is good, and in many ways a notable turning point in the history of Jews in America. My fear is, however, that someone somewhere is writing the Protocols of the Elders of the Illegal Immigrants.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What Maverick?

John McCain scuffed up Barack Obama a little last night, but he did devastating damage to his own reputation as a maverick politician. Over ninety minutes, in the middle of two wars and a huge financial crisis, his stock prescription was cut taxes, don't trust the government, and rein in abortion rights. If there is a more succinct summary of orthodox Republican opinion, I'm not aware of it.

The wonder, actually, is how McCain got the maverick reputation in the first place. It is true that he has staked out some positions at odds with his own Republican Party, but the bright light cast on these issues leaves the conventional conservatism of the rest of his record in the dark. Last night, he dragged it out for all to see.

I thought McCain's best moment of the night was when he told Obama that if he wanted to run against George Bush, he should have run in 2004. But this was a strong line only in the theatrical, rhetorical sense that we have come to prize so highly in televised debates. It said very little about how McCain would govern, and it dodged the fundamental fact that McCain has embraced the movement conservatives and religious conservatives who are the hard base of the GOP. It also evaded the fact that McCain did move closer to Bush in recent years, even if he has avoided joint public appearances since the convention in order to escape being directly linked to a hugely unpopular president.

McCain threw everything he had at Obama last night. He set the tone for the first half of the debate, but I thought Obama came back well in the second half. In the battle of appearances, McCain came off as cranky and crusty, Obama as calm and unruffled. My sense is that in the current economic crisis, people will prefer Obama's style.

For me, the most troubling thing about McCain was his adherence to the idea that the government is bad and the market is good. In his more exalted moments, McCain likes to make you think that he will follow in the footsteps of Teddy Roosevelt--a Republican president who understood the need for a federal government that could restrain the wild engines of capitalism.

In the end, though, McCain shows that he's just another sunbelt conservative--a man with many of Barry Goldwater's vices, but few of his virtues. In these times, with our economy in desperate shape and real questions in the air about what government can and should do, Americans want a choice--not an echo that sounds like Republican formulas from a discredited past.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Creature From Jekyll Island Returns

My cousin, who politics I have never quite been able to figure out, gave me a copy a few months ago of G. Edward Griffin’s The Creature from Jekyll Island, a popular paleo-conservative/libertarian attack on the Federal Reserve System. Its title comes from the famous secret meeting at Bernard Baruch’s estate on Jekyll Island in Georgia in 1913 that helped establish the Federal Reserve System. The book is a strident attack on the Fed, and argues that it has over the years led to gross distortions in the free market, to the benefit of a handful of rich bankers and the detriment of almost everyone else. It calls for the restoration of a form of the gold standard, arguing that principal function of the Fed, whatever else it claims to do, is to circulate an adulterated currency, which is inherently inflationary. Like many paleo-conservative works, it asks many of the right questions, though mostly comes up with wrong answers. But there is no question that the concerted efforts under Alan Greenspan to keep interest rates low was the basic kindling the housing boom needed to start burning, and low interest rates tend to make investors seek cleverer and cleverer schemes to manufacture ever higher rates of return.

But The Creature from Jekyll Island tends, like many of these sorts of books, overly conspiratorial in its historical thinking, and careens from one extravagant claim to another. For a much more carefully researched history of the origins of the Fed, I recommend William L. Silber’s recent and excellent, When Washington Shut Down Wall Street: The Great Financial Crisis of 1914 and the Origins of America’s Monetary Supremacy.

As I said, The Creature from Jekyll Island, like other books of its ilk, often ask the right questions, and I thought of the book this morning, after reading accounts of the meeting between Paulson and the leaders of the largest banks in the country –are we nationalizing the banks or are the banks privatizing the US Treasury.? Certainly the meeting Monday was perhaps the most dramatic meeting in the history of American central banking, with Paulson pleading with eight of the largest financial institutions in the country to take $150 billion in additional capital, and with the bankers, after much hemming and hawing and standing on their principles, reluctantly agree to take the money, for, “the good of the country,” like Cincinattus at the plow.

Look, I think this is basically a good thing, certainly better than the asset purchases that Paulson had been peddling a few weeks earlier. But it seems very much like what happened in 1913, when the Federal Reserve System was invented not to change the existing financial quo, but to preserve it. There are a lot of questions which seem not to have been asked, or asked sotto voce –why purchase preferred stock rather than common stock? Yes, there are advantages to owning preferred stock as a creditor, but it means that the government will have no control or say in how the banks operate. Why no members of the government on the board of directors? (The limits over executive compensation are weak, but that is only to be expected.) And why no controls over what the banks can do with the money? There is nothing to prevent them from using the money, borrowed at 5%, to retire debt owed at 10%. What if the banks still don’t lend? One thing is clear; the economy is in for a very rough patch. Nothing will turn around the economy in the short run. And in the long run, not only will we be all be dead, but we will need a new banking system. I don’t know if the Treasury needs to nationalize the banking system—Clement Atlee where are you at this hour?—but it needs to take effective control of what banks do, and make sure that what they do is in the nation’s interest. What Paulson did what not enough, and I can only hope it doesn’t tie the hands of an Obama administration. We need to be sure that the government is dictating terms to the bankers, and not the reverse,

And Press Critic

Paul Krugman's winning the Nobel Prize for Economics has understandably set off accolades for his work as a columnist for the Times, where he has been a tough and trenchant critic of the Bush administration. Yet Krugman also deserves credit for being an astute press critic who has suggested higher standards of intellectual independence and responsibility for journalists.

In a talk that I heard him give before an audience of Princeton alumni in 2004, he stressed the needs for reporters to get beyond the he said/she said model of reporting that confuses balance with truth telling. Journalists often see this approach as a check against political influence, but in fact it opens up the door to political influence.

As Krugman reminded us, the he said/she said model puts great pressure on reporters to come up with two sides two every question--even when the facts of the situation are not really in dispute. Thus, as Krugman joked, we get stories like this: Most observers believe that the world is round, but critics at the Flat Earth Institute disagree.

In this approach, all you have to do to get your cause into the news is get your people credited as legitimate sources. Once that has happened, cockamamie claims can be presented alongside legitimate ones in the name of being "balanced."

Of course, journalists can't always get at the truth. And whenever you're reporting on a dispute, it is valuable to present the perspectives of all sides.

But journalists also have a responsibility to keep lies out of our public discourse. They serve that best when they pursue the truth--and not a formula that aims for balance but admits lies.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Krugman Rally

The Dow Jones Industrial Average market goes up 900 points on news that Paul Krugman received the Nobel Prize for Economics, err, the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel! I have been reading commentary all day—the funniest was a one line post on the National Review Blog—“Lets get this over with—congratulations Professor Krugman.” The most trenchant comment was one hailing Krugman as an at times lonely voice of progressive Keynesianism. For progressive economic thinkers, the past month has been the equivalent of what the fall of Communism was to free market thinkers, a devoutly to be hoped for confirmation of their hopes and dreams, as the rival economic system crashed and burned all around them. Yes, history is a harsh mistress, and reverses will come again (though hopefully not on Nov 4th) but today is a day to treasure.

Krugman's Prize

Like the rest of the left-wing blogsphere, I’m all atwitter with the news that Paul Krugman has won the Nobel Prize in economics. Okay, its not really a Nobel Prize—the five others prizes are called the Nobel Prize in Physics or Peace or whatever. The economics prize, which has only be awarded since 1968, is properly called the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which journalists invariably shorten to the Nobel Prize in Economics. Why economics, and not only social sciences? Above all, no why Nobel Prize for history? The only Nobel laureates to win for historical writing are, I think Theodore Mommsen, a 19th century historian of Rome, who won the Nobel in Lit in 1902, Winston Churchill in 1954, and the econometric historians William Fogel and Douglass North, who won the economics prize in 1993. Okay, I’m wandering away from the main point here.

To return. It’s fantastic news, and as Matt Ygelsias points out, he’s probably the first blogger to win a Nobel Prize. Krugman’s career at the Times has been curious; hiring him was probably the best thing Howell Raines did at the Times during his stormy tenure as executive editor. He was hired in 2000 as an economics columnist at the Times at the height of the dot-com boom to give the Times an economic voice on the op-ed page. He had the reputation for a progressive Clintonian, a supporter of NAFTA (and it was his work on free trade that won the prize); it struck me at the time as a sort of concession to the stock market gazing that was in early 2000 crowding all serious politcal commentary from the nation's ediorial pages. I was wrong, and once Bush was chosen to be president by the US Supreme Court in December 2000, and especially after 9/11, Krugman went on to become on to be one of the most ferocious critics of the Bush administration; certainly no one combined his ferocity (and trenchant analysis and facts to back up his savage indignation) with a well placed position of the editorial pages of the Times. Months would go by without a mention of economics as Krugman detailed perfidy after perfidy in the Middle East and elsewhere. He became an exception to the standard rule in American journalism; firebreathing conservatives to represent the right, and moderate, on the one hand on the other hand liberals to represent the left. Progressives loved him, while he became one of the most reviled figures in the media on the right, the proof positive that the Times was in abject thrall to the radical left (The irony being that the Times probably never would have hired him if his political evolution had been known in early 2000.)

And in the past year, as the world’s attention has returned to economics, he has become of the world’s most influential voices on economic matters. (I can’t tell how many people told me, re: the $700 Billion bailout, “well Krugman is reluctantly supporting it, I suppose I should too.”) Just in the past week, Krugman’s voice was one of the most influential calling for an abandonment of the Treasury Department’s asset purchase plan in favor of a direct recapitalization of the banks, and the Treasury bowed to the calls of Krugman and others over the weekend. Anyway, here’s to you Paul Krugman, in part for perhaps the greatest demonstration in our times that a career of scholarly excellence can be combined with one of being a powerful, influential journalist and uncompromising social critic. It is the career that the rest of us who toil somewhere in the academy can only dream about.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Procrastinator's Ball

For the last few days I have been perusing Housing, Housing Finance, and Monetary Policy, a symposium held by the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City in the summer of 2007, and published earlier this year. It makes for fascinating reading. By last August, when the conference was held, there already was considerable worry about sub-prime mortgages. Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Fed, had just lowered the discount rate in response to the gathering crisis. Bernanke has an excellent article in the collection on the history of mortgage financing in 20th century America, and shows how the finance of mortgages was transformed in the 1930s by the federal government. (Bernake is perhaps the acutest student of history of an American on the highest echelons of government since Woodrow Wilson or perhaps Henry Kissinger.) Another article in the collection on the “Housing Finance Revolution” shows how mortgage-loaning was again transformed in the 1970s and 1980s, this time by removing the essential mortgage process as much as possible from the regulatory control of the government. It is surprising how world wide this process was—the article discusses similar transformations of mortgage lending in Bangladesh and South Korea, as well as the United States, among other places. An excellent article by Robert Schiller discusses the boom in housing prices in the 1990s and early 21st century and argues that if low interest rates provided a warm soup in which sub-prime lending thrived, it was essentially an irrational phenomena—labor costs were not increasing, material costs were declining, the main reason why housing prices were soaring was because many people thought they would even rise further.

But what mainly comes across from reading about the symposium is a sense that most of the participants were both aware of what was going on and more or less clueless as to its ultimate consequences. There was a sense of unease, of worry, but not one of dread, or to use the proper economic term, panic. I guess this is to be expected. If there is one thing that is clear about the history of stock trading, from the early 17th to the present, is that no one has any foolproof way of knowing the future, and there will always be voices prophesying doom, like the legendary bear investor who predicted the last market crash ten times.

To be sure, hindsight is powerful. Almost all of the participants in the symposium, liberal or conservative, convey a sense that something had gone fundamentally wrong with how risk was accesses in mortgage lending and securitization, and that in many ways the greatest “moral hazard” was provided by the market itself—if you think you have eliminated risk, the natural thing to do is to make riskier and riskier investments, until you hedge yourself to your doom. But what is so frustrating about the symposium is that it is clear that everyone who needed to know about the sub-prime crisis knew precisely what was going on no later than last August, but a variety of motives; political caution, ideological blinders, a stubborn commitment to an unfettered free market in a situation when it clearly wasn’t working, led them to suggest weal palliatives that I suspect, they knew in their heart of hearts probably wouldn’t work. If only they had suggested some of the things we have trotted out in the last few weeks last August. But whatever they did or did not do then, we now know better.

I suppose it is human nature not to wait until something is in catastrophic failure until you try to fix it, hoping that somehow you can avoid the unpleasant task. And failure, as devastating as it often is, whether on an individual, collective, or national level, can be liberating. It forces us to start anew. My friends, my fellow Americans, let us begin.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sweet Music from the Financial Times

I'm not a regular reader of the Financial Times; I only pick it up when there is a big international economic story. Lately, it has become something like my second read. I value the FT not just for its hard news--which shows that you can write a tight, intelligent story without jumping off the front page--but also for the keen sense of historical perspective that its columnists can bring to the news of the day. And two columns today are well worth noting.

Samuel Brittan's "Kenyes, thou shouldst be living..." opens with a splendid statement from John Maynard Keynes, about the value of government spending to revive a stagnant economy. It then goes on to make a solid point that eludes many American journalists, including those who regularly ask the candidates what austerity measures they will make to get through the present crisis: sometimes deficit spending is necessary to revive an economy. Writes Brittan, "Maxims about debt that might be prudent for families can be the height of folly for governments."

Equally illuminating is Philip Stephens' "The financial crisis marks out a new geopolitical order." "The erosion of the west's moral authority that began with the Iraq war has been greatly accelerated. The west's debtors cannot any longer expect their creditors to listen to their lectures."

He concludes,
I have no inhibitions about promoting the values of the wst--of preaching the virtues of the rule of law, pluralist politics and fundamental human rights. Nor of asserting that, for all the financial storms, a liberal market system is the worst option except for all the others. The case for global rules--that open markets need multilateral governance--could not have been made more forcefully than by the present crisis.

Government money to revive a stalled economy? International rules to tame capitalism? These ideas sound to me like the opening notes of a new New Deal. That's sweet music to my ears. And imagine: all from the pages of the Financial Times. Something is happening.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"Treasures in the Harbor"

Mention National Parks and many New Yorkers will think of Yellowstone, Yosemite and the treasures of the West. But a new WNET documentary reminds viewers that the Gateway National Recreation area provides New Yorkers with wild land and historical sites.

"Treasures in the Harbor" takes the form of a tour around Gateway's lands, with side visits to inland historic sites and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. Enthusiastic park goer that I am, I was nevertheless pleasantly introduced to some places I've never been, like the woodsy inland areas of Sandy Hook and the interior of Floyd Bennett Field.

The park lands explored in "Treasures in the Harbor" gain something from the their location in and around the nation's largest city. As a surfer at Sandy Hook reminds viewers, the ocean lets you find wilderness at the city's doorstep.

Sandy Hook might be part of suburban New Jersey, but once you get out onto the Atlantic you're at sea. I've felt the thrill of that knowledge many times from the cockpit of a kayak, and I'm glad to see that surfers feel the same way. The more of us who love the water, the more likelihood that we'll work to keep it clean and accessible to all.

And as a segment on Floyd Bennett Field shows, a forest campground at the foot of Flatbush Avenue can introduce a child to camping. Watching kids on a summer overnight sit around a campfire at Floyd Bennett Field, I was reminded how trips to Harriman State Park led me to a life in the outdoors in points as far afield as Alaska, the Adirondacks and Kenya. A campsite in Brooklyn might be the start of a love of the outdoors that takes a child equally far.

Finally, there's a mixing of people in these parks that reconciles the best of the country and the city. Artists given special facilities so they can paint on Governor's Island, retired men restoring a lighthouse at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, and kids cleaning up beaches: all of them are people from different walks of life, brought together by common passions, to work together at what they love in national parks.

Out of their differences, they find ways to work alongside each other. At their best, cities help make that happen--along with the parks that you'll discover in this film.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Obama in PA

All day Saturday, I canvassed and phone banked for Obama in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Going door to door in a suburban and heavily Republican area, half of the voters I spoke with were for Obama. Henry George, as Peter has observed, would understand why.

The neighborhood I worked in was filled with relatively new homes, often inhabited by people priced out of the real estate market in New Jersey. Foreclosures have been a problem for some of the residents. For the rest the crashing real estate market, and the price of gas in a region where you need a car to get anywhere, means a real drop in prosperity. Thus does the drive for home ownership as a way of making money boomerang on homeowners. All in all, it makes me glad that I'm a renter.

Half the voters I talked to yesterday, in heavily Republican turf, were backing Obama. If Obama is that strong in a GOP area, he is doing well.

The Obama operation I worked with was well-organized, confident and spirited. The woman in charge of the storefront I worked from, the daughter of Haitian immigrants, is a former Merill Lynch vp who lost her job. She is now putting her organizational talents to good use for Obama.

While there is some concern that McCain's withdrawal from Michigan will enable him to throw more at Pennsylvania, the people I spoke with yesterday were confident and ready for him.

According to a campaign staffer who I spoke with, Obama is up by 12% in the Lehigh Vally area, which includes Allentown. If that holds in November, Obama will carry the region by much more than Kerry did in 2004.

Even better news is the statewide poll that they cite, which has Obama up by 15% in Pennsylvania overall. If these numbers are accurate, Election Day in Pennsylvania will bring good news for Obama.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Henry George For Mayor!!!

A name has been absent strikingly from the discussion of our current financial woes, that of the most famous 19th century American writer on political economy, and that of a man who almost elected mayor of NYC in 1886, in what was probably the most interesting mayoral race in the city’s history. The name is Henry George, the author of Progress and Poverty (1879), in which he famously advocated for the single tax, in which he advocated a confiscatory 100% tax on the rental value of land. Landownership, George argued, is a monopoly possession of a limited resource, and the owner of land, and does nothing except passively benefit from the industriousness of others. The landowner’s profit is merely a tax on the truly productive factors of production, labor, and capital. A single tax on profit from land owning, George argued, and all other taxes could be eliminated, and would usher in a new age of productivity and wealth.

Okay. This clearly has its limitations as a cure-all for all economic ills. But the belief that the landowner’s profit is the root of all evil, and the pitfalls of turning the necessity of shelter in a ragingly speculative commodity, is a lesson, that, if it needs to be modified from George’s original Single Tax, is one we need to take to heart. A crisis of falling land and home prices, because of its size and scope, and its ability to affect and infect persons of every income strata, is different by several orders of magnitude from the garden variety of financial crisis that we have experienced in recent years, such as the dot-com bust or the failure of Enron. But when we have carted off the last of the cadavers from this immediate crisis, we should spend some time thinking about how to eliminate much of the speculative frenzy that has haunted our real estate markets, become reacquainted with old remedies such as limited equity cooperatives, and explore new ones.

Let me quote Michael Kinsley (perhaps not thought of often as a George-ite, but the author of an 1989 essay on George in his collection Big Babies, my bathroom reading in recent months, and the inspiration for this post) . “Above all, perhaps, George would observe how the developed world has been suffering in recent years from real estate sickness . At times when the reward for happening to own a middle class house has been greater than the reward for middle class labor, this disease has twisted values, sucked away productivity, and redistributed wealth at random. And if, as many believe, the process is now going into reverse will be just as severe.”

Kinsley’s comments on America on the cusp of the S & L crisis remains just as pertinent and prescient to an America falling down the rabbit hole of the sub-prime mortgage disaster. George celebrated the somewhat mythical producer’s republic of the 19th century, but this is vastly more preferable, in every way, to the blithely celebrated “ownership society,” which reduced the meaning of America to life liberty and the purchase of real estate. Rather than revising the city charter in a backroom deal to extend the mayoralty of Michael Bloomberg, New Yorkers could do worse than summoning up the spirit of a modern Henry George to lead us through the current crisis.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

More on Term Limits

How would American history have been different if the United States hadn’t adopted that amendment in the early 1950s limiting the president to two terms? Certainly Eisenhower would have not run again in 1960, and it seems the only presidents who might have run for third terms might have been Reagan (he would have probably won, but with his incipient Alzheimer’s it would have a terrible embarrassment) and I suppose Clinton in 2000, and who knows what would have happened there. (Or how would it have been different if had been adopted earlier? Who would the Democrats have run in 1940? Henry Wallace?)

If the city hadn’t imposed a two term limit on mayors, it seems very likely that Giuliani would have won in 2001, though I suspect he would have had the poor third term that his predecessors LaGuardia, Wagner, and Koch enjoyed. (If the city’s term limit law had limited mayors to three rather than two terms it would have done less damage to the city’s natural political cycles.)

How do I feel about term limits? I have no strong feelings about Michael Bloomberg. I did not live in the city for any part of his term (the first mayor since Vincent Impellitieri for whom this can be said.) He seems to be a calm technocrat who loves power and has done a reasonably good job. He is loved by business interests, who sorely want him to serve a third term. (And thus it has always been in the city, with mayors made and unmade by the city’s business interests, back to the days when the Dutch West India Company made and unmade New Netherland’s governors.)

I am all for getting rid of superfluous and anomalous legislation, but not in order to benefit the career of a specific politician. I would love to see Arnold Schwarzenegger start a campaign to amend the US constitution so the next plausible immigrant politician (after Schwarzenegger) who has presidential possibilities and ambitions would not be barred from seeking that office. And I would be happy to see Bloomberg campaign against term limits while he goes on to do something else. He’s a public spirited guy; let him serve as Secretary of the Treasury under either a McCain or Obama administration, or put in charge of the $700 billion bailout, but he doesn’t need to be mayor again. And nothing is stupidier than Ronald Lauder ‘s suggestion that term limits should otherwise be kept in place with a one time dispensation for Bloomberg. It’s the other way around—there is something to be said about executive term limits, and as the history of NYC shows, even without term limits three terms is about enough. Cities in which mayors can serve for uninterrupted decades on end like Chicago or Newark on end are in some fundamental sense democracy-challenged. Mayors for life aren’t pretty spectacles. But legislators need time and familiarity to do their jobs adequately, and I don’t think benefit from too rapid turnover. Anyway, the fact that almost all the movers and shakers in the city think that Bloomberg is indispensible is an excellent reason for turning to someone else.

Democracy and Term Limits

In the aftermath of 9/11, New Yorkers rightly rejected the idea of postponing the mayoral election to give Mayor Giuliani more time to steer us through the aftermath of the attacks. We're a democracy, we vote even when there is a crisis, and no elected official is indispensable. The same logic applies to proposals to do an end-run on term limits through the city council in order to retain Mayor Bloomberg.

Let me be clear: I think term limits are stupid and un-democratic. The proper way to eject incumbents is by voting them out. Term limits substitute law and an arbitrary timetable for the will of the people.

But the current proposal, which amounts to working through the council to suspend the law, is timid and undemocratic.

If we are to end or modify term limits, let us do it in an open election.

The Sun Sets

The death of The Sun, the conservative broadsheet edited by Seth Lipsky, leaves New York's newspaper world poorer.

Its editorial page reminded me of the Wall Street Journal's, and its selection of stories tilted toward issues of concern to the right. This was to be expected in a paper that was founded to be a conservative voice in a city allegedly dominated by the liberal media.

Despite my ideological differences with the Sun, I enjoyed reading it. The Sun was energetic and intelligent. In a city where local news coverage has been weak since the death of New York Newsday, the Sun was a great way to keep up with little-covered corners of Gotham. And its arts coverage was often compelling.

Of course, there were plenty of days when I put down my Sun in a fit of disagreement. But as often as that happened, I went back to it again and again. I'll miss it.