Mourning In America

A New York Democrat on politics, journalism, and the Mets

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Saturday, May 31, 2003
X-Ray Vision NY Times Columnist Bill Keller sees through "Gov." Pataki's "job-killing taxes" canard, and says the non-governing governor has:
"handled the mess in a way that raises doubts about both his executive abilities and his political acumen."

After spending too much time talking about conditions for states generally (presumably a nod to the Times' "national newspaper" strategy), Keller gives one of the better mass-media descriptions of Pataki's M.O., describing him as a "don't-tax-and-spend-anyway conservative." He points out that Pataki ran up the state's debt in the good times, and continued whistling a happy tune throughout his 2002 re-election campaign, even as the state's fiscal underpinnings came loose around him

Of course, the ease with which Pataki pulled off the charade in 2002 raises questions not only about his character, but about the effectiveness of the "watchdogs" that should have been aware of his game. Even though the state's true fiscal condition was no secret by election day (Republican Senate Majority Leader Joe Bruno had already made his startlingly accurate $10 billion deficit prediction), Pataki was endorsed for re-election by the vast majority of the state's newspapers -- including Keller's Times.

How can the people of New York be expected to demand change from their elected leaders when they don't have the timely facts necessary to know what needs to be changed?

And even as Keller is waking up to Pataki's deficiencies, Wayne Barrett, downtown in the Village Voice, writes that it might be too late. Keller says that

The Legislature's budget contains its share of flimflam, but by comparison with Mr. Pataki's it is an act of courage and fiscal probity. Thus if New York muddles through this crisis, it will have succeeded over Mr. Pataki's loud protests.
In contrast to Keller's cautious optimism, Barrett plays the percentages -- while better, the legislative budget still has its share of risks and gimmicks, and it's quite likely the state will find itself in an even deeper fiscal crisis next year. If the budget does fall apart, Barrett notes that Pataki will try to distance himself from the carnage, likely aided by the same media outlets that ignored his earlier borrowing binges.

Never mind that the allegedly anti-tax Pataki secretly proposed a huge, 1.25% state sales-tax hike during negotiations with the legislature. Pay no attention to the fact that Pataki was so concerned about the impact of the legislative budget on the state's economy that he failed to make a single call to the 14 conservative Assembly Democrats who might have been talked into supporting him -- only 3 votes would have been necessary.

Pataki has never lost an election. His performance this Spring demonstrated how he managed to run up that record. Pataki offered no better alternatives to the legislature's budget, yet still managed to paint himself as more honorable than anyone who was trying to help, and to distance himself from any hard choices.

But will it work? He's not a candidate right now -- he's ostensibly the Governor, and we pay our Governors to lead, not to heckle from the sidelines. While Keller just woke up to Pataki's game, his approval numbers have been plunging for some time.

At the end of the day, despite Barrett's pessimism, nothing the press publishes or fails to print will outweigh individal New Yorkers' ability to look around and make a judgement about whether the state is on the right path. Maybe you can raise your expectations for the NY electorate, after all.

Fasten Your Seat Belts! It appears our economic policy is about to take another lurch. Two weeks after Treasury Secretary sparked a significant sell-off in the Dollar versus the Euro and the Yen, his boss, Top Gun Bush says it's all a mistake. In an interview with Russian television on the eve of the "G8" meeting of the chief executives of the world's major industrialized nations, Bush responded by lecturing the currency market, which "at this point in time, has devalued the dollar, which is contrary to our policy."

Earlier in the piece, he's quoted as affirming his belief that:

"We believe that good fiscal and monetary policy will cause our economy to grow and that the marketplace will see a growing economy and therefore strengthen the dollar."
You can't really argue with his reasoning -- good fiscal and monetary policy (combined with some other ingredients that the U.S. still has in spades, especially a well-educated, adaptable workforce) should cause our economy to grow, which should lead to a strong dollar.

Of course, while Bush states that argument, then throws up his shoulders and pleads ignorance about why the markets have "devalued" the dollar, it's possible that both the argument and the markets are right: Currency market participants may have looked at the tax bill and concluded that it doesn't represent "good fiscal and monetary policy." And listening to Treasury Secretary Snow state that a weak dollar doesn't bother him, it would appear rational for traders to assume that the administration isn't going to do anything to correct that -- thus the sell-off.

The Wrong Tax Cut (cont'd) The NY Times earlier this week reported that the final tax-cut bill adopted by Congress omitted a Senate-struck compromise to provide the child tax credit rebates to millions of families earning between $10,500 and $26,625.

This is an important mistake not just on equity grounds -- if you're going to cut taxes, shouldn't the joy be shared as widely as possible? -- but also for economic policy reasons: The poorer you are, the more likely you are to spend the money immediately, sparking the short-term increase in demand that the economy needs, and that the Bush administration is ostensibly trying to create with the "jobs and growth" package.

Defending the move, Republican congressional leaders blamed "deficit hawks" who insisted on curbing the overall size of the package. Of course, those interests could have just as easily been assuaged by slight adjustments to the dividend-tax or top-marginal-rate cuts that are also in the package, and that heavily aid the rich.

Thursday, May 29, 2003
Hear no Evil One of the more amusing "precautions" authorized by the NYPD in the post-9/11 era has been the decision to station officers on the subway platforms at each end of the city's river tunnels. Officially, they're there to stop terrorists from carrying explosives or bio-weapons into the tunnels.

A cynic might note that their presence does nothing to deter a suicide bomber from carrying explosives into the tunnel inside the car, but cynics are out of fashion these days. And even if they couldn't stop the attacks, they could at least hear if something went wrong, and be among the first responders (although if an explosion really did breach the river tunnel, the only logical first response would be to head -- or swim -- for the stairs).

But this silly charade got even sillier recently, when the regular officer on duty at the Bowling Green station, which stands at the end of a sharp curve that sets the subway cars' wheels screeching as they exit the Joralemon Street tube, has taken to wearing earplugs. I sympathize, his hearing is important, but perhaps it's time to re-think the posting altogether -- security cameras could do the same job a lot more cheaply.

Still Stumbling After All These Months In case the Riyadh and Morocco attacks had not convinced people that the President's post-Iraq war "Al Qaeda is on the run" declaration was an exercise in wishful thinking, Newsweek's excellent "Code Orange" weekly update on the Terror War should close the book.

The piece reports on a new British Home Office study that found that Qaeda-linked networks are reconstituting faster than expected, and that the networks may not even be the greatest threat the nation faces:

More importantly, it also suggests that some U.S. officials may misunderstand the fundamental nature of the enemy they are dealing with in the war on terror. Whatever the current state of Al Qaeda, the report says, an even more dangerous threat may come from "nonaligned mujahedin" groups who are only loosely affiliated with Osama bin Laden's organization but cooperate with it on a case-by-case basis across international boundaries in the furtherance of common goals.