Mourning In America

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

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Friday, July 11, 2003
What Does Tenet Know? President Bush has now added his voice to National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice's strong statements affirming that the CIA approved the text of his State of the Union address, which appears to have included an erroneus assertion that Iraq sought to buy uranium in Africa.

Some observers contend that these comments, coming in the wake of a story on CBS News that the CIA had warned Bush's advisers that the allegation was flimsy, indicate that CIA Director George Tenet's days are numbered.

If so, the big surprise would be, why not sooner? In an administration not known for respecting the precedents of its predecessors, Tenet, who was appointed to his post during Bill Clinton's second term, stood out. Even before 9/11, the administration was known for its eye on world affairs, and it would seem logical that they would have wanted their own guy in that office.

The case was only strengthened after 9/11, when reports piled up indicating that the nation's security/intelligence apparatus was aware of the dots that, if connected, could have tipped them off to the plot. After that failure, it would have seemed like Tenet would be a natural candidate for early retirement -- either in favor of a manager who could correct the documented shortcomings, or, cynically, as a fall guy.

Yet still Tenet stayed. Even now, while the vultures appear to be circling, Rice has declared that Tenet has Bush's "full confidence."

We all know cases where statements like that have turned out to be faint praise, and Tenet may be out on his ear tomorrow. But I have to wonder if he hasn't lasted this long because he was one of the few people inside the federal government sounding the alarm about terrorism before 9/11. The Bush administration continues to stonewall a report on what exactly the government -- and the president -- knew before the attacks. Tenet is in a unique position to answer that question, and you have to wonder if he's kept his job despite ongoing Congressional criticism because the administration wants to make sure he doesn't.

More on Bushonomics: This Slate article catalogs more examples of the Bush Administration's efforts to spin economic data to its own ends -- if it's bad news, pretend it doesn't exist!

Lies, Damn Lies, and Bushonomics Ever since the Department of Labor reported that the nation's unemployment rate surged to 6.4% in June, Bush administration partisans have been spinning frantically, trying to convince themselves and us that the news isn't as bad as it looks -- and more, that prosperity is just around the corner!

The NY Times defuses those claims in this fairly technical article about the nature and shortcomings of our nation's economic data. You really have to dig into NY Times report to find the key implications, but it can be broadly sketched out like this:

  • The data in the government's monthly employment report comes from two sources -- a "household survey" and an "establishment survey" -- basically polls of workers and employers, respectively. The unemployment data, which requires some estimate of the number of people looking for work, comes solely from the household survey. But both surveys contain an estimate of the number of people working.

  • Therein lies the rub: The household survey reported a 251,000 increase in the number of people working, while the establishment survey showed payrolls declining by 30,000.

  • Who to trust? The Bush administration would understandably like to focus attention on the 251,000 number. Unfortunately, due to the way the surveys are conducted, most economists (and Wall Street) trust the establishment survey's payrolls data as a much more accurate guide to the strength of the economy. Here's the key quote from the NY Times' story:
    "Particularly if you are interested in employment as a measure of economic trends, you probably want to use the payroll survey more than the household survey," Professor Mitchell said. "Things that are proportions, percentages, ratios — that's what I would say you want to use the household survey for."

    So, the more accurate employment number indicates that, on net, 30,000 more Americans lost their jobs in June -- admittedly an improvement from the Bush administration's average, but not a sign of recovery. But that's not the only target of the Bush team's spinning. They even see a silver lining in the rising unemployment rate.

    Here's how that theory works: The unemployment rate compares the number of people actively looking for work with the number who are working, and so it can be impacted on a month-to-month basis by a change in the number of people looking for work. It appears that's exactly what happened in June -- the "workforce" increased dramatically. The Bush supporters see that as a victory -- they argue that people came into the workforce because they knew the economy was getting better, and felt that would help them find jobs once they started looking.

    But you have to wonder if that will last. The employment report concludes that, overall, 62.3% of Americans were employed in June -- exactly the same level as in May. In other words, while more people were looking for work in June, none of them found jobs. If those new entrants to the workforce were truly motivated by their euphoria at the prospect of an improving economy, you'd expect that enthusiasm to wane if this trend continues.

    There is an alternative interpretation: Perhaps the workforce surge was the result of retirees, stay-at-home moms, and others, forced to look for work as their families' bank accounts dwindled in the face of this administration's disastrous stewardship of the economy.

    The Labor Department refers to unemployed job-seekers who have given up looking for work as "discouraged workers." Mickey Kaus, in his weblog calls these new job-seekers "encouraged workers." But if the alternative explanation is correct, they might be more accurately described as "desperate workers."

    Economics is often referred to as "The Dismal Science." While Bushonomics' record (more than 2 million jobs lost since he took office and counting) is dismal, you can't call this administration's blatantly political manipulation of economic data a science.

    To be fair, you can't gauge the health of the economy on one month's data, and I wouldn't be shocked if things really are about to start looking up -- hell, this has been the longest recession in decades, it has to end sometime. But it is clearly too soon to declare victory -- something that has been a recurring problem for this administration.

  • Wednesday, July 09, 2003
    Finally, a cheering crowd! Well, the Bush administration was right -- foreign crowds are meeting our soldiers in the streets with hugs and cheers: At least that's the case in Monrovia, where a small team of Marines arrived to evaluate the situation and the potential force necessary to end the civil war there.

    In Iraq, the nation that had prompted the administration's predictions, the reactions of local residents still range from the ambivalent to the murderous.

    Nagging Question: I'm hoping tomorrow's papers provide some more insight into Bush's hesitancy to commit to a full complement of US troops in Liberia now that embattled President Charles Taylor has agreed to depart, which Bush seemed to set up as the necessary and only precursor to U.S. involvement. On the first day, the press seemed confused as to exactly what Bush had promised, and what he was offering, so I'm now confused. We'll need to stay tuned.

    Express Service to Oz! The nation's number two "less-than-truckload" trucking company, Yellow Corp., wants to buy the number one hauler, Roadway Corp. The combined company is to be known creatively as the "Yellow Roadway Corp."

    I'd look forward to an effort by the company to add masonry products to its cargo mix, thus justifying a subsuquent rename, to the: Yellow Brick Roadway Corp.

    Sunday, July 06, 2003

    We Haven't Forgotten How to Build The NY Times Real Estate section has a good piece here on the new AirTrain terminal at the Long Island Rail Road's Jamaica station, which will soon be providing a link from the world's busiest commuter railroad directly to Kennedy Airport.

    This remains a high-risk project: Many naysayers have insisted that only a "one-seat" ride from Midtown Manhattan to the airport will convince New Yorkers to take "public transportation" to the airport. Personally, I've become convinced that it shouldn't take that much to convince Gothamites to abandon the palatial back seats of their native Yellow Cabs. We won't know the answer for a couple of years.

    But according to the story, a number of independent voices are starting to make cash-money bets that the plan will be successful -- including the backers of a new office tower that is rumored to be the future corporate headquarters of successful JFK-based startup JetBlue Airlines. Hopefully, a successful redevelopment of Jamaica will encourage our political leaders to think big -- finding and pushing for new ideas for other sites within the city.