Mourning In America

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

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Friday, September 12, 2003
Where's the Light? I've been meaning to do an economics post for about a week -- since the August employment report showed a net loss of 93,000 jobs. That was a surprise -- economists (and laypeople like me) had felt as though the labor market was getting a bit more upbeat in August, and most forecasters thought the number would be in positive territory, reflecting at least a temporary surge fueled by the Bush tax rebates.

That it didn't show up was troubling, but not damning news -- August being August, vacations and plant re-tooling could have messed with the number. Next month should be a fairer reading.

But already, the anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that the positive attitude is fading. The unemployment rate actually fell in August, as more people left the job-seeking pool without being hired (many of them claim to be self-employed, and it's hard to tell whether that's a voluntary or involuntary choice).

But remember the context: In June, when the unemployment rate soared to 6.4% because of a surge of new job-seekers, the Bush economic team told us it was good news, because these were "encouraged workers" -- people who knew the tax cuts were ahead and believed they would lead to job creation. In that light, you have to conclude that a mass exodus of workers from the job-seeking pool in the absence of ANY new jobs being created is bad news -- it seems fair to conclude that those encouraged workers walked away discouraged.

But they still make up a small slice of the population. Why do they matter? Because the weak rebound the economy has experienced in the last year or so has been anchored on consumer spending. Anything to jeopardize consumer confidence -- like the bitching and moaning of discouraged workers complaining to their friends about how hard it is to find a job -- is a concern.

And lo and behold, the monthly survey of consumer confidence released this morning was remarkably weaker than expected.

What's interesting here is that the unemployment report is sometimes labelled a lagging indicator of economic recovery -- companies don't hire new workers until they're confident that economic growth will be sustained. But is it possible that the "workforce size" component is becoming a leading indicator -- with the unemployed population's attitude about the possibility of their finding work becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy by undermining consumer confidence elsewhere in the economy? Something to watch...

Thursday, September 11, 2003
Lots to Remember After spending lunch yesterday at the WTC memorial and eternal flame in Battery Park, I took a walk over to Lower Manhattan's Vietnam Veterans Memorial at lunch today. With our troops deployed in two foreign countries as a result of the dominoes that began to fall on 9/11/01, it seemed like a good place to reflect.

I happened to be at the same place last year on the first anniversary of 9/11. The contrast was striking. Then, the plaza was stark and deserted, not unlike much of lower Manhattan -- people stayed away in droves.

Today was like any other day -- at least a hundred office workers enjoying their lunches amidst the plaza's benches and plantings: A solid sign that New York is rebounding emotionally, although the remembrance was never far from most peoples' minds.

The memorial itself was moving, though. It features inscriptions from letters home from soldiers that tell of the bleak hell so many of them lived. It's a blessing that our deployed soldiers today do not tell similar tales, but it's important to remember that they and their families are the only ones who have really been asked to pay any price by the President. This quote from a poem by Major Michael Davis O'Donnell makes that point well:

And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
those gentle heroes
you left behind…

But the importance of remembering the soldiers whose lives are at risk isn't the only Vietnam lesson we need to keep in mind -- what needs to be remembered every day is how easy it was for the generals and political leaders to lead us down the path of pointless escalation in Vietnam. Already, at least one senior Bush administration official is sounding a warning that we could be on the same path [link via Calpundit]. As Lt. Richard Strandberg put it in his contribution to the memorial:

One thing worries me - - will people believe me? Will they want to hear about it, or will they want to forget the whole thing ever happened?…

He's Number 2? This is interesting: Howard Dean has met with Gen. Wesley Clark to suggest he sign on as VP. I'd be surprised if it's a successful pitch, but on a tactical level, I think it does speak well of Dean's campaign -- they seem to be very effective. Now, if they could just do something about his eyes so they don't look crossed all the time...

UPDATE: Josh Marshall has an interesting take here on the Dean/Clark story. Basically, he wonders whether the story wasn't planted by the Dean folks to make Clark look indecisive about his own run. It's possible Clark was just being polite in taking Dean's call, but now they can make it look like he has doubts about his own ability to be No. 1.

I'm in no position to judge, but on the bright side, this interpretation doesn't do anything to contradict my earlier claim that this story was a strong reflection on the Dean campaign's tactical skill. Nefarious tactics count!

Wednesday, September 10, 2003
The Problems With 'Flypaper' The President's speech on Sunday night was the administration's most public embrace yet of the neoconservatives' "flypaper" theory, which says it's a positive sign that U.S. forces are subject to terrorist attacks in Iraq, because that means that the terrorists are bogged down there, distracted from their goal of striking on the U.S. mainland.

The obvious flaw with the theory is that it assumes there's a fixed supply of "terrorists," rather than even contemplating the idea that our inability to deliver on our promises of a better quality of life for the Iraqis, -- especially in terms of security, clean water, and power -- might radicalize more people to take up arms against us.

There's also a practical concern -- with our soldiers fearing for their lives, and scrambling to secure property and protect civilians who are working with us (and who are suffering casualties at an even greater rate than our soldiers) -- there appears to be no time or manpower left to root out the terrorists. If we have truly "taken the battle to the terrorists," shouldn't we be recording some arrests or kills? In their absence, can we assume anything other than that the enemy is proceeding unchecked?

Conveniently, the flypaper theory allows us to again avoid that hard conversation we need to have with our allies in Saudi Arabia, which is reported to be a major source of the foreign terrorists crossing Iraq's borders to take up arms against our soldiers -- if the goal is for our soldiers to attract all comers, why would we oppose that? Bring 'em on!

"People Should Watch What They Say" The new right-wing chorus is that pointing out the limits of our troops borders on treason, because it encourages the enemy to attack. This is the same kind of underestimation of the enemy that allowed us to ignore the warning signs on the road to 9/11. I have every expectation that the terrorists are competent enough to recognize and exploit any weakness we can find in our own defenses. It's not treason to look and to demand that the administration neutralize them ... it's patriotic.

Conservative blogger and MIA friend Francis hears echoes of JFK in Bush's speech. "Pay any price" and all. The problem is that Kennedy's speech was about personal responsibility and sacrifice. Bush continues to ask for neither -- engendering hostility towards the U.S. throughout the world, and undermining the effectiveness of our efforts on the national security front.

Tuesday, September 09, 2003
Morbidity Watch Update Did the Times editors finally realize that their 9/11 anniversary coverage wasn't hitting the spot they wanted it to? Today's entries ended up deep inside the A section, rather on the front page. Of course, that may just be because today's pieces were more clearly warmed-over versions of what came before -- more vignettes of widows and neighbors struggling to rebuild their lives, and an observation of the fact that despite New Yorkers' stated fear of new attacks, little preparation is going on (which is probably healthy).

Hillary on the Brain Today's Times desperately looks for chinks in Sen. Clinton's "I'm not running for President" armor, citing accounts from supporters who attended a "donor maintenance" dinner at the homestead in Chappaqua over the weekend. Thie big quote?
".. they heard Mrs. Clinton say how important their support would be 'for my next campaign, whatever that may be.'" [emphasis added]

I continue to believe her denials (although critics would dismiss my observation by noting that I continued to believe her husband about his marital fidelity until he specifically acknowleged that he had lied), and suspect that the story was more a reflection of the wishful thinking of supporters who'd like her to run than any real change of heart on her part.

As a result, I'm much more fascinated by the off-lead in the story: President Clinton's warm words for Gen. Wesley Clark. I've said all along that for Clark to really make a run at this, he needs to be invited into the race by a party leader (to prevent losing a week of the news cycle to silly attacks and charges of opportunism from the rest of the field), and there's no one better to do that than the last President to achieve a popular-vote plurality, who happens to share a home state with the General (which is, admittedly, something that makes me cringe).

Monday, September 08, 2003
Missing the Point The current NY Times 9/11 features series has a forced tone to it. In a move that evokes eerie memories of former Editor Howell Raines' "Flood the Zone" strategy, the paper's editors seem to have decided that the second anniversary is a major event. They've assigned many reporters to it, and are spilling gallons of ink.

Too bad they don't have more to say.

Today's entry is a case-in-point. Using a survey showing that New Yorkers are still fearful of new attacks, the paper jumps off into a series of vignettes about the ways life has returned to normal and the ways it hasn't. In the process, it misses the opportunity to address the bigger issue -- what's necessary to change that attitude (my guess: Capturing or Killing Bin Laden), and why that hasn't been done (because the Bush administration thought, wrongfully, it appears, that it would be easier to get Saddam's head on a spike).

The editors weren't wrong to turn to this page in their playbook. Done right -- the way Jimmy Breslin used to write about major events and issues through the eyes of "ordinary people" -- this is the most powerful kind of journalism.

But after reading the product, they should have recognized that that's not what they got and cut their losses. Instead, the "man on the street" vignettes became as an end in themselves, teetering between bland amusement and mean-spirited exploitation (i.e., the account of the Brooks Brothers saleswoman's obsession with the idea of ghosts haunting the company's One Liberty Plaza store). Yesterday's account of the love lives of those who lost significant others in the attacks was worse -- including very little evidence that the survivors' stories or the choices they face are different from those of any other widows or widowers, and throwing in the ghoulish, yet totally unsourced, speculation that some people are putting off remarriage to help them look more sympathetic when they apply for survivors' benefits.

To be fair, the package had its redeeming moments -- this piece is a solid investigative look at where Federal business-assistance grant money went, and found it was largely a bonus to the big financial and law firms downtown, rather than to small businesses. MORE IMPORTANTLY, it demonstrated that the decision to dole out the money to "needy" parties like the New York Mercantile Exchange came directly from agencies controlled by "Gov." Pataki -- the Democrats in New York's Congressional delegation who set up the program thought it was going to small businesses.

This is the kind of content that makes the paper worth its princely price of $1/day. If I wanted personality profiles and tearjerkers, Parade and Lifetime would be much more effective investments.