Who is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a pre-primer

I caught a bit of a television program devoted to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) affair this morning, and I have done a bit of research on the Internet.

First, this affair is huge in France, newspaper sales have skyrocketed, the news weeklies are devoting 13-20 pages to it this week.  DSK was, prior to this affair, thought to be the frontrunner for the nomination of the Socialist Party to oppose Sarkozy in 2012. DSK is widely thought to be a man of some brilliance in the financial/economic realm, as well as in the political realm.  Despite having to apologize to the IMF quite early in his tenure for an affair he had with a subordinate Hungarian economist, he is regarded as having rescued the IMF from irrelevance and obscurity by orchestrating the bailout of the European banks and the Greek government.

DSK is married to a glamorous former telejournalist, Anne Sinclair, who was one of the most famous media figures in France in the 80’s and 90’s, a Barbara Walters-like figure, but with more substance.  They live together in a Georgetown townhouse.  Sinclair was born of French parents with the name Schwartz and is the granddaughter of the very successful artdealer Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso and Matisse, among others.  Sinclair was born in New York, her parents had fled Europe, but went to high school and university in France.  It is thought that DSK might have been able to introduce economic policies that would bring France out of the economic doldrums.  It was this hope, possibly widely shared among the French professional class, which wants only results and cares little about ideology, that made him the frontrunner for the Socialist nomination.

He is a charismatic figure with certain liabilities known best to himself (he rehearsed them recently to a journalist in a published interview):  his Jewishness, his womanizing, his money, much of which comes from his third wife, Sinclair.  DSK reminds me of Helmut Schmidt somewhat.  There was no note whatever in the telecast I saw of complaint about American prudery or about draconian American laws concerning sexual assault or rape.  French journalists are trying not to prejudge the case, and there is no sense that the Americans have somehow overstepped any bounds.  There were prior allegations of abuse in France, one from a 22-year-old novelist, another from a Socialist politician.

Great column on Mideast peace by Roger Cohen

I agree with everything said in this column, written by a somewhat unlikely source, because I think of Cohen as being very slightly left of center.  He is a British Jew.

The American Jewish community must come to its senses, but it shows every sign of not doing so, year after year.  The reason is obvious.  Just as Western guilt for its complicity in the Holocaust allowed Israel to be created, guilt of the American Jewish community for leading its own successful and largely soft and secular life in America while the Israelis tough it out in the desert with their mandatory draft have led the American Jewish community to bankroll Israel in a big way and to bankroll America’s Mideast policy and to dictate its terms.   What this demonstrates to me is the superficiality of the American Jewish community, the vacuousness at its core.  I don’t have many good things to say about this “culture” in which I sort of grew up, except that it produced some good fiction writers, although these belong to an earlier generation, the generation of my parents.  If only Jewish kids were actually taught something in Sunday school.  I am myself so ignorant of Jewish theology, traditions, and history that I am embarrassed.

Here is what I believe.  Two-state  solution.   The Palestinian state cannot be cantonized, it must be mostly contiguous territory.  It would be demilitarized, with international oversight.  Jerusalem would have divided sovereignty.  There would be either no right of Palestinian return, or the cases in which such a right exerts itself would be very limited.  There would be some form of financial compensation for people who were demonstrably expropriated, possibly with international sponsorship.

But bravo Roger Cohen.  You have said what virtually no Jewish person with claims to having a voice in the centrist establishment of the American Jewish Community dares to say, or even wants to say.  But what you have said is morally correct.  No other position is possible for a responsible person.


Brooks calls for debate on constitutional reform

Wow, I am astounded and gratified.  Shortly after I suggested that America needs constitutional reform regarding two things, the disproportionate power of the Senate and the inability of our system to limit spending on political campaigns, David Brooks chimes in to say that the system might be broken and that there should be a debate about constitutional reform.  I trust he’s not talking about abortion, but since he does not even indicate what he has in mind, there is no way of knowing.  I would probably be willing to throw abortion back to the states if it meant limiting the power of the Senate significantly.


Most of Brooks’s column is an argument to the effect that Obama’s new New Deal is dead, that he will have to trim his sails and offer competence and hard talk about the tough fiscal choices ahead.  Maybe, maybe not.  Obama should try to get health care reform legislation passed somehow and then do a better job of trying to educate the public about the big reform issues, energy policy, financial regulation, education, and global warming (in no particular order).  What Brooks says about the public’s mood is not implausible, though.  But Obama should also do a better job of blaming Republican ideology for the country’s problems, even if Clinton spearheaded the financial deregulation which produced the most recent financial meltdown.  It should never be forgotten that the financial meltdown happened on Bush’s watch and that his whole administration was asleep at the financial wheel.

On the assumption that Brooks is implying that the senate is granted too much power under the constitution, given present political and demographic conditions, this is a startling admission for him to make.  And I must say that I agree entirely with Brooks that there has to be some tough talk with the supposedly wise American people to the effect that there is no free lunch.

Krugman points out today that the Republicans would apparently push again for privatization of Social Security if they regained the presidency.  This really strains credulity.  I would have thought that that would be a total nonstarter now, in light of the financial meltdown.


Doug Henwood Speaks for Me

in his introductory editorial for the edition of January 21, 2010. Those not familiar with Henwood should check him out. A leftist with a brain, who began adulthood as a graduate student of comparative literature at Yale. I don’t share his taste for punk rock, but his book about Wall Street is quite good. He is usually well worth listening to.


Bob Herbert – The US Economy on the brink

I like Bob Herbert.  He mostly speaks for me in this column about America’s sinking economic fortunes.  I’m not too sure what would be so awful if America were to be like Germany – I guess Herbert means that America would be consigned to lower average growth in GDP.  Herbert says that America’s economic problems have been made worse by trade agreements, but does not specify what he means.  But Herbert’s tone of urgency and concern strike me as apt, and the long list of major problems awaiting solution seems equally apt.


A propos of nothing, I much prefer the earnestness of Herbert to the monotonous light-heartedness of Gail Collins, who nevertheless must be quite smart and who has just published a book about the changed place of women in American society since 1960 that sounds like it is well worth reading.  But I find the tone of her columns insufferable.  If she wrote in that tone 1/3 of the time, I could abide it.

Back to Herbert and my hobby-horse of the moment, America’s outdated constitution, it occurs to me that if there were a major movement of complaint about the excessive powers of the senate and the overrepresentation of a small part of the US population that the senate represents, then senators might be moved to behave differently, even if the constitution cannot be changed.  Civics textbooks should be rewritten in such a way as to make it clear that the powers of the unrepresentative senate are unusual in a contemporary democratic state.

Frank Rich deserves Pulitzer, gets Ledocsian

This piece by Frank Rich in today’s NYT is one of the best political columns I have ever read. It’s about, surprise, surprise, the need to reregulate the financial industry. This is the big story that is being neglected by almost everyone.


I would never have guessed that this former NY drama critic would become a truly great political columnist.  In recognition of his contributions to the general welfare to date in his capacity as political columnist, Frank Rich is the first recipient of the coveted Ledocsian, a nonmonetary, purely verbal award conferred by me upon the recipient.   Thank you, Mr. Rich.  If you did not exist, we would have had to invent you.

David Brooks again, what a guy

David Brooks in today’s NYT:

“The public is not only shifting from left to right. Every single idea associated with the educated class has grown more unpopular over the past year.

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should `go our own way’ has risen sharply.”

It is not until one reads the concluding paragraph of this column that one realizes that Brooks intends for himself to be ranked among the educated class against which some large swath of the public is rebelling.

I think the story Brooks is telling here is probably basically correct, that there is a deep anti-intellectual, anti-technocrat, anti-expert, anti-elitist movement afoot in America and that there is nothing new here.  But it seems to me that the movement has been fueled tremendously by the Obama Administration’s horrible missteps in its handling of the financial crisis and in Obama’s failure to indulge in enough anti-Wall Street populist rhetoric or to have taken enough anti-Wall Street action.  The only explanation for these failures that makes any sense to me is that Obama is to a large extent in the pocket of Wall Street, due to past campaign contributions and anticipated future ones.  I say this because a more forceful anti-Wall Street posture would seem to be such an obvious political requirement, with virtually no downside for the administration beyond the possible alienation of some big donors.  It strains credulity that the credit-rating agencies, just to take one example, may well emerge from the financial crisis unscathed, essentially unregulated, and in better financial shape than ever.  This really is scandalous and would constitute, in and of itself, a huge indictment of the American political system.

I don’t see any conceivable workable alternative in the modern world to government by technocratic elites.  But of course being well educated does not provide immunity from error – far from it.  Obama has made a tragic error, in my judgment, in not providing better legislative and rhetorical leadership in response to the financial crisis.  The error is both political and substantive, it will hurt in the coming midterm elections, and it undermines confidence in the technocratic elites, just as Brooks says.

Wishful thinking or disingenuousness on the left?

I have been very remiss in my blogging over the past several weeks, but one of my resolutions for 2010 will be to make blog entries on a much more regular basis.  I have been counseled to make shorter blog posts, and I expect to take this advice in 2010.

On the year-in-review edition of “Left, Right, and Center,” Tony Blankley and Matt Miller, representing the right and the center, respectively, both said that they feared a secular trend of reduction in US wage levels due to foreign competition.  Robert Scheer, representing the left, demurred, saying that he thought the US continues to have good long-term economic prospects.


Scheer’s professed optimism on this point bothered me quite a bit, insofar as it might represent either naïvete or disingenousness on the left.  I was also bothered, and continue to be bothered, by assertions, such as that made repeatedly by Al Gore during his unsuccessful bid for the presidency, that there is no conflict between environmentalism and economic growth.  It does seem to me that US wages will be under downside pressure due to a worldwide overabundance of labor for the foreseeable future, and I remember thinking that this would be the case forty years ago, when I attended a conference of labor leaders at Penn State University.

David Brooks not a moderate in defense of liberty

Where to begin, where to end, in one’s condemnation of David Brooks’s idiotic column concerning the tragedy of the Fort Hood massacre?


Brooks seems to have received a memo that was also received by Tony Blankley, whom I heard deliver Brooks’s column on the radio show “Left, Right, and Center.”  What I do not understand is the either/or mentality underlying the “conservative” interpretation of events:  either the murderer is an Islamist ideologue or he is mentally ill.  But why can’t he be both?  Isn’t this the likeliest explanation, that he is both crazy and an Islamist ideologue?  But which came first, the mental illness or the Islamist ideology?  I’ll vote for mental illness, on a priori grounds.  This is not to say that one needs to be crazy to be a radical Islamist.  I just think that this particular guy probably is crazy, given his background.  One gets the impression that the peculiar constellation of his career path in the US military, his education, and ethnic background, along with the path of recent international events all combined to create unusual tensions that led to mental illness.

The odd thing about this column by Brooks is that he is generally not an either/or sort of fellow.  The American right has a lot invested in the narrative of war against Islamic extremism, a war that requires America to be highly invested in military spending.

It seems very likely that the American press did initially downplay the Islamist angle of the massacre, in order not to inflame passions.  This does not seem to be the most terrible of sins.  Indeed, it’s better than the alternative.  Imagine a massacre of whites by an Afro-American.  Are the media supposed to lead with the racial angle, even supposing that the killer leaves a note saying that he has been motivated by racial enmity?  Where is the great harm in letting the story come out gradually?  I agree that a permanent suppression of the truth is undesirable.

In the meantime, let’s all be sure to be constant in our vigilance regarding the threat posed by Islamism.  And remember, there is no reasoning with an Islamist.  The only language they understand is that of a gun barrel.

Bob Herbert on youth unemployment

Good column by Bob Herbert in today’s NYT about the problem of youth unemployment in the US.


I have a niece who is a recent graduate from a very good (non-Ivy, not Berkeley) university who is working part-time in a Whole Foods kind of store.  France has been experiencing this youth unemployment problem for years, and it’s a very serious problem.  I saw a recent round-table discussion on CNN International with various US executives, the most talkative of whom was a financial genius named Fink, but Jack Welch was there, the current CEO of Pimco was there, the female head of Ogilvy and Mather was there.  They were talking about the financial crisis and its aftermath.  They were supposed to come up with ideas about how to get economic growth going again, but it was not a fertile plain for such ideas.  One often hears that America should learn to make things again, but one rarely hears what it should make, apart from electric cars and their accompanying batteries and solar panels.  A better traditional car is often mentioned also.  What one also never hears discussed is the distinct possibility that there is simply an international overabundance of labor – there are too many people, too many to provide professional jobs for all the people with professional qualifications.  I found this CNN round-table somewhat depressing.  While the executives were not stupid, apart from one Republican neanderthal with a shaved head, they did not strike one as profound thinkers either.  The guy from Pimco was not bad.

I want to give props to David Frum also.  On a recent edition of bloggingheadstv, Frum more than once referred to the problem that the US would likely have absorbing the most recent cohort of 18-24 year-olds into its workforce.   There are lots of people in this cohort, he says, who have very poor skills.  I am inclined to believe both parts of the hypothesis, viz. that there are a lot of kids with low skill levels and that it will be difficult for them to find jobs.  But Frum could have added the corollary discussed by Herbert in this column:  it’s also a very difficult environment for skilled young people.  In short, the US could be facing a very serious structural youth employment problem, comparable to the problem that France has had for years.  And, if this is so, it’s not a problem of French overregulation of the labor market, although that is presumably a contributing factor.

It is disappointing that one rarely hears economists discussing things like this.  Questions like this tend to devolve to sociologists and journalists.