Desparate times…

…call for desparate measures. Now comes Steve Ballmer, spinning in the wake of what can only be called a failure to successfully launch Micorosoft’s flagship operating system, Vista.  He now claims that any business that fails to move to Vista will be attacked by its employees.

“If you deploy a four or five-year old operating system today, most people will ask their boss why the heck they don’t have the stuff they have at home,” the Microsoft CEO said.

Hogwash. XP quite capably performs the basic tasks of an operating system, without the performance hits, unreliability and useless eye-candy of Vista. Vista simply does not add any value over XP yet it imposes significant costs.  I would recommend that if any business organization was planning to move to a new OS, they should seriously consider OS X over Vista.

More on pitchforks and populism (updated)

Frank Rich properly identifies the threat (promise?) of a populist uprising of sorts in the wake the flawed and reckless actions of the elite of US (and world) finance.  People cannot understand why the very individuals who were calling the economic shots should be protected despite their abject failure to properly measure, let alone manage, risks they were routinely taking.  Why should these individuals be protected even if we need to protect the entities they managed for the benefit of the system as a whole?

Now more than ever, the president must inspire confidence and stave off panic. As Friday’s new unemployment figures showed, the economy kept plummeting while Congress postured. Though Obama is a genius at building public support, he is not Jesus and he can’t do it all alone. On Monday, it’s Geithner who will unveil the thorniest piece of the economic recovery plan to date — phase two of a bank rescue. The public face of this inevitably controversial package is now best known as the guy who escaped the tax reckoning that brought Daschle down.

Even before the revelation of his tax delinquency, the new Treasury secretary was a dubious choice to make this pitch. Geithner was present at the creation of the first, ineffectual and opaque bank bailout — TARP, today the most radioactive acronym in American politics. Now the double standard that allowed him to wriggle out of his tax mess is a metaphor for the double standard of the policy he must sell: Most “ordinary Americans” still don’t understand why banks got billions while nothing was done (and still isn’t being done) to bail out those who lost their homes, jobs and retirement savings.

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The public’s revulsion isn’t mindless class hatred. As Obama said on Wednesday of his fellow citizens: “We don’t disparage wealth. We don’t begrudge anybody for achieving success.” But we do know that the system has been fixed for too long. The gaping income inequality of the past decade — the top 1 percent of America’s earners received more than 20 percent of the total national income — has not been seen since the run-up to the Great Depression.

Update: Timothy Egan has more along the same lines.

Quote of the day

“The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.

“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.

“Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.”

– Franklin D. Roosevelt, U.S. President, from is first Inaugural Address, 1933.  (h/t Quotation of the Day mailing list)

Cheney's statements on torture

The Washington Post issue an editorial properly calling out Cheney’s statements in a recent interview regarding torture.

Characteristically self-assured, Mr. Cheney perpetuated the myth that abiding by the rule of law puts the country in danger. In a thinly veiled attack on the Obama administration, he scoffed at those who are “more concerned about reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans.” This is not only a mischaracterization of Mr. Obama’s position, it is a false choice.

Cheney’s statements on torture

The Washington Post issue an editorial properly calling out Cheney’s statements in a recent interview regarding torture.

Characteristically self-assured, Mr. Cheney perpetuated the myth that abiding by the rule of law puts the country in danger. In a thinly veiled attack on the Obama administration, he scoffed at those who are “more concerned about reading the rights to an al-Qaeda terrorist than they are with protecting the United States against people who are absolutely committed to do anything they can to kill Americans.” This is not only a mischaracterization of Mr. Obama’s position, it is a false choice.

No prosecutions for terrorists?

lk_bush_flag_torture500

According to the AP, Leon Panetta has categorically stated that there will be no prosecutions for any CIA personnel who may have tortured captives in violation of international law or treaty obligations.

The Obama administration will not prosecute CIA officers who participated in harsh interrogations that critics say crossed the line into torture, CIA Director-nominee Leon Panetta said Friday.

Asked by The Associated Press if that was official policy, Panetta said, “That is the case.”

This position by the Administration itself to be contrary to our treaty obligations which impose a duty on signatory states to prosecute any of their citizens who engaged in torture.  For example, Article 7(1) of the Convention Against Torture, which the US has ratified (under President Reagan), provides:

The State Party in territory under whose jurisdiction a person alleged to have committed any offence referred to in article 4 is found, shall in the cases contemplated in article 5, if it does not extradite him, submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.

More detail on the treaty and its obligations here.

More on US/UK intelligence sharing (update)

David Rose, writing for Vanity Fair, ably sumarizes the implications of the claims in the UK that their courts cannot publish information received from the United States relating to torture of a UK citizen.  The claim is that the US has threatened to cut off intelligence sharing with the UK if such disclosure (otherwise required by British English law) were to occur. I cited this case earlier. Rose argues that the solution is that President Obama should order the disclosure himself.

However, there were soon a number of bewildering developments that made a seemingly clear-cut case suddenly rather murky. First, the prime minister’s office and the Foreign Office immediately denied that the British government had consulted with the Obama administration to determine how it felt about publishing the redacted paragraphs. By evening, Miliband had taken to the TV studios, insisting that there had never been any explicit “threat.” The issue, he said, was simply the fact that the redacted section consisted of information supplied by U.S. intelligence agencies, and that under the terms of intelligence-sharing relationships in general, it was not permissible for the courts of one country to disclose such material supplied by another, whatever its contents. In other words, the issue came down to the rules governing a long-standing set of operating procedures among governments. The following day, in a House of Commons statement, Miliband amplified this point: “The issue at stake is not the content of the intelligence material but the principle at the heart of all intelligence relationships—that a country retains control of its intelligence information and it cannot be disclosed by foreign authorities without its consent. That is a principle we neglect at our peril.… In this case it was US intelligence in a UK court. It could easily have been British intelligence in a foreign court.”

Update: Yesterday the Times of London published a great piece summarizing the current status of the controversy.

Last week, however, Lord Justice Thomas and Mr Justice Lloyd Jones, took matters further, arguing that while it was not for them to order public disclosure of US secret material, particularly in the face of clear and dire “threats” by the US government to reduce intelligence-sharing with Britain if they did, there was a pressing case for the information to be revealed in public.

In the House of Commons, David Miliband, the foreign secretary, denied there were such explicit threats. But he did confirm that releasing the documents despite strong US protests would result in “real and significant damage” to Britain’s national security.

One way or another, it was a court judgment that put Obama’s White House on the spot. Despite the new president’s condemnations of the Bush administration and its promise to break with the past on issues of rendition and torture: how far was Obama willing to go in exposing the secret trail of evidence that would document the most controversial aspects of the years since 9/11? Was he willing to publish material that could help set free terrorist suspects? Or material that could result in the prosecution of CIA officers or the officials who advised them? Or would he prefer to see the whole matter left buried in a dusty but well-guarded vault?

After Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is very ill. While everyone hopes she has a full recovery, the illness as lead to speculation as to who might succeed her should she leave the court. Jeffrey Toobin explains.

Janet Napolitano, the former governor, attorney general, and U.S. Attorney of Arizona, and the recently installed Secretary of Homeland Security, would seem to have the ideal background if Obama decides to go the non-judge route. (And in private practice, Napolitano helped represent Anita Hill—which might make for lively lunchtime conversation with Clarence Thomas.) Gov. Jennifer Granholm, of Michigan, fits a similar profile.

A real class(less) act

Former Bush administration officials, from Dick Cheney down, are busy making public criticisms of the Obama administration. These types of attacks are unusual from a departing administration and are, quite simply, in bad taste. They are also a form of defense from possible criminal prosecution for some former officials.

The knives are already out just two weeks after Bush left the White House, as some of his closest friends and former aides begin lobbing sharp criticisms at the Obama administration.

The comments mark a departure from the general rules of decorum that held sway during the final weeks of the Bush administration, when the departing president and his aides made a point of fostering a cordial relationship with the Obama team. Bush himself has refrained from criticism so far, making no public remarks since returning to Texas.

“It’s certainly unbecoming, especially for a former vice president,” Thomas E. Mann, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said in reference to the remarks by Cheney and others. “It reinforces the fact that there’s a lot of bitterness about the low public standing of Bush and the administration as they left office, and the soaring standing of Barack Obama. A lot of these people are still caught up in these ideological battles and can’t let go.”

Surveillance society is a threat to liberty

surveillance-02-largeOr so says the House of Lords. Surveillance is ubiquitous in the UK, far worse than here.  If any governmental group is in a postion to understand the intended (or unintended) adverse consequence of limitless spying, it would be the British.

The peers say privacy is an “essential prerequisite to the exercise of individual freedom” and the growing use of surveillance and data collection needs to be regulated by executive and legislative restraint at all times.

Lord Goodlad, the former Tory chief whip and committee chairman, said there could be no justification for this gradual but incessant creep towards every detail about an individual being recorded and pored over by the state.

“The huge rise in surveillance and data collection by the state and other organisations risks undermining the long-standing traditions of privacy and individual freedom which are vital for democracy,” he said. “If the public are to trust that information about them is not being improperly used there should be much more openness about what data is collected, by whom and how it is used.”

The constitution committee makes more than 40 recommendations to protect individual privacy, including the deletion of all profiles from the national DNA database except for those of convicted criminals and a call for the mandatory encryption of personal data held by public and private organisations that are legally obliged to hold it.

But the report is silent on proposals from Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, for a “superdatabase” tracking everybody’s emails, calls, texts and internet use and from Jack Straw, the justice secretary, to lower barriers on the widespread sharing of personal data across the public sector.

Get the pitchforks

What happens when a single woman dies of cancer at 52, leaving credit card bills upaid and no money in the estate? Well, if one of the credit cards is from Bank of America, the bank pressures heirs with no liability to pay up, claiming that if they don’t pay up they are huring the economy. Check this out from TalkingPointsMemo.

Paul Kelleher: Yes, I’m calling to inform you that my mom died on the 24th of January.

Bank of America Estates representative: I’m sorry. Oh, it looks like she never even missed a payment. That’s too bad. Well, how are you planning to take care of her balance?

PK: I’m not going to. She has no estate to speak of, but you should feel free to just go through the standard probate procedure. I’m certainly not legally obligated to pay for her.

BOA: You mean you’re not going to help her out?

PK: I wouldn’t be helping her out — she’s dead. I’d be helping you out.

BOA: Oh, that’s really not the way to look at it. I know that if it were my mother, I’d pay it. That’s why we’re in the banking crisis we’re in: banks having to write off defaulted loans.

Quote of the Day

“[Y]ou get the argument, ‘Well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill.’ What do you think a stimulus is? That’s the whole point. No, seriously. That’s the point.” – Barrack Obama, speaking about the GOP response to the stimulus plan on February 5, 2008.

Lessons from Japan

What can we learn from the experience of the Japanese who faced the collapse of their own massive real estate bubble in the late 80s? The New York Times describes positive and negative results of massive government spending.

In a nutshell, Japan’s experience suggests that infrastructure spending, while a blunt instrument, can help revive a developed economy, say many economists and one very important American official: Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who was a young financial attaché in Japan during the collapse and subsequent doldrums. One lesson Mr. Geithner has said he took away from that experience is that spending must come in quick, massive doses, and be continued until recovery takes firm root.

Moreover, it matters what gets built: Japan spent too much on increasingly wasteful roads and bridges, and not enough in areas like education and social services, which studies show deliver more bang for the buck than infrastructure spending.

“It is not enough just to hire workers to dig holes and then fill them in again,” said Toshihiro Ihori, an economics professor at the University of Tokyo. “One lesson from Japan is that public works get the best results when they create something useful for the future.”

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Economists tend to divide into two camps on the question of Japan’s infrastructure spending: those, many of them Americans like Mr. Geithner, who think it did not go far enough; and those, many of them Japanese, who think it was a colossal waste.

Among ordinary Japanese, the spending is widely disparaged for having turned the nation into a public-works-based welfare state and making regional economies dependent on Tokyo for jobs. Much of the blame has fallen on the Liberal Democratic Party, which has long used government spending to grease rural vote-buying machines that help keep the party in power.

This seems reasonable. Hopefully the bipartisan group of Senators is reviewing the bill line-by-line to try to limit it to expenditures that both make sense from a cost-benefit point of view and that truly offer hope for stimulus.  It needs to be done as quickly as possible but the Obama team at the White House should be doing this and should have been doing it for some time. They seem to have left the structure of the stimulus bill almost entirely to Congress, which is clearly a big mistake.