NEWS & VIEWS ROUNDUP: September 16

More radical than Bush

John Goodman is a conservative economist who thinks all the fuss over people without health insurance is just hooey. As Goodman explained to a reporter from The Dallas Morning News last week, everybody can get medical care from an emergency room, so why not just stop tallying the uninsured altogether? “Voil à,” Goodman quipped. “Problem solved.” Like many far-right policy experts, Goodman had said such things before. But, unlike many far-right policy experts, Goodman isn’t just some random wonk. As the Morning News noted, Goodman had helped craft McCain’s health care plan. In other words, he is a McCain adviser.

Or, at least, he used to be. When Goodman’s quote got the attention of reporters, a McCain spokesman issued a terse statement: “John Goodman is not an adviser to this campaign.” When that position became untenable–it turns out Goodman had identified himself as an adviser not only to the Morning News but also in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, to which the McCain campaign never objected–the official story changed. Yes, Goodman had offered advice to McCain. But it was on an unpaid, voluntary basis, and McCain had since made clear that Goodman’s input was not necessary. “John McCain could not disagree more strongly with Mr. Goodman,” a spokesman said. “John McCain believes that addressing the problem of the nation’s uninsured is one of our most pressing national priorities.” (Goodman has been traveling and unavailable for comment.)

It wasn’t the first time this campaign season that McCain distanced himself from a conservative adviser over controversial statements. Former Texas senator Phil Gramm, as a top economic adviser, had far more influence than Goodman. Fortune magazine actually called him “McCain’s econ brain.” But, in June, Gramm told a Washington Times reporter that the economy was stronger than most Americans realized. The real problem, he suggested, was a “mental recession”–that “we have sort of become a nation of whiners.” Again, Gramm was offering a refrain common among conservatives, who think the press constantly dwells on bad economic news. But did McCain believe it, too? This time, McCain himself issued a denial. “Phil Gramm does not speak for me,” he said. “America is in great difficulty. And we are experiencing enormous challenges.” Soon Gramm was told his services, too, were no longer required. [continued…]

McCain blasts Wall street failure, neglects to mention his adviser helped cause it

As the news broke of the Lehman Brothers meltdown and the rest of the latest financial crisis, John McCain, speaking at a campaign rally in Florida on Monday, angrily declared,

We will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street. This is a failure.

And in a statement released by his campaign, McCain called for greater “transparency and accountability” on Wall Street.

If McCain wants to hold someone accountable for the failure in transparency and accountability that led to the current calamity, he should turn to his good friend and adviser, Phil Gramm.

As Mother Jones reported in June, eight years ago, Gramm, then a Republican senator chairing the Senate banking committee, slipped a 262-page bill into a gargantuan, must-pass spending measure. Gramm’s legislation, written with the help of financial industry lobbyists, essentially removed newfangled financial products called swaps from any regulation. Credit default swaps are basically insurance policies that cover the losses on investments, and they have been at the heart of the subprime meltdown because they have enabled large financial institutions to turn risky loans into risky securities that could be packaged and sold to other institutions. [continued…]

Financial Russian roulette

Will the U.S. financial system collapse today, or maybe over the next few days? I don’t think so — but I’m nowhere near certain. You see, Lehman Brothers, a major investment bank, is apparently about to go under. And nobody knows what will happen next.

To understand the problem, you need to know that the old world of banking, in which institutions housed in big marble buildings accepted deposits and lent the money out to long-term clients, has largely vanished, replaced by what is widely called the “shadow banking system.” Depository banks, the guys in the marble buildings, now play only a minor role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers; most of the business of finance is carried out through complex deals arranged by “nondepository” institutions, institutions like the late lamented Bear Stearns — and Lehman.

The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn’t so much reduced as hidden: all too many investors had no idea how exposed they were. [continued…]

On the stump, Obama moves past hope

The poetic defenses of hope, the playful jokes about being a distant relative of Vice President Cheney and the glancing attention to policy have been replaced by an emphasis on economic fears — an issue-by-issue argument of why the American dream is slipping away and the Republican ticket has no plan to rescue it. He furrows his brow, wags his finger and broadcasts exasperation at the idea that a 26-year veteran of Washington is co-opting his mantra of change.

The Obama campaign has even replaced the wistful slogan, “Change We Can Believe In,” with the more imperative “Change We Need.” [continued…]

Outrage at McCain’s “lies” is a total loser strategy

Mark Halperin’s three pieces of advice for Obama seem sound. (They are 1. Ignore Palin; 2. Get in McCain’s head the way McCain’s getting in Obama’s; and 3. Refocus on the economy in an accessible way.) … To which I’d add:

4. It’s a good week for point 3!

5. The current lib blog-MSM-campaign tack–getting outraged by McCain’s “lies”–is a total loser strategy. Why? [continued…]

Even before VP nomination, Palin’s e-mail use questioned

Moments after Gov. Sarah Palin’s first speech as Republican John McCain’s running mate, she sat with her kids backstage, thumbing one of the two BlackBerrys that are always with her. You can see them in photographs from that day on the campaign blog of one of McCain’s daughters.

The tech-savvy governor has one of the devices (which allow users to read and send e-mails) for state business and another for personal matters, but those worlds intertwine.

Palin routinely uses a private Yahoo e-mail account to conduct state business. Others in the governor’s office sometimes use personal e-mail accounts, too.

The practice raises questions about backdoor secrecy in an administration that vowed during the 2006 campaign to be “open and transparent.” [continued…]

Afghanistan is in its worst shape since 2001, European diplomat says

One of the most experienced Western envoys in Afghanistan said Sunday that conditions there had become the worst since 2001. He urged a concerted American and foreign response, even before a new American administration took office, to avoid “a very hot winter for all of us.”

The envoy, Francesc Vendrell, a Spanish diplomat with eight years’ experience in Afghanistan, especially criticized the growing number of civilian deaths in attacks by American and international forces.

Those deaths have created “a great deal of antipathy” and widened the distance between the Afghan government and citizens, he said here at an annual review of global strategy organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Mr. Vendrell recently stepped down as the European Union envoy in Kabul. [continued…]

Confusion over Afghan border clash

Confusion swirled over a possible incursion by United States forces into Pakistani territory in South Waziristan on Monday.

Local residents and a Pakistani government official said two American helicopters were repulsed when Pakistani soldiers fired at them, but the Pakistani and United States military publicly denied any such incident, and a Pakistani intelligence official said that an American helicopter had mistakenly crossed the border briefly, leading Pakistani ground forces to fired into the air.

The Pakistani official, a senior official who deals with the tribal areas and who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that American troops had tried to land in South Waziristan at a town called Angoor Adda, in a mountainous region with thick forest on the border with Afghanistan. [continued…]

Iraq: Al-Qaida intensifies its stranglehold in the world’s most dangerous city

It is the most dangerous city in the world’s most dangerous country, a sad, half-empty relic whose rich and middle classes have long since fled. To reach it, one has to travel incognito in convoys of rundown small cars whose drivers conceal their walkie-talkies and weapons under the seats. Their bodyguards sometimes switch to dented taxis with shattered windshields as an extra disguise.

Mosul – the de facto capital of northern Iraq – should have been as safe as Basra and Baghdad if a massive military offensive by Iraqi and US forces, which was launched in May, had succeeded. But most al-Qaida insurgents slipped away before it began – and they are now slipping back. “They use car bombs and roadside bombs, and target areas which used to be very safe. Now they are assassinating people with pistols that have silencers. The offensive was not as successful as expected,” said Doraid Kashmoula, the provincial governor.

In June, the Americans trumpeted the killing of Abu Khalaf, who they described as al-Qaida’s local kingpin, and the “emir of Mosul”. “Killing this man didn’t help. When the security forces kill one emir, they have 10 others to replace him,” the governor added. [continued…]

Israel outraged after settler rampage in West Bank

Israel expressed outrage on Sunday after a mob of Jewish settlers rampaged through a Palestinian village in the West Bank to avenge the stabbing of a nine-year-old boy in a nearby settlement.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert condemned Saturday’s settler attack on the village, during which four Palestinians were shot and wounded, and vowed to halt settler “pogroms” in the occupied territory.

“This phenomenon of taking the law into their own hands and of brutal and violent attacks is intolerable and will receive the strictest and most severe treatment,” Olmert told reporters ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting. [continued…]

Danger of Jewish terror

The violent revenge attack staged by dozens of settlers from Yitzhar at the nearby Palestinian village Asira al-Kabaliya is the tip of the iceberg: The iceberg of Jewish terror whose edges are exposed to the Israeli public on occasion.

In the week before this attack, we saw two more cases attesting to this reality. Civilian Administration representatives who sought to confiscate construction equipment at the illegal outpost Yair were attacked because they arrived “on short notice” according to the settlers. Later that day, dozens of settlers attacked a nearby IDF base, clashed with the soldiers there to guard them, and set a dog on a company commander. The deputy regiment commander broke his finger in the attack.

Yet despite the incident in Asira al-Kabaliya, while the police and army shirk their responsibility for maintaining law and order, the prime minister and defense minister made statements such as “we won’t let pogroms take place in Israel.” The wild riot by settlers during Shabbat was condemned by many, including the Yesha Council. However, there are those who can make do with a condemnation and those whose job it is to do something. The defense minister and prime minister are responsible for enforcing the law in the West Bank. However, so far they have condemned, but did nothing. [continued…]

As peace talks sputter, Israelis and Palestinians eye Plan B

Over the past two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, deadlines for peace agreements have come and gone with precious few treaties.

Now, amid low expectations for an agreement before the expiration of the Bush administration’s target for an accord by the end of 2008, voices are growing on both sides advocating abandoning talks on Palestinian statehood if they miss the mark yet again.

“We certainly need to think outside the box,” says Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian legislator and longtime supporter of peace talks. “The business-as-usual approach hasn’t worked.” [continued…]

The Army’s totally serious mind-control project

Soldiers barking orders at each other is so 20th Century. That’s why the U.S. Army has just awarded a $4 million contract to begin developing “thought helmets” that would harness silent brain waves for secure communication among troops. Ultimately, the Army hopes the project will “lead to direct mental control of military systems by thought alone.”

If this sounds insane, it would have been as recently as a few years ago. But improvements in computing power and a better understanding of how the brain works have scientists busy hunting for the distinctive neural fingerprints that flash through a brain when a person is talking to himself. The Army’s initial goal is to capture those brain waves with incredibly sophisticated software that then translates the waves into audible radio messages for other troops in the field. “It’d be radio without a microphone, ” says Dr. Elmar Schmeisser, the Army neuroscientist overseeing the program. “Because soldiers are already trained to talk in clean, clear and formulaic ways, it would be a very small step to have them think that way.”

B-movie buffs may recall that Clint Eastwood used similar “brain-computer interface” technology in 1982’s Firefox, named for the Soviet fighter plane whose weapons were controlled by the pilot’s thoughts. (Clint was sent to steal the plane, natch.) Yet it’s not as far-fetched as you might think: video gamers are eagerly awaiting a crude commercial version of brain wave technology — a $299 headset from San Francisco-based Emotiv Systems — in summer 2009. [continued…]

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