Friday, April 10, 2009


President Obama pointed to a few "glimmers of hope" in the economy, such as increased lending to small businesses and more refinancing of homes. It's tempting to seize on the unexpected good signs, but there are still plenty of economists predicting even tougher times ahead. There's significant doubt that we've hit bottom.

The key to how bad things will get may be the banks, and the results of the government's "stress tests" that are due by the end of April. The restructuring of the financial sector, including new regulations and new responsibilities for government institutions, we presume is ongoing.

But touting glimmers of hope helps the economy beyond the banks. A paralyzed economy has nowhere to go but down. Stimulus is supposed to stimulate, and people in general have a vested interest in getting things going, especially if their jobs and businesses are threatened. Some of the federal stimulus money starts showing up this month in unemployment and social security checks, and in tax refunds. Infrastructure projects should be numerous by summer.

All of this suggests we may be turning the psychological corner. But another major shock or two--especially if it's a surprise, and not something expected like a GM bankruptcy--could set things back. I don't worry much about the usual agents of doom predicting economic and political collapse within the year. But I do pay attention to economists like Paul Krugman and James Galbraith who fear things are going to get much worse before they get better, with time till the getting better part still in doubt.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

President Obama ended his European tour with an important speech and town meeting with students in Turkey (and a visit to several incredible landmarks, like the Blue Mosque pictured above right) and a quick visit to troops in Iraq, where he was greeted with enthusiasm. His speech in Turkey was amazingly deft and specific. He recognized Turkey as a secular society, yet also used his visit to further his outreach to Muslims. Overall, his trip was eye-opening, and though the Washington Post didn't seem to think any sort of Obama global strategy emerged, a lot about how he is going to operate was revealed. First, setting goals and frameworks that are bold and big: "Some people say that maybe I'm being too idealistic," Mr. Obama said. "But if we don't try, if we don't reach high, we won't make any progress." And second, he emphasizes the modesty of listening, the directness of seeking agreement and even compromise. He settled at least two disputes among G20 and NATO countries, becoming the world's conflict resolver in chief.

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Final One

Congratulations to North Carolina, winner of the NCAA men's championship game against Michigan State. It was a game that lacked suspense but not beauty, especially NC's first half.

The last announcers of the pre-game both predicted a Michigan State victory. Yet when all the pre-game commentary, statistics and analysis was done, one of the game announcers emphasized a basic fact that goes way back to high school or before. North Carolina players were taller than Michigan State's. That was pretty much how it used to work, too: the team with the taller players usually won.

Update: Congrats as well to the UConn women's team which finished a 38-0 season by doing a Carolina on Louisville. If anything, the UConn women were even more dominant this year, winning by double digits over every opponent they faced. These kind of games can be fun to watch just to see superior execution, if that's not too punishing a word.
Wash Day

It's Monday, the traditional laundry day, so a number of news items need to be hung out to dry.

In the department of hopeful trends, there are these: the average age of conservative talk radio listeners is 67 and rising. Other stats show overwhelming evidence of liberal leanings and especially support for President Obama among the young. Add to this, the decline in the number of Americans who identify themselves as Christian. Apart from whatever this says, positive or negative, about religious inquiry, it signals that the apparent decline in influence of the Christian fundamentalist Rabid Right is upheld by this broader trend.

I think we're going to be looking at President Obama's ongoing trip in Europe for a long time, because it says and portends so much. It began at the G20 conference with this premise, according to one oped contributor to the NY Times: "This conference was about saving the world, but more important for the participants, it was about saving their political lives. Mr. Obama is the only popular politician left in the world. He would win an election in any one of the G-20 countries, and his fellow world leaders will do anything to take home a touch of that reflected popularity."

Back at home, a new New York Times poll finds Americans are more optimistic about the economy since Obama's Inauguration. Other polls also show that Americans still expect this downturn to last awhile.

In less upbeat news, there were revelations that the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 was much worse than previously known, at least by the public, and that the much, much higher levels of radiation released has caused a number of deaths and health problems.

There's no point to linking to stories about the earthquake in Italy, since they are only beginning to count the casualities and assess the damage. The epicenter was not very far from the village where my maternal grandparents lived--where my mother was born--and where I still have relatives. The history of earthquakes in this region goes back almost two thousand years, probably more, but like where we live, there is lots of lived time between the worst of them. Even though I've never been to Manoppello and have never met or been in touch with my relatives there, I'll be watching the news anxiously, hoping for the best.