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September 2008 Archives

September 4, 2008

The Bible in Palin's Speech--Skeel

I found myself listening for Biblical echoes in Sarah Palin's speech last night after hearing the familiar cadences of Ecclesiastes in its opening paragraphs, when she said that the voters rallied behind McCain in the primaries because he understands "there is a time for politics and a time for leadership ... a time to campaign and a time to put our country first." These lines are of course an allusion- a deft one, to my ear- to the book of Ecclesiastes ("For everything there is a season ... a time to be born, and a time to die." Eccles 3:1-8).

The only other distinctively Scriptural note came much later in the speech, when Palin said "we are expected to govern with integrity, good will, clear convictions, and ... a servant's heart."

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September 9, 2008

The McCain-Palin Salvo on Fannie Mae--Skeel

I may be over-reading the McCain-Palin op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac this morning, but it seems to me to mark a sharp break from the Bush administration on the subprime crisis. Not on the bailout itself. Just about everyone seems to agree that bailout was inevitable, and that the question was simply when it was going to take place. The break, it seems to me, is in the proposals for mortgage lending going forward. The Bush administration has relied almost entirely on jawboning and voluntary measures. McCain-Palin seem to be advocating substantially more governmental intervention. They suggest that they would establish a minimum downpayment requirement for loans guaranteed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, and would impose new disclosure requirements for derivative securities.

I wonder if this means we'll be hearing a little less about tax cuts in the next two months, and more about Teddy Roosevelt-style corporate and financial reform.

September 13, 2008

Sarah Palin's Faith, and Mine--Stuntz

I didn't like Mike Huckabee's campaign in the Republican primaries, because Huckabee argued, sometimes explicitly, that Christian voters should support him because he's a Christian.  I wouldn't have voted for him anyway, but that sealed the point for me.  I won't vote for any candidate because of that candidate's faith, or lack thereof.  Often, I don't know anything (and don't try to find out) about the religious convictions of the candidates I support.  I'm sure I've voted for candidates with a wide range of religious commitments, including some--probably a lot--with no more than nominal religious affiliations, or none at all.

 

Though you won't read it in the New York Times, I'm pretty sure that most of my fellow Christians follow a similar practice.  We vote for and against candidates' political programs, not for and against their religious practice.  That is as it should be in a society as religiously diverse as ours is.

 

But there's a flip side to that proposition.  While my faith should never be treated like a job qualification in a political campaign, neither should its absence.

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September 15, 2008

Lehman's Demise--Skeel

The government's dance with Lehman after having bailed out Bear Stearns reminded me of a game we used to play as kids. One kid would stand in front of another and fall backwards. The idea was that the kid in back would catch his falling friend. The Fed and Treasury are like the kid in back. Unfortunately, it's now completely unclear whether and when they'll catch an investment bank as it falls.

I don't mean to suggest the government should have bailed Lehman out. I don't think they should have. But they've managed to create a situation where it's almost completely uncertain whether the government will or won't step in. This is one problem.

But there's a second problem as well: the government is focusing too much on the wrong issue.

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September 17, 2008

The Candidates and the Crisis--Skeel

I wasn't among those who were disturbed about the increasingly trivial bickering between Senators McCain and Obama until the tumultuous events in the financial services markets over the past several days. I'm now greatly disturbed, because I fear that a great opportunity for better government may be lost.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt campaigned for the presidency in 1932, he promised to do whatever it took to counteract the financial effects of the Depression. When he came to Washington, many of the best minds of the generation came with him or advised him. (Hard as it may be to imagine now, this included numerous law professors, people like Felix Frankfurter, James Landis, William Douglas, and others). They experimented with many different forms of regulation, at times contradicting themselves, but emerged with the securities and banking framework that governed the markets for the next seventy years, as well as our social security system.

In my view, we are in an increasingly similar position now.

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September 19, 2008

McCain's Age--Stuntz

Like millions of my fellow citizens, I have a bad back; I take prescription pain medications for it.  Three years ago, I had a long conversation with a doctor who, in addition to his clinical work, does research on chronic pain.  He told me that pain's effect on the brain is basically identical to the effect of aging, only accelerated.  Which suggests that there is some science behind one of my favorite movie lines--in the first Indiana Jones movie, Harrison Ford says to Karen Allen:  "It's not the years, honey; it's the mileage."  Experiences that traumatize the body play havoc with the mind.  Consequently, some of us are old beyond our years.  I certainly am.

 

Which leads me to John McCain's age.  McCain's body suffered horribly over an extended period, far more than mine and more than I imagine.  That might have a significant effect on McCain's mental acuity and flexibility, his ability to think through complex problems.  As a general matter, electing a 72-year-old President seems fine to me.  Healthy 72-year-olds are not as mentally sharp as when they were 40 or 50--on the other hand, they know more and have probably acquired more wisdom than most 40- or 50-year-olds.  The tradeoff seems reasonable.

 

But McCain is not a typical 72-year-old:  on the one hand, he's more talented than most (also more courageous); you don't reach the upper levels of American politics without substantial talents.  On the other hand, his body has suffered more and worse than most.  If that pain researcher is right, McCain may have the mental makeup of someone a decade older.

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Illness, Grace, and Friendship--Stuntz

Not long ago, I read something by Roger Ebert, a skilled and insightful movie critic who has battled thyroid cancer and related conditions for a long time now, in which Ebert said roughly this:  Cancer patients are widely seen as courageous.  Presumably some are, but for most of us, the virtues others ascribe to us are not merited.  The truth is, patients who live with advanced stage cancers have little choice in what we face; for most of us, life consists of putting one foot in front of the other, doing what you have to do and along the way, preserving and treasuring whatever small slices of normality you can.  Like Ebert, I don't see much virtue in that.  I've always been more cowardly than courageous, and I don't think my illness has changed that state of affairs.  If anything, the opposite:  I had several extended hospitalizations as a kid, and those seemed easier to me than the ones I've had recently.

 

Much to my surprise, what I've found instead is that my illness has revealed the virtues of my friends and my family.  I know that spouses and children, parents and siblings are supposed to and usually do love one another.  Still, I've gotten far more than my share of that love over the past seven months, even (maybe especially) on the many days when I've been irritable and worse.  More surprising still, those months have seen a host of friends, including more than a few I didn't know I had, coming out of the woodwork--offering blessing and support, assistance and encouragement, precisely as those things have been needed, all without my lifting a finger to ask for them.

 

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September 23, 2008

The War on Executive Compensation--Skeel

As Congress rushes to enact the Treasury's $700 billion bailout plan this week, Obama, McCain, and politicians of both parties are insisting that the bailout include restrictions on executive pay at the firms whose mortgage backed securities will be bought by the government. Some of the executives' pay packages are indeed outrageous, but trying to impose pay limits is, it seems to me, one of the worst ideas yet proposed.

Hank Paulson has argued that firms might refuse to participate in the bailout if restrictions on pay were a condition of involvement. Perhaps this is true, although I suspect that shareholder pressure would force even the most reluctant firms to join the bailout party. But restrictions are likely to have two other effects, both of them bad. First, firms who wish to attract high quality executives will attempt to evade the restrictions. If the restrictions are onerous, these evasions may well be abetted by sympathetic courts. This is exactly what has happened after Congress imposed restrictions on executive compensation in bankruptcy in 2005.

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