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November 2008 Archives

November 5, 2008

Obama's Victory--Skeel

A little over a month ago, just as it was becoming clear that Barack Obama would win the election, I happened to be reading several commentaries on the Civil Rights Movement written by the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, whose theology was an important influence on Martin Luther King Jr. The final paragraph of one written in 1963 puts last night's election results in perspective as well as anything I've seen:

"Attorney General Robert Kennedy was probably too optimistic in his recent analogy between the history of the Irish and the Negroes in America. After pointing out that an Irish Catholic was elected President less than a century after the anti-Irish riots of the 'know nothing' movement, he predicted that a Negro could be elected President in another half century. But the analogy is not exact. The Irish merely affronted us by having a different religion and a different place of origin than 'true' Americans. The Negroes affront us by diverging from the dominant type all to obviously. Their skin is black. And our celebrated reason is too errant to digest the difference."

Bobby Kennedy was right. To echo comments Bill made when Obama won the Democratic nomination, whether or not one agrees with Obama's policies, he ran a brilliant campaign and has achieved a victory that would have seemed unfathomable even a few years ago. His election is monumental in the most literal sense. Two small illustrations: yesterday afternoon I watched a middle aged black man videotaping his trip to the polling place to cast his vote. And this morning, driving my children to school, I passed a McCain-Palin sign in someone's front yard, now partially covered by a handwritten sign on which the McCain supporter had written, "Congratulations, Mr. Obama."

November 6, 2008

Five Things I Love About This Country--Stuntz

Speaking as a conflicted McCain voter, I'd say Obama's election captures the five things I love most about my country.  In no particular order:

1.  Not counting his years living abroad, the President-elect has lived in Hawaii, California, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Washington, D.C.  The United States is far from the world's only geographically immense nation--Russia, China, Canada, and Brazil likewise cover vast territories.  But the United States is the only nation whose citizens' lives regularly reach across the vastness.  Ours is not a nation of in-bred communities.  Rather, we are a nation of strivers, and our striving regularly carries us across boundaries of all sorts, geographic and otherwise.  Obama embodies that spirit.

2.  The soon-to-be President is the son of a Kenyan.  Where else in the world is it even imaginable that the child of a foreigner would win the nation's highest office?  Here, it isn't just imaginable--it happened, and it happened because nearly all Americans are descended from foreigners.  Ours is a country founded not on ethnicity but on an idea--and a country that is open to people from all over the world who share that idea.

3.  The President-elect is also the son of a single mother who, for a portion of his childhood, was poor enough to qualify for public assistance.  Where else in the world is such a rise in station possible in a single generation?  Truly, ours is a land of enormous possibility, where no child is bound to live the life his parents lived.

4.  Not only does Obama belong to a different race than the majority of Americans, he belongs to a race that, for most of our history, was despised and persecuted by a majority of Americans.  That fact does not mean that the ugly history of white racism in this country is over--though the worst of that history IS over, thank God.  But that fact does mean that Americans change, grow, evolve.  Our worst flaws can be corrected, our most awful wrongs made right.  Neither human beings nor the nations to which they belong are perfectible.  But part of what defines Americans is the belief that we can do, and be, better.

5.  That leads to perhaps the most important quality of all:  Americans are self-critical.  Were that not so, a politician like Obama--who sees much that he dislikes in the nation's culture, its government, and its posture in the world--could never win a national election.  This is a key source of our optimism:  we do not seek to return to some golden age, nor do we cling to a glorious past.  Americans look to the future.  Because we are our own worst critics, we are also the biggest believers in our own potential.

These are marvelous qualities that deserve celebration.  No other country in the world shares them.  Barack Obama's election reminds us of them.  May God bless him, and may God bless America.

November 14, 2008

A Too-Transparent Treasury--Skeel

In their handling of the credit crisis, the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve have repeatedly been criticized for their lack of transparency. The decisions as to which financial institutions to bail out have been made behind closed doors, the complaint goes, and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson's original plan for the $700 billion bailout was only three vaguely-worded pages long. But I wonder if this criticism isn't exactly backwards. It seems to me that the Fed and Treasury have been too transparent, and that this could be contributing to the crisis.

Take the bailout of Bear Stearns in March and the decision not to bail out Lehman Brothers six months later.

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November 18, 2008

Where Should GM File for Bankruptcy?--Skeel

The most surprising development in the Big 3's campaign for a bailout has been the amount of resistence it's met. Surprising to me, at least. After all the money that's been committed to the financial bailout, I assumed the carmakers would get a sympathetic welcome in Washington. It's encouraging, in my view, that this hasn't happened. The best case for a bailout is a situation where the company simply has a cash flow problem and will be fine if it is given temporary funding. GM's problem isn't cash flow; it's solvency- too much debt and not enough asset value. That's precisely the kind of problem chapter 11 is designed to address.

One of the most intriguing questions is where GM will file for bankruptcy if that's where it ends up. Large companies generally have a variety of filing options. In recent years, most have filed in New York or Delaware, because these are the bankruptcy courts with the most sophisticated judges- judges who handle a lot of big cases. I suspect GM wouldn't follow this pattern. Both the CEO, Rick Wagoner, and the employees may think they'll get a judge more sympathetic to their plight in Detroit. If they file in New York or Delaware, on the other hand, they'll seem to be turning their fortunes over to Wall Street (New York) or corporate America (Delaware). Assuming the bailout falls through, look for Wagoner to portray himself as a champion of employees' interests, and to file the case in Detroit.

November 20, 2008

Chemo's End, Cancer's Closet--Stuntz

On Wednesday of this week, I had my last chemo session--at least for awhile and maybe for good.  I'm not quite done--I'll carry around a pump with a drug called (believe it or not) 5-FU until tomorrow afternoon.  Cancer treatment isn't usually funny, but that name cracks me up.  Anyway, once I'm unhooked, I'll be finished with chemo until the cancer returns, and perhaps even then.  The odds that I'll survive another five years or longer are about 30% now, which is very good indeed for a patient with stage 4 gastrointestinal cancer.  Even if I'm on the wrong side of those odds, my chances of living at least another couple of years are significantly better than they were several months ago.  All of which is very good news, for which I'm very grateful.  God is good, even--especially--in hard times.

That good news means my life is about to change.  Save for three weeks in June, the past nine months have been spent having surgery, recovering from surgery, or having weekly chemo sessions (plus a couple of days of the amusingly named drug every other week).  Those chemo sessions and the days between them have been rough--either because that's the nature of the relevant drugs or because I'm unusually susceptible to the side effects.  Maybe a little of both.  Nausea and fatigue have been more or less constant.  Along the way, I've suffered skin rashes, mouth pain, some bleeding in fingers and toes, various other irritating conditions that are too gross to describe, and--worst of all--increasing stupidity.  I so, so look forward to recovering the more-or-less normal use of my body, not to mention a functional brain.

It's hardly surprising that the prospect of finishing cancer treatment--again, at least for the time being--is very pleasant indeed; I can't type the phrase without smiling.  What surprises me is that, in some ways, the prospect is also a little sad.

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November 21, 2008

For Larry Summers--Stuntz

It would be an exaggerated piece of name-dropping to say that I know Larry Summers.  I'm one of thousands of people who've had contact with him over the years.  For me, that contact consists of two hour-long conversations with him that just included the two of us, a half-dozen more that included another half-dozen people each, plus a steady diet of the speeches that one sees university presidents give.  More than all that, I watched him govern a mostly ungovernable university.  Think running the Treasury Department during a world-wide recession is a tough job?  Come to Cambridge and try running Harvard:  not administering it while raising gobs of money and telling all your faculty bosses (that's how the real lines of authority work here) how wonderful we are, but actually running the place, bending it to your will as the best managers do.  Treasury is a piece of cake by comparison.

The conventional wisdom is that Summers' presidency of Harvard was a failure.  It isn't so.  Undergraduate education is better than it was when he took office, because he made it important--which it wasn't before, and isn't at most research universities.  Some of the weaker units at the university--the Law School was one of them--are also better than when he took office, because he refused to settle for mediocrity and pushed them to do better.  (And, in the Law School, because he hired a great Dean, Elena Kagan, who understood his agenda and had the judgment and political skills to make it her own.)  Best of all by my lights, he pushed against the Ivy League admissions culture that has made America's best private universities what they were generations ago:  finishing schools for the children of America's upper class.  Talented kids from the bottom half of the income spectrum have a shot at going to school here because Larry Summers believed in giving them that shot.  Good for him.

For all those reasons and several more besides, I loved working for Summers; it made me proud to be an academic, and proud to teach at Harvard.  And the guy did a terrific job at Treasury in the waning days of the Clinton Administration.  But those aren't the reasons I'm hoping to see him in soon-to-be President Obama's cabinet.  Two other reasons matter vastly more.

Continue reading "For Larry Summers--Stuntz" »

Clinton and Geithner, not Holbrooke and Summers--Stuntz

According to news reports, Timothy Geithner, chair of the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, will be the new Treasury Secretary--not Larry Summers. Perhaps Hillary Clinton and Summers in the top two slots was one ex-Clinton official too many: as if George W. Bush had picked Colin Powell and Nicholas Brady, rather than Powell and Paul O'Neill. (Come to think of it, that would have been an improvement.) If so, I fear Obama chose the wrong one.

I look forward to reading, someday, the backstory behind what now looks like the inevitable Hillary Clinton appointment. It astonishes me that Obama stood up to pressure to name Clinton as his running mate, at a time when the election might have turned on his choice--and then turned around and offered her his top cabinet slot. All the reasons why the VP slot didn't go to her would seem to apply to the Secretary of State position as well--plus one more: A Vice President pretty much can't resign even if he or she is out of sorts with the Administration, but a Secretary of State can. Cyrus Vance did, and Colin Powell probably thought about it. Think that gives Clinton some leverage over her ostensible boss? I bet so, and I bet she thinks so too. This turn of events seems strange, and not reassuring. I'd be a lot happier if it were Richard Holbrooke and Summers rather than Clinton and Geithner. I hope the financial markets and our allies abroad disagree. . .

November 29, 2008


I've been in Paris this week for a wonderful conference at the University of Paris-Nanterre.  It's my third visit to Paris, separated by twenty years from my second (a short visit during my honeymoon) and twenty-four from my first (a month here during a year I spent wandering through Europe after college).

One of the books I brought to read was a journal I kept during my first visit.  According to the journal, I arrived with only 20 British pounds and no job.  I did, however, have Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, which enthused about being young, poor, and happy in Paris.

I expected to be constantly questioned about Barack Obama this week, but he's come up less often than I would have thought.  To be sure, the bookstores prominently display books about his election with titles like La Victoire Historique and Les Secrets dùne Victoire.  But there's been surprisingly little quizzing about him, which has made me wonder if we`ve been a little too obsessed with the significance of Obama`s victory back in the US.

The economic crisis, by contrast, has come up constantly, and I find myself thinking about it at odd times.  Walking down the Champs Èlysses, which is decorated with beautiful violet lights for Christmas, I wondered how much the ritzy stores (and a Peugeot showroom, where a car with gull wing doors was surrounded by tourists taking pictures) have been affected by the crisis.  This morning at the Louvre, as I looked at an angel hovering above the crucified Christ in a Giotto painting, his hands covering his face in dismay, it occurred to me that I've seen that same expression on the faces of the beleaguered stock traders on the front page of the newspaper every few days this fall.

In a strange way, the crisis may do more than anything else (an exciting new president, a new foreign policy) to create a renewed sense of common, international bonds.  At least if it doesn't spur a round of protectionism-- which so far, thankfully, it hasn't.