Sunday, March 29, 2009

Sunday Reading

Dr. More — Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, has emerged as President Obama’s toughest critic from the left. Newsweek‘s Evan Thomas profiles him and his complaints about how the administration needs to spend more to rescue the economy.

In his twice-a-week column and his blog, Conscience of a Liberal, he criticizes the Obamaites for trying to prop up a financial system that he regards as essentially a dead man walking. In conversation, he portrays Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and other top officials as, in effect, tools of Wall Street (a ridiculous charge, say Geithner defenders). These men and women have “no venality,” Krugman hastened to say in an interview with NEWSWEEK. But they are suffering from “osmosis,” from simply spending too much time around investment bankers and the like. In his Times column the day Geithner announced the details of the administration’s bank-rescue plan, Krugman described his “despair” that Obama “has apparently settled on a financial plan that, in essence, assumes that banks are fundamentally sound and that bankers know what they’re doing. It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street.”

If you are of the establishment persuasion (and I am), reading Krugman makes you uneasy. You hope he’s wrong, and you sense he’s being a little harsh (especially about Geithner), but you have a creeping feeling that he knows something that others cannot, or will not, see. By definition, establishments believe in propping up the existing order. Members of the ruling class have a vested interest in keeping things pretty much the way they are. Safeguarding the status quo, protecting traditional institutions, can be healthy and useful, stabilizing and reassuring. But sometimes, beneath the pleasant murmur and tinkle of cocktails, the old guard cannot hear the sound of ice cracking. The in crowd of any age can be deceived by self-confidence, as Liaquat Ahamed has shown in “Lords of Finance,” his new book about the folly of central bankers before the Great Depression, and David Halberstam revealed in his Vietnam War classic, “The Best and the Brightest.” Krugman may be exaggerating the decay of the financial system or the devotion of Obama’s team to preserving it. But what if he’s right, or part right? What if President Obama is squandering his only chance to step in and nationalize—well, maybe not nationalize, that loaded word—but restructure the banks before they collapse altogether?

Compared to the over-the-top screeching and ridiculous epithets of “socialism” and “fascism” that have passed for the Republicans’ critiques of the first two months of the Obama administration, it is both refreshing and educational to hear some cogent and considered discourse from the left. Plus, being told he’s not liberal enough from a Nobel laureate gives Mr. Obama some room to maneuver.

They Got Nothing
— Waterboarding a terror suspect led nowhere.

When CIA officials subjected their first high-value captive, Abu Zubaida, to waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, they were convinced that they had in their custody an al-Qaeda leader who knew details of operations yet to be unleashed, and they were facing increasing pressure from the White House to get those secrets out of him.

The methods succeeded in breaking him, and the stories he told of al-Qaeda terrorism plots sent CIA officers around the globe chasing leads.

In the end, though, not a single significant plot was foiled as a result of Abu Zubaida’s tortured confessions, according to former senior government officials who closely followed the interrogations. Nearly all of the leads attained through the harsh measures quickly evaporated, while most of the useful information from Abu Zubaida — chiefly names of al-Qaeda members and associates — was obtained before waterboarding was introduced, they said.

Moreover, within weeks of his capture, U.S. officials had gained evidence that made clear they had misjudged Abu Zubaida. President George W. Bush had publicly described him as “al-Qaeda’s chief of operations,” and other top officials called him a “trusted associate” of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and a major figure in the planning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. None of that was accurate, the new evidence showed.

Abu Zubaida was not even an official member of al-Qaeda, according to a portrait of the man that emerges from court documents and interviews with current and former intelligence, law enforcement and military sources. Rather, he was a “fixer” for radical Muslim ideologues, and he ended up working directly with al-Qaeda only after Sept. 11 — and that was because the United States stood ready to invade Afghanistan.

Abu Zubaida’s case presents the Obama administration with one of its most difficult decisions as it reviews the files of the 241 detainees still held in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Abu Zubaida — a nom de guerre for the man born Zayn al-Abidin Muhammed Hussein — was never charged in a military commission in Guantanamo Bay, but some U.S. officials are pushing to have him charged now with conspiracy.

C’mon, Get Happy — Roberta de Boer says what we really need is a happiness stimulus.

Job losses. Plant closings. Home foreclosures. Bankruptcies. Bailouts. Industries teetering.

As we near the end of the first decade of our new century, everyday life can feel like Chinese water torture – a steady and inescapable drip, drip, drip of depressing news.

And no, it’s not just you.

Each year, the American Psychological Association measures stress nationwide. The latest findings show some 80 percent of us felt that money and the economy are significant stressors, up from 66 percent. Some 60 percent also felt irritable and angry, and more than half worried about job security and even lay awake at night. And now, consider: This latest APA survey was wrapped up by September, before the worst of the economic cascade.

But if you’re almost afraid these days to read the newspaper, take heart. Turns out mom had a point when she said, “Chin up, Kiddo, and find the silver lining.” The difference now is that proponents of a de-liberately cultivated sunny outlook wear lab coats, not aprons.

In just the last 10 or so years, psychologists have shown that we are indeed what we think and what we do.

A growing body of research suggests that specific thoughts and actions can yield measurably “happier” lives.

Given the national mood, could the timing be any better?

Where The Boys Were — The small hotels on the beach in Fort Lauderdale that have hosted generations of spring breakers are fading away, falling to the luxury resorts that don’t cater to vomiting frat boys.

If this hotel could talk, it might hiccup. Or belch.

Heaven knows, enough beer has flowed through it.

Over the decades, Spring Breakers have flocked to the Tropic Cay Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale Is your Fort Lauderdale restaurant clean? – Click Here., and no wonder.

Cheap rooms. The ocean yards away. And a deskman who doesn’t notice when nine kids pile into Room 213 with enough beer to fuel a frat house.

But the Tropic Cay, a 43-room hotel built in 1954, is an endangered species.

One by one, the wrecking ball is wiping the low-slung mom ‘n’ pophotels — ground zero for Spring Breakers — off the map.

In their place: luxury hotels offering concierges and caviar, housing guests geared to Cristal, not Jell-O shots.

The remaking of “The Strip” is a generation in the making, and growing up has been painful.

After 9-11, tourism — the city’s lifeblood — took a dive. Recent financial fiascoes have created the worst economic slide since the Great Depression, delaying beachfront building projects that would replace modest hotels with glitzy resorts.

Even with financial setbacks, that once-infamous piece of real estate has, like South Florida, changed drastically in the nearly 25 years since 370,000 college kids swarmed the beach.

Fort Lauderdale isn’t just a beach town anymore. It boasts a performing arts center, a convention center and other cultural attractions.

These days, the tourism bureau targets a mix of people, including families and the wealthy.

“You can’t cater to MTV and Girls Gone Wild and expect anyone else to want to come here,” said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It demeans your destination.”

Luxury resorts, including The Trump, The W Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton now dominate the landscape where wet T-shirt contests were once the draw. Last year the city approved a 22-story building, the Ocean Wave Beach Resort, where the Tropic Cay and another hotel now stand.

“Every year something happens that makes bringing Spring Break back further and further from reality,” Grossman said.

Doonesbury — Plan B.