sexta-feira, 19 de setembro de 2008

Roger Cohen: The King Is Dead

The King Is Dead

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, September 17, 2008

They’re listening to Coldplay down on Wall Street:

I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own

The leverage party’s over for the masters of the universe. Shed a tear. When you trade pieces of paper for other pieces of paper instead of trading them for real things, one day someone wakes up and realizes the paper’s worth nothing. And Lehman Brothers, after 158 years, has gone poof in the night.

We’re witnessing the passing of more than a venerable firm. We’re seeing the death of a culture.

For years, accountants, rating agencies and Wall Street executives decided to shoot craps and collect fees. Regulators, taking their cue from a distracted President Bush, took a nap. The two M’s — Money and Me — became the lodestones of the zeitgeist, and damn those distant wars.

The biggest single-day market drop since 9/11 reminded me that when trading reopened on Sept. 17, 2001, and the Dow plunged 684.81 points, some executives backdated their options to reprice them at this postattack low to increase their potential gains.

So that’s what “financial killing” really means. No better illustration exists of a culture where private gain has eclipsed the public good, public service, even public decency, and where the cult of the individual has caused the commonwealth to wither.

That’s the culture we’ve lived with. It’s over now. Some new American beginning is needed.

When I taught a journalism course at Princeton a couple of years ago, I was captivated by the bright, curious minds in my class. But when I asked students what they wanted to do, the overwhelming answer was: “Oh, I guess I’ll end up in i-banking.”

It was not that they loved investment banking, or thought their purring brains would be best deployed on Wall Street poring over a balance sheet, it was the money and the fact everyone else was doing it.

I called one of my former students, Bianca Bosker, who graduated this summer and has taken a job with The Monitor Group, a management consultancy firm (she’s also writing a book). I asked her about the mood among her peers.

“Well, I have several friends who took summer internships at Lehman that they expected to lead to full-time job, so this is a huge issue,” she said. “You can’t believe how intensely companies like Merrill would recruit at Ivy League schools. I mean, when I was a sophomore, if you could spell your name, you were guaranteed a job.”

But why do freshmen bursting to change the world morph into investment bankers?

“I guess the bottom line is the money. You could be going to grad school and paying for it, or earning six figures. And knowing nothing about money, you get to move hundreds of millions around! No wonder we’re in this mess: turns out the best and the brightest make the biggest and the worst.”

According to the Harvard Crimson, 39 percent of work-force-bound Harvard seniors this year are heading for consulting firms and financial sector companies (or were in June). That’s down from 47 percent — almost half the job-bound class — in 2007.

These numbers mirror a skewed culture. The best and the brightest should think again. Barack Obama put the issue this way at Wesleyan University in May: beware of the “poverty of ambition” in a culture of “the big house and the nice suits.”

College seniors might start by reading “A New Bank to Save Our Infrastructure” in the current edition of The New York Review of Books, an impassioned plea from Felix Rohatyn (who knows something of financial rescues) and Everett Ehrlich for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank, or N.I.B.

Its aim, at a time when the Chinese are investing $200 billion in railways and building 97 new airports, would be to use public and private capital to give coherence to a vast program of public works. “This can improve productivity, fight unemployment and raise our standard of living,” Rohatyn told me.

It’s absurd that earmarks — the self-interested budgetary foibles of senators and representatives — should dictate the progressive dilapidation of America. How can the commonwealth thrive when its bridges sag, its levees cede, its public transport creaks?

So, young minds, sign up for the N.I.B.! Before doing so, read Nick Taylor’s stirring “American-Made: The Enduring Legacy of the W.P.A.: When F.D.R. Put the Nation to Work.” It shows how the Works Progress Administration, a linchpin of Roosevelt’s New Deal, put millions of unemployed to work on dams, airports and the like. It’s a book about how imaginative political leadership can rally a nation in crisis.

They’re listening to Coldplay down on Wall Street:

Now the old king is dead! Long live the king!

Yes, the death of the old is also the birth of the new. In my end is my beginning. It’s time for the best and the brightest to step forth and rediscover the public sphere.

Link to article:

sexta-feira, 5 de setembro de 2008

Roger Cohen: How Home Became Homeland

How Home Became Homeland

by Roger Cohen, New York Times, September 3, 2008

Oh, it’s good to be home.

The threat level has been raised (or was that lowered?) to orange. I wonder idly what this means — an image of medium-intensity jihadist chatter menacing Armonk, N.Y., comes to mind — but I have no time to get that vision in focus before another cheery message rolls out across the airport.

“Do not make jokes about security. You could be arrested.”

O.K., I won’t ask the Transport Security Administration guys with “TSA” on their shirts if the letters stand for “Team Standing Around,” and I won’t say, “Hey, remember how the U.S.A. used to be a land without fences and nobody ever called it a homeland,” and I won’t say, “Arrested? Ha! And then what?”

Nor will I mention the other America before “threat levels” and two wars and renditions and bumper stickers saying “Freedom is not free” — the land where jokes were not yet grounds for arrest and nobody got wrestled to the floor for “looking” suspicious and fear was not yet a coin of the realm.

Oh, but it’s good to be home, even if it’s a homeland now.

Just take a look at our home! A screeching belt in a bunker-like, airless hall (last painted in 1957) turns and turns without bags on it, watched by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ragged travelers straining to hear inaudible announcements, darting here and there like ants in a panic, blocking their ears against the screech, comforting babies, searching in vain for Delta baggage agents who’ve all gone home because there was a storm and it’s late and, hey, it’s summer!

Some of the marooned crowd are on cellphones screaming “Sorry, honey, you cut out, WHAT?” and the chorus rises, “Sorry, honey, you cut out, WHAT?” and I think that’s not a bad bumper sticker for this unraveled, disconnected homeland almost eight years into Bush.

Oh, yes, it’s good to be home.

Even if it’s a homeland, at least it’s not a fatherland. And how, I wonder, does our home look to others? As former President Bill Clinton noted at the Democratic national convention in Denver, the United States does better when it leads with “the power of our example” than with “the example of our power.”

To think this airport is named after J.F.K. — all that promise, and my Dad weeping at his loss in faraway London. Kennedy who asked us to ask ourselves what we could do for our country. Whatever happened to Lincoln’s “last, best hope?”

It got frayed. Let’s stop talking about an infrastructure bottleneck, sounds too like something in a Soviet 10-year Plan, and start talking about collapsing bridges, crawling trains, dilapidated airports, potholed roads, subway blues — the great national failure to build a network of public transport worthy of a modern state in the age of $110 oil.

We’ve been spending too much on fear while others spend on the future. And now J.F.K. looks like LOTH — Lagos-on-the-Hudson — while the Hong Kong airport shimmers the way American promise once did.

Yes, it’s good to be home. As Robert Frost noted, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.”

Unless you make the wrong joke, or knock yourself out on the scaffolding, or have a weird beard.

Speaking of the Democratic National Convention, security there involved police in shades with sub-machine guns riding around on the backs of trucks and the image they summoned with their truculent menace was Pinochet’s Chile circa 1986, the main difference being the Colorado vehicles still had license plates.

Police dogs combed through the gym and pool area of the Denver Grand Hyatt sniffing goggles and towels as wide-eyed kids gaped.

And there, at the convention, was another Kennedy, Senator Edward Kennedy, rising from his hospital bed with a bull-like courage that nobody who witnessed it will forget, and saying, unbowed: “We are all called to a better country and a newer world.”

Yes, it can still be good to be home.

Barack Obama had this to say: “America, we are better than these last eight years. We are a better country than this.”

I reckon John McCain can agree with that. Everyone — Democrat, Republican or independent — can. Certainly the rest of the world can. Its thirst to close the Bush chapter is near feverish.

Winston Churchill said of the United States that it can be counted on to do “the right thing,” but only after it has tried every alternative. As Roger Smith, an acute political observer and blogger, put it in an e-mail: “Well, George W. is every other alternative.”

Unless you count Sarah Palin, John McCain’s new sidekick, the Republican lady risen from the ice out near Russia. She’s certainly alternative.

It’s good to be home, but it sure could be better.

Link to article:

quarta-feira, 3 de setembro de 2008

Arnaldo Jabor e Obama

Dear Arnaldo,

One of the things that I have always liked and admired about you is your continuing youthful outlook (in spite of your obvious weariness of lambasting Brazilian politicians and other thugs). And, of course it is true that we are all strongly affected by the experiences of our youth, which in your case you spent in St. Augustine during a period in U.S. history when events loomed large in the collective imagination.

But, don't forget that you lived in the South, and there are other regions in the U.S. with vastly different ways of doing things.

And, although I hate to remind you of this, your generation is not the same as the present generation. Many Americans are proud and pleased to see a black American well on his way to becoming President, as this has the effect of letting them off the guilt hook somewhat.

Personally, I don't believe Obama's skin color leaves him more at risk of being shot -- we have had lots of U.S. presidents shot -- and all of them were white, as I recall.

The only thing Obama really has going against him is the impression he makes of being a snooty intellectual. Lately, Americans have preferred to look down on their presidents, not up to them (well, except for Monica, that is).

Times have sure changed since you went to high school in Florida.