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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Oh, to have been there at the first moment when this or that fabled canard got hatched on the world. The moment of creation. The precise second when the bacillus escaped the lab.

Someone had to argue that the recent stock market skid wasn't the cause of congress's new anti-corporate corruption bill, but rather its result. The markets weathered Enron and Worldcom and all the others just fine, this argument would hold. It was when congress got the idea of passing some new laws -- that's when the bottom fell out.

Someone had to be first. But who would it be?

The prize goes to James K. Glassman, who has apparently decided that the best defense ("Dow 36,000!") is a good offense.

Indulge me in a quick counter-factual.

Imagine that Al Gore was now president and he, not George W. Bush, had sent up a proposal for a new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Only in the Gore proposal all employees of the DHS would get free health care insurance, dental insurance, generous long-term care coverage, and copious allowances for repetitive stress injuries.

I assume editorialists would see this for what it was: a craven and disreputable attempt to bootstrap in the Democrats' workplace policy agenda under the guise of a critical homeland security measure. The White House would be cynically calculating that they could snag an interest group goody on the sly since Republicans wouldn't have the stomach to vote against. It wouldn't matter if you happened to support universal health, long-term care insurance, and ergonomics regs. The White House just should not use the terrorism card to muscle through an ideological wish-list that it lacks the courage to push on its own terms.

So why no similar outrage at the Bush White House for doing just the same thing?

The White House is insisting on a Homeland Security bill with virtually all the civil service and collective bargaining rights of federal employees stripped out of it? The excuse of course is that the DHS is just too important to pussyfoot around with the sort of loafers who slide by under the civil service regime. But this argument -- though superficially plausible -- doesn't bear much scrutiny, especially since these protections now apply to people doing just the same kinds of work throughout the federal government.

Maybe federal employees shouldn't get the double protection of unions and civil service status. It's not an unreasonable argument. If that's what the president believes, he should send up a separate bill abolishing the civil service system. What he's doing here is just using the crushed, maimed and devastated of 9/11 to prop up Grover Norquist's federal workplace policy agenda.

Okay, time to say it: Who's the big winner in all this? The Democrats? Way too general. It's Al Gore.

Consider just a few of the many reasons ...

1. The first is the simplest. The 2000 election and a possible 2004 rematch are zero-sum games. What hurts Bush helps Gore. This hurts Bush so it helps Gore.

2. Gore ran on a people versus the powerful, anti-corporate-wrong-doing message. That sounds pretty good right now. And it would give Gore a strong 'I told you so' theme to go along with attacks on the various other ways Bush has run the country into the ditch. But wait, you say! Shrum just told him to say that. He never really believed any of that populist stuff. Well, I never really bought into that cynical read. But say you're right. Who cares? He still said it.

3. In 2000 no one doubted that Al Gore was experienced and competent. But it almost ended up being a liability. People just never warmed to him. And they liked George W. Bush. Right now, who you'd rather hang with at the barbecue just doesn't seem quite as important. Competence and experience does.

And if you thought the people who invested in stocks lost their shirt, just talk to the folks who put their money on the Bush team's rep for competence.

There is an article in Wednesday's Washington Post ("Bush Bids to Regain Economic Initiative") which is a weird mixture of bizarre and hilarious and downright terrifying.

In any case, it's a must-read. It's yet another piece on the White House's response (if you can call it that) to the corporate scandals and stock market tumble. But this one just perfectly captures the mix of ideological rigidity, bizarre denial and whistling-past-the-grave trash-talk which is now the coin of the realm at the White House.

Remember the big tin robot in those early sixties sci-fi films? Remember how there'd come a point at the end where the hero would outwit the robot or set him on some problem he couldn't solve and the robot would slip into a feedback loop and smoke would start coming out of his ears?

The White House is the robot.

It's really that bad.

The upshot of the article is that Wall Street and congressional Republicans are going nuts. They think the sky is falling. But the White House thinks things really aren't so bad. And they have a clever plan! The administration will use the August congressional recess to get a jump on Congress by pressing lawmakers to vote on fast track. That, and the President and Secretry O'Neill will travel to companies around the country that are doing well.

Phew! And I thought they didn't have a plan...

The article accurately, if with understatement, notes that the White House's response is "greatly constrained by administration philosophy ... [which] does not believe in dramatic intervention, either in the markets or the economy."

Sound familiar?

But here's the graf that launches a thousand ships ...

More dramatic economic proposals have so far been squelched. According to one economist close to the administration, White House economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey has suggested a narrowly tailored cut in the tax rate paid on stock profits for investors buying new stocks. That could lure buyers into the market. But the proposal was roundly shot down because it could be interpreted as a gift to affluent taxpayers at a time of economic uncertainty.
This is what I mean by the feedback loop and smoke coming out of their ears. Larry Lindsey is the president's chief economic advisor, the top cheese, as good as it gets. His solution to the fix we're in is to jigger the capital gains tax. Obviously his advice is being blocked by political advisors who happen not to be insane. But if Lindsey is being sidelined because he's taken up residence on another planet who does that leave guiding the nation's economic policy? Not Paul O'Neill. No one likes or respects him at the White House. Don Evans? Dick Cheney?

I think the answer is pretty obvious: No one.

We're in trouble.

I write little about technology on these pages. But this story left me incensed. A crew of Texas scammers or rather cyber-highwaymen are trying to shakedown the Internet economy for tons of cash by claiming that they own the patent to the jpg image format, the format in which at least half the images on the web -- and I suspect many more -- are stored.

The company is (the perhaps appropriately named) Forgent Networks and they claim that they got the rights to jpg when they bought Compression Labs back in 1997. They've apparently aleady gotten a few Japanese companies to cough up millions of dollars.

Up until now everyone had been going on the assumption that the basic jpg specifications were in the public domain -- with ample facts to back up the assumption. (The precise ins and outs of the matter are a touch more complicated. And they're discussed here. But this is the essence of it.) And now the Joint Photographic Experts Group, the committee which manages jpg (thus the name) is mobilizing an effort to prove the point.

If you don't do much work with computer graphics or have never looked under the hood of a website, I grant you, this may all seem a touch nerdy and obscure. But really it's not. Your digital camera? It uses jpg. Your Palm Pilot? Pretty much every electronic or computer device you own? The same thing. The sharks at Forgent want to get a cut from pretty much everyone who makes a product that uses computer images, and no doubt jack up the price you'll have to pay.

I'm all for securing real intellectual property rights. But this, I assure you, is a scam. They are the cyber-era equivalents of highwaymen, sharks, cheesy protection racketeers. Let's hope the folks at the Joint Photographic Experts Group and the courts won't let them.

I read the next day's Wall Street Journal online very late in the evenings. And the Journal is particularly good at times like these because -- at least in the news section of the paper -- one gets a concentrated view of how professional market observers see what's going on, absent much of the distracting glosses of the political right and left.

The most sobering article (subscription required) I read was on Williams, the telecom and energy trading company. I only have a layman's understanding of such matters. But the essence of the story seemed to be that Williams hasn't been caught in any clear shenanigans and it's not that they're some house-of-cards, never-to-be-profitable business like so many dotcoms. They're just caught in the massive downdraft in the entire market. And now, for these various reasons, they've been unable to renew a certain unsecured credit line. And this may lead them further into the ditch.

Particulars aside, the sense one gets from reading this article is how the chaos in the market -- and of course the flat-on-its-back telecom industry -- is creating a massive economic downdraft that might force decent companies -- a number of which control a lot of critical infrastructure -- into the ground.

What makes this all really unsettling is that the executive branch, frankly, seems not to have any idea what's going on.

That's a strong statement and obviously I make some of my living being critical of Republicans. But it's really true. I think most honest observers are starting to see that. And frankly that's scary.

On Monday the president made some rambling remarks about bright times being around the corner and buying on the dips and a few other points that were virtually incomprehensible. Beside that he argued why he shouldn't can his Treasury Secretary, Paul O'Neill, a man who is essentially a non-entity in the administration, whatever his own virtues may be. O'Neill has been pretty much silent through all of this. But he's prone to gaffes. So maybe it's a good thing.

The vice-president is silent because he's under investigation by the SEC.

Economic advisor Larry Lindsey is silent or maybe just can't figure out what to do.

The same pretty much goes for Commerce Secretary Don Evans, the third member of the president's economic brain-trust which gave him the sage advice not to include any serious reforms in his early July Wall Street speech.

Can anyone honestly deny that no one seems to be at the helm?

Friends, I have had a wave of emails asking for the link to the Reuters news story about Karen Hughes' husband's decision to move back to Washington and the secret government "pre-cog" historians. Friends, this was satire. Admittedly, reality has been rubbing up against fantasy in recent days. But these developments, so far at least, haven't occurred.

P.S. TPM's accounting isn't really done by Arthur Andersen either ...

(Reuters) In a surprise turn of events today, Karen Hughes' husband Jerry decides that Washington, DC. is a pretty rockin' place after all. Hughes family to re-relocate to Washington, DC. Karen Hughes perhaps to be rehired at White House?

Meanwhile, secret government "pre-cog" historians ponder the implications of recent events for LJ "Dutch" Bush, great-grand-nephew of George W., currently scheduled to assume the presidency in 2072.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But sometimes you get a bargain. Like this one of President Bush expressing his support for the American economy outside Chicago, Illinois -- which is worth about 78 million words. Look at the faces. Each one.

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