Friday, February 27, 2009

GM Loses Some Swagger

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When General Motors Chairman Rick Wagoner visited the Commonwealth Club in May of last year, he spoke with uncommon boastfulness despite the fact the automaker was in severe dire straits even then. In a speech that mainly covered the company's foray into green technology, he said:

Over time we have a natural advantage by our experience here and our depth of technology, and we plan to win. We welcome the competition, but when I come back to see you in 10 years there may be other guys in, but we plan to be leading the parade in this area.

Famous last words?

The good news is GM's $30.9 billion loss last year was not the company's worst ever. That was 2007. While Wagoner visits Washington asking for as much as an additional $16 billion just to keep the assembly lines rolling, the aftermath of GM's possible demise is being felt outside our borders.

Reports today say GM is preparing to ask European countries such as Germany for over $4 billion in aid to keep its Opel brand operating. This comes a day after GM announced it would cut 1,600 jobs and furlough another 900 at a plant in Brazil.

The situation in the U.S. continues to be perilous for GM. Wagoner reportedly told the auto task force created by the Obama administration that GM would cut the company's brands to four and eliminate 47,000 jobs as a part of a vast restructuring plan. In addition, an agreement with the United Auto Workers over a contractually obligated $5 billion payment to the union's health-care trust has not come to pass.


Wagoner mentioned GM's health-care predicament during his Commonwealth Club address, arguing that it inhibited the company's growth. “I have long been outspoken on the fact that the health-care costs in the U.S. is significantly damaging the manufacturing competitiveness of this country and the competitiveness of our economy, and I continue to feel that is true,” he said.

The plight of General Motors with its corporate tentacles extending far from Detroit might be a prime example of how GM's decisions and its fate not only affect the streets of Flint, Michigan, but employees in small European towns and workers in auto plants in South America.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sanger: The U.S. Could Be in Afghanistan for Next 30-50 years

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The United States could be enmeshed in Afghanistan and the Pakistani tribal areas for the next 30-50 years, according to The New York Times Chief Washington Correspondent David Sanger.

In San Francisco to promote his new book, The Inheritance, Sanger told members of The Commonwealth Club of California Wednesday that securing the typically unaccessible border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan is likely to be a cornerstone of American foreign policy for decades to come. “I suspect no American president can afford to allow that sanctuary to continue along the border and while there is a border for us, there's no border for them,” said Sanger. “This is why you're going to see President Obama extending the U.S. military operation and the covert operations over the border into Pakistan.”

The mountainous region know for craggy cliffs and impassable roads feature a unique opportunity for insurgents to hide from military intervention. This is the area that includes the infamous Tora Bora region where Osama bin Laden was able to escape capture shortly after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001. “There are not really many places in the world that are really effective sanctuaries for al Qaeda and the groups that will succeed them,” Sanger told Commonwealth Club President and CEO Gloria Duffy, who moderated the program. “There was a lot of talk after 9/11 about where does al Qaeda go when they no longer go the tribal areas? Well, the answer is: they go to the tribal areas.”

With Afghan presidential elections slated for the summer, Sanger doubts that a nation that has never been effectively held together by a central government can do so in the future. “If you decide that the country is going to be run by a series of different tribes and then you go out and do the equivalent of what we did in Iraq -- buying off the tribes -- to keep the peace and keep the country from again being that sanctuary,” said Sanger, “everybody who has looked at this hard says to me and everyone else, This is harder than Iraq.”

While the Obama administration has ramped up efforts to eventually switch the focus of military operations from Iraq to Afghanistan, Sanger says the strategic political question lies in Pakistan because of the prevalence of nuclear weapons in the country and the United States' interest in keeping those weapons from falling into the wrong hands. Sanger says he believes that the Pakistanis do a credible job of basic security of their weapons inventory, but he worries about their ability to keep nuclear knowledge within the state's laboratories. “Pakistan is a close ally on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, for their own reasons, they have been supporting the Taliban,” said Sanger, “I don't think the civilian leadership wants to do that, but certainly elements of the army and the ISI do, and they want to do it because they think we're leaving Afghanistan and when we do the Indians will move into Southern Afghanistan and, to their mind, will surround Pakistan and crush them.”

In the end, the troubling conundrum that faces the United States is, When does your ally become your enemy? While having drinks with a senior military officer, the source told Sanger, “You know David, the problem with Pakistan is: 'How do you invade an ally?' That is the Pakistan problem.”

Acclaimed author and expert on the Taliban Ahmed Rashid will discuss the issues involving the Afghanistan and Pakistan border in addition to his new book, Descent into Chaos at The Commonwealth Club of California on March 11 at noon.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Administration: Nationalization of Banks is not Happening

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The Citibank web site has its famous marketing slogan atop its home page, "Citi never sleeps." The motto means customer's can do their banking anytime, but with nationalization of banks becoming more likely by the day, it could be an admission of many sleepless night to come.

The past week has seen more than a whisper campaign from some Democrats and few leading economists that the short-term remedy for the banking system is nationalization. Sen. Chris Dodd has said it may "unavoidable", which is nearly equivalent to saying, "Folks, get ready. It's happening." It's no wonder the stock market is beginning to reflect concern about what a collapse of Citibank, Bank of America or Wells Fargo could mean to the economy, and the Obama administration may be slowly setting the stage for nationalization. For the time being, though, President Obama and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke say nationalization is not on the radar. Bernanke's comments stoked Wall Street, and that may have been his intent, while Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner told Jim Lehrer, “I think that’s the wrong strategy for the country and I don’t think it’s the necessary strategy.”

The Washington Post reported that the Obama administration tweaked the terms of government assistance by demanding common stock in lieu of cash. "The change paves a road toward nationalization for the most troubled large banks," according to the Post. A piece on Bloomberg.com goes further in calling nationalization inevitable.

Nationalizing the nation's top banks has its critics, of course. With taxpayers already shouldering a large burden of risk that is likely to increase in the future, backing the financial sector may be too much. Some economists even believe another stimulus bill of nearly the same sticker price will be needed within two years. 

James S. Turley, Chairman and CEO of Ernst & Young told The Commonwealth Club of California earlier this month that state ownership is a bad idea over the long haul:

The thing I hope doesn't happen is government officials get too comfortable with state ownership in the various industries they are investing in. And I hope they don't see this as the long-term solution.... Let me be clear, I think it was important that the government stepped in during these unprecedented times, but it is not a good idea and no thinks that governments over the long-term allocated capital as efficiently or effectively as free markets.

On the other hand, many commentators say that taxpayers saw little in return in the form of consumer lending after the initial $350 billion bailout money passed late last year, and news reports of lavish executive spending and multi-million dollar bonuses left a lingering distrust toward the banks.

How poor is the health of the nation's biggest financial institutions? The grand sage of the credit mess, New York University Professor Nouriel Roubini laid it out in this week's issue of Time, saying Citibank is "on the way to ICU," Bank of America should "prepare the transfusion" and surprisingly, Wells Fargo needs a "Defibrillator. Stat!"

Just 16 months ago, Bank of America and Citigroup were quarterly flipping top positions for the title of world's largest bank. Today, they may be on the verge of being owned by the biggest economy in the world.

Bush Truth Commission on the Horizon?

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Will we see a replay of the 1970s-era Church Commission? What would that do for our political landscape?

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) told Salon that some type of truth commission seeking to highlight Bush administration actions torture and other war crimes is imminent. According to the story, Whitehouse responded in effusive terms to a question of whether the public knows much about the past eight years. Here's how the reporter described his response: "His eyes grew large and he nodded slowly. 'Stay on this,' he said. 'This is going to be big.'"

In the current edition of Time, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee of which Whitehouse is a part, called for a truth commission modeled in part by the Church Commission of the early 1970s, which uncovered illegal surveillance methods by the CIA and FBI. In light of a divided electorate, Leahy believes Americans need to know the truth, saying, "Rather than vengeance, we need an impartial pursuit of what actually happened and a shared understanding of the failures of the recent past."

Sen. Frank Church, whose commission ultimately led to the creation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), spoke in similar terms during a speech at The Commonwealth Club in 1975:

[Intelligence agencies] must function in the most delicate of all realms: mandated to maintain security without impairing freedom. if they engage in wrong-doing, it is not a casual matter that can be safely swept under the rug....

If we fail to restore a proper regard for the common good within the framework of the law, then creeping anarchy will gradually replace the rule of law altogether. In its wake will surely come the repressive measures that frightened people will then find preferable. There can be no successful preservation of liberty outside the law.


Since 2006, when the Democrats gained a majority in Congress, many liberals have criticized Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for failing to push for congressional hearings of alleged indiscretion or for impeachment of President Bush. Last week, Pelosi told Rolling Stone she believes senior Bush administration officials could be prosecuted: "The American people deserve answers."

But today Pelosi sounded less enamored with Leahy's proposal, because of the possible inclusion of immunity. In an interview today with Rachel Maddow of MSNBC, the speaker said, "What I have some concern about, though, is it has immunity. And I think that some of the issues involved here, like the services part, politicizing of the Justice Department, and the rest, they have criminal ramifications, and I don't think we should be giving them immunity."

Regardless of the political merry-go-round, it appears that some sort of hearings into the misdeeds of the Bush administration are squarely on the radar of Democrats.

San Francisco Chronicle: The First of the Last Papers?

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Read a 3/10/09 update on this story: Tentative union agreement in Chronicle case


In 2007, UC Berkeley Professor of Journalism William Drummond challenged a Commonwealth Club panel on journalism with this: "It's always been a great puzzlement to me [that] in an area where people are intelligent, affluent, sophisticated -- how come even now, how the LA Times is still a major newspaper of considerable import, and San Francisco has never produced that kind of product?"

If that was a long-standing question of Bay Area media watchers for years, the answer is not likely to become any easier now. The San Francisco Chronicle could be sold or even closed if owner Hearst Corp. is unable to get significant cuts to operating costs in the next few weeks. Yes, weeks -- not months, not years. The cuts might be unachievable; some estimates are that the company would have to cut as much as 47 percent of staff.

But others are suggesting that San Francisco could soon become the first major U.S. city without a paid daily newspaper (we do have, of course, the free daily SF Examiner and a number of local news and opinion blogs, in addition to broadcast media). Even if the paper survives, if it loses so much of its staff, will it be able to cover the city and region the way it historically has? (Hearst's Seattle Post-Intelligencer is also facing a Chronicle-like end.)

With losses of $50 million a year, and more predicted for 2009, the Chronicle was in serious trouble even before the economy went off a cliff in 2008. (For a good overview of the challenges facing newspapers and other local traditional media, listen to audio of Professor Drummond's Sept. 27, 2009, Commonwealth Club panel discussion, "The State of Journalism," with industry pros Leslie Griffith, Robert Rosenthal, Kevin Keeshan, and Steve Wright.)

If we are about to enter a post-Chronicle era, that does not mean there is less news to report and be interpreted. The Commonwealth Club hosts a wide range of speeches and panel discussions by newsmakers, and this blog is just one effort we undertake to try to get this news out into the public consciousness, making connections between speakers here with timely issues in the news.

There are also, of course, many blogs, written by everyone from teenagers to laid-off newspaper reporters, and these blogs do everything from highlighting important news that is overlooked by the major media, to pushing partisan agendas. We will likely see a continued multiplication in blogs covering our local scene, and we will likely see some aggregation of blogs into super-blogs (hyperblogs? can we coin a term here?) like Huffington Post. Michael Kinsley, former editor of The New Republic and Slate.com, and the former editorial page editor of the LA Times, recently recanted somewhat on his earlier criticisms of news bloggers and offered a more optimistic assessment of their value, during a speech at The Commonwealth Club December 9, 2008 (listen to audio; see the video).

What will the future of Bay Area journalism be?

Where do you get your news? How good is it? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Sanger: Iran Is a 'Few Screwdriver Turns' from the Bomb

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In David E. Sanger's new book, The Inheritance, the chief Washington correspondent for The New York Times writes, "the Iranians may be so close to a bomb -- a few screwdriver turns away -- that there is no hope of stopping the country from becoming nuclear capable."

In yesterday's Times, Sanger and William Broad reported the Iranians have created "more than a ton" of enriched uranium -- a third more than previously known, which the article cites as enough to build an atomic bomb. If the Iranians now have sufficient amount of enriched uranium, Sanger's assessment is proving quite prescient.

In the book, Sanger also writes Olli Heinonen, the International Atomic Energy Agency's chief inspector, saw 2008 as a "breakthrough year" for Iranian uranium enrichment capabilities. 

The summer before, Heinonen had predicted that by the end of 2008 the Iranians would likely be running upward of 4,000 of the high-speed machines [centrifuges] -- enough to make a bomb's worth of uranium in a year's time if they choose to enrich to bomb-grade purity. His prediction proved just about right.

While the new Obama administration has indicated its willingness to talk to Iran, the increased likelihood of a nuclear Iran could change some opinions in Washington, possibly allowing some hawkish members of Congress to revert to the previous administration's stated intentions to disrupt at any costs -- through sanctions or military action -- Iranian designs on creating a nuclear bomb.

The Bush administration had contemplated military airstrikes against Iran publicly since 2006, but Sanger reports in his book that the consensus for success was lacking. "Military experts who have studied the options say an airstrike could be devastating," writes Sanger, but also that it would not be quick. He quotes a former head of intelligence for the Middle East and the Defense Intelligence Agency as saying, "You are talking about something in the neighborhood of a thousand strike sorties and it would take all kinds of stuff -- air, cruise missiles, multiple airstrikes -- to make sure you've got it all." Some estimates, according to Sanger, have such a campaign lasting a week or two and making U.S. interests in the region vulnerable to attack from Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran may have the enough nuclear materials, but they do not yet have a bomb. It is quite possible that the mullahs and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may not seek the actually warhead but merely seek what Sanger calls "a virtual bomb".

In the Second Nuclear Age, countries don't need to compile huge stockpiles of the sort that the Americans and Soviets amassed during the Cold War. All they need is a "virtual bomb," a credible capacity to build one in a few months and credible willingness to do so.

It appears the Iranians have achieved both points. How will President Obama react to this new nuclear paradigm?

Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times, David E. Sanger will discuss the challenges President Obama faces from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, North Korea and China at The Commonwealth Club of California Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 6 p.m.

Author Thomas Ricks with Jon Stewart

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Comedy Central and The Commonwealth Club must share the same booking agent. Last month author and political commentator Matt Miller, who spoke last week at the club, appeared with Stephen Colbert. Acclaimed author Thomas Ricks sat down with Jon Stewart to discuss his latest book, The Gamble, which details the last two years of the war in Iraq. The author will appear at The Commonwealth Club Monday, Feb. 23 at 6 p.m. Watch the Daily Show interview here:

Then come to The Club and hear him in-depth!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Panelists to Offer Palestinian Side of the Conflict with Israel

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As the Israeli parties perform their post-election negotiations on forming a new government, Palestinians await the results so they can learn what approach to the long-standing conflict the new government will take. The Commonwealth Club has assembled a group of speakers with ties to Palestinian independence movement and strong opinions on the issue. Here's a example of some of their recent writings:
Hastings College of Law Professor George Bisharat has accused the Israeli government of war crimes for its handling of Gaza in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. Bisharat cites the United Nations Charter and the Nuremberg Principles as referring to aggression as a crime against peace. Bisharat also believes the Israelis are needlessly hitting civilian targets in Gaza. He writes:
Israel has also failed to adequately discriminate between military and nonmilitary targets. Israel's American-made F-16s and Apache helicopters have destroyed mosques, the education and justice ministries, a university, prisons, courts and police stations. These institutions were part of Gaza's civilian infrastructure. And when nonmilitary institutions are targeted, civilians die.

Jamal Dajani of Link TV, and a regular blogger for the Huffington Post, writes in a recent post about the downside of low oil prices for Arab workers and the disdain many Palestinians have for the likely returning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Dajani sees history repeating itself with resurgence of the right in Israel and the after-effects of Ariel Sharon's rise to power amidst security concerns within the Israeli electorate. "According to most Israeli political experts, with the looming threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions, continuing tensions over Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, and stalled peace negotiations with the Palestinians, Israelis will be approaching the polls with security as their top concern. Sounds familiar?"
On the peace front, Omar Dajani -- another panelist tomorrow night -- wrote an opinion piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer lauding President Obama's choice of former Senator George Mitchell as a special envoy to the Middle East. He writes, "The U.S. reputation in the region -- and across the globe -- will be greatly enhanced if, instead of assembling a multilateral coalition for war, it is credited with building one for peace."
San Francisco Chronicle reporter Jonathan Curiel, Clinical Professor and Global Health Sciences at the University of California San Francisco Jess Ghannam ,along with Omar Dajani, George Bisharat and Jamal Dajani will discuss the the many complex issues surrounding Palestine's quest for statehood and the ongoing crisis with Israel tomorrow night at The Commonwealth Club of California beginning at noon.

On Health Care: With GM, so goes the Nation?

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American economic monoliths tend to steer the wheels of commerce by their sheer size and influence. A state like California can enact sweeping environmental laws that leads other states to do the same, and when a company like McDonald's acquiesces to posting nutritional information, others follow. As General Motors and the United Auto Workers iron out a deal involving its vaunted health care challenges, will its decision change how others do business and the debate due to commence in Washington?
As a part of GM's vast restructuring plan, the automaker is negotiating with the UAW to change the terms of the 2007 agreement that created a $35 billion trust fund for employee health care. To justify additional government bailout dollars, GM must show Washington details for future plans. The New York Times noted [http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/business/economy/17auto.html], GM "has to address how a company that lost more than $20 billion last year can afford $5 billion a year in medical bills."
Matt Miller, whose book The Tyranny of Dead Ideas indentifies the role of companies paying for employee health care benefits as one of those mortally-wounded ideas. Instead, he believes the government should carry the burden like every other nation in the industrialized world. Miller spoke about his ideas at The Commonwealth Club of California last week (see photo; Miller is on right, posing with ABC7 anchor Dan Ashley, who moderated the event).
In his book, Miller writes:
The second force — The Rush for the Exits — is corporate America's desire to stop providing health care and pensions to its employees. To be sure, these costs are soaring in ways that seem unsustainable, especially when competing firms in other nations bear fewer of them. Still, American business leaders act today as if their search for an "exit strategy" on benefits is the end of the conversation. What happens to the millions of workers who are left unprotected if companies simply walk away?

Miller told [http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=100338745] NPR last month that the government would need to raise taxes to foot the bill, but with Baby Boomers retiring, taxes will increase anyway. "We need to tax ourselves more smartly ... [by] cutting taxes on things like payrolls, which hurt lower-income workers and kill jobs, and raising taxes on dirty energy, which we want to cut back on because of our environmental goals," said Miller.
The Obama administration may be signaling a willingness to allow GM to tinker with health care, according to statements made by his adviser David Axelrod and the naming of Ron Bloom as a key adviser to the Treasury Department. Bloom, according to the Wall Street Journal [http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123483084725295657.html], is known for forcing parties to make significant concessions.
If GM is able to restructure its health-care responsibilities under the eyes of the White House, health-care reform critics and proponents alike will be wondering whether it could be the harbinger of the wholesale transfer of health care from private industry to the public sphere in the future.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Maybe We Can Fake Our Way Through the Recession?

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If economists Paul Krugman and Robert Reich are correct in their fears that the economic stimulus package recently passed by the U.S. Congress and due to be signed this week by President Obama is too small, some are suggesting another option: Bluff.
That's the idea that is discussed by neuro expert Jonah Lehrer in a recent posting in his blog.
Lehrer, who will speak on "the science of decisions" February 19 at a Commonwealth Club Inforum program, writes:
Over at the Economist, a number of economists have been speculating on the possibility of an economic "placebo" that would boost consumer confidence without actually triggering a massive spike in government spending. In other words, it would be a Keynsian bump without the cash, akin to giving someone a sugar pill and telling them it's Prozac.
...what does this mean for a potential economic placebo? The key lesson is that placebos work by manipulating our expectations: because we expect the pill to make us happier, we end up feeling happier. This suggests than any economic placebo would need to entail more than just a piddling rebate check, or some other short-term (and hopefully cheap) stimulus. The problem with these measures it that they don't alter our expectations - they just make the present a little bit less unpleasant. Instead, a genuine economic placebo would need to focus on modulating our long-term expectations, so that we become convinced that next month, or next quarter, or certainly next year, things will start getting better. The question, of course, is how the government could do this.

So even a placebo is going to cost a lot of money? I guess there's no cheap way out of this.
See Lehrer for yourself at The Commonwealth Club. And read his blog for some intelligent and often humorous applications of the "science of decisions" to our lives.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Economy Already a Hot Topic for 2010

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The politics over the stimulus plan and its near-unanimous rejection by congressional Republicans is already taking center stage for the drama that will be the 2010 mid-term elections. Robert Reich wrote an interesting blog posting this week exploring the reasons why Republicans will not have a thing to do with the proposal.

Republicans don't want their fingerprints on the stimulus bill or the next bank bailout because they plan to make the midterm election of 2010 a national referendum on Barack Obama's handling of the economy. They know that by then the economy will still appear sufficiently weak that they can dub the entire Obama effort a failure -- even if the economy would have been far worse without it, even if the economy is beginning to turn around.

During two votes in the U.S. House of Representatives, no Republican backed either version of the stimulus. It took a few centrist-leaning Northeastern Republicans to win passage by a single vote in the Senate. A Reuters story yesterday implied that President Obama's rival Sen. John McCain was portraying the nascent administration as adverse to bipartisanship and characterized the plan by saying, "I think that the majority of people understand that this was generational theft." Democrats, conversely, begin to complain that the bill was too bipartisan -- even without GOP cooperation. In an interview with conservative newsweekly NewsMax, the leader of 1994's "Contract with America" Newt Gingrich said he "absolutely" sees a connection between when Republicans took over the House and 2010.

Irwin M. Stelzer imparts these talking points while writing in The Weekly Standard and illustrates this point by saying that Obama "now owns the recession." By pegging the troubled economy solely on Obama, these critics may believe that the president cannot possibly make in-roads in quite enough time for congressional elections next year.

He has asked to be judged by whether this bill and other measures he will propose create or "save" 3.5-to-4 million jobs, the number lost so far since unemployment turned up. Forget "save" -- if unemployment keeps rising, voters are not likely to rally around the slogan "It would be still worse if I hadn't spent your trillions." What the President has done is to promise what he certainly can't deliver in time for the congressional elections next year -- a reversal of job destruction, and millions of new jobs, said Stelzer.

When it's all said and done, it's still all about the economy, stupid, as Bill Clinton's campaign declared in 1992. How President Obama, congressional Democrats and the Republican opposition react to that in 2009 will be a tale we're likely to hear a lot about in 2010.

--Steven Tavares

Some Economists Fears that Stimulus Bill Is too Small

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President Obama will likely sign a stimulus bill this week roughly the same size he initially offered, but wholly different in composition. Some like Robert Reich and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman never thought it was large enough in the first place, and the watered down bill is furthering their anxiety. Krugman wrote last week:

And I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach — a feeling that America just isn’t rising to the greatest economic challenge in 70 years. The best may not lack all conviction, but they seem alarmingly willing to settle for half-measures. And the worst are, as ever, full of passionate intensity, oblivious to the grotesque failure of their doctrine in practice.

During a speech last month at The Commonwealth Club of California, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich reiterated his belief that the stimulus bill should be over $900 billion or more over the next two years. On his blog he wrote this week:

But what if the stimulus isn't big enough? (I fear it won't be, given the large and growing gap between what the economy can produce at near full-employment and the meager demand coming from consumers and businesses.) And what if the bailout doesn't quite work? (It may not, given that the banking system is collapsing and many banks are actually insolvent.) The economy in November of 2010 may be worse than it is now, with no turnaround in sight.

Reich also predicted during his Commonwealth Club address that President Obama might bargain with Republicans to win votes in a bipartisan fashion. This indeed occurred, and the nearly across-the-board rejection by Republicans of the plan has rankled many Democrats. Joan Walsh at Salon wrote today about President Obama, "He better have learned that Washington bipartisanship is dead." Even the president's chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, admitted that working with congressional Republicans who were dead set against the bill was a mistake. Not surprisingly, the editors at the conservative National Review declared President Obama's economic plan already has a ring of "no-confidence" surrounding it.

--Steven Tavares

Is the National Review correct in its description of the state of Obama's economic plan? What do you think about economists' Reich and Krugman arguing that the stimulus is actually too small? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Driving Toward Sustainability

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The Bay Area's transportation sector delivers some 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the air annually. Auto emissions are, at once, driving global warming and assaulting public health on a number of fronts. But most of the pollution involved – into the air from the car – is not from the tail pipe, it's from the mining and the manufacturing associated with the car.

Former oil industry analyst-turned activist, Jan Lundberg of Culture Change says that the kinds of amelioration being talked about and offered are woefully inadequate: "We should just get rid of car dependency."

Dan Sperling, founding director of the Institute of Transportation Studies, and a board member of the California Air Resources Board, will address what he says are the needed changes at The Commonwealth Club of California tonight. According to Sperling, by 2020, the number of cars on the planet will double to 2 billion. He says that big changes need to be made to our cars, fuels and personal habits. This is especially challenging if we're going to rein in our bloated carbon footprint enough to achieve a return to 350 parts per million, as urged by Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy and End of Nature.

Michael Gelobter helped develop the nation's only peer-reviewed carbon calculator, will address the issue at this year's Compostmodern design conference for environmentalists.

"A lot of our relationship with climate change and fossil fuels has to do with the built environment, the designed environment – our cities, buildings, schools and the way we design our day-to-day interactions with products," Gelobter told me. "All of those include assumptions about energy use, where we get the energy and the form that energy comes in." Even though he's a climate strategist, Galopter is optimistic and sees great opportunity in the future.

Can we break the cycle of "shock and trance?" Join energy expert Sperling at The Commonwealth Club as he reveals what is at stake if we refuse to move quickly, and what opportunities exist if we act now.

Jerry Weissman Blogs on HuffPo: Commonwealth Club and Liddy Dole

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Jerry Weissman, the founder of Power Presentations and author of In the Line of Fire and Presenting to Win, writes on the Huffington Post blog site today about his Tuesday night program at The Commonwealth Club of California in Silicon Valley.

In his post, he talks about lessons learned from Sen. Elizabeth ("Liddy") Dole, and backs them up with a Dole story he learned at his Club event from Bill Peacock, a member of the Commonwealth Club's Silicon Valley Board of Advisors.

Read it here.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Meg Whitman Wants the Governor's Office

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Former eBay president and CEO Meg Whitman has thrown her hat into the ring by announcing her intention to run for the California governor's office. The business leader, who was an advisor to Republican Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign, is expected to make a high priority out of California's business competitiveness.
That was also the focus of her September 23, 2008, speech to The Commonwealth Club (see video below.) In it, she openly questioned whether California's tax and regulatory environment would allow a company like eBay to be born and thrive today like it did.
"A significant portion of our population is unsuited for today's high-paying jobs," she told the audience. "You can't grow your business if you can't find the people you need, and if you can't find the people you need, you have to move the company to where those people are. We need to make education a priority in California."

Whitman joins a possible field of candidates including current San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, former Governor and current state Attorney General Jerry Brown, current U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others. His possible candidacy is likely to be brought up when Newsom speaks to The Commonwealth Club in San Francisco March 11. For information on that event, go here.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Miller's 'Provocative Antidote' for America's Ills

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Matt Miller begins every edition of the popular syndicated radio show, Left, Right and Center, by describing the debate format as "your civilized yet provocative antidote to the screaming talking heads that dominate political debate."

Listeners to the program can recite the mantra verbatim, even hearing Miller's distinctive voice. Miller himself is more than just a radio host, though. A regular contributor to Fortune and author of the Two Percent Doctrine and the recently published The Tyranny of Dead Ideas, Miller has created a book lavished with many ideas he calls "paradoxical" today but not in the future. He focused on six points in the book challenging ideas dear to the American experience, such as upward mobility and economic theories like free trade that are currently in fashion. Here's an outline of his talking points:
  • Our kids will earn more than we do
  • Free trade is always good, no matter who gets hurt
  • Employers should be responsible for health coverage
  • Taxes hurt the economy
  • Schools are a local matter
  • Money follows merit
In promoting the book, Miller faced an overly exuberant Stephen Colbert (even for Colbert). At one point, Miller described himself as a "radical centrist," for which Colbert mocked him crudely. See it for yourself:


Aside from the comedy, Miller presents his thesis in more depth during this clip from the Center for American Progress with New York Times columnist David Brooks.

You can see and hear him for yourself: Matt Miller will discuss The Tyranny of Bad Ideas this Wednesday at noon at The Commonwealth Club of California. For more information, visit The Commonwealth Club of California.
--by Steven Tavares

Friday, February 6, 2009

Pluto-as-Planet: Neil deGrasse Tyson Recants, sort of

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Last night during the Q&A following astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson's speech to The Commonwealth Club of California in our San Francisco headquarters, moderator (and "Eye on the Bay" host) Brian Hackney asked Tyson about a possible contradiction in Tyson's famous position on whether Pluto should be classified as a planet.
As usual, Tyson's answer reflects the quick humor -- and vast knowledge -- he brought to his speech and to dealing with the sold-out audience.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Phil Bronstein Talks Len Downie and Commonwealth Club on Huffington Post

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Phil Bronstein, editor at large and vice president at The San Francisco Chronicle (and a long-time moderator of Commonwealth Club events) contributed a blog posting to the Huffington Post recently. In it, he discusses the challenges (sometimes amusing) of interviewing another journalistic pro.

Am I the only one who thought of the Ron Howard film "The Paper" when I read his comments about journalists stealing each others' notes? Bronstein begins his post with "Good journalists are trustworthy, but they don't trust anyone else."

Commonwealth Club Podcasts: Get Them Now

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Podtrac Player

Click on the button above to get a directory of all available Commonwealth Club podcasts. Just click on the one you want to hear -- and enjoy.

How to Win a New Job

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When the country is in a severe recession, it's a good time to have a job. The trick sometimes is holding onto it.

Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based home to such long-standing magazines Jet and Ebony, recently announced that it was reorganizing its operations and that current staffers would be allowed to reapply for their jobs. The company says it is part of a process of repositioning the company "to service the changing media environment."

Johnson's changes are not unique, of course, either in the media industry or in business of any industry. Every week and almost every day brings news of more layoffs, store closings, and cutbacks in hours worked. The country has gone through downturns before, and layoffs are not unusual. But in past recessions, the downturn was often in specific sectors, hitting hardest some whil leaving others only lightly or not at all damaged. One could leave a job and expect to find employment elsewhere. This time, the carnage is widespread.

Consider one young scientist we know who moved to the Bay Area in 2001 after getting his degree from an Ivy League school. After two months on the job, and while still paying off moving expenses, he was laid off when his company was purchased and went through a round of "servicing the changing [science] environment," so to speak. But within two weeks, he had landed a new job -- and a better-paying one, at that.

But just this week, his company laid off about a quarter of its work force, and those employees will have to compete with every other laid-off scientist if they search within the science markets for a new job, and if they start looking in other industries, they'll have to do jobforce-battle with out-of-work real estate agents, store clerks, sales people, and, perhaps, postal carriers. There's no schadenfreude when everyone's in the same boat.

The Bay Area is still filled with enough people who remember the layoffs following the collapse of the dot-com bubble. And once again, people are looking for information and leads on new careers, new jobs, new industries. The Commonwealth Club's Inforum division held a green-jobs fair on January 26, drawing an overflow crowd (literally out the door, down the stairs and onto the sidewalk). See ABC7's report, video and photos here.

The massive turnout demonstrated both the thirst for help with job-seeking and the eagerness to find the next big thing that wil power a career and an economy. In this case, it's the new technologies driving the green business future that many people, including President Barack Obama, have been touting. People who missed that event will be heartened to know that Inforum will produce another jobs fair in the near future, and will remain focused on how the economy is impacting people's lives and what they can do about it.

Activist and self-appointed "green jobs guru" Van Jones made a repeat appearance at The Commonwealth Club on February 2. See the video embedded above for his previous appearance at The Club, when he and California legislator Darrell Steinberg discussed their vision for helping the economy by helping industry to help the environment.

So there is help out there. But people in the Bay Area may be finding that the best results will come via the region's famous networking opportunities, such as Inforum job fairs and meeting the people who are building the new economy.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Economic Forecast: An Interesting Year Ahead

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Former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich gave the annual Bank of America-Walter E. Hoadley Economic Forecast speech last month to a sold-out crowd of people curious about what's going to happen in 2009. Reich tried to allay the audience's worst fears, but he did not sugar-coat the basic message, that he believes we are in for a rough recession -- he mostly avoided the "d-word" -- but that effective action by Washington could shorten the pain.
Watch the excerpt above to see his message. And Commonwealth Club members should keep an eye out for their March magazine in a few weeks, which will feature a Reich forecast cover story, as well as some valuable looks-back at previous economic times of trials in 1980 and 1933.
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