Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Mark Morford on Dick Cheney

Mark Morford's Column Today on Dick Cheney

Economic Life

September 1, 2004
Drop in Consumer Confidence Unexpectedly Steep in August

y The Associated Press

Consumers' renewed worries about job prospects led to a bigger-than-expected drop in confidence in August and provided more evidence of the fragility of the economic expansion.

The consumer confidence index, which had been rising since April, dropped 7.5 points, to 98.2, from a revised reading of 105.7 in July, according to a report yesterday from the Conference Board, a private research group.

The reading was well below the 103.5 that analysts had expected, and was the lowest since May, when it registered 93.1.

"The slowdown in job growth has curbed consumers' confidence," Lynn Franco, director of the group's Consumer Research Center, said in a statement. "The level of consumer optimism has fallen off and caution has returned. Until the job market and pace of hiring pick up, this cautious attitude will prevail."

Economists track consumer confidence closely because spending by consumers accounts for two-thirds of economic activity.

The report of the surprisingly large decline in consumer confidence came a day after the Commerce Department said consumers spent more freely in July, raising hopes that an economic pause in June would be only temporary. The government disclosed at the same time, however, that personal incomes in July grew more slowly than analysts had expected.

But some economists said they were not deeply concerned about the dip in confidence.

Mark Vitner, an economist at Wachovia Securities, said he saw the latest snapshot of consumer confidence as a "bump in the road" and expected the index to rebound in September. "Consumers still sense that the recovery is on track, and they are expressing their concerns on the lack of job growth," he added.

Consumers' assessment of current conditions was less upbeat than last month. Those saying business conditions were "good" declined to 23.2 percent from 25.2 percent. Those saying conditions were "bad" rose to 20.1 percent from 19.1 percent.

Consumers saying jobs were "plentiful" decreased to 18.1 percent from 19.7 percent while those claiming jobs were "hard to get" were nearly unchanged at 25.8 percent compared with 25.7 percent in July.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

Hubris and King George II

September 1, 2004
Crowning Prince George

SHLAND, Ore. — The most common literary allusion to President Bush is Shakespeare's Prince Hal, the hard-drinking, wild-living young man who sobers up, reforms and emerges as the great English warrior King Henry V.

So, as the Republicans once again crown Mr. Bush as their nominee, I decided to seek lessons from an expert on King Henry who is also one of the shrewdest analysts of current American politics and international affairs. That's right: Shakespeare. I went to Ashland for my annual pilgrimage to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, then started thinking about what Shakespeare might say if he were speaking at the Republican convention this week.

The paramount lesson in Shakespeare's plays is that the world is full of nuances and uncertainties, and that leaders self-destruct when they are too rigid, too sure of themselves or - Mr. President, lend me your ears - too intoxicated by moral clarity.

You see Shakespeare's passion for nuance in the way he portrays Henry V himself (you also see his prurience, for "Henry V" is Shakespeare's most obscene play, laced with X-rated double-entendres that make it an attractive introduction to the Bard for teenagers).

Shakespeare admires Henry, who, like Mr. Bush, is strong, decisive and funny to be around, as well as a victor in overseas battles that help soothe doubts about his legitimacy. Thus for several hundred years, the play "Henry V" was regarded as a celebration of Henry's invasions of France, and for that reason George Bernard Shaw and other liberal critics recoiled from it.

Yet beginning in the 20th century, critics began to see another subtext in "Henry V": an unblinking examination of the brutality and inevitable excesses of war, even depicting the Abu Ghraib scandal of the 15th century: Henry's order to murder French prisoners at Agincourt. Shakespeare's play can be seen as scorning the empty-headed jingoism that inflicts so much suffering as the ruler wraps himself in the flag. As Shakespeare writes in "Henry V" about wars of choice:

"But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such and such a place,' some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle."

A related lesson for Mr. Bush, if he has time to read Shakespeare, is the inevitability of intelligence failures. In just about every play, characters put their faith in information that turns out to be catastrophically untrue. Lear believes his elder daughters; Romeo believes that Juliet is dead; Othello believes Iago's lies.

Shakespeare begins "Henry IV, Part 2," with the character of Rumor (who could today be played by Ahmad Chalabi), and he shows how kings get in trouble by relying on partial truths or flattery spun by sycophants like Goneril Tenet and Regan Wolfowitz.

"All these figures in Shakespeare suffer from hubris, and that's what W. is suffering from," says Kenneth Albers, a veteran Shakespearean actor who is playing Lear in Ashland.

Indeed, the only person who seems to provide Shakespeare's kings with sound advice is the court fool, who cannot be punished for saying unpalatable truths because jesting is his job. I urge Mr. Bush to appoint a White House fool.

Shakespeare is warning us against rash actions on the basis of flawed intelligence. Hamlet is sometimes seen as an indictment of indecision, but his "to be or not to be" soliloquy is a careful examination of the pros and cons of immediate action - a measured approach that Mr. Bush might have emulated before the Iraq war.

Instead, Mr. Bush emulates Coriolanus, a well-meaning Roman general and aristocrat whose war against barbarians leads to an early victory but who then proves so inflexible and intemperate that tragedy befalls him and his people.

Unless Mr. Bush learns to see nuance and act less rashly, he will be the Coriolanus of our age: a strong and decisive leader, imbued with great talent and initially celebrated for his leadership in a crisis, who ultimately fails himself and his nation because of his rigidity, superficiality and arrogance.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company |