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James Warren

James Warren

Posted: June 28, 2009 04:10 PM

This Week in Magazines: The Bull (Moose) in the Obama China Shop

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Sheila Bair is a Bull Moose in the China shop of the Obama administration's economic team, suggests July 6-July 13 New Yorker as it examines internal tensions over regulatory reform in "The Contrarian."

Ryan Lizza profiles the boss of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, a Republican moderate from Kansas and Bush administration holdover who "has become an unlikely hero to economic liberals, who see her as the counterweight to the more Wall Street-centric view often ascribed to Timothy Geithner, the Treasury Secretary."

Bair's basic ideology is traced to the activist Republicanism of William Allen White, a turn of the 20th century Kansas newspaper owner who later helped found the Progressive Party with Teddy Roosevelt. Bair was notable in sending out yellow flashing lights about the subprime mortgage mess during the Bush years and is now a bit chagrined over Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's core regulatory proposal, namely vesting in the Federal Reserve the power to take over big financial firms deemed to pose a big risk, rather than giving the FDIC a central role.

"I think it's a starting point," she says to Lizza, choosing her words quite carefully. "I don't know if 'disappointed' is the right word." Hmmmm. Sounds like unenthused might be appropriate.

This is a good piece, though one that doesn't really touch on criticisms of Bair, such as the inadequate FDIC risk models prior to the mortgage mess or to the possibility that all we've really done is expand the bailout prospects of big firms and offered no guarantee or systems to vastly improve the government's regulatory competence.

Meanwhile, Bair is getting a vivid personal reminder of the troubles in the economy, and specifically in the housing market, even in the bucolic enfolds of western Massachusetts. The Wall Street Journal just reported that she and her husband yanked their 14-room colonial in Amherst, Mass., off the market. They initially had it up for $795,000, and then cut the price by $100,000. Even proximity to Dickinson House, the poet Emily's home across the street, hasn't been sufficient lure.

---Newsweek's later deadline allows it to front Michael Jackson's passing on its regular issue, while Time, which moved up a few days, is left with Franklin Roosevelt on its cover ("What Barack Obama Can Learn from FDR") but does match its competitor via a special issue on Jackson, hitting the streets Monday. Here's Quincy Jones in Newsweek on his first collaboration with Jackson, producing the album Off the Wall amid significant record company qualms that Jones was suitable:

Michael was so shy, he'd sit down and sing behind the couch with his back to me while I sat with my hands over my eyes--and the lights off. We tried all kinds of tricks to help with his artistic growth, like dropping keys just a minor third to give him flexibility and a more mature range, and adding more than a few tempo changes. I also tried to steer him to songs with more depth, some of them about real relationships--we weren't going to make it with ballads to rodents. Seth Riggs, a leading vocal coach, gave him vigorous warm-up exercises to expand his top and bottom range--which I desperately needed to get the vocal drama going. We approached that record like we were going into battle. Off the Wall would sell 10 million copies, but anyone who tells you that they knew it was going to be a big hit is an out-and-out liar. We had no idea it was going to be as successful as it was, but we were thrilled. Michael had moved from the realm of bubblegum pop and planted his flag squarely in the heart of the musical pulse of the 80s.

---July 13 Forbes sets up Monday's sentencing of Bernard Madoff with a reminder that recent white-collar fraud sentences have been rather stiff. "A spate of 20- and 30-year terms shows a new fervor for example-setting from the bench. For many middle-age convicts that's a life term." Oh, there's an unrelated, fun tale on sports franchises going the jingle route in "Tune in To The Game." It notes that the long-running "corporate ditties" have been the Chiquita Banana song (1944-1999), the Mr. Clean jingle from Procter & Gamble (1957-2008) and, still going strong, the Oscar Meyer Wiener jingle (1963).

---July-August Mother Jones' "Totally Wasted" cover package is a depressingly persuasive case for our utter historic futility with a "war on drugs," mostly focusing on the mess of dealing with the Mexican drug trade. A profile of the dangers posed to a Mexican journalist covering the trade is revealing enough but there's far more, with looks at the increasingly fragmented nature of the cartels, the possibility that buying off Mexican cops will morph into buying off border agents, and a nifty chronology of America's drug history (there's a great 1983 TV Guide cover, promoting Nancy Reagan's appearance on Diff'rent Strokes to push her "Just Say N" campaign).

---July 2 New York Review of Books is worth Arnold Relman's "The Health Reform We Need & Are Not Getting." Relman, a Harvard professor emeritus and former longtime editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, reviews Healthcare, Guaranteed: A Simple, Secure Solution for America by Ezekiel Emanuel, older brother of President Obama's chief of staff, Rahm, and an advisor to the Office of Management and Budget.

Relman argues that the Obama thrust doesn't address the catalysts of rising costs and proposes "nothing likely to have much effect on them." Relman contends that Obama and Ezekiel Emanuel simply don't attack the private health insurance model and the fee-for-service payment system, which in his mind creates incentives for continuously increasing medical costs. And even while agreeing with some of Emanuel's analysis, especially in attempting to reform the existing insurance system, Relman flatly disagrees with the notion it should be supplanted by government-overseen competition among private, for-profit insurers. He's convinced one needs a universal insurance program run by the government and funded by taxes but that such won't happen soon, meaning "things will have to get still worse before major reform becomes politically possible."

---July House Beautiful swears that, "It's a new day for beanbags," or at least beanbag chairs, a staple (I can attest) of 1960s and early 1970s college dorm rooms. Well, they might fit with some of the suggestions included it this "small space issue," with lots of counsel for those without a lot of room.

---June 29 Sports Illustrated profiles Joe Mauer, a local boy who's making very, very good as the star catcher for the Minnesota Twins and generating speculation that, perhaps, he might make a run at batting .400 this year (it's not been done since Ted Williams in 1941). In an age of big egos and ethical disarray, Mauer is a sort of humble anti-A-rod. If Minnesotans voted, Al Franken and Norm Coleman partisans would surely agree on that, even if Mauer surely won't be at .400 at season's end.