Opinion

Nicholas Wapshott

Zimmerman: A trial that was all about race

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 14, 2013 15:23 UTC

Will George Zimmerman’s trial for the killing of Trayvon Martin and the all-too predictable acquittal change anything?

Will it prevent racial profiling in the future? No. Will it keep guns out of the hands of reckless and feckless flakes? No. Will it ensure that from now on gun licenses are administered more closely? No. Above all, will it prevent such needless killings from happening again? Certainly not.

It would have been encouraging to imagine that the loss of Martin’s young life would change something, but it won’t. That is the real calamity of this familiar American tragedy.

Both the prosecution and defense have insisted that the case had nothing to do with race — but that is a legal fiction that is hard to credit. Race is such a toxic issue that both sides risked everything if they introduced the topic and let themselves open to the accusation of playing the race card. Race is, however, the key to understanding why this killing has received such widespread attention not only here but across the world.

The United States itself has been on trial. It is a shame the nation has been represented by such a wretched example.

Contemplating life after Murdoch

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 10, 2013 16:14 UTC

Rupert Murdoch has been summoned back to explain to British lawmakers comments he made at a private meeting with his London tabloid journalists. It seems that whatever regrets he has expressed in public about the phone-hacking and police bribery scandal that has so far cost his company $57.5 million, in private he thinks the affair has been overblown. There have been 126 arrests so far, with six convictions, a further 42 awaiting trial, and up to 10 more awaiting charges.

The Fox boss told his reporters and editors, all facing jail time, he didn’t see why the police were making such a fuss about “next to nothing”; that “payments for news tips from cops? That’s been going on a hundred years”; and promised them — though he was careful not to run afoul of the law — he would give them their jobs back “even if you’re convicted and get six months, or whatever.” He also pledged to use his newspapers to exact revenge on the “incompetent” police for pursuing the investigation so vigorously.

Little noticed in accounts of the secretly recorded conversation, an editor said Murdoch’s promises were all very well but asked him what guarantees they would have of being reinstated if he was no longer around, i.e. if Murdoch was dead?

Eliot Spitzer and the American tolerance for second chances

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 8, 2013 20:03 UTC

Everyone has been taken by surprise by the speed with which Americans have embraced the notion of gay marriage. Even progressive leaders like President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were left playing catch-up. Now, it seems, sexual peccadilloes by politicians are no longer thought grave enough for them to be cast into the outer darkness forever. Are we becoming a super-liberal society? If so, what happened to the “moral majority” that dominated politics for so long?

The latest fallen pol to start over is Eliot Spitzer, the sometime governor of New York, who by day prosecuted whorehouse madams and by night enjoyed their services. “I’m hopeful there will be forgiveness,” he told the New York Times. “I am asking for it.” After resigning in disgrace in 2007, Spitzer served time as a talking head on CNN and Current TV, which many may think is penance enough.

Spitzer’s speedy self-rehabilitation follows on the heels of Anthony Weiner, the vain, boastful, exhibitionist U.S. congressman from New York who tweeted to women he didn’t know photographs of his briefs. While Spitzer is a top drawer hypocrite, willing to use the full force of the law against prostitutes while consorting with them on the side, Weiner is just a chump without self control or judgment. Despite this essential drawback to someone who aspires to be mayor of New York, Weiner is currently favorite to succeed Mayor Mike Bloomberg.

2016: The women’s election

Nicholas Wapshott
Jul 3, 2013 00:28 UTC

Democratic state Senator Wendy Davis (L) speaks at a protest before special session of the Legislature in Austin, Texas, July 1, 2013. REUTERS/Mike Stone

Governor Rick Perry of Texas made little impression on the 2012 election.

Once billed as a class act, he emerged as a comic turn. There was the “I’ll never forgetwhatshisname” debate flub when he couldn’t remember one of the Cabinet departments he was committed to abolishing was Energy.  And there was his tired and emotional stump speech in New Hampshire when, well, I’m not quite sure what he was talking about. Perhaps it was his Dean Martin impression.

But Perry is sure to make a strong impression on the outcome of the 2016 election. When he signs into law the Texas anti-abortion measures, he will spark a women’s revolt that is sure to reverberate across the nation.

Fed the wrong line

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 28, 2013 18:09 UTC

In his baccalaureate address at Princeton this year, the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke defined economics as “a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong.” He added, “About the future, not so much.” Put another way, economics is a science that can mean what economists want it to mean. As W.C. Fields replied when asked whether poker was a game of chance: “Not the way I play it.”

Within two weeks of proffering advice to new Princeton graduates trying to find a job in a hesitant economy, Bernanke may have wished he had taken his own counsel. After issuing a cautiously worded statement about the Fed members’ current thinking on quantitative easing, the chairman gave a press conference and, contrary to his predecessor Alan Greenspan, made the mistake of speaking in plain English.

“The committee currently anticipates that it would be appropriate to moderate the pace of purchases later this year,” he said. “We would continue to reduce the pace of purchases in measured steps through the first half of next year ending purchases around midyear.” Like most financial reporters, and almost every analyst, I have omitted the many conditions Bernanke carefully placed on such an eventuality. Bernanke’s loose tongue tripped mayhem in stock markets, interest rates, bond yields, and currency prices around the world.

Bernanke sets major challenges for his successor

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 20, 2013 16:40 UTC

Now comes the hard part. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement that if the conditions are right he will wean the U.S. economy off quantitative easing within a year has already caused consternation in the stock market. Pumping money into the system by buying back government bonds at the rate of $85 billion a month has lately done little good, which is a persuasive reason to wind it down. But getting from here to there without incident is not going to be easy. It was simpler for Howard Hughes to land his gargantuan super-plane, the Spruce Goose.

Flooding the economy with easy money was meant to encourage businesses to borrow and invest. Instead, banks and businesses have ended up hoarding cash, waiting for a recovery to start before they take the plunge. Or the surplus money has been parked in stocks, lifting the market to an unprecedented, unsustainable high. That is what happens when you have a one-trick economic policy, dickering with the money supply and little else. As Keynes liked to say, you can’t get fat by buying a bigger belt. But stopping the flow of cheap money and hinting at an eventual increase in interest rates has consequences and they may be uncomfortable.

The first to get the jitters is the stock market. Even before Bernanke’s announcement, his previous hint that QE would be “tapered” sent a shiver through Wall Street. Now that he is turning off the juice for good, there is general trepidation. The eventual rise in interest rates is making the real estate market nervous, too, which is troublesome as home purchases are driving the still fragile recovery. On the other hand, there is no better time to buy a home. Mortgages will never be as cheap again, unless there is another slump-inducing financial meltdown, so now is the time to buy, or to refinance while interest rates are on the floor. And as the Fed withdraws from the government bonds market, yields are going to soar.

David Cameron takes on the tax havens

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 19, 2013 15:48 UTC

There is nothing more likely to spark anger than an unfair tax regime. The American Revolution was founded on it. So the discovery that some of the largest and most successful companies in the world — among them Google, Apple, Amazon and Starbucks – have legally minimized the tax they pay, sometimes to as low as zero, in many nations in which they earn the lion’s share of their revenue is causing considerable irritation.

The result was evident at the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland, where Britain’s conservative government, chairing the conference of the world’s richest nations, put making corporation tax fairer at the top of its agenda, after the civil war in Syria. David Cameron, who like most conservatives believes in low taxes, is in a bind.

In an attempt to reduce public borrowing he is imposing high personal taxation on the Brits — lifting “value added” consumption tax to a record  20 percent — but finds that many of the most profitable companies operating in Britain are dodging taxes altogether. He thinks it is unfair. And so do his voters. He is under intense pressure to deliver a solution or he can expect to be turfed out of Downing Street.

Robert Fogel and the economics of good health

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 13, 2013 21:30 UTC

Robert Fogel, who died this week, won a Nobel for economics by mining historical data and in the process shook up the study of history forever. Just as with cholesterol, it seems there is good data mining and bad data mining. Fogel’s was undoubtedly the good kind.

As a teenager when World War Two was ending, he switched from chemistry and physics to study economics at Cornell because he feared, as did others, that when military spending was withdrawn the economy might retrench and sink back into a reprise of the Great Depression. It didn’t turn out that way.

Governments in the Western world switched from spending money on arms to spending on hospitals and schools and the buoyancy kept another slump at bay until the economy was on its feet. Fascinated by figures, as an academic Fogel applied quantitative methods used in economics to test whether historians’ hunches about the cause and effect of events were correct. His findings led to immense controversy and, eventually, a Nobel Prize.

Buying into Big Brother

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 12, 2013 16:09 UTC

Whatever high crimes and misdemeanors the National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden may or may not have perpetrated, he has at least in one regard done us all a favor. He has reminded us that we are all victims of unwarranted and inexcusable invasions of privacy by companies who collect our data as they do business with us.

Some, like Google and Facebook, pose primarily as software companies when their main revenue source, and their main business, is to mine data and sell advertisers access to customers. We knew this already, of course, though it seems many of us would prefer to forget the true nature of the technology firms that have boomed in the last decade. Seduced by their dazzling baubles, we have bought in to Big Brother without truly understanding the true price we are paying and will continue to pay for access to their brave new world.

We may take pity on the idiot schoolboy who uses expletives on Twitter or posts a picture of himself holding a joint at a party only to discover when he looks for a job that a trawl by an HR department has made him unemployable. But even smart people — like the New York mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, who sent lewd pictures to strangers — can remember too late that in this wired world we are all being recorded all the time. Yet there is little legal protection from abuse by the companies who collate our personal data and store it for eternity.

The real scandal is jobs

Nicholas Wapshott
Jun 10, 2013 20:06 UTC

Job seekers stand in line to meet with prospective employers at a career fair in New York City, Oct. 24, 2012. REUTERS/Mike Segar

The number of American jobless remains dire.

The latest figures, released Friday, show employment increased by 175,000 in May — but the jobless rate nudged up from 7.5 percent to 7.6 percent. A typical response was the Financial Times, which slipped apparently unwitting ideological commentary into its otherwise bland report, saying the new jobs figure was “a number that will encourage the Fed to start slowing its $85 billion-a-month asset purchases.”

For some, every new indicator is a prompt to bring on more austerity.

A more appropriate response to these new figures is to say that 4.4 million long-term jobless, the 7.9 million with part-time work but looking for a full-time job, the 2.2 million who have taken themselves off the jobless rolls because they cannot find work, and 780,000 who have abandoned looking for work because they believe there is no job for them, is 15.3 million jobless too many.

  •