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April 15, 2012
David Warsh, Proprietor


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Odds and Ends

Now that it’s agreed that Mitt Romney will be the Republican Party nominee in the fall election, the former governor of Massachusetts will come in for a closer look.

It’s hard to imagine that much new biographical material about President Barack Obama will surface at this point. There is his own autobiographical Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance; biographies by two of the best political journalists in the business, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, by David Remnick, of The New Yorker; and  Barack Obama: The Story, by David Maraniss, of  The Washington Post;  plus A Singular Woman,: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother, by Janny Scott, of The New York Times; The Other Barack: The Bold and Reckless Life of President Obama’s Father, by Sally Jacobs, of The Boston Globe; and The Obamas, about his marriage, by Jodi Kantor, also of the Times – not to mention The Manchurian President: President Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists, and Other Anti-American Extremists, by Aaron Klein and Brenda Elliot.

Romney, on the other hand, is only now entering the gantlet. He has written two campaign books, Turnaround: Crisis, Leadership, and the Olympic Games, and No Apology: Believe in America; and is the subject of The Real Romney, a solid job of newspaper reporting by Scott Helman and Michael Kranish, both of The Boston Globe, that nevertheless leaves some room for further scrutiny.

For example, two weeks ago Michael Barbaro reported in the Times on the warm friendship, dating from 1976, between Romney and Benjamin Netanyahu, today the prime minister of Israel.  That was when both men found themselves working at the Boston Consulting Group as newly-minted MBAs. Romney had arrived in 1975 from Harvard Business School, Netanyahu the next year from the Sloan School of Management across the Charles River, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The two competed for the attention of BCG founder Bruce Henderson until Romney left in 1977 to join rival Bain & Co. Netanyahu left the following year, having started a foundation to commemorate the death of his brother, who had been killed while leading a successful raid to free hijacked hostages in Entebbe. The relationship has remained close over the years, Barbaro wrote, with Romney regularly turning to Netanyahu for private briefings on the situation in the Mideast, “and that history could well influence decision-making at a time when the United States may face crucial questions about whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or support Israel in such an action.”

Last week it was Wayne Barrett, of The Daily Beast – in Romney Saved Salt Lake City Olympics from Scandal, but at What Price? – reporting on some details of the rescue operation Romney undertook in 2000 after members of the host committee were accused of taking bribes. Romney authorized the payment of the legal fees of the Mormon organizers who got in trouble (and sought to recover the sums, which ultimately reached $12 million, from the Olympic Committee’s insurer), Barrett wrote, then signed a highly-advantageous contract with the Serbian tour operator who turned state’s evidence against those organizers. A Utah federal judge ultimately dismissed the charges against the organizers, and the entrepreneur, Sead Dizdarevic, is today among Romney’s top donors; it is unclear from the story whether or not the insurer ultimately paid up.  A Village Voice reporter for twenty years, Barrett is the author of critical biographies of New York mayors Edward Koch and  Rudy Giuliani and real estate magnate Donald Trump. He may have found the subject for his  next book.

As a former columnist for The Boston Globe, I am pretty nearly conflicted out on the subject of Romney.  He is a thoroughly likeable man in his private life, clearly a talented private equity investor. But his term as governor was for the most part disappointing. And the tone he has struck in his presidential candidacy seems completely inappropriate.  All my hopes for a resurgent GOP lie in the future

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Normally, today is the due date for paying income tax in the United States. (Because it’s Sunday, and Monday is a holiday in Washington, D.C., the due date this year is April 17] If you have the heart for it, a couple of good books are available to ground you in the coming debate about tax reform as a means of achieving long-term budget stability. There’s no rush. Politically interesting proposals won’t appear until after the election, if then. But the issues are complicated, and you mght want to get a head start.

The Benefit and the Burden: Tax Reform, Why We Need It and What It Will Take, by Bruce Bartlett,” is a sensible primer by a veteran Republican tax policy analyst.  White House Burning: The Founding Fathers, Our National Debt and Why It Matters to You, by Simon Johnson and James Kawk, is a similarly dispassionate survey of the history of the national debt by a couple of Democrats.

One of many points on which both accounts agree on is that the Paul Ryan plan, which specifies new low tax rates but not the loopholes closings and spending cuts necessary to achieve them, is frivolous.  Indeed, if you want to read one good short analysis today on the Ryan Plan, try this short critique by Kwak. Just look at the pictures.

At a certain point, you wonder what’s the use of studying up – why not just wait for a concrete proposal  to coalesce?  In a recent post on the NYTimes “Economix”  blog, Bartlett endorsed a plan devised by Michael Graetz, professor of law atColumbiaUniversity, to create a $100,000 income tax exemption, replacing the lost revenue with a value added tax of 12.5 percent on everything else. Most people would no longer have to keep records; they would pay tax as they went along.

Ventured Bartlett:  “I think this is a viable proposal that ought to be the starting point for a real debate on tax reform.” Perhaps consumption taxation is indeed the coming thing.  We’ll just have to wait and see..

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The Leontief Prize has been given for a dozen years now, reflecting the enthusiasms of Neva Rockefeller Goodwin, founder of the Global Development and Environment Institute ,at Tufts University.  In that time, the award has earned a reputation as a reliable gauge of stature of the sort associated with the remarkable economist whose memory it honors, Nobel Prize-winner Wassily Leontief

Cited this year were Michael Lipton, of the University of Sussex,  and C. Peter Timmer, ofHarvardUniversity, emeritus.  Both are agricultural economists, deeply involved in the design of government policies that enhance the production and distribution of the supply of food in nations around the world.

“We have lived for long enough with the assertion that initial distribution of income does not matter the the rate or distribution of economic growth,” said Timmer in his remarks. “Clearly it does, even in rich countries.”

The Asian experience, in which investments to alleviate hunger enjoyed a high priority, no matter what the form of government, had demonstrated as much. Raising small farm productivity and building human capital within farm households had turned out to be the surest pathway out of rural poverty, said the man who had served as an adviser to the governments of Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and whose 1983 textbook, Food Policy Analysis, influenced a generation of agriculture minister around the world.

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