Week In Review: Economy; Terror Memos

Financial Times columnist Clive Crook talks with host Scott Simon about signs the economy is improving, and the Justice Department's release of Bush-era memos on the interrogation of terror suspects.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Were there hints of an improving economy this week or just new accounting? U.S. Justice Department releases details about interrogation techniques used under the Bush administration, but decides against pursuing any investigation. NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr is on vacation. So, here to recap the news of the week with us, our friend, Financial Times columnist, Clive Crook. Clive, thanks for being with us.

Mr. CLIVE CROOK (Columnist, Financial Times): Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And several major companies posted better than expected earnings this week. Citigroup, General Electric, Wells Fargo, Goldman Sachs. What are these signs of?

Mr. CROOK: Well, I think there are all kinds of signs that, you know, we're getting to the bottom of the crisis. The economy is still a long way from growing, I think, but the rate of decline is slowing down. And yeah, there's been encouraging news on earnings, especially in the financial sector, you know, the banks. Maybe there's some light at the end of the tunnel for the banks. So, on the whole, it's encouraging. My main worry is a little bit further down the road of, you know, economic problems still to be addressed.

SIMON: The banks have to start lending, though, at one point, right?

Mr. CROOK: They do. At the moment, you know, they're trying very hard to conserve capital. Many of them are intent on getting out from under the bailout assistance because of the rules that come attached to that cash. So I think that's one of the problems at the moment, that they're trying to strengthen their balance sheets. And until they've done that to their satisfaction, they're going to be reluctant to lend. And the government has to lean on them to do that, which it is doing.

SIMON: Yeah. So they're accumulating capital, but not necessarily

Mr. CROOK: Right.

SIMON: spreading it out. I want to ask you about this, a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this week found that driving small cars may - certainly is better for fuel efficiency - but it can be worse for passenger safety.

Mr. CROOK: Right.

SIMON: Now, you have the Obama administration and Congress pushing automakers to produce exactly more of these kinds of cars. Is there a tension between what's green and what's safe? Or am I just being an American?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROOK: Well, I think - I was intrigued by the other car because, of course, you get these crash test statistics by colliding these small lightweight cars with bigger cars, you know, with SUVs, and others and so forth. It's not exactly surprising that small cars don't do as well in crash safety tests when they're put up against, you know, these big cars. But it is a... [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In fact, the institute's crash tests involved collisions between a small car and a midsize model from the same manufacturer.]

SIMON: I mean, it's like having a linebacker...

Mr. CROOK: Of course, yeah.

SIMON: ...face off against a 12-year-old female gymnast.

Mr. CROOK: Yeah. But there are two ways of looking at this. I mean, I'm European. Did I mention I was European?

SIMON: You don't have to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CROOK: A European would say, well, which is the dangerous car in that collision, the small car or the Hummer? You know, it seems to me there are two ways of looking at that.

SIMON: EPA Administator Lisa Jackson issued a finding yesterday that greenhouse gases are a danger to public health, essentially saying climate change is a health hazard. What are the implications of this announcement?

Mr. CROOK: Well, of course we'll have to see whether there's any direct regulatory implication. The EPA is emphasizing that it's going to go slow. You know, this is a consultation process and this is not a done deal. But I think it definitely has momentum to the political moves to regulate CO2 emissions, or attenuate to curb CO2 emissions using cap-and-trade or whatever other means.

I did think that the announcement was a bit puzzling in a way, because to find health effects from CO2, which is my understanding what the EPA has said, is a little odd, because CO2 is not a pollutant in the ordinary sense. I think, you know, it's warming the climate, which is a bad thing. But for the U.S. there's no obvious health impact from that.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. CROOK: But politically I think the significance is that it adds momentum to the, you know, to the drive to introduce some kind of control regime.

SIMON: And might be some political implications in this. The Obama administration released, what have been previously classified memos this week, detailing some of the harsher interrogation techniques that were apparently approved for use under the Bush administration: waterboarding, I guess, in two cases, sleep deprivation, slamming people into walls.

Yet they announced people who used those techniques will apparently not be further investigated or prosecuted. What do you think is behind the release of the documents and the decision not to pursue it?

Mr. CROOK: Well, the immediate cause of the release was that there was legal action to get them released. The government had to decide whether to resist a freedom of information act lawsuit or release the documents without a fight. And they've decided to release the documents. And I think they were right to do that. I think what they've done is sort of not merely suspending these techniques, because they weren't being used, actually, anymore, but it's renouncing them. Because by publishing the details, attracting attention to the issue again, Obama, in effect, is promising that on his watch these things won't be done.

And if you think these techniques were immoral and bad for the country, as I do, then that's something you're glad to see. In terms of the prosecutions, I, again, think he was right. I mean, you had to strike a balance here, a compromise, and I think he did that. I think it would've been incredibly demoralizing to the CIA to have their offices, who had acted in good faith under legal authority, hauled into court.

SIMON: There were reports that Leon Panetta, in fact, was ambivalent.

Mr. CROOK: Yeah, I was a little surprised to see that. According to what I hear, he was not ambivalent, he was pretty strenuously opposed to it.

SIMON: Yeah, all right. Clive, thanks very much. We'll have you back soon. Financial Times columnist Clive Crook.

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Correction April 21, 2009

In discussing a report by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, we referred to crash tests of "small lightweight cars with bigger cars ... with SUVs, and others and so forth." In fact, the institute's crash tests involved collisions between a small car and a midsize model from the same manufacturer.

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