Notes from Aspen 4

Austan Goolsbee (a senior economic adviser on the Obama team) and Jack Kemp talked about the economy, under Walter Isaacson’s direction. Kemp returned again and again to taxation, accusing Obama of planning a big tax increase. Goolsbee said no, almost all taxpayers will get a tax cut—and the proposed rise in capital gains tax, especially deplored by Kemp, would still leave the rate in the low twenties, which had been consistent with rapid growth and a booming stockmarket in the past. Goolsbee had much the better of this argument. (Although it would have been more accurate to say that under Obama’s plan, rather than getting an entirely new cut, almost all taxpayers will retain the one they have already had, courtesy of George W. Bush. This sounds less bold, of course, and clashes a little with the idea that the Bush tax cuts were an unmitigated crime.)

Goolsbee denied that Obama had any plan to apply the full rate of payroll tax to incomes over $250,000, something the campaign has not been too clear about. Rates of 3-5% had been looked at, he said. Goolsbee was at his least persuasive in my view, in seeming to oppose any kind of stockmarket-based “personal retirement account” supplement to Social Security. Equities are too risky, he said. Even as an add-on?

Discussing India’s economic prospects were Ed Luce (the FT’s Washington bureau chief, formerly Delhi correpsondent, author of a fine new book on India, “In Spite of the Gods”), Tarun Das (distinguished industrialist and economic analyst) and Brooks Entwistle (Goldman Sachs). Ed traced India’s idiosyncratic development trajectory to Nehru’s elitist education policies: a top priority now, he said, should be to widen educational opportunities for the masses. Beyond this year, Tarun was upbeat about the economy, despite its current difficulties (surging inflation due to energy and commodity prices). At long last, he said, the infrastructure backlog was on the way to being cleared. But never be euphoric about India, he cautioned. India always punishes euphoria.

James Balog (photo-chronicler of retreating glaciers), Cheryl Diaz Meyer (Iraq war photographer) and Kiku Adatto (author of “Picture Perfect: Life in the Age of the Photo Op) discussed “Images and Impact: Photojournalism and How We See The World.” A much too brief session—three fascinating presentations, but no time for discussion or for exploring connections among them. I am moderating a separate session tomorrow on Kiku’s book, so I will have a second chance so far as she is concerned.

Today the encompassing issue was that of photographic “truth”: can there be any such thing? Cheryl explained how, as a war photographer, she is aware that her presence affects the scene—and that is to say nothing of the bias (for good or ill) that is introduced by the way an image is framed and composed, or of posing or other forms of outright fakery. James, on the other hand, presented his gripping video images of retreating glaciers as unvarnished truth. Time permitting, I would have liked to see that examined a little more closely. The amazing drama of a 1-minute time-lapse compression of images spanning a year or more is not exactly “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth”. Questions I would have liked to ask: How does he select, from the hundreds of thousands of images captured, the sequences he uses in his presentations and TV documentaries? How did he choose the sites for his cameras? Did any of his cameras capture glaciers that are not retreating?

I am an avid landscape photographer—and a crusty old conservative, when it comes to image enhancement using Photoshop or other methods. But wrestling with that thorny topic—in a branch of photography (relatively) unencumbered by politics—has taught me that the idea of a “true image” is never cut and dried.