Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Culture Wars 2008

With the unnameable holiday approaching, it's time for one of my regular rants about the war on Christmas.

First - is there a war on Thanksgiving? No. While the theory has always been that people should be taking off the day to thank God, this particular holiday has revolved around food for at least 200 years. The Pilgrims were added to it later. The account of the "first Thanksgiving" where the Pilgrims and the Indians gathered together was part of a propaganda booklet put together to encourage more colonists. Rather than talk about the months of short rations, it talked about the three days the y gorged themselves on migratory waterfowl.

As for Christmas, I don't care for a lot of ways that the holiday has evolved.

As recently as the early 1970s the holiday season didn't start until the day after Thanksgiving (which had not yet been named Black Friday). It was considered gauche to put up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving and even the people who put them up in late November were considered to be rushing things.

Most stores added Christmas displays in early November with more being added in early December.

Of course, catalogs with Christmas decorations started arriving in October but that was understandable. Back then, the average delivery time for mail order was 6 weeks. If you didn't have it ordered by Thanksgiving then it wasn't going to arrive on time.

Christmas trees went up late. Most people still used natural trees and they dry up and shed their needles after a couple of weeks so there was a strong incentive to put the tree up close to Christmas and take it down promptly.

Currently the Christmas season starts in stores the week following the last weekend in October (when most Halloween parties are held.
 Thanksgiving is no longer in the equation. People start putting up their Christmas trees and decorations in mid-November although, thankfully, some people still wait until December.

There is a line in the movie The Incredibles, "When everyone is super then no one is." The same holds true for Christmas. When Christmas season goes on for two months and decorations are up for three then it is no longer a special time. What with people being slow to take down their decorations, the Christmas season is as long as Winter, just shifted over a couple of months.

At the same time, there is increasing public pressure to make Christmas a private holiday - something that you might celebrate with family and close friends but you are not public about. People wish "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" in case someone might be offended at hearing the C-word.

A couple of years ago Lowes got some bad publicity for a sign announcing their "holiday tree" selection. Somehow the internal memo was misunderstood. This year they announced their "family trees". They immediately apologized for using such a stupid term but even their revised catalog manages to hide behind manufacturer's terms. They only time they actually use the C-word is when it is part of the product name.

So we are expected to keep the economy going by spending ever increasing amounts of money for a holiday that we can't name for fear of offending someone.

Does something seem out-of-whack here?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Running out the clock?

I was going to wrote something about the Democratic Congress's latest attempt at losing the war in Iraq but there isn't much left to say. Instead I'm going to talk about Harry Reid's use of the term "Running out the clock". He has used this term more than once recently. Here's a quote from September 13, 2007
Tonight President Bush announced his plan to keep at least 130,000 troops in Iraq indefinitely, demonstrating that he is trying to run out the clock on his failed strategy and leave the hard decisions to the next president.
What bothers me is that this is a sports analogy. While some sports analogies can also apply to war, this one doesn't fit. Running out the clock is what a team does when it is ahead. Rather than take risks, the team will hold onto the ball until the clock runs out and the game ends.

There is no clock in Iraq but there is a game going on in Washington. Reid doesn't even seem to care much about the war. He is more worried about playing political games. As Reid seems to have defined the game, Bush wins if troops are still in Iraq when the next president is sworn in in January, 2009. The Democrats win if they force Bush to remove the troops by December, 2008.

For the troops and the Iraqis, this is life and death but Reid doesn't seem to care about that as long as he wins in Washington.

And none of the Democratic candidates for President have disputed this.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Social Security - Myth or Crisis

After Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton referred to changes being needed to keep Social Security solvent, the left went into spin control. This example from the Huffington Post is pretty typical of what the left has been saying for years about Social Security.

Back in 1983, when Social Security really was running out of money, with just a few months of payments on hand, Congress raised the payroll tax substantially. This was done deliberately in order to pile up a surplus to finance the baby boomers' retirement. And so it did: that accumulated surplus stands at more than two trillion dollars today, and is increasing at a rate of $190 billion annually.

As a result of this surplus, all the baby boomers' will have retired before Social Security runs into a projected shortfall in 2041 . That is according to the Social Security's (mostly Republican-appointed) Trustees. According to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay all promised benefits even longer, until 2046. By either date, most baby boomers will be dead, and almost all of the rest retired, before there is a problem.

Of course, there are some who maintain that the surplus "has been spent," that the Social Security Trust Fund "doesn't exist," and so on. These stories should be given all the credibility of reports about "Bat Boy" sightings in the Weekly World News. But unfortunately they are often taken seriously in the major media.

To say that Social Security's surplus "has been spent," is like saying that when you buy a U.S. government bond, your money "has been spent." Whatever has been done with the money, you are still holding a bond, and you will get your interest and principal so long as there is a U.S. government. If there is no U.S. government when you retire, well then you will have other things to worry about besides Social Security, including your private savings.

It's hard to tell if these people actually understand what they are talking about. In case you are not aware of the problem, this is it in a nutshell - every surplus dollar that goes to Social Security is immediately "invested" in a bond which the government issues to itself. The money is then transferred to the general fund and spent. Instead of a surplus, we have a pile of bonds. This is comparable to withdrawing your savings, writing yourself an IOU, then spending all of your money. You can say that you are good for your debt to yourself but you don't actually have the money.

When Social Security needs to cash these bonds the government will have to raise the cash somehow. There are several ways that this can be done but, given the enormous amounts required, none of these will be pleasant. Some of the options include:

Raising the retirement age. This will force millions to work longer. Some percentage will die first. If the government figures it right, enough will die to solve the problem.

Raising the SSN taxes. This will be tough as the percentage of workers to retirees declines.

Reducing benefits. At minimum the formula for figuring inflation is likely to be adjusted. If that is done soon then it will be fairly painless. If we wait then we will actually have to cut benefits to people already retired which will be painful.

Refinance the debt. We could convert the internal bonds to regular bonds and sell them off. This assumes that there is enough investment money out there to cover it and would obligate payments in the future.

Or we could ask Bat Boy for a loan.

Update - I really have a hard time understanding why the left is so defensive about Social Security. The math is pretty simple. Once the outlay is greater than the income then the money will have to be raised from somewhere. This will place a huge strain on the general fund which will hurt all liberal causes.

For years liberals have accused Bush of running up a big deficit so that in the future the government will be devoting so much money to paying off the national debt that nothing is left for social programs. Why then are they trying to do the same thing by denying problems with Social Security?

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Veteran or Victim?

The headlines read: Veterans are more likely to be homeless. Vets make up a quarter of the homeless but are only 11% of the general population.

This is part of a general movement to identify soldiers and veterans as victims. It began with John Kerry's Winter Soldier movement. They distributed fliers to parents claiming that being drafted would turn their innocent sons into drug-addicted murderers. This has evolved. Now veterans will spend a lifetime trying unsuccessfully to adjust to civilian life. This ties in with the liberal assertion that the only people who join the military are poor minorities who have no other choice. Micheal Moore made this a major point of Fahrenheit 9-11. Kerry was referring to this when he told a group of college students that if they dropped out they would get "stuck in Iraq" (he tried to claim that he was referring to President Bush who has a Harvard MBA).

How seriously should we take this new study? The details are not available yet but I can see one immediate flaw. They compared the proportion of homeless veterans to the proportion of veterans in the general population. This is guaranteed to inflate the proportion of homeless veterans. Why? Because most homeless and men and most veterans are men. By comparing two groups that are mainly men to the general population you throw the proportions off.

According to the article, veterans are 11% of the population. Assuming that 10% of veterans are women (I will admit up front that this is a guess) and assuming that half the population if men (it's actually lower than 50%) then veterans make up 20% of the male population. If 20% of the population makes up 25% of the homeless then the numbers no longer seem seem so alarming. For a real apples to apples comparison I would have to know the proportion of the homeless who are women but you get the idea.

Buried deep in the article and glossed over is an important point - there are 50,000 fewer homeless veterans now than 20 years ago.
2005 data estimated that 194,254 homeless people out of 744,313 on any given night were veterans.

In comparison, the VA says that 20 years ago, the estimated number of veterans who were homeless on any given night was 250,000.

That seems like good news.

Something else that is never stated - most of these veterans never saw combat. Between Viet Nam and Iraq we only had a few major combat operations. Only one a few involved ground fighting, mainly the Gulf War and Somalia and that was limited. That's what made me question these figures in the first place. I work with a lot of veterans. None of them seem damaged by their military service. In fact, that's where they received the technical expertise that qualified them for their current job.

When I was growing up and most veterans were from WWII the feeling was that having served made you a better man. That was back when we had respect for the military.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Is Hillary Inevitable?

A year from now we will have our new president (baring a recount and court battle). Will we be inaugurating President Hillary? Her supporters think so. Here is a list of reasons that they have for believing this and problems with their beliefs.

Bill. Hillary is running as part 2 of the Clinton Administration. She talks about the accomplishments of "the Clinton administration" and promises to repeat them. The trouble is that she is not her husband. We don't know how much of a hand she had in running the country. She was publicly given credit for the health care proposal. Now she says that she didn't like it but she took her direction from the President. I can see why she would want to distance herself from this. Not only was it a political disaster but it gives her Republican opponent something concrete to run against. Her name was linked with the travel office firings, several political errors and the hiring of Janet Reno. Neither she nor Bill has come forward and identified something positive that she did. Relevant records such as her calendar have been sealed by Bill.

The South. The theory is that Bill won a couple of southern states so Hillary can, too. But Bill ran as a moderate southern governor. Hillary is running as a progressive northern senator. Will the South vote for her because she lived there 16 years ago? Doubtful.

The War. Voters are supposed to go with the Democrats because of Iraq. Of the Democrats running for President, Hillary has the most nuanced record on the war.  Hillary has resisted apologizing for her war vote and she has been less strident in demanding an end to the war. At one point she allowed that she would leave 80,000 troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future. She has also called for a timetable for withdrawing the troops. If the war is going well in a year then she will be able to blame some of her actions on Bush's mistakes in the occupation. If it is going poorly then she will still be in a stronger position than the Republican (assuming that Ron Paul isn't on the ballot).

As Kerry proved, a nuanced approach that covers all bases is easily portrayed as flip-flopping. Voters like to know where a candidate stands on an issue. Hillary refuses to take strong stands on anything and is getting in trouble for it.

In 1992 Bill did the same thing. The best-remembered example was his promise to gays to allow them into the military - a promise he did not intend to keep. The result was the "don't ask, don't tell" policy which still has gays upset. Bill got away with it by claiming that his superior intelligence and empathy allowed him to see all sides of an issue and people often interpreted his understanding for a promise. Hillary is cold where Bill was warm. He made his conflicting statements in private gatherings while she makes hers on the national stage.

If the war is going badly then Hillary may gain more than she looses.

Bush. The President's approval rating is around 30%. Democrats interpret that to mean that 70% if the country is livid with rage against the president and his party. The problem for Hillary is that Congress's approval rating is around 10% and she is running from Congress. This leads to the next point.

The Net Roots. Of all the candidates, Hillary has the least to fear from the Net Roots. She managed to get her people in charge of several offshoots of MoveOn funded by George Soros. Several of these have folded since 2004 but she has a good shot at recreating them.

On the down-side, Hillary does not influence the non-Soros folks. Many of them are furious at the Democratic congress. By now they expected the war to have been ended and at least one person impeached. They have Hillary in a bind. If she courts them she will lose a lot of mainstream support but these are the people who raised millions and went door-to-door to try to elect Kerry. They may well stay at home for next year's election.

Campaign experience. This is one clear-cut advantage that Hillary has. She has been through two national campaigns and has a lot of experienced staffers. This is a clear advantage over the Republicans.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

What do geeks think of Gore?

Last week ZDNews published a defense of Al Gore.

But at what point does the growing body of peer-reviewed and published scientific literature on the subject trump the snarky put-downs? The latest report to examine the causes and potential effects of climate change was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change study. Check it out in your spare time. It makes for sober reading.

The interesting thing is the comments section. Like me, these people don't just hate Gore, they have facts and figures to back it up. The best of them quotes this site which documents 35 errors in GOre's movie. Very few people came to Gore's defense.

The same thing happened a few months ago when the British computer industry journal The Register had a story on global warming. Apparently there are lots of skeptics out there and a lot of them are computer geeks and well-informed.

NBC goes green II

Yesterday I complained about NBC only giving part of the story in order to slant their green coverage. On Monday's segment they moved on to outright misinformation.

The segment was on a science station in the Antarctic. Near the end they said that the scientists there were monitoring the "hole" in the ozone and that it is shrinking. This was given as proof that international cutbacks on CO2 are working.

The problem here is that, despite Kyoto, no one has cut back on CO2. What was cut back was chlorofluorocarbons, specifically the refrigerant known as freon.

When they get such a basic fact wrong then you have to question everything else they say.

Monday, November 05, 2007

NBC goes green

NBC is doing "green" segments all week. The first one to air was a piece on the poles aired at the end of the nightly news. Their claims:

1) The polar ice cap is the smallest on record.
2) Polar bears are endangered by shrinking ice caps.
3) The west coast of the Antarctic is also warming.

What they didn't tell you:

1) The records mentioned are satellite records going back to 1979. Other records show similar loss of polar ice in the 1940s and around a century ago. While the ice at the Arctic is the smallest on record, Antarctic ice growth is the fastest on record.

2) Polar bears evolved around 40,000 years ago and survived at least on period of geological warming in which there was no Arctic ice. Of the existing bear heard, the ones in warmer areas seems to be healthier.

3) Only one small part of the Antarctic showed warming. There is no sign of melting except on the Antarctic Peninsula which is a tiny portion of the continent.

This amounts to lies by omission. This matters because it is being used to sell us on the idea that global warming is already affecting the earth and that we have to take immediate action. Already decisions are being made that will affect us for decades to come. Specifically, planned power plants are not being built with will lead to power shortages in a few years.

Reporters feel that they have to be advocates for change on global warming. The issue is too important to tell the full story because a reasonable person might conclude that global warming is not really a problem.

We will see what the have to say tonight.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Problems on the Fringes

Both the Republicans and the Democrats are having real problems with their fringe elements.

With the Republicans it is the Religious Right. After a decade of being courted by Karl Rove, these people feel that they own the Republican party. They have some justification since Rove was willing to jettison fiscal conservatives and Libertarians. The problem that the Republicans face is that the Religious Right considers abortion to be the primary issue. They want the Republicans to be in the same lock-step mode on abortion that the Democrats are, just on the opposite side. They have suggested that they will form a third party if they don't like the Republican candidate.

This is bad for the Republicans on several fronts. It fractures the Reagan coalition which controlled the White House for 20 of the last 28 years and gave the Republicans control of Congress for 12 of those years. It also puts the Republicans in a bad position for the future. Most young voters are far more liberal on abortion and gay rights than the Religious Right. This may change as they grow older or it may alienate them from the Republican party. In fact, the majority of the country reflects Rudy's position - it is a terrible thing but abortion should not be outlawed.

If the Religious Right follows through on their threat they will assure the election of a pro-abortion Democrat. The Democrats took this route in 2000 with Nader running as a 3rd party candidate in order to move the party to the left. It may have worked but very few Democrats are happy about it.

In the meantime, the Democrats have their own problems. For years the "net-roots" (aka the nut-roots) have operated echo-chamber web sites like the DailyKOS and This has given rise to a group of far-left activists who are furious with the Democrats. No matter how far the presidential candidates move to the left, it will never be enough for these activists. Recently they have taken to heckling prominent Democrats. Code Pink has held protests in Democratic headquarters. The "Don't tas me bro" guy is convinced that Bush stole both elections and wanted to know why Kerry hadn't impeached Bush already. A different heckler demanded that Bill Clinton admit the 9/11 was a fraud.

In many ways this is a bigger problem for the Democrats than the Religious Right is for the Republicans. The nut-roots represents a lot of money. They spent more on Kerry's behalf in 2004 than he spent directly. Just as the Religious Right represents a position that may be unacceptable to the majority of America, the nut-roots insist on a whole platform that is to the left of FDR and LBJ.

In both cases, the problem is one of the party's own making. I already mentioned Karl Rove and the Religious Right. Hillary and Kerry both have ties with MoveON and other George Soros-funded groups. Many of MoveON's 2004 spin-offs had Clinton people in charge.

The way that the front-runners have reacted to these groups is interesting. Hillary dodges and  weaves, refusing to let anyone pin her down on specifics(1). Rudy admits his differences with the fringes and points out that at least they know where he stands on the issues and that he is not pandering to them.

(1) I've read several accounts of what Hillary said about giving drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. She never seems to have given a straight answer.