Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Obama and the Bubble

According to several news reports, President Elect Obama is having trouble adjusting to the "bubble", the press pool that accompanies him anytime he is in public. This is understandable. He is young and has never been in a position that needed round-the-clock protection. It is even more understandable when you know the reason for the press pool.

Its purpose is not to report on how many grains are in the presidential sandwich. It is really the presidential death watch.

Prior to 1981 the press only accompanied the president when he made major public appearances. Then, in the Spring of 1981, a lone gunman shot President Reagan. This was a major disaster for the press. They didn't have anyone on the scene.

It was decided that, after that, no public appearance by the President would be too small to cover. Just in case.

Ironically, that was also the last serious attempt at assassinating the president. The Secret Service took the incident as seriously as the press and tightened security a lot.

Myths About Israel and Gaza

Lorelei Kelly of the Huffington Post has an entry that is typical of the left's reaction to Israel's attack on the Gaza Strip.

Remember that the attack was provoked by constant missile attacks coming from Gaza and being fired into civilian areas of Israel. Also remember that Hamas fires these missiles from civilian areas specifically so that reprisals will hurt non-combatants.

Kelly says:
"Defense" doesn't mean the same thing when one antagonist is a state and the other a networked organization. It's like the US Army fighting the Salvation Army. It's like Bin Laden versus the USA. The same sets of policies and tools don't work anymore. They make things worse.
Hamas is not a networked organization. They are the elected government of Gaza. This is different from the terrorists firing missiles from Lebanon.

Why any of us ever believed that bombing terrified civilians would somehow inspire them to overthrow their horrid leaders is beyond me. And why any government thinks that killing lots of civilians on the side where the leaders use civilians as human shields will somehow be a dealbreaker has got to be the new definition of insanity.
From this you would think that Israel is indiscriminately firing missiles at Gaza. Actually, Israel has targeted their response about as precisely as is possible. At the same time, Israel is trying to convince the people of Gaza that their government got them into this mess. The people of Gaza elected a government that promised the destruction of Israel. You have to expect some sort of reprisal when they act on their promise.

It rings pretty hollow when those of us viewing can not only see who is doing the killing, but who is doing the dying. Policemen? Shoppers? University personnel? United Nations employees? Little kids? 3 Israelis vs. 300 Palestinians?
Like many on the left, Kelly seems to see all deaths as civilians. Current news reports indicate that only 60 of the 360 deaths so far are civilian. That means that more than 80% of those killed are combatants. Not bad when you remember that Hamas hides inside the civilian population.

In less than two decades, the measures of national security have gone from being rational, linear and technological, to random, chaotic and very human. Those who want to survive need to modernize their toolkit accordingly: More persuasion, less coercion. More prevention, less reaction. More participation, less exclusion. More people, less machines, More life strategies, less death strategies.
Kelly has totally lost it here. An organization that is dedicated to destroying Israel is attacking them regularly and she wants Israel to make nice in the hope that it will be reciprocated. In fact, Israel already tried making nice when it handed control of Gaza back to the Palistinians. This was going to be the showcase for how other occupied areas would be given back to the Palestinians. Instead it became a new front. It was seen as an act of weakness and an invitation for attacks. Now both sides are paying the price for that.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Who Did Condi Vote For?

There is a rumor that Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice voted for Barack Obama. Just how likely is this?

Remember that Obama didn't run against John McCain. He ran against George W. Bush. McCain was dismissed as Bush's third term. Obama's complaints against Bush's foreign policy were not limited to the Iraq war. He often criticized other aspects of Bush's foreign policy including the policy of not visiting countries that we openly hostile to us. Keep in mind that, as Secretary of State, Rice influenced and implemented the policies that Obama ran against.

For Condi to vote for Obama then she would not only have to overlook what he said about foreign policy under her, she would have to support a completely different vision.

I'm sure that many Obama supporters would like this but it just isn't likely.

So why did the subject come up in the first place? She seemed happy that a black man won the presidency.

Then there is the reason that cannot be spoken - that, as a black woman, she would automatically vote for a black man regardless of his positions. This is a vile bit of racial stereotyping.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Obama and Gays

During the campaign Barack Obama made it clear that he did not support gay marriage but was open to civil partnerships. John McCain said pretty much the same thing with the exception that he felt that it should be up to the states to decide. During their debate, Biden and Palin said the same thing. In essence, gay marriage was a non-issue in the presidential election with all candidates agreeing that gay marriage is bad but civil partnerships are fine.

Despite this unanimity, gays overwhelmingly voted for Obama. Many were convinced that Obama was secretly more pro-gay than he let on or took positions without listening to what Obama actually said.

Enter the Reverend Rick Warren who was invited to give the invocation at Obama's inauguration. Gays are having a fit because of Warren's statements on gay marriage.

So what are Warren's actual beliefs on the subject? He said some rather strong things about gay marriage, lumping it in with other things that are banned from marriage (incest, child molesting, and polygamy). He has since apologised for the comparison. He has also said that he is in favor of universal rights and supports civil partnerships (although possibly not under that name). He is not anti-gay and has a history of support for people with AIDS.

In other words, Warren's views on gays and marriage are not very different than Obama's stated views. So what's the problem?

Two factors are going on. One is, as I said before, that many gays expected Obama to be a stealth-supporter of gay rights. The Instapundit pointed out in March that many of Obama's supporters were counting on him to be lying on the campaign trail. This is a side-effect of his cult of personality. He encouraged people to believe in him personally as opposed to his policies.

The other factor is an aversion to religion by the political left. A few years a go a woman was kidnapped but convinced her captor to release her by reading passages from Warren's best-seller, A Purpose Driven Life. The left made fun of her. Others have taken issue with his belief in creationism.

It would be interesting to see what Warren's critics said about the Reverend Wright, Obama's former pastor. Most Obama supporters were willing to give Obama a pass for listening to Wright for years. A common complaint was that critics were picking and choosing quotes from Wright's long career. How many of those people are now doing the same thing with Warren?

Obama has said that he wants to be president of all Americans. Warren has a wide following and his selection is seen as an offering to the religious right. Obama's critics seem to want him to only be the president of the progressive left. They are not doing and favors for either Obama or the country.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When was the Nativity?

Some astronomers announced that they calculated when Christ was born: June, 2 BC. This is based on a conjunction that would have produced a bright star in the sky. There are a lot of problems with this.

First, our image of the nativity comes from a combination of nativity scenes, songs, and centuries-old tradition. We imagine the three wise men arriving at the same time as the shepherds. After all, the nativity scenes show all of them together. At most, they arrived twelve nights after the birth (hence the Twelve Days of Christmas). Outside a star has lit the night as bright as daylight.

Here are some of the problems:

The bible doesn't say how old Jesus was when the wise men found him. Since Herod ordered all boys under two to be killed, it may have been months.

The bible doesn't say how many wise men there were, either. It lists three gifts relating to air (frankincense), water (myrrh), and earth (gold). Since there were three gifts and the ancient world was divided into three continents, that there were wise men from each continent, each one carrying a distinct gift and representing a different age. From that assumption, names and histories were added to the wise men but none of that is in the bible.

We think of the star as being bright but the wise men seemed to be the only ones who noticed it. In an age when everyone was familiar with the stars, it must have been pretty dim to have escaped notice. It is also unclear how the star could have been in the east. Except for polar stars (in the north and south), all stars rise in the east and set in the west. Or, more accurately, the earth's rotation makes them pass by a spot from the east to the west.

The twelve days come from the Roman calendar. They set aside a twelve day celebration called Saturnalia at the end of their year. Christmas replaced Saturnalia but kept some of the older secular traditions. Since this date had nothing to do with the actual birth of Christ, people have been speculating about the real date ever since. Which brings us in a circle.

One thing that we do know, Christ was born. The actual date was not considered important at the time so Christmas is as good a time as any to celebrate it.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Caroline and Sarah

Some conservatives are complaining about the difference in treatment that Caroline Kennedy is getting compared to Sarah Palin. Caroline announced that she wanted Hillary Clinton's senate seat and has been given a kid glove treatment. Compare that with Sarah Palin who had every aspect of her life examined.

I don't think that there is much to this comparison. Some people examining the pair have pointed out that different offices are involved. There is something to this but I don't think that this is the real reason for the difference. A bigger factor is the circumstances of

Palin was running for office and Kennedy is hoping to be appointed. More important, Obama supporters hoped that they could use Palin's background as an issue against McCain. Because of the zeal of the Obama supporters, nothing was out-of-bounds. Any rumor, no matter how preposterous, was treated as legitimate.

In contrast, Kennedy has no opponent, just a few rivals. There is no organized campaign doing opposition research nor are there crazed bloggers at Kos or Huffington who are ready to pounce on every rumor.

There is the issue of qualifications. Palin is better qualified by any measure (except an ideological one) since she has actually held elected office. Kennedy has made little public splash.

Now, many candidates for the Senate have little qualification. John Edwards comes to mind. Under normal circumstances the candidate has to convince the voters that this does not matter. It may be possible that the voters of New York would agree that having two uncles in the Senate (plus a father in the Senate and the White House) is enough. After all, they agreed that being married to a president qualifies you to be a senator. But the voters are not being asked.

That's where the real objection to Caroline comes in. She is asking to be admitted to the Senate on the basis of her family, not her own accomplishments. The voters might agree with this but they will not get a voice on the subject until 2010. In the meantime, a single politician gets to decide.

Political dynasties make me nervous. There are a lot of people who got a leg up in politics because of relatives. As with any hereditary system, the strengths of one generation do not always carry forward to the next. I can point to former Ohio governor Taft as an example.  Ten years ago when the office was open, there were two main candidates, Taft and Ken Blackwell. Both held elected office in Ohio - Taft was Secretary of State and Blackwell was Attorney General. Both had paid their dues. Further, people who actually knew Taft said that he was incompetent as Secretary of State (I know people who worked for Taft who confirmed this). But Taft got to be governor. How? The movers and shakers felt that they owed the Taft family.

That is the problem with Caroline. We don't know how competent she actually is and the people who are in a position to know might be willing to overlook her faults because of who her father was.

On the other hand, Sarah Palin rose on her own merits.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

What's going on with the auto bailout

Last week the proposed bailout of the big 3 auto manufacturers died after an impasse was reached. The agreement called for the UAW (United Auto Workers) to reduce their compensation package to be competitive with foreign manufacturers who have plants in the US. The Senate wanted this to happen in 2009, the UAW refused to consider it before 2011. This has been spun several different ways.

Democrats are spinning it two different ways. The first is to blame the Republicans in general. This overlooks the fact that ten Republicans supported the agreement with the 2011 date. The Democrats could have passed it if all members were on board.

The other Democrat spin is to point out that senators from southern states with foreign car plants are against the bailout. This might be true but it does not follow that this is a cause and effect relationship. The implication is that these senators are trying to sabotage the big three on behalf of their clients (although no one has come out and stated it this way). I think that demographics have more to do with this. Most Republican senators are from the south and most foreign plants are in the south. The Republicans could just as easily be opposing the bailout on principle.

Further to the left, posters on Huffington have accused the Republicans of union-busting, perpetuating class warfare, and hoping for a depression. All of these either assume good-faith motives on the part of the UAW or figure that the issue is so important that the bailout must happen regardless.

We should keep a few things in mind about all of this. The first is that the UAW is in the wrong. The big three are hurting now. GM claims that they will be out of business by the end of the year without a bailout. The bailout will not solve their problems. Their problem is not that they are not making the cars that people want to buy. Their problem is that they can't make money by selling anything smaller than an SUV. The only reason that they make smaller cars is to meet CAFE standards. They have to give away four small cars in order to make a profit on an SUV. Take away the SUVs and they don't make any profit. The only way that they can make money on smaller cars is by cutting production costs and the UAW is a big part of that.

The UAW argues that labor costs are only around $1,800 per car. This may be true but labor costs are negotiable. Steel costs are not.

So what is really going on? First, the Democrats are beholden to the UAW. Unions have given them a lot of support over the years. Republicans don't owe unions anything. That means that Democrats have to support the UAW but Republicans are likely to be skeptical or even hostile to the union.

Second, the UAW is stalling because they are hoping to get out of their commitment to become competitive. They are hoping that by 2011, with a solid Democratic congressional majority they will be able to renege without penalty.

Third, after ignoring their principles in bailing out the financial markets, Republicans are regrouping. Many believe that the election was a sign that Republicans need to stand for something. Public opinion supports them on this, also. A lot of the electorate was upset about the $700 billion already allocated. Further revelations that the money has been spent differently than intended has made Congress and the electorate leery of other bailouts. A solid majority of the country backs the Republicans on this.

I suspect that Republican strategists are hoping to tarnish Obama's image with this issue. Bush has come forward with a bridge-loan from money already allocated for other purposes. This will run out early in 2009 dumping the problem in Obama's lap. This will put Obama in the uncomfortable position of having to choose between his union supporters and the general public.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Culture Wars 2008

The Holiday Gift Season started last week with Black Friday and will continue another three weeks until the Winter Holiday. Cities and states are lighting their holiday trees. Businesses are counting on retail sales to rebound from last year.

The most surprising thing this year is that some companies are using the term "Christmas" again. Starting a few years ago, most retailers scrubbed the word from their lexicon. Lowes had specials on their Holiday Trees. A search on other company's web sites for "christmas" was redirected to "holiday".

All of this was pretty silly. The only reason people are buying presents is to give them at Christmas. Hanuka and Kwanzaa represent a tiny fraction of the gift-giving public. According to legend, the day after Thanksgiving is called Black Friday because that is when companies' books go from the red (loss) to black (profit). Without Christmas sales, our retailers would be out of business.

That's why they start putting up decorations and playing music sometime in November. They want to put you in the mood to shop early. Studies have shown that people who shop early are more likely to buy extra last-minute gifts in late December.

But a few years ago retailers got it into their heads that shoppers might be offended by a reminder that there is a religious root to the holiday. So they rechristened (an ironic word in this context) Christmas into the Winter Holiday. They were following the lead of governments who had been hit with lawsuits to ether banish Christmas from public-owned spaces or to allow the inclusion of offensive images such as a KKK-sponsored white cross. The thing is that private enterprises are not under the same restrictions. They can wish you whatever greeting they want.

Things got so bad that many people felt self-conscious about wishing private individuals a "merry Christmas", opting instead to wish them a "happy holiday", even when they knew that they were talking to Christians.

Things are a bit different this year. As shown here, some retailers are now using "Christmas" outright or including it somewhere in their ads. Not all are, though. Banana Republic and Old Navy are still forbidding the word.

My suggestion is that people do their Christmas shopping at stores that use the "C" word. Stores that cater to those who are offended by the word can have all of the Hanuka and Kwanzaa shoppers. See if they stay in business.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Obama's Cabinet

A lot has been made of Obama's cabinet. The most common comparison is to Lincoln and his team of rivals. I'd like to point out a closer resemblance to a more recent president - George W. Bush.

Lincoln appointed four rival candidates to the presidency to his cabinet. Obama appointed Hillary Clinton. Bush appointed Colin Powell (who had seriously considered running for President). Neither Obama not Bush appointed more than a single rival and both appointed the rival as Secretary of State.

For the rest of his appointments, Bush chose a combination of Republican office-holders and people from his father's term. Obama has chosen several Democratic office-holders and people from the Clinton White House.

Choosing a cabinet is only part of the issue. The other issue is how you handle them.

Bush has an MBA from Harvard School of Business and used the Harvard model for successful corporate presidents. This consists of filling a room with smart people and allowing them to argue out an issue. The president may ask some questions but does not lead the discussion. Instead he thanks everyone then makes the decision on his own based on the input he received. When Bush said that he was the "decider" he was probably referring to this.

There are strengths and weaknesses with this approach. The downsides are that it leaves the president detached from the discussion. He is not supposed to take sides. Rather, he is to weigh the alternatives and pass judgment. It makes a president reluctant to reverse decisions. It is also nearly impossible for a president to avoid having favorites or giving more weight to the sides that he prefers. It also gives an advantage to the more eloquent advocate. All of these problems have come up at one time or another during the Bush administration. It also cultivates a culture of yes-men.

The alternative is for the president to take an active part in the policy arguments. The downside of this are that it diminished the president's authority and that the process of taking sides can alienate people on the losing side.

We have no idea how Obama will handle his new cabinet. His supporters probably assume that he will be more hand-on than Bush. He insists that he wants people who will disagree with him but he has no history to show that he pull this off.

Obama has also been compared to FDR. So far there is no indication that he is assembling his own brain trust.