Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Looking Back at 2009

Events in no particular order:

The Obama Transition Team announced that the questionnaire for possible appointees would be the most detailed ever in order to ensure an ethical administration. It included questions such as "Have you ever owned a gun?" or "Have you ever dated a Republican?"  or "Did you pay all of your taxes?" Answering "yes" to any of these disqualified you from a government post.

Obama spent much of the year traveling to foreign countries and apologizing for everything that America ever did. This was so successful that Afghans are now burning him in effigy.

After years if insisting that they were not against war in general, just the war in Iraq, Democrats have realized that they are against war in general.

The left throws around the term "teabaggers" as if they had been using it all of their lives. I would bet that a year ago, 99% of them didn't know of any use for the term except something for making a cup of tea.

When the Obamas spent Christmas in Hawaii a year ago the big news was how good he looked in a swimsuit. Now it's how tired he is.

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize for not being George W. Bush. Ironically, he seems to have read one of Bush's old speeches on just warfare instead of his acceptance speech. He probably skipped out on the parties after he realized that he had read the wrong speech.

Obama is quicker to judge the Cambridge police force than terrorists.

The general world population still thinks highly of Obama. On the other hand, the world leaders keep laughing behind his back. At Copenhagen the top leaders said that they were unavailable for a group meeting. It turned out that they were already having a meeting without Obama. He found out about it and crashed the meeting half-way through.

The US has long enjoyed a special relationship with Great Britain. Obama redefined this, substituting the word "snubbed".

The senators who held out the longest on health care got the best rewards - hundreds of millions for their states. Those of us in the other 50 states wonder why our senators are so cheap?

The stimulus amounted to something over $2,000 for every person in the country. So far, I haven't seen $2,000 spent on my behalf.

I'm not sure what constituency Obama is trying to please. Conservatives and Libertarians hate him. His economic advisers and lack of a public option in health care have alienated the Progressives. The tax on "Cadillac" insurance plans will hit unions hard. Pacifists gave up on him after he ramped up the war in Afghanistan twice. Environmentalists are disappointed as are gays. Neither has gotten any priority. Centrists are shocked at his deficits and his takeover of the banking and automotive sectors. Who is left to support him? Even Doonesbury and Arianna Huffington have turned on him.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Return of Terrorism

The White House described the Christmas attempt at blowing up a jetliner as a terrorist act. This is interesting since the word "terrorism" had pretty much been banished from the Obama administration in favor of "man caused disasters". Now terrorism is back. I can think of several reasons:

  1. There just isn't any other term to describe the possible downing of a jet carrying 300 passengers.
  2. The "suspect" has admitted ties to al Qaeda.
  3. Blow-back from the Fort Hood incident. That was obviously a terrorist act but the Obama White House has yet to use that word in describing it. People have noticed and are wondering just how divorced from reality the Obama White House is.
  4. Then there is the competence issue. Obama entered the White House with no executive experience and it has showed constantly. He was vacationing in Hawaii when the incident happened. The White House is playing up the fact that he was briefed.
The Obama administration may have had its "Heck of a good job" moment. Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano insisted that everything worked like clockwork. In fact, someone on a terrorist watch list boarded a plane with explosives concealed on his person and was able to ignite them. The only thing that kept the plane from blowing up was the failure of the explosives to explode. It is little consolation that, after his attempt failed, the suspect was wrestled to the ground by civilians. Obama needs to fire Napolitano as soon as possible to show that he is serious about homeland security.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

60 Votes

It is no secret that the Senate is as polarized as is possible. The health care vote and several others have been 60/40. This is due to more than simple polarization. It centers around math and the magic 60 vote number.

According to the rules that the Senate has used for the last few decades, 60 votes are needed to end debate. The Democrats have exactly 60 votes including two independents who caucus with the Democrats). If the Democrats had 59 or 61 votes then things would be different.

If they had fewer than 60 votes then they would have to court Republicans. There are a few who are open to crossing party lines, especially if given some incentives. If they had 61 or more votes then they could lose one or two and still pass their agenda.

So, with no margin for error, the 60 votes force the Democratic leadership and the White House to do whatever is needed. In some cases they twist arms, reminding stragglers that Obama has a long memory. In other cases they simply buy votes with up to $100 million for a Senator's state.

At the same time, the Democratic leadership decided that it is easier to force Democrats into line than to court Republicans. With no incentives from the other side, the Republican leadership can do their own arm-twisting to keep the Republicans voting in a block.

The result is a polarized Senate and a string of 60/40 votes that will continue until the 2010 election.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Triumph or Death March?

The Democrats are pulling out all the stops. They will pass health care reform on Christmas Eve, even if they have to bribe the hold-outs with $100 million grants to their states. Currently the public is against the bill and it will be passed on a party-line vote so there is no cover for Democrats. Why are they pushing so hard to pass something so unpopular?

Rush Limbaugh thinks that the issue is so important to the Democrats that they are willing to sacrifice their Congressional majority for it. I disagree.

If you ask me why the Democrats lost their majority in 1994, I would point out that there were several factors. Gun owners were upset about anti-gun legislation and were organized. The population was outraged by Congressional scandals. Clinton ran on tax cuts but raised taxes instead.

If you ask Bill Clinton why he lost Congress, he will tell you that it was because he didn't get health care reform passed (in fact he told this to Congressional Democrats a month ago). It doesn't matter that Clinton's plan was deeply unpopular. He insists that the voters were punishing him for not getting it passed.

The current Democratic leaders bought into Clinton's fantasies. They are watching Democrats drop in the polls and convinced themselves that the only way to reverse this is to pass the health care bill. The fact that the majority of the country thinks that the reform is worse than doing nothing escapes them.

This is not new. George W. Bush did the same reasoning with the war in Iraq. Just before the war, public support was low. Bush was sure that once the shooting started, the public would get behind the war. This was true for a short time but the war became less and less popular as it dragged on. Regardless, I doubt that he would have predicted in 2003 that it would become a major issue, costing his party's majority status by 2006.

So the Democrats are caught in a death march. The lower their approval ratings the more frantic they are to pass something that they can call health care reform but the longer this goes on the lower their approval ratings drop.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Culture Wars 2009

Slate declared the war on Christmas over. At the same time, they question of it ever existed outside of the media. According to them, the media, particularly Fox News, lost interest in the subject so it is over.

Obviously, they just didn't get it. At one point, they mention that CVS is classified as being anti-Christmas but still sells candy canes. The two are not mutually exclusive. That was the whole point.

The forces of political correctness led by the ACLU decreed that any mention of Christmas in schools or other public institutions. Cities no longer have Christmas trees, just "holiday trees".

Taking their queue from this, several companies decided to remove all mention of Christmas. Stores like Lowes and Radio Shack avoided using the word. Employees were instructed to use "Holidays" instead of "Christmas". Of course, they still wanted people to buy Christmas presents from them. It was sort of a dance, with the stores trying to get customers to buy presents for an unnamed event that happened to fall on December 25th. CVS may sell candy canes but I doubt that they are honest about what they are for.

This attitude spread. People became embarrassed about saying "Merry Christmas" in public. They started saying "Happy Holidays".

All of this was silly. Very few non-Christians are offended by references to Christmas. Many Jews felt embarrassed that this was being done on their behalf.

But, that is history. Things have changed. Companies found out that they were chasing away Christmas shoppers. Not every company has changed their policies but man have. Target was one company that previously avoided "Christmas" but now allows their employees to wish a "Merry Christmas".

One obvious factor is the economy. Stores want to remind people why they are supposed to be shopping.

So, yes the war on Christmas seems to have subsided, but it was real as recently as last year.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Obama and the Nobel Peace Prize

When it was announced that President Obama had won the Nobel Peace Prize, a lot of conservatives (including me) were upset. It was obvious that he had won mainly for replacing President Bush and not for anything that he had actually accomplished.

Looking back at President Obama's acceptance of his prize, I don't think that he was very happy to win the prize. He knows how little he has accomplished, especially in international affairs. The prize was awarded so early in his administration that he didn't have time for any accomplishments. He was only a few days into his administration when nominated. Obama knows this as well as everyone else.

The Nobel Committee didn't do Obama any favors by giving him the award so early. He will spend the rest of his administration trying to live up to it. As a war president, it puts him in an awkward situation as shown by his acceptance speech where he made it clear that he believed in the concept of a "just war".

Because Obama already has a Peace Prize, he can never win one on his own accomplishments.

Obama showed his irritation. His acceptance speech could have been given by George W. Bush and he skipped several banquets and performances. A cardboard cut-out of Obama attended a Save the Children fund-raiser in the President's place.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Is Climategate Important?

When asked about Climategate, the thousands of letters and files leaked from Climatic Research Unit, a branch of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom, Al Gore says that they are not relevant, that they are ten years old and only concern a few researchers. He is either misinformed or lying since the most recent email was from November, 2009 - just days before the leak. Even the politically neutral PolitiFact discounts the emails. They are wrong and here's why.

Back when I was in college physics, the joke was "first draw the graph then plot the data." This meant that regardless of your actual outcome, you should make sure that your data fit the "correct" graph. There was also a take-off of Planke's Constant which was "that number which when added to, subtracted from, multiplied by, or divided into your result gives the correct one." All of this is harmless when dealing with freshmen lab results where the margin of error of the equipment is greater than the amounts being measured. It is much more serious when top researchers are using it. The CRU emails show that top climate researchers have dealt in this sort of "fixing". They know what the results should be so they have been playing with the data until the results are right.

So what? They are only a small group, right? There are two problems with this logic. The first is that these are the guys at the top. There are three sets of world temperature accepted by climate researchers and CRU provides one of them. If we hear that the top auditor at Enron is hiding problems, should we ignore him and believe the guys lower down (which is what happened)?

The second problem is that climate research is a small field. If one group is fudging the figures, others should notice it and question it. CRU's figures should not match the others'. This brings up an ugly truth about climate research - they are all doing it, either to hide the real measures or because they believed institutions like CRU and figured that their data must be wrong. Just because the CRU emails were limited to a few researchers does not mean that the others are all acting honestly. More likely most of them are doing the same thing. There are several indications of this in the CRU emails - the ease with which they could get editors of prominent publications fired is one example.

Once you know that a group of prominent researchers has been modifying data in order to tell a cleaner story (as a guest on the Daily Show described it) then you have to question everyone else's results. Given the small size and political nature of climate research, it would be amazing if the warming proponents had not adopted a siege meantality, hiding any weakness in their findings and exaggerating their successes.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Obama and Afghanistan

I'm writing this before President Obama's speech on Afghanistan but the details have already been leaked out. After two months of dithering and Obama's second policy review of the year, the results are about what was expected in October. We will add something like 30,000 troops but move them out of the villages to protect the cities.

Will it work? I don't know. It sounds similar to the plans advanced for Iraq by both Obama and Hillary Clinton prior to last year's election. Back then they advocated withdrawing the troops into a few large fortified bases which would be used to train a native army. Our troops would go out on short missions to destroy enemy strongholds but they would not try to hold ground. This was the exact opposite of the surge.

Afghanistan is a different country than Iraq. It is larger and more mountainous. The nature of the enemy is also different so the tactics used in the surge may not work and certainly would need a much larger force than Obama is willing to commit.

Will his new strategy work? Probably not. It seems to be ceding most of the country to the Taliban while preserving the cities.

The process that went into this new strategy will hurt, also. The Taliban knows what goes on in the US. They know that Obama is already looking for a way out. They also probably know that his strongest allies have deserted him on this. MoveOn has already released an email against the new strategy. Nancy Pelosi who has unprecedented power as Speaker of the House is on records as being against any troop increase.

Ironically, the people most likely to support the President are the ones he has spent the last ten months belittling - Republicans and conservatives. Had he followed through on his campaign promises for bipartisanship then he would be in a stronger position today.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Obama's Blunders

It's been slightly more than a year since President Obama was elected and ten months since he took office. In that time his administration has committed several blunders that will cripple the rest of his administration.

The Economy

In their first budget projection, the White House expected the recession to end in the second quarter followed by a robust recovery. Their reasoning was that this how the economy had responded to other (but not all) deep recessions. The expectation was that they could pass a major spending bill, call it a stimulus, and take credit when the economy rebounded on its own. Since they expected the economy to recover on its own, the Obama administration quickly lost interest in ti, moving on to issues closer to the President's heart.

Obviously, the economy did not recover as hoped. While there was some growth in the 3rd quarter, it was very poor and mainly reflected unsustainable growth in government spending. Jobs often trail the rest of the economy and this time is expected to be particularly bad with unemployment continuing to rise into 2010.

The economy topped every poll of Americans' top concerns with health care much further down on the list. For Obama, health care was the top priority and the economy seemed to have fallen off of the list completely. Obama finally seems to have noticed this and managed to squeeze a jobs summit into his schedule for December. This is too little, too late.

The Deficit

George W. Bush left a huge deficit behind. Obama quickly turned it into a monstrous one. One school of economists led by Paul Krugman insisted that Obama couldn't spend enough and that the multiplier effect of government spending would allow all of this spending to pay for itself. The fact that no government has ever spent its way out of a major recession was dismissed on the grounds that these governments had not spent enough. This was just what Obama wanted to hear.

The rest of the country has not been listening to Krugman and the size of the deficit has become a political cause all its own. Even the normally pro-Obama Newsweek has an article on how the deficit threatens America's long-term place in the world. This promises to be a millstone around Obama's neck, slowing or stopping his pet projects. At some point he is going to have to raise taxes, cut spending, or both. His options are limited because of his many promises that tax increases would only hit the rich.

Obama's options on deficit reduction are almost non-existent. Even with rosy economic projections, his administration projected record deficits a decade into the future. With tax increases on most of the country off-limits and a party committed to additional spending, the only way to control the budget is to break major campaign promises - sure political suicide.


For years Afghanistan was the forgotten war. Several things happened to bring it back into focus. Obama himself made it a major part of his campaign. Now the war is Iraq is winding down and the Taliban have reformed. The result is a constant stream of bad news from Afghanistan.

As with the economy, Obama hoped to address Afghanistan early then move on to more important matters (to him). The war did not go away. When asked for more troops, he mulled over the request for months with an answer finally to be announced in December. The public and the Democrats in Congress no longer support the war. This could have been avoided if Obama had been giving it more attention and justifying American involvement. His chance to do that is probably gone. Winding down participation in the war leaves the Democratic Party open to charges of being weak on defense. Continuing it will drag down his approval rating just as Iraq dragged down Bush.

Health Care

Health care reform was obviously Obama's top priority. His announced goal was to control costs before Medicare became unmanageable. The bills currently being considered will do almost nothing for this. Obama hoped to ram health care reform through Congress so fast that it would be passed before the Republicans could read the bill. Obviously, that didn't happen.

The health care debate is incredibly corrosive. Most of the country is not interested in it. They are worrying about jobs and the deficit. In contrast, both parties have spent most of their energy for the last five months doing nothing but debating health care. As a result, the country is sick of both parties. Back in July, someone high-up in the Democratic Party needed to put health care on hold and concentrate on the economy. Instead, jobs were placed on the back burner. Instead, health care is given such high priority that important votes are held on weekends.

The Democrats have convinced themselves that they lost Congress in 1994 because they failed to pass health care. As their polls drop now, they are certain that the only thing that will save them is the current health care legislation. In the meantime the rest of the country is screaming at them to stop wasting time on health care and fix the economy.

In the meantime, the Republican base is solidly against the current legislation forcing Congressional Republicans into reactive mode.

Foreign Relations

Obama counted on his popularity overseas to smooth relations. While he is still popular among the general world population, this has not translated into any achievements. He couldn't even get the Olympics. He went to China with a long list of topics and came back with pictures of the Great Wall. He has snubbed Britain, France, and Israel. Eastern Europe no longer trusts him. Japan has turned mildly hostile. The Russians have ignored his attempts at "resetting" relations. His attempts to repair relations with the Muslim world have not accomplished anything.

Possibly because he comes from a "Blame America first" background, his administration has also been silent on human rights. He was silent on the corrupt election in Iran and the protests that followed. He did not bring up human rights on his trip to China.

While Obama talks about nuclear disarmament, Iran and North Korea continue working on nuclear weapons.

Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize simply for not being Bush but his only hope for a successful foreign policy will be to act more like Bush. This is the one blunder that he still has a chance of turning around.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Meaning of ClimateGate

Last week thousands of emails, graphs, and computer programs from a British university were released by an unauthorized source. This was originally reported as the work of a hacker who filtered through who knows how much data. Later, many people including Junk Science decided that the emails, etc. had already been assembled for a Freedom of Information Request (FOI) and someone copied them from that source. Regardless, there are several implications.

Some skeptics have combed through the emails looking for a smoking gun. They found references that imply that researchers were manipulating the data. The warming true believers insist that these quotes are being taken out of context or were poorly worded. This is a dubious interpretation but I am going to accept it. There is no smoking gun here although there might be some smoke.

There are three other points that are very important. Two cast serious doubt on the famous scientific consensus and the third casts doubt on the base figures.

A chief argument against the warming skeptics is that there is a wide consensus in peer-reviewed journals. The emails show that this is a manufactured consensus. In one case a skeptical article was accepted for publication. The warming-believers managed to bend the submission rules so that a rebuttal could be published in the same issue instead of in the next one. In a couple of cases, an editor allowed a skeptical article to be published. The response was a discussion on how to have that editor fired (which happened in both cases). When one publication showed itself open to skeptical papers, the emails discuss how to marginalize the entire publication.

All of this creates a false consensus where dissent exists but is suppressed, then the lack of public dissent is given as proof.

Good science is reproducible. Twenty years ago a peer-reviewed journal accepted an article on cold fusion. Once this was published, other scientists tried to duplicate it but failed. In climate science, reproducibility means making the raw numbers and the methods of compiling them available to third parties for independent verification. There are emails discussing how to avoid doing this. There are cautions to delete emails so that they cannot be requested through FOI. Some scientists say that they would rather destroy their work than allow a skeptic to see it.

Climate science is a complicated field. You can't simply plug figures into a spreadsheet. Most of the final numbers have to be coalesced through custom programs. There is no off-the-shelf product that can do this and the climate researchers frequently have to invent new calculations. This opens them to errors. By hiding their work, they are implicitly admitting that there may be serious flaws in their calculations that they don't want the world to see.

Which brings me to the final point - the computer programs. Someone dug through the comments in a large program. A talented programmer was trying to get the program to work to reproduce some previous series and add new figures to them. He discovered numerous problems. In one case a function that returns the square of a number returned a negative (this is impossible in the real world but in a computer usually means that a result was too large for the field holding it). He tried rolling back the most recent changes without success. Eventually he concluded that the only way to get the program to work would be to go back to the earliest version. This was unacceptable because he didn't know how many problems the original code had that were corrected in later version. The conclusion was that the program was too poorly written and documented to be usable.

This is not the first time that this has been discovered. Several years ago Michael Mann (who is well-represented in the emails) released his results of a temperature reconstruction using tree-rings. This showed a long, stable temperature range until the 20th century when it rose so rapidly that it was nicknamed the "Hockey Stick". Later analysis showed that Mann's math was off and any set of random numbers would produce a hockey stick graph.

So, new, dissenting research is suppressed, the inputs into published papers is hidden from skeptics, and the computer programs used to calculate them can be buggy and unreliable.

Before the scientific community asks us to reshape civilization they need to start adhering to scientific method including opening their research to everyone asking for help when dealing with something that is out of their expertise.

For more information, the entire collection is here. The program comments are here. You don't have to understand programming to see that there are major problems.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tarnishing the Brand

Traditionally there are stark contrasts between the two parties. The Republicans stand for pro-business, pro-military, fiscal restraint policies. Their traditional weakness is being perceived as cruel or uncaring. The Democrats are the pro-poor, anti-business, pro-equality, anti-military party. Their weakness is "tax and spend" and being weak on defense.

George W. Bush didn't like the cruel label and invented "compassionate conservatism". As implemented, this could be characterized as "borrow and spend". He lowered taxes but increased spending on all levels. This gave the Democrats an opening to expand their brand to be the party of fiscal restraint. At early as the 2004 Superbowl, MoveOn was running ads against the Bush deficit. In 2006 and 2008, the Democrats ran as the party that would balance the budget. That this promis was based on the budget under Democrat Bill Clinton with a Republican Congress didn't matter. A Democrat had been involved in one of the nation's few budget surpluses.

By abandoning the party principle of fiscal restraint, Bush tarnished the party. He did not get any credit for his spending but he got the blame for the increasing deficit. At the same time, the public tired of his two seemingly-endless wars and the Democrats were able to position themselves as the party that would handle defense more responsibly.

Now Barack Obama is facing the same dilemma - how to keep from tarnishing the party's image. So far he has done major damage to the Democrat brand.

First, the Democrats will not be able to claim to be the party of fiscal restraint for at least a generation. After being stable throughout the administrations of Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton, the rate of spending increased under Bush but this is nothing to how it is projected to increase under Obama. On a graph, the growth in government is around a 30 degree line until Bush when it becomes a 40 degree line. Under Obama it jumps to a 60 degree line.

Obama attracted a lot of votes from people who were tired of Bush's spending and wary of McCain's promised spending. They expected him to be a pragmatic centrist who would reign in excessive spending. Many of these people are now attending Tea Party protests and are upset with both parties.

Since 2004, the Democrats have pushed the idea that, by fighting the "wrong war in Iraq," the Republicans made us less safe and that they would take the fight to the "real" war in Afghanistan. Obama started strong with a quick commitment of troops but, when asked for more than twice that many, he balked, waiting three months to make a decision. At the same time, Nancy Pelosi made it clear that she wants troop reductions instead of increases. The Democrats' claim to be strong on defense has been eroded, possibly giving it back to the Republicans.

Fiscal restraint and defense represent issues that the Republicans traditionally dominate. A strong case can be made that these are not important to the Democrats since they were never Democrat strong points. More important to the Democrats is how they are handling their core strengths.

Traditionally Democrats were the Robin Hood party - they taxed the rich (and middle class) and gave it to the poor. Obama promised to alter that equation by only taxing the rich and giving to the poor and middle class. Performance on this has been mixed. One of his early accomplishments was expanding a program for providing medical coverage to the poor. This was paid for by taxing cigarettes, a tax that hits the poor disproportionally. Plans call for taxing "Cadillac" health plans to pay for health care reform. This will largely hit middle-class union jobs.

The stimulus included the "making work pay act" which gives a $400 credit to everyone reflected in a small change to payroll withholding rates. Again, this mainly helps the poor rather than the middle-class.

The health care proposals being debated will also help the poor at the expense of the middle class who will foot a sizable chunk of the trillion dollar bill.

So, despite promises, Democrats have not really changed. They are still the party of Robin Hood.

More important is their relationship with big business and Wall Street. The health care bills under consideration represent several important deals. Drug prices are not included as part of a deal with the drug-makers. Hospital prices and doctors' fees are also unaddressed for the same reason. The mandate for everyone to buy insurance or be fined came from a deal with insurance companies in exchange for coverage for pre-existing conditions.

More important are the bail-outs. Banks were deemed too big to fail and given amounts of money too big to comprehend, then allowed to give portions of it out in bonuses. GM and Chrysler were also bailed out. These may have been desperately needed but they left the impression of a close relationship between Wall Street and the Democrats. Its hard to soak the rich when you are propping them up. This will probably hurt the Democrats a great deal. The far left was always anti-business and would have been happy so see all of these businesses nationalized (instead of the quasi-nationalization that we have).

Put it all together and the Democrats brand name has been tarnished. It is questionable if the Republicans will have burnished their own reputations enough to take advantage of it by the 2010 election but they have an opportunity.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Last Chance to Save America

I hate to sound as alarmist as Glenn Beck but the next week will determine the future of America. Health care is big but it is only the first step. To quote Robert Creamer form the Huffington Post:

Everyone realizes that health insurance reform is not just another piece of legislation. But its significance goes well beyond the fact that it affects one-sixth of the economy; or that it will massively impact our country's ability to create jobs in the future; or even that it will determine whether or not health care finally becomes a right in America.

If we succeed in winning health insurance reform we will have breached the gates of the status quo. We will demonstrate that fundamental change is possible. Into that breach will flow a wave of progressive change. That victory will also make it possible for us to pass legislation to restructure the energy economy -- to put the brakes on climate change and free us from the tyranny of foreign oil. It will make it possible for us to rein in the power of Wall Street and pass long-overdue comprehensive immigration reform. It will make it possible to structure a bottom-up economy that can produce the jobs of the future.

He's probably right. If we can't stop health care then we will not be able to stop the rest of their agenda.

This is about control - personal control. The Progressives don't want you to have any. Their first step is to establish a requirement for being a citizen living in America. I'm quoting from the Congressional Budget Office. Along with their budget analysis they point out that this will make it a punishable offense to fail to buy something. Once you have established that president, nothing is out of bounds.

And nothing will be out of bounds. Just look at the rhetoric from the last few months. The Progressives want to control how much you earn, how much medical insurance you get (including an upper limit). They will limit how you drive and what temperature your house can be. The health care bills alone allow them to punish you for weighing too much (insurance companies can charge as much as five times the base rate for "high risk" factors).

This will kill jobs and stifle freedom. It will not work. It's been tried all over the world and it always fails. Most of Europe is moving away from a Progressive agenda. France has chronic 20% unemployment (much higher for youth and Muslim) and their health care is running out of cash as fast as ours but they want us to be like the French.

The goal is to push so many changes through that the Republicans will never be able to undo them. There can be no compromise. The Democrats are using every trick in the book to advance their agenda. In order to get the health care bill out of committee, they promised to remove the public option. The bill that was introduced to the full Senate had it restored. Once it passes the Senate, the bill that both houses of Congress vote on will remove limits on abortion and no longer allow states to opt-out of the public option. When Republicans complain about bait-and-switch, this is what they mean. The final bill will be voted on late at night with no chance for anyone to read it.

Then they will use the same tactics to pass cap-and-trade and cripple power production.

On top of that, they will cripple the economy with new debt. They used book-keeping tricks to hide the real cost of health care $900 billion in ten years but the first four don't count). That's on top of Obama's projected record deficits for the next decade.

We are in for a lost decade like Japan's unless we stop it now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

World War II and the Economy

With an economic summit planned for December, it is likely that the Obama administration will ask for a second stimulus early next year. Part of the reasoning comes from a group of economists led by Paul Krugman. They maintain that the Great Depression and Japan's Lost Decade happened because the governments had not spent enough money. They point out that spending for WWII reached astronomical levels but just a few years later the national debt was back to manageable levels and the country began a twenty-five year boom. If the government just spends enough money then history will repeat itself.

It would be nice to believe that economics were that simple but there are a number of factors that make WWII unique. Simply spending without these other factors will not produce the same result.

The most obvious factor is that WWII was a war. It had a beginning and an end. By the end of the war the nation was sick of it. There was strong pressure to send the troops back home and get on with life. That put a natural end on the spending. In contrast, Krugman and company are proposing peacetime spending which will be hard to cut once it is established. What starts out as a short-term stimulus will likely turn into permanent programs.

Another factor was pent-up demand. The war years were years of deprivation. No new cars were built and few new houses. Even new clothing was a luxury and food items that we take for granted such as hams and chocolate were hard to come by. With the war over, people wanted these things.

By the end of the war, the US was the only major power to end the war with its manufacturing base intact. In fact, years of war spending had paid for upgrades to American factories. At the same time, Japanese and European manufacturing was in ruins. These other countries had to buy from the US in order to rebuild their own manufacturing bases.

In contrast, we are not experiencing any long-term privation nor are we bombing our competition out of business. No amount of spending in the US is going to dismantle Chinese factories.

WWII was financed by war bonds which were bought by Americans. When the debt was paid down, the money went to Americans who could spend it in the American economy. Our current debt is largely financed by long-term bonds sold to foreign countries. Running up a massive debt today means shipping dollars overseas and draining them from the economy.

When the Great Depression started, the Roosevelt Administration feared deflation. Under normal market conditions, high unemployment should have meant falling wages. The Roosevelt administration kept wages high through a combination of government coercion and union support. This system was finally scrapped during the war and never reestablished. This lowered the cost of hiring new employees. Krugman is advocating the opposite approach today. In a recent column he suggested that the government make it harder to fire or lay off employees. The Democrats have been working hard at raising the cost of hiring with increases to minimum wage and health insurance mandates.

Obviously the huge deficit that the nation ran up during WWII was only a small part of the story. Running up a new deficit and expecting a boom is irrational.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Justice or Ideology?

In 2001, President Bush declared war on International Terrorism. Last week, the Obama administration signaled that that war never happened with two separate actions.

First there is the Fort Hood shooter who has been charged with 13 counts of murder but not terrorism. There has been some argument (exclusively on the left) about whether his actions actually amount to terrorism. This is fairly ridiculous. He had a history of justifying terrorism and corresponded with radicals. Murder and terrorism charges are not mutually exclusive. So why not charge him.

Then there is the announcement that the terrorist known as KSM (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed) will be tried in New York rather than by a military tribunal. There is a long history of try foreign combatants by tribunals and there are good reasons for doing this. The Constitutional guarantees given to citizens are difficult to apply to apply to foreigners. Presenting the evidence against KSM in an open court will almost certainly compromise on-going intelligence operations. The sticking point here is the term "foreign combatants". The left has always held there there is no war on terror. With no war, there can be no combatants and no military tribunals, only open courtrooms. President Obama will not even use the term "War of Terror".

Keep in mind that this is not about justice. It is about ideology. We already know that he is guilty. KSM has already boasted of his guilt in front of a tribunal. The whole point of starting over again with a new trial is meant as a slap at the Bush administration.

There are several ways that this can backfire. The trial is likely to turn into a circus that runs on for weeks or months. The OJ trial turned the brutal murder of two people into a national joke. What will the KSM trial do to the murder of 3,000 people?

The worst thing that could happen is that, like OJ, KSM might not be convicted. It has already been decided that he will not go free. If he is not convicted then he will be charged with new crimes and stand for a new trial until he is convicted. This makes a mockery of the justice system. The courts exist to weigh evidence and decide guilt. We already know that KSM is guilty - he admitted it under oath. Trying someone when it is known ahead of time that he will eventually be found guilty of something makes us look like a banana republic.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Confused Priorities and a Tin Ear

There are a couple of reasons that the Democrats are likely to lose big next year - confused priorities and a tin ear.

Obama and the Democratic leadership have their priorities and these do not match the public's priorities. All recent polls put jobs and the economy at the top of the list. They want to know that their government is working hard to put things right. They are also concerned about the war in Afghanistan.

What do they get? Six months of constant talk about health care with cap and trade next on the list. The Obama administration rushed through a stimulus package, bank bailouts, and auto maker bankruptcies in order to clear the decks for its real priorities. Troops were rushed to Afghanistan early in Obama's term and a request for more troops submitted in September is still waiting for a decision. The latest report is that Obama rejected the four options given him and asked for new ones.

The fact that Obama, Pelosi, and Reid are all ignoring the public shows an incredible, collective tin ear. It gets worse.

The White House has released figures about jobs created or saved due to the stimulus. I doubt that the public is buying into this. Unemployment is at a 25-year high. Even the major news organizations have found major holes in the official figures. In one instance, stimulus money went for raises. The White House maintained that this counted as multiple partial saved jobs.

Obama's supporters say that he saved the world's economy and averted a second Great Depression. Maybe. Most of the saving that he did was followup from policies begun in the last couple of months of the Bush administration. Regardless, Obama was also responsible for creating the over-used Wall Street/Main Street meme. For much of the year, the Obama administration has been seen as propping up Wall Street at the expense of Main Street. Firms that were too big to fail have grown larger.

Liberals have been outraged by bonuses and pay packages that still approach the GDP of small countries. Conservatives are shocked by the way that the administration has taken over entire industries. without input by Congress or the Courts, the White House was suddenly running GM, installing its own CEO and decreeing which divisions would continue and which would close down.

The deficit is an example of both a tin ear and broken promises. In both 2006 and 2008 the Democrats pitched themselves as the party of fiscal restraint. They pointed out that we were running a surplus during the Clinton years which went back into a deficit in the Bush years. "Put us in charge again," they said, "And we will return to fiscal responsibility."

This was an outright lie. Even before Obama's inauguration, Pelosi announced the suspension of "Paygo" (rules that required all new expenditures to be funded through new taxes or cuts elsewhere). While economists like Paul Krugman argue that deficits are good in a recession, the top Democrats refuse to discuss the issue.

The Tea Parties have been fueled largely by a sense of betrayal at the Democrats' spending. Rather than addressing this, they are dismissed with a derogatory term referring to oral sex.

History is against the Democrats to begin with. Presidents with long coattails usually lose party members in the mid-term elections. They could try to minimize this by paying attention to the polls. Instead they have convinced themselves that the only reason that Clinton lost Congress was because he failed to pass health care. They are clinging to health care as their 2010 salvation, ignoring the fact that at least half the country thinks that this bill will make things worse rather than better.

Parties that ignore their constituents always end up regretting it.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Dr. Who and Politics

You would expect a column on the British TV show, Dr. Who to be a politics-free zone. Unfortunately, with some people there is no such thing as a politics free zone. In a four paragraph column on Dr. Who in Wired, the writer, Scott Brown, injects this:

Sound familiar, America? Oh, I can hear the teabaggers now: This is defeatist talk! Doesn't sound like your cup of Tetley, eh, Glenn Beck? Fair enough: Enjoy your Transformers and the baby-faced club kids of the new Enterprise. But I'd highly recommend a field trip to Whoville.

Brown makes to many bad assumptions it is hard to list them all. First, he assumes that everyone who reads his stuff agrees with his politics. He compounds that by throwing in a derogatory term for the Tea Party movement. He also assumes that Enterprise and Transformers only appeal to conservatives (I guess because he considers both the movies and the audience to be less enlightened). Finally, he thinks that Dr. Who supports his politics. I'll examine this last assumption in depth.

First, I'm going to make an assumption. Since the Brown doesn't like the Tea Parties or Glenn Beck, I'm going to assume that Brown is a big-government liberal.

So, what politics does Dr. Who espouse? It's hard to generalize but there have been a number of episodes that have a strong Libertarian/anti-big government element. In fact it's a given that any episode that features a large government agency or big business, the agency or business will turn out to be run by evil aliens for nefarious reasons.

At the end of the first season the Doctor was on a satellite that housed a totalitarian government. This turned out to be a cover for a plot to recreate the Daleks. The following season a government agency called Torchwood seized the Doctor's TARDIS, saying that all alien technology in Britain belonged to them. They also opened a door to an alternate universe populated by Cybermen.

The Cybermen came from an alternate world where they were manufactured by a large corporation working with the government.

In a later season finale, a charismatic politician named Harold Saxon was elected Prime Minister. It turned out that Saxon was the Doctor's fellow Time Lord the Master who took over the Earth with the intention of using humanity to conquer the universe.

In the spin-off Torchwood, the government blew up Torchwood's Welsh branch and arrested the survivors. Their reason - they didn't want Torchwood to interfere with an alien race's demand for 10% of all children.

Clearly, in the Doctor's universe, big government and big business working with big government are bad. They inevitably end up threatening humanity.

So, why would Glenn Beck object to this?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Mourner in Chief

One of the President's duties is to act as the unofficial Mourner in Chief. When done right, the President helps the nation to put a tragedy in perspective and the President's approval ratings rise. When done poorly, the nation turns its anger on the President.

Bill Clinton's response to the Oklahoma City bombing comforted the nation. The event came at the end of a long series of public relations problems and repaired his image. His approval rating climbed.

George W. Bush took a day to strike the right tone but after that his response to September 11 was what the nation needed and his approval rating climbed into the 90+% range. Four years later his response to Hurricane Katrina was seen as inadequate and his approval rating started a drop that ended in a historic low.

How will the nation judge Barack Obama's response to the Fort Hood shootings? While not on the same level as these other tragedies, it was still a shocking event.

Obama's initial response was shockingly callous. Rather than changing his schedule, he simply inserted a mention of the shooting into a prepared speech. He didn't even lead with it. Instead he began with a "shout out" to a member of the audience who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor (he actually won the Congressional Medal of Freedom - the civilian version). Fort Hood's mention came two minutes later.

Obama has made some further remarks since then but he will not travel to Fort Hood until a memorial service on Tuesday. He spent Saturday lobbying Congress to pass health care. He even used the Fort Hood tragedy in this context, reminding Congressmen in marginal districts that their sacrifice was nothing compared to the people in uniform.

Over the last year the Obama administration has shown that it is single-minded in its agenda, no matter what else happens. The unemployment rate is at a 25 year high and a request for more troops for Afghanistan has waited two months for a decision but the Obama White House seems focused on health care. Even a major tragedy seems unable to get more than a moment's notice.

To their credit, the White House said that the timing of Tuesday's memorial service was for the convenience of the families and not the President. Still, one wonders. Obama postponed an overseas trip by one day. Had the service been any later it would have been much less convenient for the President to attend. Was this just good luck?

Regardless, the President has one last chance to set the right tone before public opinion starts to turn against him.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

New York 24

What to make of New York's 24th results? Actually, the whole situation was so muddled that you can make anything you want of it.

To recap - this was a special election to fill a vacancy. Obama won it in 2008. The Republicans nominated a liberal who supported most or all of the Obama agenda. A conservative independent surged after getting support from Sarah Palin. The official Republican dropped out of the race and threw her support (including her robo-calls) to the Democrat. The Democrat won the election with 49% of the vote.

The result of this mess is that:

A Democrat won this district for the first time since the 19th century.
Even with all of this, the Democrat could not get a majority of the votes.
Even if the independent had sat the race out and allowed the Republican to win, the Democrats would have gained a reliable vote.

The most important lesson for the Republicans and independents (and I'm not the first to point this out) is that they need each other to win. If the Republicans had nominated a candidate who was closer to mainstream Republican then this seat would still be in Republican hands.

On the other hand, trying to turn a single special election into a national mandate to continue the Obama Revolution is a stretch.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

A Year Later

A year ago the Democrats won big. The big question was if the election represented a national shift to the political left or a normal swing away from the party in power amplified by a charismatic minority at the top of the ticket. A year later it looks like the second scenario is the correct one.

The Republicans won the governor's office in two states that Obama won in 2008. Spin doctors are pointing out that these states usually elect the party that is not in the White House so we should not read too much into this election. In fact, that explanation confirms that the 2008 election was a normal swing instead of a permanent shift. If the country had shifted then the old rules would no longer apply.

The old rules also say that the party in the White House will have losses next year. The extent of those losses depends on how long the President's coattails were. Reagan, Clinton, and Obama all had long coattails. Reagan and Clinton lost seats. Chances are very good that Obama will lose seats, also.

This should concern representatives who were elected on Obama's coattails. By definition, they are people who won in districts that normally favor the other party. The thinking is that, either they profited from the halo effect of being in the same party as the President or that they got votes from people who turned out to vote for the President and who will stay home on off years.

The best chance that these representatives have of staying in office is to appeal to the people who normally elect Republicans. That means that they have to distance themselves from the Obama agenda.

What about the Republicans being too conservative to elect? That was tried in Virginia. It turns out that voters care more about economic issues. With the recession dragging on, the Democrats now own that issue and it is hurting them.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Purity Part II

I wrote my last post on Friday. On Saturday Dede Scozzafava, the officially endorse Republican, bowed out of the race out of party unity. On Sunday she started campaigning for the Democrat. What to make of this?

First, Scozzafa is a sore loser with no honor. She took large sums of cash to run as a Republican. At the very least, she should have gone out quietly. Her actions on behalf of the Democrat show that she was never committed to the Republican party.

Second, this calls into question the judgment of the party members who supported her. Why support someone who has no party loyalty and whose views are not in line with the party? This minor race may eventually doom Newt Gingrich's presidential ambitions.

The third point is the question of who is welcome in the Republican Party? Several Democrats and their supporters have already insisted that this means that centrists and moderates are not welcome in the GOP. I have two answers to this. The first is that, in its rush to appeal to centrists, the Republicans have been alienating the conservatives. Which is more important to the party? Moderates or conservatives? The Tea Party movement shows that there are a lot of angry conservatives who the Republicans are either ignoring or taking for granted.

If this election means that moderates are not welcome in the Republican party, how welcome are they in the Democratic Party? Joe Lieberman is an interesting case study.

In 2000 he was the number two man on their ticket. He ran for president himself in 2004 although he tends to suck excitement out of a room. His voting record shows that he aligns with the Democrats more than 90% of the time. The exception was the Iraq war. This is where it gets interesting.

Because of his support for the war, Lieberman was run out of the party. A challenger defeated him in the 2006 primary. I saw liberals openly celebrate this. Several posts on Huffington claimed that this was the biggest victory for Democracy in America since 1776 (I'm not exaggerating). Someone forgot to tell the voters. They reelected Lieberan as an independent. Because of his treatment, he campaigned for McCain in 2008.

The Democrats still need him so he is allowed to caucus with them and he kept his committee assignments and seniority.

Last week he announced, as other centrist Democrats have done, that he cannot support a health care bill with a public option. Once again there were calls to have him expelled from the Democratic caucus and stripped of his committees. No centrist dissent is allowed here. So much for the Democrats appealing to the middle.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Purity or Pragmatism?

New York's 23rd District is an interesting case. Right now there is a special election going on there. The district gave Obama a slight edge in 2008 so the Republicans decided that they needed to run someone who would appeal to swing voters and Democrats. They chose Dede Scozzafava who has a liberal voting record. Regardless, the party went along with this and endorsed her.

There was one notable exception - Sarah Palin weighed in, endorsing Doug Hoffman who she considered a more reliable conservative. Initially both parties reacted with disdain - 'There goes Palin again.' A funny thing happened since then - Hoffman is currently ahead of the Democrat by a slight margin and way ahead of Scozzafava. The race could still go to the Democrat but if it does the Republicans will have only themselves to blame (and I'm excluding Sarah Palin from this).

There is an important lesson here but I'm not sure that the Republicans echelon will heed it - conservatives can win, even in districts that went for Obama. For the past year conventional wisdom has held that the voters have turned against conservatives and that the Republicans' road back to power lies in recruiting moderates. At the same time there is a conservative movement that longs to see the Republicans run actual conservatives. This movement has embraced Sarah Palin and is scornful of the Republican leadership.

Recent polls show that the Republican strategy needs rethinking. People who self-identify as Republicans is down around 20% but people who identify themselves as conservatives is over 40%. This is nothing new. Conservatives have outnumbered Republicans for decades but the size of the split shows how dissatisfied conservatives are with Republicans. (Interestingly, the same polls show that there are usually more Democrats than liberals.)

The number of conservatives was at a low point in 2008 and has increased greatly as people see what a liberal (or progressive) government is actually like.

It is hard to predict how a three-way race would go if it was only a two-way race. It is possible that Scozzafava and the Democrat are splitting the liberal and moderate vote allowing a minority of conservatives to determine the election. It is also possible that a district that only gave Obama a slight edge in 2008 has turned against the chosen one and would elect any one who does not have a "-D" after his name.

In the meantime, the Republicans are in the strange position of opposing a front-runner who would act as a Republican in Congress.

On the other side, high-ranking Democrat Van Hollen made an interesting analysis.

By rejecting that candidate for a non-Republican ... and picking somebody else, I think they send a signal that they're more interested in purist ideology than they are in problem solving,

I will not argue with that but I do wonder where Van Hollen stood when the Democrats tried to eject Joe Lieberman from the party in 2006 over ideological differences?

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Warming or Cooling?

A recent poll showed that the number of Americans who believe in global warming in general and man-made warming in particular has fallen quite a bit. Several skeptics have pointed out that warming seems to have stopped around a decade ago.

In their role as climate advocate, the AP commissioned some statisticians to review the climate record and see if the climate is warming or cooling. Their opinion, at least as reported by the AP, is that the world continues to warm. At first glance this looks like a case closed. Global warming is real and is continuing. There are some red flags in the story.

The biggest red flag is the data set presented to the statisticians. There are three possible sets, two based on satellite measurements and one based on ground-sensors. The satellite-based sets show less warming than the ground-based ones. The article mentions the satellite-based figures but minimizes them but it is not obvious that it is doing so. For example the paragraph:

U.S. government data show the decade that ends in December will be the warmest in 130 years of record-keeping, and 2005 was the hottest year recorded.

Seems straightforward. You have to already know that this data comes from the ground-based sensors and is maintained by a department headed by a global warming activist. That puts the data in a different light.

Once you get around half-way through the article you finally get a single skeptic quoted (note that he is identified as a skeptic, no one else's affiliation is identified).

One prominent skeptic said that to find the cooling trend, the 30 years of satellite temperatures must be used. The satellite data tends to be cooler than the ground data. Key to that is making sure that 1998 is part of the trend, he added.

What happened within the past 10 years or so is what counts, not the overall average, contends Don Easterbrook, a Western Washington University geology professor and global warming skeptic.

"I don't argue with you that the 10-year average for the past 10 years is higher than the previous 10 years," said Easterbrook, who has self-published some of his research. "We started the cooling trend after 1998. You're going to get a different line depending on which year you choose.

"Should not the actual temperature be higher now than it was in 1998?" Easterbrook asked. "We can play the numbers games."

But Easterbrook is not given the final word. The next paragraph refutes him.

After that all pretense at fairness is abandoned. There is a quote from the Union of Concerned Scientists which is a lobbying group, not a scientific one. An economist and a couple of climate scientists are quoted without being identified as global warming believers. President Obama is quoted. Figures from NOAA are quoted without mentioning that they are are from the ground-based sensors and do not agree with the satellite-based figures. It has this observation

Of the 10 hottest years recorded by NOAA, eight have occurred since 2000, and after this year it will be nine because this year is on track to be the sixth-warmest on record.

This is meaningless. Even if the world is cooling, it would be cooling from the 1998 high point.

It closes with the prediction that 2010 will be the warmest year on record, not because of global warming but because of an El Nino. Even with the qualification, this was only tossed in to confuse the issue. Temporary warming caused by El Nino has nothing to do with global warming.

Watts Up With That
looks at the article and concludes that you can prove anything with statistics.

Monday, October 26, 2009

First Define Reform

News reports from the weekend paint a picture of a Congress (at least the Democrats in Congress) that is sure that they need to pass something called health care reform but cannot answer basic questions about what it will include. This is ridiculous. We are talking about mandating major changes to a significant portion of the economy but we haven't decided what should be reformed.

Should there be an employer mandate? The House isn't sure. Will there be a public option? We probably will not know until something is presented to the President for signing.

Regardless, there is still a sense of urgency that Congress has to get something passed this year. It doesn't matter what. All that matters is getting something through so that they can claim victory.

There is a solid reason for the urgency - fear. Many Democrats are sure that they suffered major losses in the 1994 election because they hadn't passed health care reform. This is rather silly since the voters turned to the party that opposed health care reform. More likely the switch had more to do with disillusionment with the Clinton administration in general and with specific policies like his attack on guns in specific (it is generally acknowledged that Gore lost the 2000 election because his home state of Tennessee was still upset about his role in passing gun control legislation). None of this matters to Democrats. Looking back, they see the 1992 election as having been a mandate to pass health care reform and their 1994 losses as their just punishment for failing.

Conventional wisdom is that Congress does not like to pass controversial legislation on an election year. It gives their opponent something to run on. According to this school of thought, Congress will not pass a health care will in 2010 so it must pass it now or wait until 2011. The hope is that is they pass it now, then voters will have forgiven and forgotten it by the 2010 election. Or they will be sick of hearing about the subject.

This is a strange bit of reasoning. Congress wants to pass major legislation but they are afraid of voter backlash.

There is another reason that Congress is worried about passing a health care bill. They need every vote that they have. There is a very real chance that they will not have enough votes in 2011.

But that is not an excuse for what they are doing now. It is impossible to claim a mandate if you can't clearly state the major provisions of the legislation you are trying to pass.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Coming elections

There are three possible reasons for the Democrats' dominance in the last two elections. It is important to identify which is correct because future elections will hinge on an accurate assessment. I've gone over these before but it is worth a new look.

The country moved to the left.
This is the Democrats' favorite explanation - that the voters are demanding a more progressive government. If true then it means that the Republicans must either follow the Democrats to the left in search of moderate voters or doom itself to permanent minority party status. Either way, the Democrats win since they will be able to advance their agenda.

If this is true then the Republicans have to abandon Reaganomics and embrace Obamanomics. They need to recruit centrist candidates who will work with Obama.

The country was sick of Bush and corrupt Republicans.
Starting with Hurricane Katrina, Bush's approval rating started dropping and never really recovered. At the same time, several Republicans were implicated in sex and money scandals. The voters turned the scoundrels out, not caring much about who repalced them. This is the Republicans' favorite explanation since it means that the voters will soon tire of the Democrats and start electing Republicans again. There is some historic justification for this since the opposition party usually makes gains during mid-term elections. The mid-term election in the sitting president's second term is usually brutal to his party and this is when the Democrats started winning. A bad economy also hurts the party in charge.

If this is true then the Republicans just need to run strong candidates and wait for the voters to return to them.

The Republicans lost their way.
There is currently a split between conservatives and Republicans. The GOP is interested in running anyone who looks like a strong candidate. The conservatives want ideological purity. They say that part of the reason that voters rejected Bush and the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 is that they didn't stand for anything. The corruption and scandals were part of the problem. This group says that the Republicans need to clearly define themselves as being different that the Democrats instead of a slightly more moderate version. Their battle cry is "A choice, not an echo." The Tea Party protests are a manifestation of this as is the debate about Glenn Beck being good or bad for the Republicans.

If this is true then the Republicans still have a lot of work to do. They can't simply wait for the voters to return to them. They will have to earn the voter's trust. This is the hardest of the three but the rewards are greater. The Democrats took the second path, running moderates and waiting for the voters to come to them. The result is that they have a majority in Congress but not the ideological purity to enact sweeping changes.

The truth is probably somewhere between the second and third points. There is little evidence that the country made a major, permanent shift to the left. Democrats in 2006 and 2008 included conservative principles such as a balanced budget in their platforms. The 2008 election was mainly about the economy and the Iraq war. Universal Health Care was a side-issue and what is being proposed today is quite different from what Obama proposed a year ago.

That said, the nation still does not trust the Republicans. There is a vacuum of power at the top with no articulate leaders. This gives talk radio hosts and columnists more influence than they should have. Republicans hope to profit from the Tea Party movement but, after a multi-year spending binge under Bush, it is hard for them to portray themselves as champions of fiscal restraint.

At the same time, Obama may turn into a drag on the ticket. In the Virginia governor's race, Bob McDonnell, the Republican is comfortably ahead. Creigh Deeds, the Democrat, is blaming Obama and the Congressional Democrats. The White House is trying to counter this impression and is blaming Deeds for being a bad candidate. Now that the Democrats control Congress, they are the ones being implicated in scandals.

The voters are disillusioned with Obama and the Democrats but the Republicans need to offer more than a return to the Bush years to close the deal.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What's a news operation?

Last week and over the weekend the White House announced that it did not consider Fox News to be a real news operation but instead the research arm of the Republican Party. They urged everyone else to stop treating Fox as a news operation. What does this mean?

Since the days of LBJ, every administration eventually decides that the press is out to get it and goes into bunker mode where it treats the press as hostile. The Obama administration adopted this attitude about portions of the press and the media in general almost before the inaugural balls had ended. Only a couple of weeks into his administration, President Obama admonished House Republicans to stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. The Obama made other statements indicating that they considered Rush to be the head of the Republican Party.

Others have been trashed along the way, either by the President personally or by White House staffers. The current target is Glenn Beck. When asked for examples of Fox bias, the White House mentioned the 5 pm time slot - Glenn Beck.

It is understandable that the Obama administration doesn't like Beck. He has been digging up dirt on Obama appointees, especially the czars who don't have to go through a confirmation process. The White House wants to marginalize Beck. Currently the dirt he digs up gets picked up by Fox News and conservative columnists. The idea is to quarantine Beck and Fox. When they ask other news operations to stop treating Fox as one of them, they mean that they want the rest of the media to stop picking up stories generated by Beck. This is nothing more than an administration asking the media to censor itself of stories that are damaging to the President.

The White House charge that Fox is biased is laughable. All of the news operations are biased. Five years ago CBS allowed a producer to cap a multi-year crusade against President Bush with a story that depended on Xeroxed documents that an informant said were passed to him by an unknown woman at a rodeo. CNN felt the need to fact check an SNL sketch that made President Obama look bad. Keith Olbermann has been giving angry editorials under the heading of "special reports" for years. Also, he tends to name conservatives as the Worst Person in the World so often that it has become a badge of honor. But, according to the White House, only Fox is biased.

This is another way of favoring friendly news organizations over hostile ones which is an old political tradition. The difference this time is that the Obama administration is trying to appear clean when their real purpose is to bury damaging stories.

Something that Obama and his administration yet has to learn is that it is difficult to muzzle the press. Efforts to do so simply spotlight whatever they are trying to cover up. Fox's ratings are way up. MSNBC's are down.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Various Political Gripes

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Obama desires to meet with the heads of hostile nations without precondition but he will not appear on Fox. He travels a lot but he spends most of his time in blue states.

Obama's defenders point out that only a fraction of the massive stimulous bill has been spent to date. So why are the Democrats talking about a new stimulous?

Leftist economists such as Paul Krugman insist that deficits don't matter. We need more governent spending. When it is pointed out that government stimulous ever ended a recession before they insist that governments just didn't spend enough. That thinking is catching up with us. The world is moving away from the dollar standard. This will probalby be a bad thing for the entire world but it is inevitable. With Obama's massive spending, no one trusts the dollar any longer. Krugman assures us that this doesnt matter, either. We will see.

The bill that passed the Senate finance committee is supposed to be deficit-neutral. They did a lot of slight of hand to achive that. In order to pay for it the bill has several new taxes and cuts. Those will go into effect immediately. The money to help people buy insurance will not start for another three years. That means that the CBO weighed ten years of taxes and cuts against seven years of spending. Even at that, it came out around even. That means that long-term costs for health care will go into the deficit.

Even with sky-high taxes, the bill will not provide universal coverage. Something like 17 million people will still not have insurance. The last figure that Obama gave for the uninsured was 30 million so the bill will not even cut tat figure in half.

Nancy Pelosi vowed to get revenge on the insurance lobby after they lauched anti-reform ads. She is planning to push a public option in order to hurt them. I can't think of a worse reason.

One reason that so many progressives want a public option is that they regard insurance company profits as immoral. Keep in mind that insurance companies do not provide care. They pool risk and pay for individual's care from that pool. If it is immoral to make a profit on that then what else is immoral? Or is the list sorter is I ask where it is moral to make a profit.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Peace Prize II

It's been a few days since the Nobel Peace Prize was announced but no one has advanced a good reason for why is went to President Obama. Lets face it, there is no good reason. There are two likely possibilities:

1) The Nobel committee for got that Bush left office because of term limits and gave Obama the prize for replacing him. This is a variation of the theory that he was given the award by not being Bush. There is something to this. The Prize committee hated Bush enough that they gave two or three previous awards as a slap at Bush.

2) They wanted to be part of the Obama experience. Back in 2008 the Obama campaign felt like a movement to the participants. People fainted regularly just from hearing him speak. The wife of a friend of mine forbid him from leaving the house the night of Obama's acceptance speech. She wanted him to hear history live.

This enthusiasm was also present overseas but without any outlet. Citizens of Finland couldn't vote in the US election.

When Obama was nominated, this gave the award committee an opening. They could become part of the Obama experience by giving him the Peace Prize. It hardly mattered that he was not qualified. He won the election with little qualification and the Presidency has real power.

Under normal circumstances, giving the Peace Prize to a newly-elected president seems ridiculous but, given these two factors, Obama seems like a slam dunk.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Columbus Day

Early in the 19th century, several New York intellectuals including Washington Irving decided that, as a new nation, America needed new heroes. They chose George Washington, Ben Franklin, and Christopher Columbus. Washington even wrote a biography of Columbus, although he made up make details rather than doing research.

Does that mean that we shoudn't celebrate Columbus Day? No. The reasons that they chose Columbus are as valid today as 200 years ago.

To simplify, without Columbus's voyage, we would not be here today. It doesn't matter what sort of a person Columbus is. We are not celebrating his birthday. We are celebrating the day that he landed on a Caribbean island. This was one of the most important events in history and it had a profound impact that is still felt today.

Remember, in 1492, the Americas had been separated from Europe/Africa/Asia for 60 millions years (except for ice bridges from Siberia). The five continents were inhabited by people who did not know of each other's existence (or Austrailia) 1492 joined the two land masses. Plants and animals were brought back and forth between the continents. The package of avaible foods increased tremendously.

Also, ideas flowed back and forth. The Americas were populated by stone-age people, many of whom still believed in human sacrifice. Europe had its own version with inquisitions. Out of this grew the most tolerant societies in history.

And it started with a single voyage in 1492.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Prizes and Politics

President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. It is rare for a sitting president to win a Peace Prize. It is unheard of for one to win one in his first term, especially since nominating deadline only 12 days into his administration.

It has been no secret that the committee that awards the Peace Prize hated President Bush. They pointedly gave prizes to former President Carter and near-winner Gore. Still, both of those men had a list of accomplishments. Carter in particular had been lobbying for a prize for years.

In contrast, Obama has no significant accomplishments to his name. He has endorsed a nuclear-free world and promised some peace initiatives but nothing has come of them yet. Just yesterday Israel's foreign minister told Obama that a peace settlement was years away.

So the Peace Prize Committee gave out an award based on Obama's star power and the fact that he isn't Bush. In doing so, they made a mockery of all recent recipients and everyone who receives a prize in the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Arrogance Abroad

Remember back in 2008 when candidate Obama said that he would meet with hostile foreign leaders without precondition? At the time he complained about the policy of treating a visit by the American president as an honor.

Now that he is president, Obama is doing the same thing but with a twist. It isn't that an official visit is an honor, it's that a visit from President Obama is an honor. He and his staff have bought into the rock star persona. This has affected his foreign policy in several ways. The most recent was his pitch to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to host the 2016 Olympics in Chicago. Where other cities made their case on behalf of their people (especially Rio which pointed out that the entire South American continent had never hosted an Olympics), the Obamas made a personal appeal. Their message was that this was the IOC's chance to do something for the Obamas personally. The President wanted to wrap up his second term by opening the Olympic games. The First Lady just wanted to see the games held in her home town. A sidenote to their appearance was the reminder that they are more important than the IOC - one member complained that Obama's security was so tight that he could not cross his hotel lobby.

Obama's speech to the UN was similar. He told them to forget past US actions and look at the last nine months. He didn't ask them to overlook the last eight years, he asked them to ignore the last 64 years and every president since Truman.

His outreach to hostile countries has also followed these lines. He expects countries to ignore years or decades of complaints and all geopolitical issues and be our friend. Why? Because the great Obama wants it.

At the same time he is dismissive of our allies. He deliberately concealed information about the second Iranian reactor at the Security Council meeting because he wanted a resolution calling for total nuclear disarmament. That news would have spoiled his moment. Both the French and English knew about the reactor and were upset. Obama ignored Gordon Brown's request for a private meeting, probably because it was going to be about the reactor. The press heard about the snub and both countries had to issue press releases saying that we are still friends.

It's hard to know why Obama canceled the missile defense system in Poland. It may have been to mollify the Russians who he has been courting. Regardless, the Poles were not warned in advance and it was announced on the 70th anniversary of a Russian invasion of Poland.

The biggest beneficiary of the canceled missile defense, Iran, showed its gratitude by testing the sorts of missiles that the system was supposed to stop.

Then there was Obama's attempt to restart the Arab/Israeli peace process. He told the Israeli prime minister that Israeli settlements are the only roadblock and all construction in all settlements must be stopped at once. Only after that was done would he talk about nightly missile attacks.

In instance after instance, Obama has ignored history and assumed that he could accomplish feats that eluded others. He cozies up to dictators and ignores friends. He assumes that a childhood in Indonesia and some trips in his 20s gives him insights into the world that elude everyone else. The result of his attitude will be decreased American influence. The first part of that has already happened. The G20 has announced that will will begin using a blended currency standard instead of the dollar as the international standard.

Friday, October 02, 2009

The NobamOlympics

For the last few days we have been told that a direct appeal from Barack and Michele Obama was all that was needed to secure the Olympics for Chicago. After all, even though his domestic numbers are dropping, Obama is still the most popular man in the world. Instead, Chicago was the first city eliminated.

So what happened? There are two possibilities - either Obama isn't as popular as he thought or general world hated of the US is more deeply rooted than simply George W. Bush.

Either way, Obama's world view is naive. Not a good thing for the President of the United States and leader of the Free World.

Update: More here. It seems that Obama acted like an ugly American, showing up and expecting to get the Olympics for no other reason than his presence.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Creating a Public Option

In all of the talk about a public option for health care, there has been precious little information about exactly what this would consist of or how it would be set up. As Ross Perot observed in 1992, the devil is in the details.

Supporters of the public option insist that it will be separate from Medicare (it had better be - Medicare is about to go broke), that it will not receive public funds, and that it will be more efficient than private insurance. This means a new government agency. This also makes it impossible to say that the new agency will not get government funding.

First, let's assume that it starts modestly. The Democrats has given figures of anywhere between 30 and 48 million. Let's assume the lower figure and go with 30 million. Let's also assume that the public option is competitive and offers prices in line with other insurance companies so we will give them 20% of the uninsured and none of the people who are already insured. That's 6 million people. That's a good number for a state but not so good for the entire nation. To put it in perspective, Blue Cross f Western Pennsylvania has 1 million enrolled. Even so, it would have an income in the billions.

So, we now have an agency that insures 6 million people across the entire country. Except we don't have an agency yet. We have to hire people and open offices. That's going to be a minimum of one office per state, probably more if big states. Then there will be one main office, probably in the greater DC area. The new company will need actuaries, adjusters, computers, web sites, clerks, and lots of bureaucrats. That's before it gets its first premium in.

Normally you start companies small by attracting investors. The successful ones grow. The unsuccessful ones go out of business. Not this one. Our hypothetical government agency will start moderately large but too small to cover its expenses. On the other hand it can't fail. The government will not let it.

This will take a big infusion of capitol. The new agency will have to buy everything that it needs and have enough cash reserves to start making payouts the day it goes into operation (remember, no exclusions for pre-existing conditions).

Some of the undefined details become very important here. Will this new agency be expected to repay the government the money that was used to start it? Will it use its revenues to create its own fund for paying benefits? Will it be held to the same standards that private insurance companies are? If it loses money then will the federal government cover its losses?

If any of these questions are answered no then the administration is lying when it says that the new agency will not be taxpayer-funded. This is a slippery question because repaying the money used to create this agency will raise its costs and make it harder to compete. The natural inclination for the bureaucrats will be to have over a pile of money with vague promises about repaying it in the future, promises that will never be fulfilled.

Even if you believe that non-profit government agencies are more efficient because they don't have to pay out profits, a new agency like this would be expected to lose money for years before it stabilized. If the public option is created then it will be a decade or two before we really know what we got for our money.

There is also the question of how the government will handle it if this agency makes money. Will it simply roll over the surplus and lower rates the next year? Will it add the profits to its reserve? Will the profits go to paying back the startup costs? Or will the money go into the general fund?

A related question is how the agency's reserve fund will be handled? All insurance agencies are required to have one by law. This is used for payoffs when claims are higher than premiums. Our new agency will start with a reserve provided by the taxpayers but after that the amount will fluctuate. Will it simply keep the reserve as cash or will it try to invest any excess? Keep in mind that government agencies don't invest, they buy bonds which can only be redeemed through taxes (or by printing money). Social Security and Medicare have deeply "invested" in bonds and paying them back is a crisis waiting to happen.

One of the iron-clad laws of government is that once an agency comes into existence it cannot be abolished. By the time we've determined if this will be a good investment or not it will be far too late to remove.

Glenn Beck and Republicans

There has been a recent debate between conservatives about how they should regard Glenn Beck and other conservative personalities. One side applauds their success, the other is appalled by their antics. Some of this exchange has been hosted at Front Page Magazine which is run by a David Horowitz, Glenn Beck supporter.

The anti-Beck people feel that he is too polarizing and too far to the right. They want a non-threatening Republican party that will attract moderate swing-voters. To them, the Republicans have been losing ground because their message is too focused. Limited government does not attract enough votes. Beck and the others are too shrill and often make mistakes which discredits their side.

The pro-Beck people look at his success in forcing out some of the most ideological members of the Obama administration - people like Van Jones and groups like ACORN. They also support the idea that the Republicans need to stand for something.

So, how do we make sense out of all this?

First, let's admit that Glenn Beck and company are a two-edged sword. They are conservative but they are not automatically Republican. The Tea Party protesters are almost as mad at Bush as Obama. Both presidents pushed unsustainable spending. Some Republicans who tried to co-opt the Tea Parties have been told that they are not welcome. During last year's primaries, Beck, Coulter, Limbaugh, and others made it clear that they were unhappy with John McCain. The fact that these personalities have so much influence but are uncontrolled by the Republican party makes many Republicans nervous. With good reason.

But the question is if the Republicans are better or worse off because of these people. This is a more complicated issue than the anti-Beck moderates make it out to be.

As I said above, the moderates want to appeal to the swing-voters. They want to silence or, at least quiet, the far right who they think scares the swing-voters. They think that the secret to regaining control of Washington is to act as a loyal opposition, trying to moderate the Progrssives' excesses rather than opposing them. There are some severe problems with this strategy.

The first is that it assumes that the Progressives are correct and that the country has moved to the left. These people are trying to move the center to match the new realities. Are they correct in this assumption? The polls don't show it. Also, the idea of playing to the middle was originally proposed by George W. Bush and followed up by John McCain. Bush referred to it as Compassionate Conservatism. Outsiders called it big-government Republicans. It was not particularly successful. Bush lost the popular vote in his first race and won a narrow victory in his second against second-rate opponents.

The 2008 election showed some of the stress lines that this strategy has caused the Republicans. Many conservatives stayed home rather than vote for big-government McCain. Others were not excited about his ticket until he added Sarah Palin to it. Most telling, many Libertarians supported Obama, expecting him to be a pragmatic moderate. I've complained many times that, any time the Democrats can campaign as the party of fiscal restraint, the Republicans have lost their way.

So, the assumption that appealing to the middle and abandoning the principles of Reagan will win elections has not worked very well.

This brings me to the other big problem with the anti-Beck people - demographics. Polls show that the younger voters are far more liberal than the last generation. You can argue, and many have, that this means that the Republicans need to moderate their message in order to attract more younger voters. This is a losing strategy for the reasons I gave above. The Republicans will never win a bidding war against Democrats for more public spending.

The long-term solution is to reach out to the younger generation and start building a new conservative movement. Explain why big government is inherently inefficient and why giving too much control to the government means a loss of liberty. This takes the sort of theatrics that Glenn Beck does. It takes loud, noisy protests. It takes the sort of tactics that the Democrats have been using for decades.

The choice comes down to these two possibilities - move the Republican party to the left or try to revitalize the right. Moving to the left is easy and decorous but it means abandoning many core principles. Revitalizing the right is tougher but has the advantage of a hard-left administration to contrast with. Both options are risky and they are mutually exclusive. Cutting off Beck and the noisy right could result in a new third-party. Embracing them without attracting new outsiders could doom the party to permanent minority status.

Personally, I want the Republicans to stand for something again. I rolled my eyes during most of Bush's deficit budgets and was in shock after the TARP and the other bail-outs. I want to see someone speaking up for limited government and fiscal restraint again.

I don't agree with a lot of what Glenn Beck says but I think that he needs to be given at least as much leeway as the left has given its over-the-top personalities. No one on the left complains about Keith Olbermann and Al Franken was elected to the Senate. We need Beck, Limbaugh, and the others in order to build a new conservative movement and to keep it honest.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Economics for Krugman

Last week, Paul Krugman wrote a column on how economists got things so wrong. He got a few things wrong himself.

First there is the ketchup quote:
Larry Summers, now the top economic adviser in the Obama administration, once mocked finance professors with a parable about "ketchup economists" who "have shown that two-quart bottles of ketchup invariably sell for exactly twice as much as one-quart bottles of ketchup," and conclude from this that the ketchup market is perfectly efficient.
I'm not sure if the original problem here is with Summers or Krugman but Krugman quotes it more than once in his article. There are several problems with this example of market economics.

First, a two-quart bottle of ketchup invariably sells for less than two one-quart bottles. This reflects economies of scale and per-unit costs. As portions become smaller, the cost of packaging, transportation, and shelf space take up a larger proportion of the cost.

Second, supermarkets have been investing heavily in marketing research for decades. What ever price a bottle of ketchup has, it reflects a lot of calculation and experience on the most profitable point. Supermarket prices don't just happen. Krugman thinks that market-based prices arrive at the wrong prince. While they can, and did with the housing bubble, the vast majority of the time they are correct.

Krugman's second problematic example is with a babysitter co-op:

I like to explain the essence of Keynesian economics with a true story that also serves as a parable, a small-scale version of the messes that can afflict entire economies. Consider the travails of the Capitol Hill Baby-Sitting Co-op.

This co-op, whose problems were recounted in a 1977 article in The Journal of Money, Credit and Banking, was an association of about 150 young couples who agreed to help one another by baby-sitting for one another's children when parents wanted a night out. To ensure that every couple did its fair share of baby-sitting, the co-op introduced a form of scrip: coupons made out of heavy pieces of paper, each entitling the bearer to one half-hour of sitting time. Initially, members received 20 coupons on joining and were required to return the same amount on departing the group.

Unfortunately, it turned out that the co-op's members, on average, wanted to hold a reserve of more than 20 coupons, perhaps, in case they should want to go out several times in a row. As a result, relatively few people wanted to spend their scrip and go out, while many wanted to baby-sit so they could add to their hoard. But since baby-sitting opportunities arise only when someone goes out for the night, this meant that baby-sitting jobs were hard to find, which made members of the co-op even more reluctant to go out, making baby-sitting jobs even scarcer. . . .

In short, the co-op fell into a recession.

The analysis that Krugman gives is flawed at every level.

First there is the reason that people hold a reserve of 20 coupons. He says that it is so that they can splurge at a future date. I suspect that it is so that they can quit at any time. The rules of the co-op almost mandate a 20-coupon reserve. You are given 20 coupons when you join and you have to return 20 when you leave. Anyone who allows their reserve to fall below 20 is in debt and will have to earn the difference in order to quit. A different way of looking at this is that you start with a balance of zero but a credit limit of 20 which have to be repaid when you quit.

But that's only part of the problem. The other problem is that this is being presented as a closed system when there are external factors.

Any parent can tell you that it isn't much trouble to watch someone else's child along with your own. It does not double your work, especially if the child that you are sitting is close enough in age to play with your own children (remember that everyone in the co-op has children by definition).

On the other hand, going out represents an additional expense. Dinner and a movie will cost at least $40. So, in order for you to get babysitting work from me, I have to spend an additional sum.

Most people do not send their kids to the sitter every night or even every other night and go out. On the other hand, any parent who is not going out is available to babysit. Since the co-op was established with the expectation that the demand for coupons would balance the demand for sitters, it was doomed from the start.

Also, the prices (coupons) were fixed from the start by the co-op so this example has no place in a discussion of market-based economics. There is no market here. If anything, this is an example of why having prices set by an external authority does not work. Also, if it is hard to find work as a sitter then that makes it harder to repay the 20 coupons when you leave.

This should be obvious to a Nobel-Prize-winning economist but Krugman missed it. He just dismisses it as a recession. He goes on to say:
Freshwater economists are, essentially, neoclassical purists. They believe that all worthwhile economic analysis starts from the premise that people are rational and markets work, a premise violated by the story of the baby-sitting co-op. As they see it, a general lack of sufficient demand isn't possible, because prices always move to match supply with demand. If people want more baby-sitting coupons, the value of those coupons will rise, so that they're worth, say, 40 minutes of baby-sitting rather than half an hour — or, equivalently, the cost of an hours' baby-sitting would fall from 2 coupons to 1.5. And that would solve the problem: the purchasing power of the coupons in circulation would have risen, so that people would feel no need to hoard more, and there would be no recession.
Since the demand for babysitting has an external element, price adjustment will only have a marginal impact. Worse, it would encourage hoarding, at least above the 20-coupon level, since it might take you two evenings of sitting to make up for one night out.

In a normal market, only a subset of the population provides babysitting and they do it for real money instead of hours. The idea of the co-op was to remove the expense of babysitting from the cost of going out. The system that was set up did that admirably. Anyone who needed a sitter would find a large pool of people available. If you stop there then it was a success. It only becomes a failure if you expect an equal number of people to need a sitter and to want to sit. In a population where there was a high demand for sitters and low cost for needed them then this would work. Among a normal population it will always fail.

One final note - any attempt to fix this "recession" is likely to make it worse. There is no way to adjust the co-op rules so that the demand for sitters will match the demand for children to sit. So much for "government" intervention.