Thursday, April 30, 2009

President "I Didn't Do It"

Ronald Reagan was known as the Teflon President. Scandals didn't stick to him. Bill Clinton was known as Slick Willie for the same reason.

Obama has a different approach. He insists that he didn't do it, that it has nothing to do with him. There is a running gag on The Simpsons where Bart Simpson says "I didn't do it," even when he is caught red-handed. Obama is becoming the "I didn't do it" president.

Last year, during the campaign, Barack Obama deflected accusations that he had a close relationship with people who had committed terrorist actions in the 1960s by pointing out how young he was at the time. How could we hold him responsible for something that one of his neighbors did while he was a child? He also insisted that the Reverend Wright had never given an incendiary sermon while Obama was at church.

He repeated that line recently at the Summit of the Americas. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega listed a set of grievances against the US including the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Obama replied by saying that Ortega couldn't be holding him responsible for something that happened when he was 3 months old.

During a speech last night, he insisted that he was not responsible for the deficit. "It was like that when I got here."

In speeches given in Europe and to Arab audiences, Obama has apologized, on behalf of his country, for everything that his predecessor, making it clear that these were Bush's policies, not Obama's.

All of this is disingenuous. He certainly knew about the domestic terrorists' backgrounds and Wright's sermons but he associated with them anyway.

He is President of the United States. That makes him responsible for everything that his government has ever done, regardless of who was in control at the time. Trying to separate himself from his office and his predecessors is a poor strategy. Most of the world has a long memory and holds grudges against countries or peoples, not against office-holders.

His disavowal of the deficit was almost immediately rebutted by an AP fact checking column. This pointed out that:

  1. As a Senator and a member of the majority party, he shares responsibility for the budget, especially the big-ticket parts that he voted for.
  2. His first actions were to increase spending. His budget shows a temporary dip in spending (to twice the highest Bush deficit then climbs rapidly).
Yes, he did take responsibility when one of his nominees was eliminated but that is a long way from taking responsibility for his presidency or his country. It may be funny for a 10-year-old cartoon character to avoid responsibility but presidents are held to a higher standard.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Is Colbert Funny?

Some people at Ohio State University actually spent time and effort doing a study on people's perceptions of the Colbert Report. I hope that no grants were involved.

You have to have an paid account to see the actual paper so all I have to go on is a report in Huffington.

This study investigated biased message processing of political satire in The Colbert Report and the influence of political ideology on perceptions of Stephen Colbert. Results indicate that political ideology influences biased processing of ambiguous political messages and source in late-night comedy. Using data from an experiment (N = 332), we found that individual-level political ideology significantly predicted perceptions of Colbert's political ideology. Additionally, there was no significant difference between the groups in thinking Colbert was funny, but conservatives were more likely to report that Colbert only pretends to be joking and genuinely meant what he said while liberals were more likely to report that Colbert used satire and was not serious when offering political statements. Conservatism also significantly predicted perceptions that Colbert disliked liberalism. Finally, a post hoc analysis revealed that perceptions of Colbert's political opinions fully mediated the relationship between political ideology and individual-level opinion.

Notice that the study didn't say where Colbert is on the political spectrum, but Jason Linkins who wrote the post knows that Colbert is a liberal and that conservatives are outright stupid to believe otherwise. That actually matches up with the OSU study - liberal think that Colbert is liberal. One of my conservative co-workers is convinced that Colbert is a secret conservative so that matches up, also.

So what is he? Short answer - he is a political comedian playing a role. Most of his lines are written with the help of a staff of writers and the writers are to the left of the real Colbert. Colbert follows the old rule, don't cut funny, so left-leaning jokes stay in if they are funny.

How do I know that he is not as liberal as his writers? Because I watch the show. More important, I watched it before, during, and after the writers strike. Unless Colbert had a staff of right-wing ghost-writers working for him during the strike, those episodes were examples of his real views and they were considerably more moderate than his show with writers.

Then there is his religion. On the show he is an over-the-top Roman Catholic. If you assume that he is the opposite of his character then you have trouble reconciling the fact that he is a practicing Catholic who attends mass regularly.

The real proof is in the interviews. Colbert has the reputation as one of the toughest interviewers on tv. He actually does three different types of interviews. When he is interviewing scientists or musicians then he is a pretty easy interview. When his guest is a conservative then he makes them work. He really turns mean when he interviews liberals. He doesn't let them get their message out. He interupts them with questions like, "George Bush, great president or greatest president?" His "Better know a district" series of interviews always makes the recipient look foolish but more often than not, he is interviewing Democrats. Would a true-believer liberal go out of his way to make Democrats look bad?

During the 2008 campaign, the two candidates who got the friendliest treatment from Colbert were Dennis Kucinich and Mike Huckabee. Satire or not, I just can't imagine Jon Stewart playing foosball with Huckabee for the primary.

Like his religion, Colbert's real feelings are probably far more moderate than his fans on the left would believe. The secret of his success is that his show is not based on his beliefs. That frees him to make fun of both sides.

I suspect that each side sees something that they find funny and convinces themselves that Colbert represents their own views. The left, since they consider themselves smarter than everyone else, then laughs at the right for being fooled by Colbert. The joke is probably as much on them as on the right but they are too busy looking down their nose to see what it under it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Barack Obama vs Jack Bauer

There are two debates on the use of harsh interrogation techniques. For the past several days the debate has been about what is so harsh that it crosses into torture. This is a tricky enough subject. By opening it, President Obama is appeasing his anti-Bush base who want to see show trials and conviction. At the same time, Obama has to convince the CIA that they are not going to be held accountable for actions that they performed. This resulted in a strange situation where it is apparently fine to torture people but a lawyer can be charged for giving a legal opinion. This lets the Democrats pursue their agenda against the Bush administration without antagonizing the CIA.

Recently former vice-president Cheney changed the argument. He asserted that these techniques stopped a terrorist attack and called on Obama to declassify documents which would prove it.

This takes the argument into different grounds. Legal niceties aside, people have been wondering aloud for years, what would you do if you needed information from someone to stop an act of terrorism. The argument here gets tricky.

In popular culture this is never an issue. Agent Jack Bauer on 24 regularly goes far beyond waterboarding or sleep deprivation to stop impending doom. The show's audience has no problem with this. After all, they know that the threat is both real and urgent.

There is the heart of the real life argument. Opponents of harsh interrogation insist that this situation never actually comes up and that it never produces reliable information, anyway.

Now Cheney is saying that it was urgent, it did produce good intelligence, and lives were saved.

For years the anti-Bush crowd insisted that he didn't keep us safe. They insisted that there was never any threat. 9/11 was a one-time event. No other terrorists have targeted the US. The few who have been arrested were never any threat, their plots would never have come to anything. The incidents that have happened in other countries will never happen here because we have integrated our Muslim population better that Europe.

But what if all of those assumptions are wrong? What if there were plots to kill Americans that could only be discovered through waterboarding or other harsh treatment? There is a reason that the last five directors of the CIA wanted Obama to keep the various torture memos classified and avoid the debate.

In the near future Obama is going to have to give a position on this. Would he sacrifice American lives to keep his hands clean? Further, if there is an attack, Republicans will spend years insisting that he could have stopped it if he had been less squeamish.

A frequent complaint about Bush was that he didn't listen to the experts (in this case, his generals). Now Obama has ignored five different CIA directors. He is counting on the country never encountering a situation again where someone has vital information. This is a huge gamble.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


What are we to make of President Obama? Is he a socialist? No. He is a believer is private ownership. Even when presented with the perfect excuse to nationalize the largest banks, he declined.

So Obama doesn't practice socialism. But he is not a follower of capitalism either. He has made that very clear. He plans to do away with the boom and bust cycles of open markets. His government has assumed control of banks, insurance companies and car makers. He has talked about putting limits on salaries and mandating benefits. He plans on taking over the energy, medical insurance and health care portions of the economy.

By the end of his first 100 days, Obama has appointed 20+ "czars" with wide but poorly-defined authority. That's a new czar every four or five days.

With much fanfare he signed a bill for increasing national service and encouraged all teenagers and seniors to participate.

In the meantime, in the name of safety, Congress outlawed all small-scale manufacturing of toys, children's clothing, and books (they all have to be tested for lead). They are now considering legislation that would outlaw small-scale food production including farmer's markets. Obama's EPA declared CO2 a pollutant which will give it jurisdiction over manufacturing, power generation, and transportation. The reach of government was already expanding during the Bush government and, along with spending, this trend has increased exponentially under Obama.

So what does all of this add up to? Something called Corporatism.

This grew out of the early 20th century progressive movement. The idea was that society would be divided into different interest groups or bodies (the Latin word for body, "corpus", is where Corporatism gets its name).

While obscure, Corporatism has influenced the left for a century or more.

One early and important theorist of corporatism was Adam Müller, an advisor to Prince Metternich in what is now eastern Germany and Austria. Müller propounded his views as an antidote to the twin dangers of the egalitarianism of the French Revolution and the laissez faire economics of Adam Smith. In Germany and elsewhere there was a distinct aversion among rulers to allow markets to function without direction or control by the state. The general culture heritage of Europe from the medieval era was opposed to individual self-interest and the free operation of markets. Markets and private property were acceptable only as long as social regulation took precedence over such sinfull motivations as greed.

Coupled with the anti-market sentiments of the medieval culture there was the notion that the rulers of the state had a vital role in promoting social justice. Thus corporatism was formulated as a system that emphasized the postive role of the state in guaranteeing social justice and suppressing the moral and social chaos of the population pursuing their own individual self-interests. And above all else, as a political economic philosophy corporatism was flexible. It could tolerate private enterprise within limits and justify major projects of the state. Corporatism has sometimes been labeled as a Third Way or a mixed economy, a synthesis of capitalism and socialism, but it is in fact a separate, distinctive political economic system.

Does this sound familiar? Think of the demand that car companies start producing smaller, earth-friendly cars. Or the massive stimulus bill. Or Obama's desire to replace air travel with high-speed trains. Just yesterday Senator Kennedy worried that companies with a profit motive might be allowed to participate in universal health care.

Corporatism is collectivist; it is a different version of collectivism than socialism but it is definitely collectivist. It places some importance on the fact that private property is not nationalized, but the control through regulation is just as real. It is de facto nationalization without being de jure nationalization.

Isn't this was was done with the banks? Obama did not nationalize them but he controls them down to executive salary.

New York Times Columnist David Brooks characterized Obama's long-term plans this way:

His view was clear. The market is dynamic and important, but it makes people reckless, parochial and dangerously shortsighted. The market needs adult supervision — a leadership class made up of people who appreciate the market but who also have committed themselves to public service, and who therefore take the long view and are more conscious of the public good.

None of this is new. FDR was a Corporatist although some of his programs were ruled unconstitutional and have been forgotten (look up his battles with the Supreme Court sometime). What is scary is who influenced FDR. During the 1920s and 1930s, several countries tried Corporatism under different names. The worrying part is that once this level of control is given over to the government, how easily it is abused.

The names of Corporatists includes:

Franklin Roosevelt
Miguel Primo de Rivera
Antonio Salazar
Getulio Vargas
Ioannis Metaxas
Francisco Franco
Juan Peron
Benito Mussolini
Adolph Hitler

So what does this add up to? A government with ever-expanding powers and control. One that is not responsive to the desires of the people (after all, they buy SUVs and set their thermostats to 72 degrees), but to the vision of the president and his appointees. This has never worked in the past but one recurring aspect of progressives is that they are sure that they are smarter than anyone else who ever lived and that this time they will succeed.

Note - Mussolini chose the Fasces as the symbol of his party. This is an axe with a handle made up of thin rods and symbolizes strength in unity. The United States has used this symbol to represent the states forming the nation. Mussolini used it to symbolize a collectivist movement and named his party fascists after it. His government was greatly admired by progressives including many in the Roosevelt administration. Fascism didn't get a bad name until after Hitler came to power.

Monday, April 20, 2009


What if George W. Bush and Barack Obama made the same decision independently? Would they be judged the same or would Bush be reviled and Obama praised?

In 2001, the Bush administration announced that it would boycott a UN conference on racism. The reason given was that the conference was nothing but a thinly-disguised attack on Israel. The left was up in arms. A month later, after 9/11, some on the left insisted that this boycott had inspired that act of terror.

Last week the Obama administration announced that it would boycott the 2009 UN conference on racism. They gave exactly the same reason. So, where is the outrage?

You don't see any here. This is part of a general cognitive disconnect on the left. They see everything that Bush did as wrong and evil while everything that Obama does is good and proper - even when they do the same things for the same reasons.

BTW, both presidents were correct in avoiding the conference. The conferences are part of a world-wide creeping antisemitism.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Soon They Forget

The Huffington Post is in full attack mode over the Tea Party protests. Lincoln Mitchell is upset because the governor of Texas joked about seceding from the Union. One of the comment is unintentionally funny.

What kind of Americans openly states that they want to secede from the United States? These cowards are no more then traitors to the United States. I didn't serve in the military and shed blood for these dogs who say they represent America and want to secede because now their political party is no longer in control in Washington. Real Americans don't secede from your country. You stay by your country until you die. You instead work to build this country better. The military code of justice has the right remedy for treason. Those that want to secede are traitors and the lowest circle in Hell is reserved for traitors. This crap goes way beyond free speech. They want to secede, let them. Then have the Commander In Chief call up the US Army. We beat them once, we can surely beat them again. I'll be more then happy to shed some blood again to cut down the weeds in Texas.
The funny part is who was talking about secession just four years ago. That was when George W. Bush won reelection and the liberals wanted to join Canada. See Jesusland.

These are the same people who are calling conservatives traitors.

Who Controls the Tea Parties?

Hale "Bonddad" Stewart posting on Huffington thinks that he has found a gotcha in the Tea Parties.

My only question is this: where were these people 8 years ago? More importantly, where were these people 30 years ago?


To anyone with an ounce of common sense, it's obvious what's going on. Republican/conservative rank and file are protesting because they are out of power and their leadership is terrible. But they aren't protesting spending; they are protesting the Democratic Party's governance. And that is fine. But please, don't tell me it's about spending or debt. If that were the case, you guys should have taken to the streets years ago.
Does he have a point? No. As I posted yesterday, this is the left trying to convince itself that they don't have to worry about the Tea Party movement. There are several problems with his assertion.

Republicans leaders were not leading the Tea Parties. They had to request to be speakers. In some cases they were turned down. The big party in DC pushed the GOP Chair to a less prominent role than he requested. Many protesters make it clear that they are upset with both parties.

This has been building for some time. The Democrats stoked the movement in 2004, 2006, and 2008, running ads about the crushing debt that Bush was leaving the next generation. In the 2006 and 2008 elections, voters expressed their anger at out-of-control spending by electing Democrats.

Bonddad quotes a 2005 CATO Institute piece about Bush's spending. He conveniently ignores more recent CATO papers that include Obama's projected budget. CATO makes it clear that Obama is outspending Bush.

Bush favored large spending increases, even in years with big deficits. Obama titled his budget A New Era of Responsibility but his huge deficit spending will push up public debt as a share of GDP to levels not seen since the 1940s.

There are some other factors that Bonddad overlooks (or ignores). Bush spent a lot but managed to keep his increases quiet. Most complaints about Bush spending were tied in with the anti-war movement. As far as I can tell, no one has done a survey of Tea Party protesters to see if any were anti-war protesters. The wars totally overshadowed Bush's domestic spending.

Bush may have spent outrageous amounts but it didn't buy him popularity. His approval rating was one of the lowest on record.

The biggest spending jolts in the Bush administration came at the very end. Between September and  January, the Bush administration announced bail-out after bail-out. By the time the Big Three car makers came asking for a relatively small bailout, the public was sick of it. A new bail-out was politically unacceptable by then and Bush used TARP funds instead.

That is what led up to the current protests. Three things actually set it off:

  • Passing a huge stimulus that spent the majority of its funds after the economy is expected to recover.
  • A mortgage bail-out that seemed to reward people who had behaved irresponsibly at the expense of people who never missed a house payment.
  • Obama's budget outline which the CBO estimates will push the national debt to unsustainable levels within a decade.

Bush doubled the national debt in eight years. Obama will double it again in six years and that is without counting the full cost of his health care plan. That is a geometric increase in spending. That is why people who sat home and grumbled during the last 30 years are now taking to the streets.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Trying to Tarnish the Tea Party

The Tea (Taxed Enough Already) Party movement is staging hundreds of protests today, April 15, across the nation. While the Tea Party protesters have a number of complaints, many of them ill-defined, they center around the growing deficit and national debt.

The Left is making a concerted effort to minimize this movement. The most common complaint is that it is "astroturfed". This refers to a centrally manufactured protest designed to look like a grassroots movement. ACORN specializes in these. The widely covered tour of AIG executive homes was organized and paid for by an ACORN-affiliated group. Only a small group was actually involved in the protest but they got disproportionate press coverage. Many stories noted that the press outnumbered the protesters. Congress is holding hearings that allege that ACORN pays people to show up for protests on demand.

The people who claim that the Tea parties are astroturfed point out that one of the main organizing web sites is paid for by someone who normally works for conservatives and that Fox News is promoting the events. Some talk show hosts and Republicans are making speeches at Tea Party events.

Strangely, these same critics never questioned the legitimacy of events sponsored by George Soros. Neither did they worry about celebrities or Democrats becoming involved in anti-Bush activities. Cindy Sheehan had a lot of organising behind her protests. No one questioned her legitimacy. Similarly, no one suggested that anti-war rallies were really anti-Bush rallies.

When the press does report on the Tea Parties, the main thread is that people are involved in a protest for the first time in their lives. This is as far as you can get from paid activists.

Possibly the silliest example of trying to tar the movement came from Arthur Delaney on the Huffington Post. He saw a clip of a protester complaining about communists college professors and a woman off-camera who called for burning books. As far as Delaney is concerned, that wraps up the Tea Party movement. To him it is all about anti-intellectualism and burning books. Delaney also conflate a Tea Party with Glen Beck's 9-12 Project. The two are separate and have nothing to do with each other. Neither are they responsible for everything that anyone says at a rally. I have seen Free Mumia signs an numerous left-wing rallies but that does not mean that the event was about freeing a cop-killer.

Of course, the real reason that the Left is trying so hard to denigrate the Tea Party movement is that, for decades, steer protests have been the property of the Left. Conservatives just didn't do things like that. That threatens their whole world-view. For years they have insisted that protests represent the voice of the people and must be listened to.

In order to reconcile the protests with their world-view they insist that the protests aren't real, that they are somehow staged. They are part of the Republican Party (or Fox News which they are convinced is the same thing) so they can be ignored.

The fact is that the Tea Parties are separate from the Republicans. They would be just as outraged if the Republicans were in charge. In fact, this sentiment comes from a pool of frustration that the Democrats tapped in 2006 and 2008. In both elections the Democrats ran as the party of fiscal responsibility. Just yesterday in an economic speech, Barack Obama said that we can no longer borrow and spend. These people agree with him and want a budget that reflects this sentiment.

Obama often defends his spending by pointing out that George W. Bush started it. This is true but it does not mean anything to the Tea Party protesters. They want the government to cut spending, not increase it until interest on the national debt equals the total of all discretionary spending. The Republicans are talking fiscal responsibility right now but they doubled the national debt under Bush. The Democrats promised to bring back the balanced budgets of the Clinton administration them passed a budget outline that will double the debt again in six years (and that's after raising taxes and making unlikely assumptions about the economy).

The truth is that Democrats have never been fiscal conservatives. Now that the Progressives have taken over they don't even pretend to care about the deficit. Congressional Republicans had a good record under Clinton but they threw it away under Bush. Bush and Karl Rove decided that limited government does not bring in enough votes so they abandoned this group. The Democrats courted them in 2006 and 2008 but quickly proved to be worse than Bush.

At its core, the Tea Party movement represents the forgotten libertarians, the people who think that government is already too big and don't want to see it growing bigger and more powerful. Their hero is Ronald Reagan. This is the counter to the Obama-progressives currently running the country. This represents a big swing vote from a segment that has been ignored for years.

Rather than leading this movement, the Republicans are in a position to benefit from it. This will mean turning away from the easy compassionate conservatism of both presidents Bush and returning to the party of Reagan. If they fail to follow through then this group will probably stay home at the next election.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Obama and the Pirates

After several days in which Somali pirates held an American cargo ship captain, the Navy rescued him. They talked the pirates into attaching a tow rope so that the lifeboat they occupied could be towed to calmer waters. The toe rope was shortened until the boat was only around 100 feet from the snipers. Three pirates were killed.

President Obama gets credit for authorizing this action and the use of lethal force. This may help his credibility among our enemies. He has proved that he will order the death of foreign nationals in order to save an American.

That resolved the short-term crisis but not the long-term problem of piracy. There are several possible results:

  • Somalis may think twice about pirating in the future. This is very unlikely. There is too much money to be made by piracy. In fact, four ships have been hijacked since the rescue.
  • Somalis may leave American-flagged ships alone but continue raiding other ships. This is probably the best that we can hope for but it is still unlikely. Again, there is too much money involved.
  • Somalis may escalate attacks against US-flagged ships. Some pirates promised this when they heard of the dead pirates. I am skeptical. Right now crews are willing to surrender to the pirates because they can count on good treatment. If the pirates start beating or killing captives then ships will be more likely to fight back.
  • Nothing will change. This is most likely given the events of the last couple of days.
So where does that leave us? Pretty much back where we started. Probably the only way of stopping the pirates is to start attacking their bases. Announce that any port that shelters a ship taken by pirates will be shelled. At the same time warships need to patrol the Somali coast to keep foreign ships away. The whole mess started because foreigners started dumping toxic waste in Somali waters and poaching on their fishing (hopefully in different areas). The pirates may not like returning to fishing but it could be made an attractive option.

I expect President Obama to take the opposite approach - try to stop the pirates through increased patrols. Historically this has never worked. The surest way to eliminate pirates is to deny them safe harbor.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Chaos and Order

A common idea in science fiction and fantasy is that the world is divided between chaos and order. Usually, but not always, the hero is a champion of order.

Over the last few years politics have reordered themselves into a similar grouping. The leaders of the Democratic Party including the President and the Secretary of State insist that they are progressives instead of liberals. As they have pushed their agenda, the Republicans opposing them have coalesced around small government/open market principles. These correspond roughly to order anf chaos.

The chaos in question is the free market. Progressives look at aspects of free markets such as pay inequality and boom/bust cycles with horror. Their impulse is to bring order to this untidiness though increased regulations. The current batch of progressives draw from a long history. This is at least the third time in the last century that they have pointed to an economic bust and insisted that capitalism is dead, that it doesn't work. During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama insisted that each economic problem could be solved through more regulation. Now that he is president, the list of industries that he plans to regulate is constantly growing.

This dates back to the first half of the 20th century and the first Progressive era. American progressives were fascinated with the changes going on in Europe. A number of them, particularly the editorial staff of The New Republic, made pilgrimages to the USSR to see progress of the Five Year Plans and other reforms. The less-radical wanted to follow the example of Italy and Germany where the government kept private ownership but established strong economic controls.

On the other hand we have the libertarians. They celebrate free, open markets. They insist that markets may not be pretty but they are the most efficient way of producing and distributing goods. What looks like chaos to the outsider is an orderly, self-correcting system. It is not random but it has too many inputs to control and any attempts at taming the chaos will bring unforeseen and undesirable consequences elsewhere. This view has parallels in chaos theory which holds that small changes in initial conditions can lead to large changes in behavior. This is often called the Butterfly Effect.

You can see this breakdown on most of the major objectives of the Obama administration. They want to control banks, large financial institutions including insurance companies and automotive manufacturers. Later this year they will propose some form of universal health coverage. They plan to reshape the power grid. They are appalled by income equality and are changing this through caps on earnings and through additional taxes on the upper end.

Their insistence that everything is knowable and therefor controllable convinces them that global warming models are correct and that urgent action is needed.

The libertarians have a completely different take on all of these issues. Yes, pay inequities exist but wealth has its own multiplier effect. Eliminating wealth hurts other portions of the economy. A one-size-fits-all approach does not fit all. Some people, especially those in their 20s, prefer to spend their money on food and shelter rather than insurance. Not everyone wants or needs the tiny, unsafe econoboxes that the progressives want produced. Climate is too complex for models to predict with enough accuracy to bet our economy on.

There attitudes are not the exact opposites of each other which means that each side sometimes finds itself talking past the other. In a recent meeting between the president and the heads of several banks, the bankers tried to explain that cutting executive pay would just rob their firms of talent. Obama didn't want to hear this and cut them off. From his point of view, no one should be paid millions of dollars, ever.

Personally, I side with those who think that open markets are preferable to regulated ones. Too often well-meaning attempts end up making things worse in the long-run. Here are a couple of examples:

Around 1990, President George G. W. Bush and a Democrat-led Congress decided to reduce the deficit by raising taxes. One new tax that was tailored to only hurt the rich was a new sales tax on yachts. It turned out that most boats covered by the new tax were purchased by upper-middle class boating enthusiasts. The new tax made new boats too expensive for these people to afford. As a result, the boat-building business had major layoffs. Between lost income tax and unemployment benefits, the tax cost the government much more than it brought in.

Another example from the Bush (41) administration - acid rain became a major issue. Congress rushed to pass legislation that required low-sulfur emissions. This hit the coal mining industry in the east hard to the benefit of the western states. More recently, a study just put out by NASA indicates that this legislation is the main cause for Arctic temperature rises. The study indicated that the best way to cool the Arctic would be to resume burning high-sulfur coal. Ironically, this came from someone who works for James Hansen. Hansen has called for outlawing all coal-fired generators. Acting on Hansen's recommendations may actually make things worse instead of better.

Global warming is an example of the two sides talking past each other. The progressives want to take action right now and can't understand why anyone would wait. The libertarians are not convinced that there is a problem and see the cure as being worse than the problem. They want solid assurances that there is a problem.

This is the state of the American political debate right now.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

An Obstinate President

In January, President Obama met with House Republicans, asking for their support for his stimulus bill. They tried to explain to him that it was a bad bill that they could not support. His response - "I won the election."

Many fiscal conservatives felt that the failing economy would have the silver lining of making Obama slow his plans for transforming America. This was quickly proven wrong when Obama unveiled his budget which included plans for several expensive changes to government.

The Congressional Budget Office announced that Obama's budget was optimistic. They projected deficits so large that even Obama's budget director admitted that they would be unsustainable. When asked how this would affect his plans, Obama brushed off the question as nothing but projections based on different sets of numbers. He went on to say that he was not going to pass problems onto our children (just a huge debt).

Many European countries are further in debt than is healthy. European economists say that Obama's stimulus is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Regardless, Obama told the G20 that they needed their own global stimulus.

During the campaign Obama was roundly criticized for suggesting that he would meet with hostile foreign governments without precondition. He sent an appeal to Iran, anyway. Their response was a set of preconditions that they had before they would meet with the US. Obama made a second appeal through YouTube. Iran responded with the same set of preconditions.

In a late-March meeting, officials from the country's largest banks tried to explain why bank executives were paid so much. Obama cut them off, saying that "I'm the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks." Not mentioned was that he had been shaking a figurative pitchfork a few days prior.

In case after case, the President makes up his mind regardless of facts or practicality. If someone questions him he silences them with a curt remark.

I have suggested before that Progressives think that they are the smartest people who ever lived. How else can I explain Obama's insistence in having things his way no matter who disagrees?

President Bush was often criticized for refusing to second-guess himself but he often backed down from proposals. Obama appears to be even less introspective than Bush. He decided what course he is going to take and does not recognize obstacles. How many of Bush's critics are willing to make the same complaint about Obama?

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Government Control

(and why it's a bad thing)

The US government is taking over General Motors. The President already fired the head of GM and the government will have a say in the make-up of the new board of directors and in future operations.
Another key stakeholder in the company, of course, would be the government, which has lent the company money but does not own any shares. And many analysts believe that whoever the shareholders may be, the government's interest will matter most.

"Obviously, the government has a voice as an investor," said Charles Elson, head of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. "But it's not like the government speaks as one voice among many. It becomes the overwhelming voice."

First, this was probably inevitable given GM's requests for bail-out money. The out-going Bush administration was willing to hand over large sums with few strings but the incoming Obama administration is still hungry to put its stamp on everything it can.

A little background - Detroit in general and GM in particular have been trying to restructure themselves back into the forefront of auto manufacturing for decades. Twenty years ago, Michael Moore made his name with Roger and Me, his attempt to confront Roger Smith, the head of GM, over layoffs. Moore wanted Smith to bring prosperity back to Flint Michigan. In retrospect, Smith didn't do anywhere near enough restructuring and Flint was never going to be the paradise that Moore painted it. Had GM rehired all of the unemployed in Flint, then the request for a bailout would have come years earlier.

This is where outside influence in large corporations becomes a problem. The current leadership may not be able to save their company but they are at least focused on that task. Once government gets involved then other factors are introduced.

During the early days of the Iraq war, many liberal hawks said that it was important that Saddam be overthrown but not by this (Bush) administration. Of course, that was the administration that we had and waiting another 2-6 years for a new administration wasn't going to stop Saddam's atrocities.

We are in the same position with GM. It needed to be saved but not by this administration. Obama and the Congressional Democrats have several things on their plate. They recently increased the CAFE millage requirements. They are hostile to executive pay. Members of Congress have talked about requiring GM to produce smaller, more efficient cars. Detroit is a basket case because their costs are so high that they can only make money selling low-millage SUVs but the market for that dried up.

Granted, Obama has ordered GM to get concessions from the unions to reduce manufacturing costs. That should help but the government can't resist using its influence for social good. Assuming that GM survives and continues under government control then we will see ever increasing restrictions on how they do business. This is inevitable. It is how government works.

Look at the last budget and the number of earmarks. Control of GM represents another opportunity for earmarks. This might take the form of pushing the Volt electric car or targeting plants according to an influential congressman's constituency. It doesn't matter. What matters is that these decisions will be made for political reasons, not business ones.

Beyond that, what is there to suggest that the President and Congress are competent to run a large business? They can't balance a budget and most of them (starting with the President) have never run a large company. Many of them are motivated by ideology and a number of the most ideological are in top positions.

This has been tried before. Lots of times in lots of countries. Government control of business just doesn't work.