Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Primaries

I smile whenever I think of the plight of Arlen Specter. Rather than face a tough primary challenge, he switched parties. Imagine his disgust when he found out that he would face a primary challenge after all - this one from the left. Worse, President Obama reneged on is support. The result - Specter is out anyway. If he had stayed with the Republicans there would have been a gnashing of teeth from the left over an honest moderate being forced out by a radical Republicans. Instead they will write about how the two Democrats believed in the same things and Specter fell victim to a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment.

Obama did campaign for Blanche Lincoln but it was not enough for her to capture a majority vote. She will have to participate in a run-off contest.

On the Republican side, Rand Paul upset the candidate endorsed by the Republican establishment in favor of one endorsed by the Tea Party.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The Regulatory State

I saw an editorial cartoon that listed the financial melt-down, the coal mine deaths, and the deadly oil rig explosion and leak with the caption "How's that handsy offy thing going for you?" (sorry, I couldn'f find an on-line copy).

I'll ignore the slam at Sarah Palin, and look at the real issues implied by the cartoon. The message is that the government took an hands-off approach and things fell apart. If you believe this then the obvious fix for everything bad that has happened is more government. There are problems here.

To start with, I hope that no one actually believes that banks, coal mines, and oil rigs are not regulated. So the real question is "How is that regulation thingy working out for you?"

I'm going to skip over the coal mine disaster. The results of the investigation are not in. The mine operators had been cited for lots of safety violations prior to the deaths.

What about the oil rig that exploded? The MMS, the federal agency that inspects these rigs is supposed to do monthly inspections. At least a quarter of these were skipped over the last five years. There are allegations of a too-cozy relationship between the MMS and the oil industry.

Then there is Wall Street. I doubt that there is another portion of the economy that has more regulations but the regulators were too busy watching porn to regulate. Congress didn't cover itself in glory here, either. Prior to the crash, Barney Frank insisted that there was nothing wrong with the sub-prime market and that more sub-prime loans be made.

The point to all of this is that the regulators we have did a terrible job. There is not reason to think that adding new regulations will help prevent future disasters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Republican Presidents and the Tea Party

Newsweek has a piece gloating that the Tea Party has moved the Republicans so far to the right that even Reagan would not be acceptable today. It gives a rundown of the last five Republican presidents and scores them on behalf of conservatives. The point of the piece is to comfort liberals that the Republicans will not regain power because they have moved too far to the right. Accordingly, the list deserves a closer look.

The first president on the list is Richard Nixon. There is no question that he was too liberal to be a modern Republicans. He was one of the most liberal men to hold that office and possibly the most liberal president of the last 50 years (possible contenders - LBJ and Obama). The country had a brief flirtation with hard-core liberalism in the 1960s and recoiled.

The next on the list is Gerald Ford, out country's only unelected president. He was defeated in his only national election. A big factor in his defeat was Reagan. While Ford won the 1976 primary, Reagan attracted large and passionate support. There is little question that modern Republicans would reject him. If he hadn't been a (sort-of) incumbent he would never have made it on the ticket in the first place.

I'm going to skip to George H. W. Bush. He got the VP slot on Reagan's ticket by placing second to Reagan in the primaries. In 1988, he won the presidency as Reagan's successor. While he had been skeptical of Reagonomics in 1980, he claimed that he had seen the light while Reagan's VP. While president, he reneged on his promises and raised taxes. He also increased spending, cut the military, and expanded government supervision into such things as how much water a toilet could use to flush. He supported the ADA and legislation on sulfur-dioxide (acid rain). He almost passed a sweeping health care initiative similar to what Obama proposed during the 2008 campaign. In addition to all of this, he was also a one-term president. Yes, Reagan Republicans would reject him but most of the country rejected him in 1992.

Reagan Republicans never liked George W. Bush and he never liked them. His only take from the Reagan years was cutting taxes. Otherwise, many of the things that today's conservatives hate about the Obama administration began with the Bush administration. Given Bush's poor performance rating when he left office, it is hard to see what Republicans would gain by embracing him.

That leaves the sainted Reagan. Would he be acceptable to today's Republicans? Almost certainly he would. They had not deserted him by the end of his term. True, he did not cut the size of government or the deficit, but conservatives are willing to cut him some slack for these. He did slow the growth of government. The size of the Federal Register increased less during the Reagan administration than any other time in the last fifty years. Granted Reagan sponsored an amnesty program for illegal immigrants and  most conservatives are against today. The reason conservatives are against it today is because Reagan tried it and it did not work (not because they hate immigrants in general as Newsweek claims). Given the total failure of Reagan's amnesty program, I doubt that he would support it again.

So, of the last five Republican presidents, only one would be acceptable to today's conservatives. Before we conclude that this makes them hopelessly polarized, let's take a quick look at the Democrats.

While Nixon was too liberal to be a Republican today, Kennedy was too conservative to be a Democrat. He was pro-defense and anti-communist. He cut taxes. His support for civil rights legislation was, at best, lukewarm. He even allowed the FBI to investigate Martin Luther King jr and other civil rights leaders.

Socially LBJ is acceptable to today's liberals/progressives but they never talk about him because of Viet Nam.

Carter is popular now because of his years as an anti-Bush spokesman but no one seeks to bring back the glory days of the carter administration. The biggest insult than many Republicans can heap on Obama is to compare his foreign policy to Carter's.

Clinton was the Democrat's only two-term president since FDR (Truman served most of FDR's 4th term and one of his own). You would think that the Democrats would love him. In fact, many felt betrayed during his presidency. He was a moderate and adopted many Republican issues as his own. His wife, Hillary, had to run to his left when she ran as president. The fact that she lost shows that Bill Clinton is not held in the same esteem in his party that Reagan is held by the Republicans.

In 2008, Democrats embraced Obama because they recognized a true liberal. He still won a convincing victory. Republicans hope to do the same thing. Obama's victory shows that a candidate can be well out of the center and still win an election.

Monday, May 10, 2010

The Politics of Iron Man

SPOILER WARNING. I'm going to assume that you have seen both movies.

The Iron Man movies have an interesting political viewpoint. At the beginning of the first movie, Stark was an unapologetic weapons-maker. He was injured by one of his own weapons but, rather than turn into a pacifist, he built a flying suit of armor and took revenge. His other response was to shut down weapons-making, but only until he found out how his weapons got into the wrong hands.

Given that background, it is easy to see why Stark is reluctant to turn his armor over to the government. He knows that his technology can end up in the wrong hands once he gives up control.

There are sub-texts in the movie about the government take-overs.

Neither movie gives you a good feeling about weapons-makers. Stark is out of control. His partner, Stane, was the one selling weapons to the bad guys. In the second movie, Hammer's main motivation is to sell weapons to the government and to show up Stark. He is willing to do this through illegal and unethical means.

In the first movie, Stark was more interested in building his armor as a means of personal flight. The weapons potential was an afterthought (although he did build a tank-killing missile into his suit and his suit in the second movie had a lot of drone-killing gimmicks). When the army got a hold of a suit, the first thing they did was "weaponize" it which implies that they agreed with Stark that the suit alone was not exactly a weapon.

Whiplash told Hammer that drones are better. He was right in general. If there is no one in the suit then no one will be killed if the suit is destroyed. Also, in the context of the movie, drones were better because one person could take over all of them. They were destroyed pretty easily but, after all, they were built by Hammer.

There are parallels between Stark and Steve Jobs. Both are treated as rock stars at their company events and almost died of an unannounced health problem. There are also similarities to Larry Ellison from Oracle (who makes a cameo as the "Oracle from Oracle").

The Black Widow started out as a spy for the Russians so I was expecting her to be working for Hammer instead of for SHIELD.

The Stark Expo 64 was a cross between the 1964 World's Fair (including the location and the Unisphere) and Disneyland. Stark's father came across as the Walt Disney of technology. It was moved to 1974 so that Stark could be in his 40s instead of his fifties.

Rhodey had an interesting choice. On one hand, he was stealing a piece of valuable hardware from a friend. On the other hand, Stark's increasingly unstable behavior made this almost unavoidable. Stark's message was not to worry, he would use the Iron Man armor responsibly but he could not fulfill that promise.

What were Stark's plans for the armor after his death? He already turned his plant over to Pepper. Did he plan on turnign the silver suit over to Rhodey? Is that why the suit worked for him in the first place - it was meant to be his? Is that why it had its own arc reactor instead of running off of the one in Stark's chest like the others?

Friday, May 07, 2010

Lessons Learned from the Times Square Bombing (Attempt)

A few days ago I debunked some lessons learned on the attempted bombing in Times Square. This entry has some real lessons learned.

1) The attack was a failure on multiple levels. Not only did the bomb fail to go off, it also failed to produce any terror. By some accounts, Faisal Shahzad was motivated by anger over drone attacks on Pakistan. This came and went in the news cycle, overshadowed by speculation that losing his house was what really motivated Shahzad.

2) America is not as safe as we think. We all subscribe to a Fortress America syndrome. We are so far removed from most conflicts that we are shocked when violence touches our shores. The only significant military attack on the US mainland was during the War of 1812 when the British sacked and burned our capitol. The few attacks since then shocked the nation. That includes Poncho Villa and Pearl Harbor. During the Obama administration we have had two failed bombings (Times Square and the Underwear bomber) and two shootings (a recruiting station and Fort Hood). Since September 11, terrorist attacks on the US have either been stopped, failed, or did not rise above the background noise of everyday violence. Eventually the attackers will manage to pull off terrorist attacks on a large scale.

3) The left hates the right more than it fears Islamic militants. Between the discovery of the failed bomb and the arrest, the main reaction from the left was to blame the right. Mayor Bloomberg was sure that the bomb was planted by a health care protester. On MSNBC, Contessa Brewer said what I am sure many believe:

I get frustrated… There was part of me that was hoping this was not going to be anybody with ties to any kind of Islamic country. … There are a lot of people who want to use terrorist intent to justify writing off people who believe in a certain way or come from certain countries or whose skin color is a certain way. I mean they use it as justification for really outdated bigotry.

Bombings by Islamic militants are so Bush administration. If we are going to have people bombing us, Brewer wants a new enemy - one she is more comfortable with.

Since the anti-deficit and anti-tax protests began, the left has ascribed darker motives to them. Now we have a situation where someone is disappointed because a group that we are in a shooting war with tried to harm us instead of a new group.

4) The Left's grasp on reality is slipping. They are letting their prejudices get in the way. They will not take the Tea Parties at face value. They jump to the wrong conclusion on a bombing. When the wrong group attacks, they try to frame it differently (he was motivated by the loan crisis, not his religion). In fact, they try to ignore thinking about Islam completely - a threat by Muslims against South Park was largely ignored, would a similar threat by a Christian group be treated similarly? It may be a coincidence but the Times Square bomb was right outside Comedy Central's office. No one mentioned this until after Shahzad was arrested.

None of these lessons are comforting. People want to hurt us and will probably keep trying until they succeed. A large portion of the population is too busy hating a different part to recognize actual threats.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Whose Country?

Yesterday, on the fifth of May (Cinco de Mayo in Spanish), some high school students in the Bay Area of California were sent home for wearing clothing with flags or flag-like designs. The clothing was considered offensive to the school's Mexican population since it was a Mexican holiday. The school district has since stated that this is not school policy. Some Mexican students have asked for an apology but the students' families responded, "Fat chance."

There is an implied dig at illegal immigrants by the flag-wearing students but this could become a slippery slope. If wearing a flag on a Mexican holiday is considered offensive then can wearing a flag at any time also be considered offensive if it is worn where the wearer knows that illegal immigrants will see it? This could easily become a situation similar to Christmas where people often refer to it as "the holidays" for fear of offending people who do not celebrate Christmas.

To put things in perspective, let's contrast Cinco de Mayo and Saint Patrick's Day. Both of these are bigger holidays in the US than in their native country and have been adopted as a day to celebrate an ethnic heritage, and both are mainly celebrated by drinking large quantities of beer.

I play Irish fiddle so I am around a lot of Irish Americans. They tend to be proud of their American citizenship and their Irish heritage. The slogan of the local Saint Patrick's Day Parade here was "America First/Irish Always". I have seen a number of Irish Americans wear buttons with similar sentiments.

There are two big differences between the two groups. The Irish came legally (when it was easier) and have assimilated. Obviously, many Mexicans are here illegally and have not assimilated.

The big question is what will happen next? Will we, as a society, start downplaying our country and patriotism for fear of offending a growing minority and will the Mexicans (and other Latins) assimilate?

Our culture is so averse to offending anyone (except Christians and Tea Party members) that it will not surprise me to see flag-wearing discouraged in the near future.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Cheney's Right, Slate's wrong, and Cameras Don't Work

Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate has a column about the attempted terrorist bombing in New York. Typically, it tries to reassure that everything is fine. He looks at three lessons from the attempt but he gets them wrong.

1. Dick Cheney - Cheney called the attempt an act of war. Kaplan, following the usual logic, insists that terrorism is nothing but criminal acts. Kaplan points out how many would-be terrorists have been caught by police and tried in criminal courts. This is true to a point. He conveniently ignores the fact that many of these plots would never have hatched without a foreign instigator. The suspect, Faisal Shahzad, is currently claiming that he worked alone but he was having financial problems. Where did the money for his trips overseas come from?

If you can stop the source of the plots then you have a good chance of stopping future plots. Police action fails when you are going after someone who cannot be extradited. This requires military action.

Update: the Taliban link seems pretty strong. They recorded a video taking credit before the bomb went off and Shahzad is now admitting that he went to bomb-making school in Pakistan (he must have slept through class). Law enforcement is useless against the Taliban. It takes the army to dig them out.

2. Jane Jacobs and crowded streets - Kaplan says that crowded streets are safe streets. The facts argue otherwise. The SUV with the bomb was left in plain sight. Even after it started smoking, dozens of people including a mounted policeman failed to notice it. By the time the tee shirt vendors saw smoke, the bomb had already failed. It was another half hour before the bomb squad arrived.

3. Security cameras - a camera caught someone taking off his shirt a block away from the SUV. We have not heard if it was actually the bomber or just someone who got off work and didn't want to be seen wearing his work shirt. (Update: it was not the bomber.) Regardless, the footage was not good enough for a positive id. Shahzad was caught through old-fashioned police work, not through surveillance cameras. More important, as with the street vendor, the footage from the camera did not prevent the attempt. It was only useful after the fact in trying to identify the perpetrator.

Immigration Issues

Immigration is an international topic.

A couple of years ago France held an election to ratify the EU constitution. It failed, mainly because of worries about "Polish plumbers" and other eastern Europeans moving in and taking jobs from higher-paid native French.

The United Kingdom takes in around 220,000 immigrants. Recently Prime Minister Gordon Brown met with a supporter during a campaign trip. Part way through she started talking about immigrants taking British jobs and how people couldn't talk about them. Brown muttered something about the number of emigrants balancing the immigrants and left. Forgetting that he was wearing an open mic, he told his staff that the woman was a bigot. This was repeated by reporters and Brown has been trying to control the damage ever since.

In Arizona, a law was passed trying to slow the influx of illegal immigrants. The left insists on seeing this in the harshest possible terms. Bob Cesca of the Huffington Post insists that this will bring back slavery. Desmond Tutu sees dark skinned people being arrested in the middle of the night for not keeping their papers with them in bed.

All of this reduces a complex issue into stereotypes. Yes, an influx of foreign workers can reduce demand and pay. During the boom years a few years ago, this was a good thing. Five percent unemployment is considered "full employment" meaning that there are jobs for everyone who wants one but some people have trouble locating the right job. Our employment rate was closer to three percent for years. That means jobs are not being filled. Things were not quite so bright in Europe but they were still pretty good.

Those days are gone and it makes sense to stop adding to the number of people looking for scarce jobs - especially to the unemployed.

In America, politicians (especially Democrats) have been avoiding this issue. The country is sharply divided. There is no middle ground. President Bush was attacked from both sides when he proposed a guest worker program.

Keep in mind that Arizona is concerned about illegal immigrants. Nearly one out of every fifteen people in Arizona is there illegally. This has a lot of ramifications besides "press 2 for Spanish". If Bob Cesca looked further into the issue he would find that thousands of illegal immigrants are being held in slavery in Arizona, right now.

Currently our Mexican border policy is the equivalent of "Don't ask. Don't tell." We make it difficult to enter the US but if you are willing to walk across desert, climb walls, and risk death from heat and human predators then you can stay.

After being burned under Bush, Republicans are reluctant to take up the issue again. The Democrats have actively avoided it, hinting to Hispanic voters that they support amnesty but failing to deliver.

An amnesty program was tried under President Reagan. It was supposed to be accompanied by stronger border enforcement. This part didn't happen and the immigration fight under Bush showed that there is strong resistance to closing the border. In the meantime, the possibility of another amnesty draws more illegals and insults legal immigrants.

President Obama made it clear that he does not intend to address immigration this year and he will not give any hints about what policies he supports. His administration has stepped up workplace enforcement but that misses the labor black market and drives illegals further underground. It also makes them easier prey for criminals - both domestic and imported.

Possibly the end result of all of this is that the individual countries in Europe and North America will become as porous as the individual states in the US with people free to travel between them at any time. This is opposed by a majority in most countries. Attitudes may change over the next several decades but in the meantime politicians need to be more responsive to their populations.