Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Elitists

There is always some form of elite. The elite feel that they are inherently superior to the rest of us and that, on that basis, makes them the natural ones to be in charge. This is human nature but the subject has come up repeatedly in the last few months so I am going to define who the elite are and what they believe.

In some times and places you are a member of the elite by birth. America's elite like to think that they are a meritocracy but this is not true. If it was then a first-term senator with no notable accomplishments would not be president. Membership in the elite is mainly a matter of having attended the right schools, living in the right places, having the right type of job, and having the right attitudes. In most cases these attitudes were imparted in the monoculture of today's universities.

Today's elite believe that they are superior because of received wisdom imparted when they were in college. Anyone who did not go to college (especially the "right" college) or who left with different attitudes is, by their definition, inferior and not qualified to rule.

It is important to recognize that the elite may have college degrees but they did not receive special training. Al Gore's degree is in journalism and his grade average was a low C (as was George W. Bush's). The Clintons and Obama have law degrees.

Since the elite believe that they are superior, they are advocates of top-down, big government with themselves at the top. They are attracted to socialism and other philosophies that give control of society to a select few.

Their attitude towards the rest of us ranges from condescending to contemptuous. Yesterday Bill Maher had this to say:
We have Democrats for one reason – to drag the ignorant hillbilly-half of this country into the next century, which in their case is the 19th."
While most elitists don't say it on national tv, a lot of them share this attitude. This carries over into many facets of everyday life.

Obviously President Obama and his cabinet are all part of this elite. When in smaller fundraisers among like-minded individuals the President will sometimes let his real attitudes slip - things like 'clinging to guns and religion and intolerance' or 'fear keeping the voters from acting rationally.' The attitudes of the elite go much further than the White House.

The elite have well-defined lifestyles. They often cannot understand why everyone does not adopt the same lifestyle. This has a strong affect on public policy.

First, the elite are city-dwellers. We tend to think of red states and blue states but a topographical map by precinct shows that we have very small, concentrated pockets of blue surrounded by a sea of red. This gives them a warped view of transportation. They are strong supporters of public transit (with public subsidies) but not all forms. They love trains and street cars but dislike buses where they would have to rub shoulders with the lower classes. The government is pushing a new passenger train system that will cost billions to build, will require millions in annual subsidies from the states and will still be too expensive for most people to use. They love bicycles and hate cars. They despise the suburbs and support anti-sprawl movements that are meant to force people to live in high-density areas (like theirs).

They hate for the non-elite to have wealth but can forgive it in their own. In fact, they can forgive a lot from their heroes. Al Gore owns several houses, each burning up more energy than several families but is still celebrated for telling the world to reduce their carbon emissions.

They insist that the public subsidize the radio and tv stations that they like and, conversely, that the subsidized stations play the programming that they want.

Their religion ranges from agnosticism to militant atheism. The only religious leaders they approve of are ones who teach social justice or liberation theology.

They work at white-collar jobs and would be horrified if anyone they know worked in a factory. At the same time, they worry about manufacturing jobs being sent overseas.

They are horrified if a non-elite becomes prominent. Look at their reaction to Sarah Palin. She came from a rural state and went to the wrong colleges. Their hatred of her was so immediate and so deep that before she was officially nominated they were already demanding proof that she hadn't faked her pregnancy.

They view unplanned children as a curse. They are not pro-choice, they are pro-abortion.

They view world history as colonialists and native people. To them, native people are always superior. They view Israel as a colonial power and the Palestinians as an oppressed people. That in turn means that all terrorist actions taken against Israel are justified but nothing that Israel does is ever justified. All Muslims are seem as victims of current or past oppression. This gives them a pass from condemnation for human rights abuses (it is alright for Iran to stone women now because we set up the Shaw in the 1950s).

The US is also a colonial power to them so the only just military actions are ones that do not serve any US interests.

Understand that everyone has opinions. Having a multitude of opinions is what makes us a free country. But the elite do not subscribe to this. Speech codes have been instituted and hate speech laws enacted.

Over the last couple of years the elite's desire to take charge has become worrying. Several times New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has wished that the US government could be more like China's. Right after his inauguration, several people wished that President Obama could become a dictator for a year or two until he had solved the world's problems.

The biggest problem with the elite is that they do not recognize their own limits. They are sure that the economic meltdown could have been prevented if there had only been a few more controls in place and they are sure that they can prevent any future bubbles. They do not even seem to be aware of the law of unintended consequences (i.e. things never go exactly as you expect). The world economy is too big and complex to be knowable but they trust themselves more than they trust in the markets, no matter how many times they are proven wrong and their answer will always be that they need more control.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Voter Fraud

There's an old joke about a boy sitting beside the road, crying. When asked why, he explains that his grandfather came back from the dead to vote but didn't stop by to visit his grandson.

Voter fraud has been an issue for the last six years - even since George W. Bush won an election that liberals were convinced he would lose. They spent the next several months trying to prove that the voting machines had been fixed. "Proofs" included comparing election night vote counts to pre-election and exit polls on the idea that polls are "exquisitely accurate". Grad students provided numerical analysis proving that it was mathematically impossible for districts with a majority of the population registered as Democrat to have voted Republican. There were allegations that voting machines were programmed to switch party-line votes to the wrong party. Two years ago the Simpsons Halloween show had this as its opening joke.

While liberals obsessed about voting machine fraud, conservatives worried about old-fashioned voter fraud involving paper ballots. There are a few ways that this can happen. People can vote more than once or under multiple identities. People who are not eligible can vote. Election workers can obtain extra ballots, mark them, and literally stuff the ballot box (the origin of the term). Conversely, ballot boxes from precincts known to favor the wrong party might disappear.

All of these happened in past decades. The question is if they are still happening? Some of these can be guarded against through proper controls - having observers from both parties present at all times, using tamper-resistant locks, etc.

The hardest thing to guard against is the ineligible voter. This is especially difficult in areas that allow same-day registration.

But wait, says Christopher Beam from Slate. Why would anyone commit voter fraud?

Perhaps the strongest evidence against claims of widespread voter fraud is that it would make no sense. Imagine what you'd have to do to perpetrate such a scheme. You'd first have to recruit a large number of voters willing to cooperate, each of whom would risk five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Then you'd have to get them all registered, which would require fake IDs and mailing addresses. (The mailing address would have to be real so they could receive their registration cards.) The names and addresses would then get checked against a central state database. If the database fails to find a match, the voter's registration gets flagged for a follow-up check of their Social Security Number or driver's license number. Then on Election Day, they'd have to show their fake ID again and lie to a poll worker's face. At each point—registration, the database check, voting—they'd run the risk of getting caught. And the more people involved in the scheme, the more likely someone slips up. All it would take is one unlucky person for the whole plan to unravel.

Beam is right - under this set of controls voter fraud would be very difficult. The trouble is that some states go to lengths to circumvent these types of controls. Same-day registration means that there is no time to check the information that the voter provided. In order to allow some degree of control, the ballot and the registration can be saved together as provisional. If everything checks out then the ballot is added to the count. If not then it is discarded.

While this seems like a reasonable compromise, voting rights advocates (who, strangely, always seem to favor Democrats) feel that it somehow discriminates against the unregistered voter. They want all ballots mixed together.

A related issue is what sort of ID is needed. Beam's example requires a Social Security card or a driver's license (opening the possibility of illegal aliens voting). Again, this is seen as oppressive by voting rights advocates. They insist that all that should be needed is for someone who can document residency to vouch for the new voter.

All of this has been implemented or proposed in several states.

In 2004 there were reports a group of people being bussed from precinct to precinct. They would be met by a local party member who would swear that everyone in the bus was a resident. They would then register, vote from a prepared list, and move on.

Beam asks why anyone would do this? Some close, high-stakes elections make it worth the risk. The 2000 presidential election was ultimately decided by around 500 votes in Florida. In 2008, Senator Al Franken and Representative Mary Jo Killroy lost on election night but won their seats in the recount.

Beam's final argument is that so few cases of voter fraud have been filed. This proves nothing. Voter fraud is very difficult to prove. In my example of the bus-load of voters, how would you ever find them, again?

So, what can be done? Voting machines need to be trustworthy so we should demand an audit of the programming that goes into them. We should be very careful about removing any controls that are designed to prevent fraud.

While it is true that a citizen's right to vote is important in a free society, it must also me remembered that any appearance of voter fraud can undermine a government's legitimacy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Where Did Obama Go Wrong?

We always knew that this would be a tough election year for the Democrats. In 2006 and 2008, anti-Bush sentiment tipped independents to for vote Democrat. In 2008, the economy scared a lot of people and, as the President recently observed, people do nto act rationally when they are scared (or to put it more realistically, they voted against the party in charge when the economy crashed). Finally, the excitement the country felt over having a black candidate at the top of the ticket spilled over to the rest of the ticket. Without Bush in the White House or Obama on the ticket, some seats were bound to swing back to the Republicans. Add in an economy that refuses to recover and things look bad for anyone with a "D" after his name.

But the current anger goes beyond that. Two current columns examine this. Frank Rich feels that Obama did not go far enough in going after Wall Street. There is something to this. The nation's top concern for the last two years has been the economy. The Democrats should have been focused on that. Yes, they passed some sort of financial reform bill. I doubt that the average man on the street even knows that it was passed and I suspect that not even political junkies (or Congressmen) can say what is in it.

Instead, Congress should have been holding hearings on everything that goes on in Wall Street. Rich has seen a recent documentary about the crash. This information should have been on CSPAN instead. People need to know, what worked and what didn't. How many people knew that the system was going to fail and how many were just along for the ride and didn't ask any questions?

Realistically, this was not going to happen. Too many Democrats could be implicated and most of Wall Street's money went to the Democrats the last couple of elections. Congress would end up investigating itself.

On the other hand, Marc Thiessen feels that Obama's big mistake came three days into his administration when the Republicans offered their ideas for a stimulus.

Obama said he would consider the GOP ideas, but told the assembled Republicans that "elections have consequences" and "I won." Backed by the largest congressional majorities in decades, the president was not terribly interested in giving ground to his vanquished adversaries.

The President's advisers predicted that the recession would end during the Summer of 2009 (technically it did) and be followed by a robust recovery (this part didn't happen). Obama probably never considered that the economy would fail to recover. If he had any inkling what was going to happen he would have done whatever it took to sign on as many Republicans as possible. The Democrats would be in much better shape if they had shared responsibility for the stimulus with the Republicans. This is certainly true. President Obama rejected the Republicans. He was not only listening to his economic advisers, he was also listening to political advisers who told him that the Republicans were doomed to be a permanent minority party. He had just won an election by the biggest margin a Democrat had received since LBJ in 1964. He had sizable majorities in both houses. There was no reason to work with the Republicans. Let them work with him or be left on the sidelines.

That made it easy for the Republicans. A concerted White House push can always pick up a few votes from the other side, but only if the President puts some effort into it. Obama did not. After the TARP, the stimulus, and the budget, the public had a deep case of sticker shock. By voting against all of these, the Republicans gained a previously unearned reputation for fiscal restraint. Without that the Tea Party would still have formed but it would be running 3rd party spoilers instead of supporting the Republicans.

So, had Obama actually worked to reduce partisanship he would be in a much stronger position today. A "We're all in this together" approach would be much stronger than his car-in-a-ditch speech.

Obama's final problem was that he effectively outsourced the economy. He never seemed to understand that his presidency is tied to the economy. If it fails then he will be a failed president, no matter what else he passed. Worse, he turned the economy over to people who are heavily implicated in the collapse. The Left continues to be outraged. The right points out that no one on his economic team has any actual experience in private industry.

So, it appears that Obama was doomed almost from the start to make some poor decisions. He never recognized the importance of concentrating on the economy or of dealing with the opposition. He also forgot one of the iron laws of politics - no matter how strong you look now, the other side will eventually be in charge again. His initial mistakes are poised to prove this.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Broken Covenant

In 2008, when it became obvious that Barack Obama would be the Democratic candidate, some people wondered aloud if having a black president meant that all criticism of the president's policies would automatically be shouted down as racist? At the time, Candidate Obama's supporters insisted that this would not happen. In fact, in order for a democracy to function, people have to be able to question their elected leaders. By running a black candidate, the Left was implicitly agreeing that the the Right would be able to disagree with the President without being labeled racists.

Obviously this compact was not honored. Almost as soon as the Tea Party protests began, they were dismissed as racist. This continues. Last week the Washington Post ran a first-person account written by a self-described liberal journalist who rode along with a bus-load of people going to Glenn Beck's Restoring Honor rally.

I have two problems with the account. The first is that Beck's rally was not a Tea Party event. While it had political speakers, the focus was on history, honoring the troops, and a return to public religion. There was a big (huge?) overlap with the Tea Party but it was never meant to be or billed as a Tea Party event. Regardless of this, the story is titled "Tea Party road trip: What the movement wants -- and why".

What really bothers me about the article comes about half-way through the article:

Donna Schlagheck, the political science department chair at Dayton's Wright State University, has a different explanation. "Southwestern Ohio culture is extremely conservative, Bible-belt, patriotic and stunned by globalization's impact," Schlagheck will say in an e-mail, noting the closure of several Dayton-area GM plants during the past decade. "And there is no discounting the racism in this Mason-Dixon region. I suspect we're seeing a convergence of culture, economy and fear of a future represented by a black president."

Where did that come from? The article offers no direct quotes supporting this. The closest it comes is the following paragragh:

On the bus, I ask Ann Hucke, a 57-year-old ambulance billing specialist, about the accusations of racism frequently lofted at the Tea Party. She bristles. "I grew up in Oakland, California, which is probably the most diversified city in the United States," she says, "and it's not like I live in a lily-white neighborhood now. There's Section 8 housing right near me."
So, when asked about racism, someone says, 'no it's not a factor,'

Then why include this? What's more, the quote from Schlagheck was an email. I suspect that the article was originally submitted without this and an editor insisted that it contain something about racism. With no actual racist quotes from the participants, the writer was forced to find someone completely unconnected to the event who was willing to include racism based on speculation.

Which brings me back to my original point - this is not the way to run a democracy. We have to be able to question our elected leaders without someone constantly delegitimizing it by crying racism. The grand bargain implied when Obama was elected never had a chance.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Shared Sacrifice

Republicans want to shrink the deficit. Democrats want to expand the size of government. Both of these goals have a giant roadblock approaching - entitlements. Thanks to FDR and LBJ, entitlements make up the biggest portion of government spending. This is true for the states as well as the feds. They are considered untouchable. In fact, the Democrats are currently running ads suggesting that Republicans will eliminate these entitlements, especially Social Security. In 2006, as the stock market was crashing, then Senator Barack Obama told seniors that their Social Security benefits would have gone down with the market had President Bush's reforms gone through ( ruled this false).

The problem is that these programs are going to run out of money soon. Social Security has a trust fund which is supposed to cover its payments for the next 35 years but the trust fund consists entirely of pay-on-demand bonds to be drawn on the general fund. There is no actual money. Medicare and Medicaid don't even have that fig leaf. They are less than a decade from collapse.

A year and a half ago President Obama talked about saving Medicare by "bending the curve". By this, he meant that his proposed health care reform would reduce the projected increases in health care spending by making us a healthier nation with a more efficient health care system. The health care reform that passed will do neither of these things. Instead it will put more pressure on Medicare.

To make matters worse, the Democrats are proposing to give seniors an outright gift of $250 to make up for the lack of inflation adjustments. This reinforces the notion that seniors are owed ever-increasing retirement payments regardless of the nation's ability to pay for them.

So, what do we do about it? The first step is to admit that we have a problem. As recently as the 2000 election both Bush and Gore admitted that Social Security would run out of money but disagreed on the best solution. Since then it has become party line for the Democrats to insist that Social Security is fine and that Bush's plan to partially privatize it is simply a plot to benefit Wall Street. This is an outright lie with serious consequences for the nation's future.

The problem for the Democrats is that the Progressives have taken over and these entitlements are at the heart of their case for expanded government. If they admit that the entitlements have fundamental problems then they lose their argument for more government control.

The Republicans' problem is thornier. Most of the country has been paying Social Security taxes their entire working life and expects to be able to retire on it. Seniors count on Medicare. The poor count on Medicaid. Any drastic cuts in these programs will seem cruel and will probably come back to haunt the Republicans.

There are two ways that this can play out. We can see this now in France and England. In France, an established government announced a small change to their retirement and rioting students have shut down the country. In England a new government comprised of both conservatives and liberal announced major cuts along with some tax increases. There have been some protests but not many. Anne Applebaum has an interesting column comparing the two reactions.

In two weeks, President Obama will have a chance to correct the run-away entitlements. With a conservative tide sweeping the nation, he could join with the Republicans and propose long-term changes. This will require major concessions on both sides. The Democrats will have to admit that their crown jewels, including the just-passed health care, are in trouble and need major reform. The Republicans will need to be open to tax increases and cuts in defense spending, as long as the deficit actually declines.

If this does not happen during the next Congress then it might not in time to prevent major problems. If a Republican wins the presidency in 2012 then we will be back to the Democrats avoiding responsibility by calling the needed changes cruel and unnecessary. At the same time, the Republicans will be unwilling to consider tax increases.

I doubt that President Obama has it in him to change course. More likely, he will write the election results down to "fear" and try to continue on his present course.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Why the Stimulus Failed to Stimulate

There are two ways to for the government to try to directly stimulate the economy. One way is to give money directly to people through tax cuts or a tax rebate. The other way is to ramp up government spending.

Proponents of this second way insist that giving money directly to the population means that a larger percentage will be "wasted". Instead of being spent, it will be used to pay down debt or simply put in the bank. These people say that the modest stimulus passed under President Bush in 2008 was an inefficient use of the money. That is why the stimulus bill passed in 2009 was structured completely differently. The promise was that it would be targeted so that all of the money would be spent which would cause a multiplier effect.

So what actually happened?

The stimulus bill was actually a combination of programs. One extended unemployment payments. Another was a bail-out for states. Neither of these produced any additional spending. They simply continued existing spending. By Keynesian standards, these portions were a failure. That is why the Obama administration uses the phrase "jobs created or saved." They figure that without this money, spending would have dried up even more than it did causing additional job losses. It should be mentioned that there is some evidence that long-term unemployment programs increase the unemployment rate. People with money coming in are less likely to settle for a lower-paying job.

Another large portion went into a tax cut known as the Making Work Pay Act. This reduced taxes on the weekly paycheck by a modest amount. The theory was that the amount would be so small that it would be spent without thought rather than being used for something specific like paying down debt. It is hard to say how successful this was since an extra $5-$10 a paycheck will not induce someone to buy a house or even a major appliance.

Out of the rest of the stimulus, the best known programs are the "shovel ready" construction jobs, the Cash for Clunkers, and the Green Energy initiatives. How have these fared?

Recently President Obama admitted that there is no such thing as a "shovel ready job." This is in contrast to statements he made in 2008 when he assured the country that the states had numerous jobs that were all set to go as soon as they received funding. What was he talking about and where did the money go?

Construction jobs take time to put together. You have to do estimate the cost, identify the funding source, put the work out for bid, and award the contracts. Only then can you break out the shovels. Notice that projects have to be funded before you get very far. A lot of the shovel ready projects were going to happen, anyway. The governments simply used federal funds to pay for the work and saved the money that had already been set aside. There is absolutely no stimulus effect for this money since it paid for work that would have happened anyway. Now, some of the money that was saved was spent on later projects. A city might have doubled the number of miles of roads that it repaved. That would result in some eventual stimulus. In other cases, the money was simply saved or used to prevent cuts elsewhere. In these cases there was no stimulus. Bottom line - the shovel ready jobs were no more likely to stimulate the economy than giving the money directly to the people.

Cash for Clunkers is an interesting case. It was far more successful that was planned. The original idea was to get some old, polluting cars off the road and replace them with newer, more efficient cars. This was actually environmental legislation buried in a jobs bill. At it turned out, the bill caused a massive, temporary spike in car sales. It was so successful that Congress had to add additional money into the program. So, does that make it a success? No. Remember that it was supposed to get old, inefficient cars off the road. As implemented, it was possible to use it on a car that only got marginally better millage. Figure in the energy needed to produce the new car and you may have made things worse. But it helped the automotive industry, right? Yes. It was particularly good for the Japanese car makers. GM and Ford saw some increase. Chrysler didn't get much of a bump at all. Plus, it mainly shifted sales. People planning on buying a car in late 2009 or 2010 bought one under Cash for Clunkers. And all of those "clunkers" were demolished, taking the used car supply with them. Worse, the government could probably have given out smaller incentives for the same increase in sales. To add insult to injury, the places that got the construction work had nothing to do with where unemployment was the highest (probably because areas with high unemployment did could not afford to have construction projects already in the pipeline).

Finally, we have the Green Energy initiatives. Wind farms have created tens of thousands of jobs. Except, many of those jobs are temporary construction jobs that came and went before the stimulus was passed. It turns out that the standards were written fairly loosely. It does not matter when the work was done, all that matters is when the last generator is put into production and the wind farm is declared "on line." So, there are dozens of wind farms that were built in 2008 and 2009, before the stimulus, that still received credits equal to a third of their construction costs and are being counted as jobs created or saved. No stimulus effect.

Considering all of the places that the stimulus leaked money without actually doing any stimulating, we would have been better off just writing a check to the American people. That would have amounted to more than $2,600 per person. Imagine the stimulus effects of amounts like that being spent at once by three hundred million people.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

What Obama Should Do

President Obama is touring the swing states, trying to reignite the passion that voters felt two years ago. By all accounts, he is doing a poor job of it. Part of the problem is the enormous disconnect between the President and the country. Voters are angry about bailouts and deficits but Obama does not recognize this. Instead seeing voter anger as a rejection of his policies, he sees it as a product of irrationality.

Part of the reason that our politics seems so tough right now and facts and science and argument does not seem to be winning the day all the time is because we're hardwired not to always think clearly when we're scared. And the country's scared.

There are several problems with the President's explanation. The first one is that it leaves no room for political dissent. If you reject his policies then you must be irrational.

The second is that he got his science wrong. It is true that fear, real fear accompanied by an adrenaline rush, will cause the cool, rational part of your brain to shut down in favor of the older lizard reflexes. This can cause irrational behavior like running while on fire instead of dropping and rolling, but this condition is fleeting. It is gone as soon as the adrenaline rush fades. It does not cause long-term voter anger.

The President's third problem is that he does not recognize the many mistakes that he has made. The biggest mistake is that he did not make jobs and the economy his top priority.

So, what should he be doing? He is about to be firmly repudiated. He needs to take pro-active action on this. He needs to admit that the voters have reason to be angry with him personally. He needs to acknowledge that health care and the oil spill were major distractions and that he should have put the American people ahead of his Progressive agenda.

Right now he is trying to rally the troops by saying that the coming congressional losses will endanger his Progressive policies. Most of the country does not care. They want jobs more than they want cap-and-trade. They don't want health care reform if it is going to slow the economy. He needs to justify the "shovel-ready jobs" that he now says do not exist. Instead of talking about what great things he has done he needs to admit that he could have done better and promise that he will do better in the future.

The Republicans have already done this. They embraced the Tea Party and rejected some of the big-government members. This may cost them some elections but it shows that they are serious about reforming themselves. This is there answer to Obama's charge that voting for the Republicans will be returning to the same old solutions.

Probably nothing can save the Democrats from major losses but Obama could at least generate a little last-minute sympathy. This is not in his nature. He believes that he is a superior being who operates on a higher plane, untroubled by irrationality or fear. He sees the correct path and those who do not have been blinded by fear and other problems. that attitude is not going to win over a swing-voter who wants to hear what the President is going to do to fix the economy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

About That Foreign Money

For the last couple of weeks the Democrats have been telling us that foreign money is buying the election. The President on down plus the Democratic National Party and MoveOn are hammering the point home. The problem is that it is not valid. This has been fact-checked by all of the major news services plus network TV and the New York Times. They all say that foreign money is not a factor. In fact, even if the most frequent target, the US Chamber of Commerce, was using foreign money it would be inconsequential. Their foreign dues only amount to a few hundred thousand and they are spending millions. So, why are the Democrats still talking about foreign money?

The President first brought the subject up during his State of the Union address. He was referring to the Citizens United verdict which had nothing to do with foreign money. Cameras picked up one of the justices shaking his head and mouthing, "That isn't true." as Obama made his claim. Again, the fact-checkers ruled against the President.

So why is he still saying it? I can think of several reasons.

The obvious one is that he really believes it. This means that the President, a former lecturer on constitutional law, does not under stand the law and no one on his staff is willing to correct him. Instead they are following his lead. This does not reflect well on the White House but it is the most sympathetic reason I can think of but they get worse.

I have seen the suggestion that the White House is readying the party for a major setback. This theory says that they are already introducing a boogey-man who they will be able to blame in November. ("It wasn't us, it was all of that foreign money!") If we take this theory to its conclusion then the anti-foreign money ads that are playing are not meant to influence the election. They are aimed at the post-election.

Another theory is that the Democrats are trying to tie foreign money to outsourcing in an effort to paint the Republicans as anti-job. ("Those dirty foreigners are trying to buy the election so that the nasty Republicans will give American jobs to dirty, nasty foreigners.") This certainly ties in with all of the out-sourcing ads that the Democrats have run against Republicans. It isn't very pleasant to think of the party of toleration as being so blatantly anti-foreigner but that's how many of their ads sound.

The final theory is that this is a long-term strategy to cut the Republicans off from their support. In the 2008 election the amount that Barack Obama spent was matched by the amount that MoveOn and other special interest groups spent. The Citizens United case gave the Republicans a chance to level the playing field. It could be that the attack against foreign money is really a push to open up the donor list. A law to do this failed to pass earlier this year. Vice-President Biden has called for the Camber of Commerce to open its donor list to prove that no foreigners contributed.

Once the donor's names are known, they can be targeted. The Democrats have shown themselves willing to use the DOJ and the IRS against political enemies. This is in keeping with Chicago-style politics.

No matter which theory is correct, the Democrats are telling outright lies during an election campaign.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Global Warming and the Corruption of Science

A distinguished scientist fired off some stinging accusations about Global Warming, calling it "the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist." Harold Lewis (emeritus prof at the University of California and former chair of the American Physical Society (APS) believes that the scientific community has stifled debate about Global Warming. Why? Because of the corruption influence of money. In his resignation from the APS, Professor Lewis writes,
The giants no longer walk the earth, and the money flood has become the raison d'ĂȘtre of much physics research, the vital sustenance of much more, and it provides the support for untold numbers of professional jobs. For reasons that will soon become clear my former pride at being an APS Fellow all these years has been turned into shame, and I am forced, with no pleasure at all, to offer you my resignation from the Society.

It is of course, the global warming scam, with the (literally) trillions of dollars driving it, that has corrupted so many scientists, and has carried APS before it like a rogue wave. It is the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist. Anyone who has the faintest doubt that this is so should force himself to read the ClimateGate documents, which lay it bare. (Montford's book organizes the facts very well.) I don't believe that any real physicist, nay scientist, can read that stuff without revulsion. I would almost make that revulsion a definition of the word scientist.
But what about the investigations into the ClimateGate letters, the ones that exonerated the writers?
When Penn State absolved Mike Mann of wrongdoing, and the University of East Anglia did the same for Phil Jones, they cannot have been unaware of the financial penalty for doing otherwise. As the old saying goes, you don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind is blowing. Since I am no philosopher, I'm not going to explore at just which point enlightened self-interest crosses the line into corruption, but a careful reading of the ClimateGate releases makes it clear that this is not an academic question.
What really set off Professor Lewis was the Society's censorship of any internal dissent about Global Warming. He collected 200 signatures in order to create a Topical Group within the Society. Rather than create the group as required by its constitution, the APS put out a vague survey.

Professor Lewis's point about money is important. When the theory of Global Warming was first advanced, some grants were handed out to evaluate it. The results were, "We're not sure. Give us more money to study it further." Now, more than 20 years later, entire institutions exist for the express purpose of studying and projecting Global Warming. Thousands of scientists and others depend on Global Warming for their livelihood. More recently, major corporations have gotten into the act in the form of Cap and Trade. This will decide winners and losers. The corporations are employing lobbyists to ensure that they are the winners. All of this will come crashing down if Global Warming turns out to be natural and harmless (or, God forbid, beneficial). So just how hard are any of these people going to go in questioning the base assumptions?

Remember this when you read about Global Warming being settled science.

Steampunk Comes to Primetime

Last night the TV detective show Castle involved steampunk.

The show started with a dead, naked body. It eventually turned out that the victim had been wearing a Victorian outfit (which had been stolen by a local homeless man) and was shot with a 200-year old bullet.

The detectives followed the victim's associations through Wild West reenactors to a steampunk hang-out. The title character even tried out a steampunk outfit.

------------------ spoilers below --------------------------

It eventually turned out that two members had fought a duel with antique pistols. But, the main characters tested the guns and were not able to hit a silhouette. From that they deduced that there was an additional shooter who used a better weapon. They eventually tracked it down to a someone who "modified a modern shotgun to fire antique pistol balls."

The steampunk parts were great. They brought in some people with really nice props as well as costumes from the Steampunk Emporium.

The parts about the dueling pistols was stupid. Dueling pistols were smoothbore which meant that they were not as accurate as a modern pistol but they are certainly better than what was shown. I've hit three out of three body shots in a competition. You would think that a trained police detective who has to qualify regularly with pistols would be able to do at least as well. But the plot said that the pistols wouldn't work so they didn't.

The other point is the shotgun. The show didn't give the slightest indication about how you modify a shotgun to shoot a lead ball. Not much modification would be needed. You could custom load a shell with black powder and a ball. The only trace would be if you loaded more than one shell so that there was one for the police to find. Outside of that, you could pull the slug from a modern shell and insert the ball along with some wadding. I doubt that either of these would be more accurate than a pistol. You would be shooting a fairly small ball out of a big barrel so there would be little to guide the ball.

Obviously the script writers made the physics fit the solution.

Now if they had just had some airship pirates.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Presidential Whine

"They treat me like a dog." "If I said that the sky was blue they would say no." "If I said fish live in the sea, they'd say no."

President Obama has spent the last few weeks complaining about the lack of cooperation he has gotten from the Republicans.

An unbiased observer would point out that Obama is pushing the most progressive agenda in generations (he said this himself in his Rolling Stone interview) which is anathema to the Republicans. In addition, with large majorities in both houses, the Democrats have not needed to resort to bipartisan compromise so that has been little outreach to the Republicans. Finally, the Republican electorate has made it clear that any Republican members of Congress who vote for Obama's agenda will be voted out of office. Given all of this, the Republicans have nothing to gain and everything to lose by supporting the President.

So why is the President complaining so much? He sounds somewhere between whining and kvetching. There is more to this.

First, there is the President's own biography. According to his autobiography, when he was in college he hung out exclusively with Marxists and feminists. He spent most of his adult life in the political monoculture of Chicago. He just isn't used to people having different opinions.

There is an additional element - Obama is a Progressive. The Progressive movement's answer to everything is additional government programs and regulation. When someone points out that their ideas have never worked before, their answer is either that the prior programs just didn't go far enough or that it wasn't implemented properly before but this time they will get it right (because this time, they will be in charge). I have often observed that Progressives think that they are the smartest people who ever lived because they think that they can solve age-old problems.

This is the real source of the President's constant complaints. As far as he is concerned, his course is crystal clear. Things are so obvious to his advanced intellect that he cannot believe that anyone could honestly hold a different opinion. When he does recognize that someone has a different opinion, he explains it in condescending terms. Remember his explanation about the bitter, clinging people in rural Pennsylvania?

So, when Republicans oppose him, Obama does not see principled opposition, he sees a plot to ruin his presidency. He sees it as a personal rejection.

According to all projections Obama will lose his big majorities in Congress. At that point he will have a choice - he can continue to whine and see his presidency go down in flames or he can learn to deal with dissenting views.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Fiscal Sanity

Have you ever watched the cost of a public project rise and wondered what the people in charge were thinking? The biggest example is Boston's Big Dig which ballooned from a $2.7 billion project to one that cost $22 billion (including $7 billion in interest). Even Barney Frank joked that it would have been "cheaper to raise the city than to depress the artery."

A couple of miles from where I sit in a smaller example - a bridge. Had the bridge been built similarly to a nearby one that was completed in 1992, it would have cost $10 million. Instead the mayor chose a slanted arch bridge that was estimated to cost $20 million. Estimates quickly rose to $40 million and the final cost was $60 million.

New Jersey was faced with a similar cost jump. A project to double the size of a railway tunnel between New Jersey and New York City went from $8.7 billion to $11 billion or possibly even $14 billion. Governor Christie canceled the project saying that he did not know how the state could pay for the additional cost.

Naturally the left is up in arms, complaining about the number of jobs (paid for by the government) were lost. Paul Krugman wrote an entire column on it with out mentioning the increasing costs.

So last year the project began. Of the $8.7 billion in planned funding, less than a third was to come from the State of New Jersey; the rest would come, in roughly equal amounts, from the independent Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and from the federal government. Even if costs were to rise substantially, as they often do on big projects, it was a very good deal for the state.

Notice that he only gave the original cost, not the increases. At what point does it stop being a good deal for the state? How far should government officials allow projects to go before pulling the plug? Given historic cost creep, the final cost could have been much higher than $14 billion.

Krugman is only one example of the reaction. Most of the news coverage has focused on lost (government) jobs, not on how the State of New Jersey is supposed to pay for these increases during the Great Recession.

Cost overruns happen on big projects so often that one is tempted to suspect that they are built into the system. You give a low estimate for a project knowing that once it is underway there will be substantial political pressure to continue it regardless of the cost. In fact, the higher costs mean more (union) jobs so some people see cost overruns as a good thing. The rest of us see them as a poor use of public funds.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The Enthusiasm Gap

It has been well-publicized that there is an enthusiasm gap between the Republicans and the Democrats. Republicans are fired up and ready to vote. Democrats are tired. There are various explanations being advanced by the left for their lack of spirit. Many people think that Team Obama simply needs to talk more about their accomplishments. Wile it is true that the have passed some major legislation, I don't think that most of it is the sort of thing that drives people to the polls. Look at what got the Democrats fired up in 2006 and 2008 - Bush.

Back then, the Democrats were united in their hatred of George W. Bush. When Barack Obama promised "Change that you can believe in," the understood this to be code for "undo Bush's foreign policy." How has that worked out so far?

We still have tens of thousands of troops in Iraq with no real end in sight. In the early primaries, Obama promised to have all of the troops out by the end of 2009. He has additional tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan. Some of them are supposed to start pulling out next year but this is still an open-ended commitment. As long as we appear to be losing, Obama will have to choose between the support of the Democrats and the rest of the country. Granted, Obama promised to increase troop strength in Afghanistan but many Democrats thought that he was only saying this to get elected and would change his mind as soon as he got in the White House.

Other major complaints include the Patriot Act and Gitmo. Democrats had every reason to expect the Patriot Act to be repealed and Gitmo closed by now. Instead, the Patriot Act was extended and Gitmo's closing in "in the works."

Bush planned to use military tribunals to try the prisoners at Gitmo. Democrats expected Obama to either try them in the US courts or to release them, possibly with an apology (many on the left were convinced that everyone at Gitmo was innocent).

These are the issues that drove the Democratic Party and the Netroots and none of it has turned out as they expected. Most of Obama's foreign policy has been a continuation of Bush's.

There there is Bush himself and his administration. The far left really wanted Bush impeached and members of his administration tried for war crimes. It is too late for impeachment but they still wanted Congressional hearings on war crimes. None have been forthcoming.

Bush hatred is a thing of the past. Obama's chance to electrify his base has passed and, in truth, it would have been bad for the country. Compared to expectations, the Democrats' actual accomplishments have been pretty minor. Yes, they finally passed health care but it was not the bill that the Democratic base wanted and the process revolted most people. The rest of their accomplishments might be notable but let's be honest - people didn't turn out to vote in record numbers because of finance reform. That just doesn't leave much to fire up the base.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Reduce Your Carbon Emissions Or Else

The British Green movement got nasty. Look at the video here - or don't look if you are squeamish. To summarize - different groups of people including school children are asked to reduce their carbon emissions by 10%. Those who do not agree are blown up in gory detail.

UPDATE: How could any group produce a video like this and expect it to convert anyone? I'm sure that they didn't. I would bet that some hard-core greenies got together and one said, "Hey, wouldn't it be funny to just blow up anyone who won't reduce their carbon?" Everyone else in the room thought that this would be the funniest video ever.

In their echo chamber, no one ever stopped to question if blowing up school kids was an image they really wanted to be associated with.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Did the Stimulus Work?

A set of political ads in current circulation says that the stimulus did not create any jobs. Fact checking sites have ruled this false. Who is right and how successful was the stimulus?

By the White House's own standard the stimulus was a failure. We were promised that it would keep unemployment below 8%. Instead it topped 10%. The answer for that is that the economy was much worse than the White House financial team projected and the unemployment rate would have been even worse without it. This means that we do not have any usable projections on the economy with and without the stimulus. It gets even more complicated because the White House uses "jobs created or saved."

The fact checking sites are relying on the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which in turn is relying on formulas that say that X amount of spending will create Y jobs. (The actual formula says that X amount of spending will create between Y and Z jobs and the White House used the Z figure.) An early effort to track actual jobs created was abandoned after it failed to match expectations.

I have a little personal experience with this. We received a large grant - millions - to spend on WiFi. This will only create two direct jobs and we did not want to report that so we decided to use one of these formulas on the idea that anytime millions are spent, someone is going to get a job out of it somewhere.

In order to get a better idea of how the stimulus worked we will have to look into its parts. A large portion of the stimulus consisted of an extension to unemployment benefits. A second part amounted to a bailout of states and cities that were left cash-starved by the drop in tax revenue. This did not create any new spending so, at best, these portions saved jobs but did not create any. Even figuring a multiplier effect we are only talking about a multiplier of jobs saved.

Another part was the "Making Work Pay" act. This combined two aspects of the Obama administration - a tax cut for the poor (it started phasing out for people making more than $75,000/year) and social engineering. It amounted to a $400/year tax credit to be spread across the year. The idea was that the amount people actually saw would be too small to bother saving so they would spend it. This did not work. No one has been able to correlate an increase in consumer spending with Making work Pay. Since so many people now use direct deposit it is likely that extra money stays in the account increasing the savings rate instead of the spending rate - just the opposite of what was planned.

Cash for Clunkers is often billed as the big success story of the stimulus. This gave people tax credits for trading their current car in on a new one with better millage. While it caused a big spike in car sales during the Summer of 2009, the big picture tells a different story. Most of these car sales were to people who would have bought a new car within the next year, anyway. This did not create sales, it just moved them forward. No net job creation. Granted, some people got employment scrapping the "clunkers" but the effect of taking so many cars out of the used car market was an average price increase of $1,800 on the remaining cars. This has to have depressed the used car market.

The most visible portion of the stimulus was "shovel-ready" construction jobs. There were problems with that, also. Most construction jobs take years to plan. The work the Stimulus paid for was either jobs that were already planned that were accelerated or simple, quick jobs like repaving. The big jobs would have been done anyway. The little jobs were so short-term that they would not be likely to affect long-term consumer spending (i.e. Will a two-week job spreading asphalt make you buy a new car or will you simply pay down existing debt?).

The final portion of the stimulus went for pet projects like green energy. This may have created jobs but they are jobs that can only continue with government subsidies.

So, where does that leave us? Some of the money was wasted outright. Some of it may have been counter-productive. While it is true that amounts of that size must have created some jobs, somewhere, it is also a stretch to say that this made the difference between a recession and a depression. The whole point of the stimulus was to provide more bang for the buck than we got with Bush's tax rebate. By that measure then the stimulus must be judged a failure.