Monday, January 31, 2011

That 1978 Feeling

President Carter was defeated in the 1980 election largely on the basis of one question posed by Ronald Reagan during a debate, "Are you better off now than in 1976?" People voted "no" because of the economy and because of international relations.

The economy during the 1970s was terrible. President Nixon tried a wage/price freeze to cool inflation. President Ford tried a WIN campaign ("Whip Inflation Now"). Neither worked. The economy seemed stuck in a 2-4 year cycle of recession and high inflation. They invented a new name for it - stagflation for stagnant economy with high inflation. This was made worse by oil shortages caused by Arab embargoes. Adjusted for inflation, gas prices were higher during the Carter years than in 2008 when it topped $4/gallon.

Internationally, Carter seemed completely lost. The USSR invaded Afghanistan and Carter's main responses were to cancel a sail of American grain to the USSR and to boycott their Olympics. Both of these hurt Americans more than the Soviets.

But this was nothing compared to Iran. When Carter came to office, Iran was a long-standing American ally in a region that was generally pro-Soviet. In 1978, the country was paralyzed by strikes and demonstrations against the Shah. In early 1979 the Shah left the country and was replaced by a democratically elected government that Carter's administration helped create. Two weeks later the Ayatollah Khomeini announced that he was returning to Iran. The government was going to block him but Carter urged them to allow Khomeini entrance. Almost immediately Khomeini's followers overthrew the interim government and established the current government based on strict Islamic values. Later that year Khomeini's government overran the US embassy and held the staff hostage for 444 days.

Carter seemed powerless to do anything about this. There was an attempted rescue attempt but it stretched what was technically possible and failed completely.

By the 1980 election the common image of President Carter was that he was a nice man who had gotten in over his head. Reagan promised to make the country strong again and to cure the economy through tax and budget cuts. The fact that he delivered on both promises is why President Obama looks to Reagan for a role model instead of Carter. But, two years into his administration he is facing many of the challenges that Carter faced.

Unemployment is high by any measure and the economy is not growing fast enough to reduce it appreciably by the 2012 election. economists have been warning that the measures the Obama administration used to promote a recovery were inflationary. While inflation was flat in 2010, there are signs that it is picking up. Food prices are rising. Some of this is hidden by smaller portions but eventually people will notice. Ethanol subsidies are further affecting the price of food as more and more crop land is being used for fuel. Gas prices are 20% higher than last year with $4-$5/gallon predicted by Summer. Demand from China for raw materials is raising the cost of production world-wide.

So far the economy is not as bad as in the Carter days but chances of a Reagan recovery are remote.

Internationally, Russia is looking more aggressive than it has since the days of the USSR. Worse for Obama, China ignores him on human rights and currency exchange issues.

The big wild-card is Egypt. The Egyptian government is important to the US but it sunk into a dictatorship with sham elections some time ago. Mubarak has led Egypt since Sadat was assassinated in 1981. President Bush (43) pressed for democratic reforms but the Obama administration dropped that initiative. In 2009, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton referred to Mubarak as a friend of her family. As recently as last week she was still promising that his government was stable. As calls for Mubarak's resignation increase, the United States is increasingly being seen as supporting the dictator.

The problem is that none of the groups who are likely to replace Mubarak are desirable. All of them are sympathetic to radical Islam and Iran and hostile to the US. None of them are likely to support the peace treaty with Israel, either.

The best that can happen in Egypt is an orderly transition to Mubarak's picked successor who may turn into a new dictator. The worst that could happen would be a new radical Islamic government and a new war on Israel.

Events may clear up on their own but if they go the wrong way then the Obama administration will not be able to clean things up in time for the election. Both internally and externally, the future of the Obama administration depends on events which are outside of his control.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Obama and Reagan

According to the cover story on Time, President Obama is trying to emulate President Reagan. The appeal is obvious. Reagan guided the country through the only post-war recession comparable to the Great Recession. Two years later his popularity rebounded to the point that he won re-election by 49 states to 1. He changed the way that we think about the government. The Republican party still defines itself according to his principles. What president wouldn't want that legacy? But can Obama carry it off? I doubt it. Obama is not Reagan.

It is hard to think of two more different presidents. Beyond the obvious, that Obama's principle goal is to reverse Reagan's changes the two men have nothing in common.

Reagan was the oldest man inaugurated president. Obama was the 5th youngest. Reagan came across as a figure full of grandfatherly wisdom. Obama comes across as cold and aloof. Reagan's confidants say that he was the same man in private as public. Obama is rumoured to be short-tempered and touchy in private - a trait that sometimes slips out.

Reagan came to office after a long, public career. He was a two-term governor of California and ran for president in 1976 before winning the nomination in 1980. Obama went from undistinguished state senator to president in four years. Reagan ran on a well-defined short list of goals. Obama made hundreds of promises but really ran on an undefined platform of hope and change.

Reagan always had to deal with the opposition and knew how to court them. The Democrats controlled the House during his entire term and the Senate his last two years but he managed numerous legislative successes. General opinion is that Obama will not be able to get any further major legislation passed now that the Republicans control the House.

Even before his inauguration, Reagan spent time "stroking" congressmen. He knew who they were and what their pet causes were. Obama's attempts at stroking the opposition began and ended with inviting some of them to the White House to watch the Super Bowl. While Obama has had significant legislative successes, they were accomplished by partisan arm-twisting.

Reagan was a trained actor and motivational speaker who knew how to connect with his audience. Obama has given a few good speeches but he is limited by his reliance on his Teleprompter. When he has it he looks back and forth like a metronome. When he has to use notes then he looks right, down, left, down, etc.

The State Department's strategy for a summit between Reagan and the Soviet Premier was to send Reagan in without an agenda and let Reagan charm the Russian. It worked. That's where the START arms control treaty came from. Obama has tried personal appeals to foreign leaders several times, ranging from one-on-one talks with the Chinese premier to lobbying the Olympic committee on behalf of Chicago. None of these have been successful. After the event, foreign leaders have described Obama as arrogant, dictating terms rather than negotiating.

Reagan's secret weapon was that he was constantly underestimated. His enemies insisted that he was a half-wit who slept through meetings and agreed with whoever had the best slide show. In contrast, Obama's abilities are overestimated by the outside world and by himself. When he took office he was expected to be the reincarnation of Abraham Lincoln, FDR, and JFK rolled into one. He personally mused about which of these presidents he would be most like (along with Reagan). He has told staffers that his problem with appointing cabinet members is that he personally was the best candidate for most of their jobs.

Given all of this, there is no way that Obama can remake himself into a genial, self-effacing president and get the recovery rolling in time for the next election.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Playing with Trains

In his State of the Union Speech, President Obama called for a system of bullet trains built. His goal is for 80 percent of Americans to have access to bullet trains within 25 years. High speed and bullet trains have been a goal of his administration all along. The Stimulus included billions in train subsidies.

He promised that, for some trips, they would be faster than flying and without the pat-down.

The President is not the only one enamored with rail transportation. Democrats at all levels love the idea of trains from street cars through light rail, to bullet trains. This was a major subject of debate in Ohio over the last year with the outgoing governor and Secretary of Transportation Hood determined to make Ohio so committed to the project that there was no turning back. Since they were dealing with government, the Ohio project never got beyond the drawing board. The new governor, John Kasich, asked to be able to use the train money for other projects or to simply turn it back to the general fund. Neither was acceptable to Hood so the money went to California along with an even larger fund from Wisconsin.

So, what is the attraction? Why do 21st century politicians love a form of transportation that was dominant in the 19th century?

Trains do not have a lot to recommend them. There is nothing that a street car can do that a bus cannot. The Ohio 3C Railroad (Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland) would have been slower and more expensive than driving. Further, it had very limited hours making it unsuitable for business trips or attending pro sports. Even if it met ridership goals it would never break even. Its total capacity was too small to reduce congestion on the highways. Letters to the paper indicated that its supporters either had unrealistic expectations for it's affect on highway traffic or had visions of taking day-trips to other cities in subsidized-comfort at ticket prices that ordinary folks could never afford.

Obama's promises for the bullet train are similarly unrealistic. Bullet trains are most economical for trips under 500 miles which means that they should not be considered beyond the coasts. Current Japanese bullet trains run at 120-160 mph although there is one Chinese train that runs at 220 mph. This is faster than a car but slower than an airplane. A 737 cruises around 260 mph and a 747 exceeds 500 mph.

Possibly the President hoped that trains could shorten a trip by going directly from one location to another. Many plane flights include a trip to a hub and a flight from there. Some trips require two plane changes. Unfortunately, economics says that trains would have to work the same way. Tracks are the most expensive part of a train so few cities would have more than one set of tracks going through it. You would have to switch trains just as you do airplanes.

Trains are also inflexible. It takes years and a lot of money of dollars to build track. In contrast, adding a flight to a city takes a plane or two and space at an airport. Even airport expansions are easier.

California is a good example of this. The first segment of its high-speed train has been started. It will not be used when it is completed. It was chosen because it goes through lightly-populated farm land. Other portions of the line are held up in lawsuits and environmental studies. It is unknown if the current section will actually connect with the rest of the line or not but the stimulus specified that work had to start this year.

The cost of these trains can be considerable. Even Japan's trains which are the model the world looks to were ruinously expensive.

None of this answers the question about why politicians are attracted to projects like this. I can only offer some guesses.

A bit of it might be that it recalls the glory days of the Progressive movement in the early 20th century. Another aspect is emulating Europe which has been behind the US in automobile ownership and is more densely populated. Light rail has long been successful in major population centers, especially New York City. Some train-lovers hope that adding trains will make them more like these larger metropolises.

A bigger motivation for state government is the economy. It is tempting to take a federal outlay now and let future politicians worry about how to pay to finish the lines and subsidize operations. Most of the immediate jobs are in construction so the construction unions are lobbying in favor.

Possibly the biggest attraction is the level of control that trains give the government. They get to decide where and when the trains will run. They get to pick winners and losers. Cars let people decide for themselves where they want to go. Airlines follow demand. But trains make the decision for you. They make some destinations easy and other difficult. The placement of stations can be used to reward areas and hurt others.

Too many progressives expect everyone to share their lifestyle and tastes. Trains are a way of forcing these choices on people.

Assuming you can get people to ride them. If you can't then they are a big waste of money.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Palin Withdrawal - Attacking Backmann

The Washington Post crew took a pledge that they would not mention Sarah Palin until March. Writing a "Post Partisan" column, Johnathan Capehart bends the rules by referring to Palin without naming her. But he has to kick some conservative woman so he moved on to Michele Bachmann and her "amazing view of history". He takes issue with this quote:

I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers who worked tirelessly -- men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.

There is nothing factually wrong with this statement. If you look up Wikipedia's entry for John Quincy Adams you find that he was a life-long opponent of slavery. He was also the attorney successfully representing the prisoners of the slave ship the Amistad in their suit to be freed instead of sold as slaves. What could Capehart possibly find to argue with? A lot as it turns out.

Talking Points Memo corrected Bachmann's history lesson by pointing out that Adams wasn't one of the founders and that he died 15 years before the Emancipation Proclamation. Perhaps she was thinking of John Adams, the second president of the United States, who is different from John Quincy Adams, the new nation's sixth president. And let's just forget about that whole three-fifths compromise thing in Article 1, Section 2, paragraph 3 of the Constitution that counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of figuring out how many representatives would be apportioned to each state.

This is a confused mess. Yes, Adams died before the Emancipation Proclamation. So what? Bachmann did not say that Adams ended slavery, only that he opposed it.

Bachman used the term "forbearers" which is a gender neutral version of "forefathers" - the people who came before us. It does not mean "founders". Capehart pulled a rhetorical trick and substituted "founders" for "forbearers". That let him claim that she meant John Adams instead of his son, John Quincy Adams. John Adams was no fan of slavery but his son was the stronger voice on the subject. There is nothing in the quote he provided to indicate that she confused the two. He did that himself and hoped that we would not notice.

John Adams was party to the 3/5s compromise which proves absolutely nothing in this context. The compromise was instituted to limit the number of congressional seats that the slave states would have (i.e. it was an anti-slavery measure). Regardless, Bachmann was talking about John Quincy Adams who was a Boston lawyer during the Constitutional Convention.

So, Bachmann made a factual statement but Capehart deliberately misstated it in order to characterize her as an idiot. Amazing what a little Palin withdrawal will drive you to do.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Obama at Two Years

President Obama passed the half-way mark of his first(?) term last week. When he took office two years ago we was a largely unknown quantity. He had gone from state senator to President in an amazing four years. He deliberately left his views a blank slate. He was a scary figure to conservatives. He had an extremely liberal voting record, identified himself as being a progressive instead of a liberal, and had made frequent use of communist and fascist symbolism during his campaign. His supporters saw him as everything from a pragmatic moderate to the second coming of FDR.

Two years in we are still getting a handle on exactly who Obama is and what he believes. Part of this is because he takes a hands-off approach to polices that do not interest him. Unfortunately, these include Defense and the economy. Other things that we know are that he has trouble minding his tongue, a problem he shares with his vice-president. Several times Obama has made off-the-cuff remarks that caused him problems. The most recent was in December when he called the Republicans "hostage takers", transforming what should have been a triumph into a defeat. We also know that he hates Washington DC. He takes every opportunity to leave it, something he manages to do once or twice a week.

I'm going to start at the outside and work my in on the President's interests. Ironically, the one he has shown the least interest in is what made him President - Bush's War on Terror. Obama ran against the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, and nearly every other aspect of Bush's policies. The fact that Clinton and Edwards had voted in favor of the Iraq invasion gave Obama his first real break in the primaries. He promised to pull the troops out of Iraq within months of taking office. Guantanamo would be closed and its inmates would be tried in civilian courts. Once in office, Obama did an about face. He retained Bush's team and continued nearly all of his policies. It helped that, by that point, Bush had essentially won Iraq so any major changes by Obama risked turning victory into defeat. In Afghanistan, Obama's only consideration was balancing the needs of the military against his own party. The result of all this was been a vindication for the Republicans and a disappointment for the anti-war activists.

Obama has shown an amazing disinterest in the economy. Immediately after taking office he allowed Congress to write an unfocused, pork-laden "stimulus" bill. As soon as it passed he lost interest in actually helping the economy (although he keeps trying to take credit for any improvements). The actual running of the economy was passed to a couple of Wall Street insiders, Summers and Geithner. In the last few weeks Obama has shown interest in the economy but this came months later than it should have. Had he started concentrating on the economy in the Summer of 2009 instead of January 2011 the Democrats would have done better in the 2010 election. Obama has taken credit for saving the economy by passing the stimulus but economic indicators show that the recession officially ended early in the Summer of 2009, before any significant stimulus had been spent. Obama has also been deaf to complaints that his pet projects will hurt the economy.

Health care reform (or more accurately, health insurance reform) is a subject that Obama was interested in although, as with the stimulus, he allowed Congress to handle the messy details of actually deciding what was in the bill. His main input was to tell Congress what would not be included - tort reform and prescription drugs. While he applied pressure to keep the legislation moving, Nancy Pelosi deserves most of the credit (blame?) for actually getting the bill passed.

Obama's relationship with business is complex. In some areas he outright objects to private industry. When he took office student loans were split with half issued directly by the federal government and half through private institutions who made a profit on the transaction. Obama objected to anyone making a profit from student loans and eliminated the private role. He is not against profit in other areas as long as it is controlled. The health care bill shows Obama's preferences. Insurance companies are being transformed into the equivalent of utility companies. The amount of income that they are allowed to make a profit on is strictly controlled but, with nearly everyone required to carry insurance, profits are guaranteed. What is more, the insurance pools will eliminate the need to compete with other insurance companies. They all get a slice of the pie. This is in keeping with FDR's preferred way of dealing with business.

The environment is one of Obama's real passions. He talks about green energy a lot and has backed this up with billions of subsidies to advance it. His administration bypassed Congress on fleet millage standards and on CO2 emissions by power plants. Instead the Obama EPA has accomplished his goals by fiat. He has also obstructed off-shore oil drilling. His administration has been caught altering studies in order to justify this.

Obama is also passionate about nuclear disarmament. He has actively pursued this and negotiated a new START treaty with Russia. His success is mixed since both North Korea and Iran are still pursuing nuclear weapons.

Will Obama be reelected? This depends on a variety of factors. The biggest is the economy. Presidents tend to lose reelection when the economy is bad. Right now unemployment is higher than when Obama took office and is unlikely to drop much in the next two years. The President's economic team has been trying to fight unemployment by injecting money into the economy. This risks starting ruinous inflation. So far that has not happened but there are inflationary signs. Food and energy prices are up. Raw materials are getting more expensive. The threat of inflation in 2008 and a corresponding rise in interest rates is what brought on the collapse of the housing bubble. A new bout of inflation could end what little recovery we have. High inflation and unemployment led to Jimmy Carter's defeat in 1980. If these trends continue then Obama will be vulnerable in 2012.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

2010 Was Warm, Should We Care?

2010 is in a 3-way tie for hottest year on record but there is no panic in the streets. Why?

First, it was only tied with 2003 and 1998. That suggests that warming has plateaued.

Second, if you were paying attention then you know that there was a major el Nino event going on during most of the year. This reversed the cooling of the preceding years. It would be amazing if it was not officially a warm year. Late last Fall the el Nino event ended and a strong la Nina began. I expect to see world temperature for 2011 drop because of this. If it does not then I will start to worry. Otherwise we are seeing normal climate variation.

But the biggest reason that people do not seem to care is the track record of the predictors. It is not enough to cry "global warming". There are three related questions that have to be answered.

1) How much warming are talking about? There is a big difference between one and ten degrees per century. Temperature increases seem to have slowed over the last 10-12 years.

2) How much of it is a natural cycle and how much is caused by humans? We are still fighting about this one.

3) How will it affect us? Global warming believers keep insisting that warming will be terrible. Back around the year 2000 they were predicting that people in England and Washington DC would never see snow by 2010. The oceans were supposed to have risen several feet. Crops were supposed to fail but poison ivy and other pests were supposed to be thriving. All manner of ills were supposed to have happened by now.

The warmists overplayed their hand. People were not taking them seriously enough so they stepped up the rhetoric. Nothing good could come from global warming. Phrases like "save the planet" became common. But here we are, years later, and the world is not much different. In fact, winters have gotten harsher, returning to the type of winter we had in decades ago.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Some (Hopefully) Final Thoughts on the Giffords Shooting

Ten days ago very few people outside of her congressional district had heard of Gabriella Giffords. Now we get daily updates on her condition. She is the latest example of people who became heroes by virtue of being a victim. I have yet to hear anything about her career in Congress. I know that she was a moderate "Blue Dog Democrat" and that she voted with President Bush on at least one important vote but not much else. How about telling us something about her?

The news that we get is exaggerating her condition. There is talk of her going home soon. Yesterday the big news was that she gave her husband a neck massage. If you actually pay attention to what the doctors are saying then the message is completely different. Giffords suffered an injury to her brain and the doctors have been so busy saving her life that they have not spent any time assessing her mental condition. They do not know if she is expressing affection for her beloved husband or if these are random movements. The same thing happened with her husband's wedding ring. She took it off his hand and tried it on different fingers. He interpreted this as her trying to say something about their marriage. Unfortunately it sounds more like a child playing with a shiny object. By glossing over this, the news media is setting the nation up for additional trauma if it turns out that her faculties are affected. To date, no one has talked about possible loss of motor function. At best, Giffords faces years of rehabilitation.

The press focused on Giffords and three of the victims. We know a great deal about the child who was killed and a little bit about the intern and the judge. Next to nothing has been said about the final three, all seniors. Less than nothing was said about the other survivors.

Giffords's husband, Mark Kelly, has said that he would meet with Jared Loughner's parents and tell then that the shooting wasn't their fault. This is the same person who blamed the shooting on inflammatory rhetoric. Has he cooled off or does he still blame the Tea Party?

Despite it being clear that Loughner was not motivated by any heated rhetoric from either side. Regardless, most news accounts about Congress are still covering the rhetoric angle.

It is also clear that any speculation that Sarah Palin inspired the shooting was irresponsible. Even the New York Time admitted that their coverage was over the top. That did not stop pundits from saying that Palin should not have defended herself. In one example, Euegene Robinson justified publishing the Palin-shooting tie because Giffords herself had speculated that such a thing would happen.

In the days since, we have learned that the alleged gunman, Jared Lee Loughner, appears to be an unbalanced young man whose political views are confused and perhaps irrelevant. But at the time, nothing was known about the assailant or his motives. I am confident that at least one of Palin's professors must have taught her that in reporting about a shooting, the fact that the principal target felt threatened is highly relevant information, as is the specific nature of that threat.

In fact, within hours of the shooting information came out that made the Palin tie-in seem dubious. By the time the flood of "Palin did it" columns hit the stands Monday morning we knew that Loughner was either apolitical or loony-left. I suspect that Palin's professors had some warnings about writing a story before the facts were in. I would bet money that journalism professors never advise their students to completely ignore the facts. A column that Robinson wrote the Tuesday after the shooting shows that he was still in complete denial. It begins: We may not be sure that the bloodbath in Tucson had anything to do with politics.

While people wasted time looking for a political motive, the press seems to have missed the obvious - Loughner's attack most resembles a school shooting. In fact, some of his class-mates say that they worried that he would become a school shooter. This is bad news for the nation in general and the political class in specific. A well-publicized school shooting often leads to copy-cat crimes. I worry that other crazies will start shooting politicians.

There seems to be a push-back from mental health advocates. I have seen three different columns saying that we should not blame the shooting on mental illness. I would like to know why not? If Loughner's delusions drove him to shoot twenty people, killing six, then we should be investigating his delusions. Only a few delusional people become violent. How can we spot the right ones in time? This is not a case of the mental health profession failing Loughner. They were never involved. Why not?

At the same time, we have to be careful of civil liberties. It would be all too easy to rush laws into place to deal with the Tucson shooting only to have them used to silence political dissent.

One final thought - usually a shooter like Loughner dies before he can be questioned. That leaves the country wondering why he did it. Apparently capturing the murderer does not help. Nothing has been made public from either Loughner nor the Fort Hood shooter.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Turning a Tragedy into a Political Event

Almost as soon as the press reported that a member of the House of Representatives had been killed in Arizona, an unnamed high-level Democrat was quoted as saying it would be good for them if they could pin it on the right-wing. By the time the press clarified that Giffords had been shot but was not dead, the first of these attacks were out. Paul Krugman led the pack speculating that the attack was almost certainly political - self fulfilling prophecy since he turned an attack by an apolitical loner into a political event. He followed up on Monday writing about how the "Republican eliminationists" had created a hostile environment that led to the attack. (I'll come back to the word eliminationists later). Virtually all of the liberal columnists joined in calling for the Republicans in general and the Tea Party to tone down their rhetoric and singling out Sarah Palin's use of the phrase "Don't retreat, reload" and a map showing Democrats she was targeting for defeat.

All of this is very offensive. Nothing has emerged to link the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, with Palin. To the contrary, friends say that he did not pay attention to politics and had a grudge against her going back to 2007. Palin has not used language any more inflamatory than any other politician. Even President Obama has made statements about "if they to the fight we bring a gun" and "punishing your enemies". At the same time, no one prominent has outright urged the assassination of a politician since Craig Kilbourne superimposed the words "Snipers wanted" over a picture of President George W. Bush.

So we have the liberals telling the conservatives to clean up their act while ignoring their own excesses. (That word eliminationist is interesting in this context but more on that later.) The left used a tragedy to re-enforce a message that they have been peddling for two years, that the right is violent and needs to be feared. Michelle Malkin documents how often baseless accusations of right-wing violence have been made over the last two years.

On Wednesday Sarah Palin finally pushed back against the accusations. This became its own political mini-event. She called the accusations a blood libel. She probably picked up the term from a column that Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, wrote for the Wall Street Journal. No one cared when Reynolds used it but soon after Palin used it, some Jews complained that the word exclusively refers to medieval anti-Semitic propaganda (The belief was that the only way to enter heaven is through the blood of Christ. Since Jews cannot take communion, they substituted the bodies of Christians, killing Christian children and grinding them into matzo bread.) If you look up "blood libel" in Wikipedia, the entry deals exclusively with slanders against Jews. If you check the history of the entry you will find that a section was added on modern use of the term for other subjects than Jews. This was quickly deleted giving the impression that Palin was the first to use it this way and made a horrible blunder. If you search around you find that people including Jews have been using the term for other subjects at least since 2007.

Here is a good time to discuss Krugman's use of Eliminationist in context. The term was created around 1997 in reference to Hitler and the Holocaust. Linking this term with the Republicans is Krugman's subtle way of calling them fascists. No one has called him on that.

The original tragedy was used to discredit the right in general and Sarah Palin in specific. Palin's push-back was used to try to discredit her further. That set the stage for the, hopefully, final act - the memorial service.

Usually a memorial service is a dignified affair. Not this one. It turned into the opening act of Obama's 2012 reelection campaign. 30,000 students attended. They cheered the President. They booed the (Republican) governor. 10,000 of them got free T-shirts.

During his speech, Obama announced that Giffords opened her eyes for the first time since the shooting when he visited her, thus making the memorial all about him instead of the dead. (Actually she opened her eye during a visit by three congressmen just before Obama's visit. He only learned about it from her husband but his speech gives the impression that he had witnessed this personally).

The reviews of Obama's speech made it clear that the pundits took it as a campaign speech.

Other silliness has been added to the tragedy. Lawmakers often want to be seen doing something, no matter how useless. Suggestions include outlawing high-capacity magazines (A friend who has used one says that they make reloading much slower and harder. Loughner was stopped while changing clips. The Fort Hood shooter used ten-round clips and fired more shots.), making it illegal to carry a gun within 1,000 feet of a politician (how many suicidal killers are expected to follow this law?) and making it illegal to place a target on a map relating to a politician.

By treating a tragedy as an opportunity, the left has made ant sort of cooperation that much harder.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Tucson Shootings, round two

The worst thing about the tragedy in Tucson is the rush to use it for political ends. The first round of this was the immediate and baseless charge that Rep. Giffords was attacked because Sarah Palin had "targeted" her. This was nothing more than a cynical attempt to neutralize Palin. Within hours reports came out that the accused shooter, Jared Loughner, was a crazy pot-head rather than a dedicated Tea Party member.

On to round two. Writing in Slate, Jacob Weisberg tries to blame the Tea Party for creating an atmosphere of hate.

It is appropriate, however, to consider what was swirling outside Loughner's head. To call his crime an attempted assassination is to acknowledge that it appears to have had a political and not merely a personal context. That context wasn't Islamic radicalism, Puerto Rican independence, or anarcho-syndicalism. It was the anti-government, pro-gun, xenophobic populism that flourishes in the dry and angry climate of Arizona. Extremist shouters didn't program Loughner, in some mechanistic way, to shoot Gabrielle Giffords. But the Tea Party movement did make it appreciably more likely that a disturbed person like Loughner would react, would be able to react, and would not be prevented from reacting, in the crazy way he did.

At the core of the far right's culpability is its ongoing attack on the legitimacy of U.S. government—a venomous campaign not so different from the backdrop to the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Then it was focused on "government bureaucrats" and the ATF. This time it has been more about Obama's birth certificate and health care reform. In either case, it expresses the dangerous idea that the federal government lacks valid authority. It is this, rather than violent rhetoric per se, that is the most dangerous aspect of right-wing extremism.

There is a huge hole in the middle of Weisberg's argument. It lies chronologically between Oklahoma City and the Tea Party - the eight years of the Bush administration. Loughner was five when the Federal office building in Oklahoma City was bombed but in Weisberg's mind, the atmosphere the atmosphere from then still influenced Loughner but the eight years of protest against the Bush administration never happened.

Remember all of the bumper stickers saying "Resident in Chief" and "Not my president"? Remember Michael Moore calling Bush an invalid president during his Oscar acceptance speech? All of the "blood for oil" and "lying us into war" talk? Does Weisberg really think that events from 1995 affected Loughner but events from 2001 through 2008 did not?

One thing that we do know, Loughner fixated on Giffords by 2007, a year before anyone outside of Alaska had heard of Sarah Palin and two years before a tea party meant more than a historical event.

So, where is the remorse about the atmosphere of hate in 2007? Why is it ok for one side to question the government but not the other?

Weisberg continues by complaining about the availability of guns.

Guns are also at the heart of how the right's ideology enabled Loughner.

This is just one of many attacks on gun ownership that makes up the second round. If only guns were harder to buy then maybe Loughner would have given up. Or maybe he would have driven a car into the crowd. That has happened in the UK where guns are tightly controlled. Or maybe he would have created a bomb. No guns were involved in Oklahoma City. The crazed killers at Columbine meant to kill hundreds with a propane bomb and only started shooting people after the bomb failed to go off. It is silly to think that someone who shot twenty people before he was subdued would have been deterred by tougher gun control.

If you really want a root cause, how about drugs? Loughner was a good student until he took up pot and alcohol. Then he started on a downward spiral that led to his passing out in class and dropping out of high school before his senior year. Did the drugs contribute to his paranoia? That is as valid a point as any about gun control but the left supports legalizing pot and outlawing guns so we are not likely to hear that argument.

Regardless, a free society must be able to openly debate the limits and legitimacy of government. The actions of a lone crazed gunman cannot be allowed to shut down that debate.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Rush to Judgment

On Saturday, a gunman shot 20 people starting with a congresswoman, Gabby Giffords (D-AZ). Because of the "D" after her name and before any details came out many jumped to the conclusion that the shooting was inspired by the right-wing climate of hate. Some went to far as to directly blame Sarah Palin because she had "targeted" Giffords for defeat.

While it seems like a simple jump from Palin to the shooting, there are two major assumptions. The first is that when Palin says "target" she is really sending coded messages to her followers. The second is that the shooter is an avid follower of Palin and is willing to kill for her. The first assumption is ridiculous. Palin never called for outright violence and the terms that she has used are common in politics. Candidates are often targeted, but for defeat, not for assassination.

From the beginning, the facts did not support this interpretation. If this had been a political shooting then the gunman would have stopped after shooting Giffords. Instead he shot 19 other people including a 9-year-old who he killed. The rampage only stopped when he paused to reload and embers of the audience subdued him.

Unproven assumptions and inconvenient facts did not stop people like Paul Krugman from writing about eliminationist rhetoric from the right. To his credit, Keith Olbermann blamed both sides in one of his special commentaries. Both of these were written Saturday before any real facts had emerged.

By Sunday we knew a bit more. The (alleged) shooter, Jared Loughner, was described as a pothead who had created some rambling Youtube videos. No connection surfaced between Loughner and the Tea Party or Palin. That did not stop CNN from suggesting a link to Palin several times on Sunday.

By today a clearer picture has emerged of Jared Loughner. He was disturbed and some classmates worried that he would start shooting a classroom. One classmate said that as soon as she heard about the shooting she expected to hear that if was Loughner.

Loughner believed in many conspiracies. He believed that September 11 was committed by the government and that the space program is faked. He worried about government mind control through grammar and may have targeted Giffords because of a longstanding grudge against her. Three years ago he asked her, "What is government if words have no meaning?" and was upset with her answer.

Loughner is closer to the profile of a disaffected member of the left than of the right but it is unlikely that he acted on anyone's orders.

So, will we see a gushing of remorse and apologies to the right? Of course not. While some on the left were probably talking from their heart, others, like Paul Krugman, must have know better than to start hurling accusations without facts. The point of this was to shut down debate, to create a double standard where the left can continue saying anything it wants and the right has to self-censor. This was a cynical attempt to use a tragedy for political gain.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Rights and the Constitution

In 1991 Reason Magazine interviewed Nadine Strossen, the newly elected president of the ACLU. At one point they asked her about gun rights and the second amendment. She began by talking about the meaning of a "well regulated militia" but then added:

Putting all that aside, I don't want to dwell on constitutional analysis, because our view has never been that civil liberties are necessarily coextensive with constitutional rights. Conversely, I guess the fact that something is mentioned in the Constitution doesn't necessarily mean that it is a fundamental civil liberty.

In other words, the ACLU has its own definition of civil rights. The Bill of Rights and the Constitution are simply tools to be used but they are imperfect. The ACLU would pick and choose the parts that it supported and ignore the parts that it did not agree with.

Does this sound familiar? Is there any chance that this attitude is widespread among the progressives?

That would explain why a simply reading of the Constitution in the House of Representatives would send them into such a tizzy. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate refers to it as a fetish. She in turn links to this piece by Robert Parry which refers to the "Tea Party's myth-based assertions". You would think that a straight reading of the Constitution would dispel any myths about its contents. Instead it is Perry who makes a number of myth-based assertions about the Tea Party and it's goals. The Tea Party has a low regard for George W. Bush but Parry seems to think that he is making a killer argument when he cites (or invents) constitutional abuses by Bush.

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday complaining the reading:
The empty gestures are officially intended to set a new tone in Washington, to demonstrate — presumably to the Republicans' Tea Party supporters — that things are about to be done very differently. But it is far from clear what message is being sent by, for instance, reading aloud the nation's foundational document. Is this group of Republicans really trying to suggest that they care more deeply about the Constitution than anyone else and will follow it more closely?
In any case, it is a presumptuous and self-righteous act, suggesting that they alone understand the true meaning of a text that the founders wisely left open to generations of reinterpretation. Certainly the Republican leadership is not trying to suggest that African-Americans still be counted as three-fifths of a person.
You would think that critics of the reading would want people reminded of the 3/5s compromise since it showed that the document was not infallible and needed future amendment (note - amendment, not reinterpretation).
But, to answer the first question, yes, this group of Republicans is trying to suggest that they care more deeply about the Constitution. The fact that the Democrats refused to justify the constitutional justification for the individual mandate proves that. It also proves that the modern Democrats care more for advancing their agenda than for working within constitutional constraints.
Like the ACLU, the Democrats have been picking and choosing parts of the Constitution in order to advance their agenda. Now that some Republicans suggest that they should respect the entire document they are screaming bloody murder.

Update: Then there is this from the Washington Post which is just mean.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Lie of the Year

Politifact named their lie of the year but their choice was disappointingly partisan. They classified "government takeover of health care" as a lie based on a definition of "government takeover" so extreme that even England's socialized medicine would not qualify.

I'd like to offer my own lie of the year.

I seriously considered "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan." President Obama said this innumerable times but he neglected to add several caveats. He would have been more accurate to say, "If you like your health care plan, you can keep your health care plan, as long as your plan meets our minimum requirements and you do not change job class, even within your own employer and as long as your employer does not change plans because of government action."

The main reason I am not naming this as the lie of the year is because no one is still saying it. Instead this is the runner up.

"Recovery Summer" gets a special prize for being so wrong that the White House retired the phrase within a few days of starting the Recovery Summer tour.

But, the winner is "Obamacare is a deficit reduction act." This wins not only because it is such a bald faced lie but because it is still being tossed around. Just yesterday Politico quoted Nancy Pelosi as insisting that without Obamacare medical costs would be unsustainable. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post goes further accusing the Republicans of wanting to increase the deficit by $143 billion by repealing Obamacare.

Why is it a lie? When it originally scored the bill the CBO figured that it would bring in $142 billion more in new taxes than it cost. That is where the figure that Milbank used comes from but the CBO figure was not a true estimate. The new taxes are phased in before the most expensive parts of the bill so the CBO figure includes ten years of additional taxes but only six years of increased expenses. The CBO was also forced to use Congress's promise to make 30% cuts in payments to doctors even though Congress made it clear that they will not act on that promise. The Wall Street Journal said

Politicians have deliberately written the ObamaCare rules, as they have for all entitlements, so the real costs are disguised and hard for taxpayers to figure out.

So, Democrats and their supporters are still insisting that their legislation that will decrease both the direct costs of medical care and the government's portion when it will actually cause both to rise. That is why this is the lie of the year.

For more information, see here and here.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

American Exceptionalism, the Constitution and the Left

Two subjects keep recurring, especially from left-leaning pundits - American Exceptionalism and the Constitution. What is being said about these subjects reveals a lot about the difference in approach between conservatives and progressives.

There is some confusion about the meaning of American Exceptionalism - does it refer to the country or the citizens and does it somehow reflect God's favor. The definition I am using is that America, by dint of its constitution and its values stands head and shoulders above the rest of the world. I will go into more detail later but a lot of this has to do with the Constitution and the founding principals.

Most conservatives believe in this or a close variant. The progressives and liberals do not. As expressed by President Obama, American Exceptionism is no different than German Exceptionalism, nothing more than an expression of national pride. America has no moral high ground on the rest of the world. This is reflected in State Department policy. The Obama State Department has been reluctant to criticize other countries for abusive governments or human rights violations.

The reason the progressives are reluctant to celebrate America is that they want to make fundamental changes. You cannot say that America is better than Cuba and then try to implement a health care system similar to Cuba's. To them, America is just one among many countries and one that is not accomplished as many progressives goals.

The other subject in this post is the Constitution. This has become a rallying cry among conservative, especially the Tea Party. The new Republican majority in the House will begin this year's session with a public reading of the Constitution and a rule requiring every bill to cite its constitutional authority. Both of these have been soundly mocked by the left. Ezra Klein of The Washington Post says:

the issue of the Constitution is not that people don't read the text and think they're following; the issue with the Constitution is that the text is confusing because it was written more than 100 years ago and what people believe it says differs from person to person and differs depending on what they want to get done.

E. J. Dionne, also of the Washington Post, says:

From its inception, the Tea Party movement has treated the nation's great founding document not as the collection of shrewd political compromises that it is but as the equivalent of sacred scripture.

Yet as Gordon Wood, the widely admired historian of the Revolutionary era has noted, we "can recognize the extraordinary character of the Founding Fathers while also knowing that those 18th-century political leaders were not outside history. . . . They were as enmeshed in historical circumstances as we are, they had no special divine insight into politics, and their thinking was certainly not free of passion, ignorance, and foolishness."

An examination of the Constitution that views it as something other than the books of Genesis or Leviticus would be good for the country.

These are typical reactions from the left. The Constitution is described as a living document that has to be constantly re-interpreted. It is old and hard to read. It does not have any special insight.

Here is where I am going to insert my own views. The Constitution is a unique document and the product of a unique time. During the mid-to-late 18th century the great thinkers were rejecting the traditional form of government, the monarchy, and debating what the proper form of government should be in order to protect the rights of the governed. The constitution they produced protected these rights by making them part of the document itself. There is a process for making changes but it requires widespread support. Our government also has a distinct separation of powers that prevents any one branch from overstepping its authority. This is in contrast with the parliamentary system that most of the world uses where the majority party has nearly unlimited power. This is the basis for American Exceptionalism. Our system simply does not allow the accumulation of power that led to the Terror in post-revolutionary France or to the Nazis.

But, the Constitution as it stands is an impediment to many of the objectives of the progressives. Their solution is to minimize it. They know that they will never get the support needed to make the changes they need so instead they reinterpret it or ignore it.

This became obvious during the debate about health care reform. Speaker Pelosi was asked what her constitutional authority was for establishing the individual mandate. Her response was, "Are you joking?" During the debate, supporters insisted that the mandate was not a tax. Now, when trying to justify it to the courts, it is now described as a tax. At best, this is sloppy lawmaking. A giant bill was passed which will affect everyone in the country but the justification for it was left to the Justice Department after the bill passed. That is why the new Congress will require the justification to be part of all new legislation.

A common argument in favor of Obamacare often ignores the Constitution completely. It says that the only way to pay for all of the new coverage mandated is through an individual mandate therefore it must be allowed. This boils down to saying that we can ignore the Constitution as long as the desired results are important enough. This opens the way for incredible abuse but the progressives can't see that. They are too focused on their immediate goal to see any further down the road.

The conservative answer to this is that, like it or not, the Constitution is the law of the land. There are procedures in place to amend the Constitution. If you want change then use them. If you cannot get enough support then you do not have the mandate you thought you did.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Obama's Mistakes

This month marks the half-way point of President Obama's first term. While the Democrats are quick to tout the President's accomplishments, he has made some serious mistakes. When I say "mistake", I don't mean "Oops, I'd better fix that!" mistakes. I mean decisions that will haunt the country a decade or more from now.


The big one is, of course, Obamacare, not just because it is a bad piece of legislation, but because of what it doesn't cover. Two years ago the big concerns were the rising cost of medical care and of prescription drugs. Obama himself agreed with the first when he first proposed health care reform. He admitted that Medicare and Medicaid are going to go broke soon unless we "bend the curve" on health care cost.

That was about the last we heard about containing costs. Obamacare extends coverage and encourages check-ups without any mechanism for enlarging the medical care system. Basic economics says that this will make everything cost more. On top of that, part of the funding for Obamacare comes from an excise tax on medical equipment.

From the beginning, Obama and the Democrats decided not to touch malpractice suits. This is because of the influence of trial lawyers. They come in just after unions as the party's biggest donors and malpractice suits are a major source of income for many of them including John Edwards. These suits are a major factor in rising health care prices. Some specialties such as neurosurgery are so risky that specialists can expect half their patients to sue them. To keep these doctors in practice, the costs of their malpractice insurance are spread across all doctors so they are all paying outrageous rates. At the same time, most doctors practice defensive medicine. If a patient complains of a headache for a couple of days then the doctor will order a CAT scan. This is expensive and repeated, unneeded scans can increase the risk of cancer over the patient's lifetime.

Prescription drugs are another area that the Obama White House declared off-limits. This was a straight political deal. Obama agreed to leave the drug companies alone if they pledged to support whatever else the Democrats came up with.

None of these problems have gone away but the fight for Obamacare was so grinding that no politician is likely to try it again over these issues.

The Economy

Obamacare is also a factor in his other mistakes. The next one is the economy. Obama likes to say that when he took office the economy was in free-fall and that he stabilized it with the stimulus. His favorite simile involves the Republicans driving a car into the ditch then asking for the keys back after the Democrats pushed it back out. The economic decline mainly happened between September, 2008 and April of 2010. The stimulus was signed into law on February 17, 2009 with less than $200 billion to be spent in 2009. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the promise of future spending was enough to stabilize the economy by April. Most of the credit has to go to President Bush who pushed through various bailouts and the TARP. Obama continued Bush's policies. To amend Obama's favorite story, after the car went into the ditch, Bush pushed it 2/3s of the way out then Obama pushed it the rest of the way and took full credit.

But unemployment continued to rise after the economy stabilized and remains high today? What happened?

Obamacare is one factor, although a specialized one. It kicks in on companies employing 50 or more workers. That is a strong disincentive for companies to stay small.

There are other factors. Economists often cite "uncertainty". This means that companies are afraid of what the Obama administration will do next. Obama has shown that he puts ideology ahead of American competitiveness. He has made an end run around Congress on fleet mileage and CO2 emissions.

It has been pointed out many times that Obama has yet to appoint a cabinet official who has actually run a business. Instead he has appointed career politicians and academics.

Green Energy

Obama is convinced that global warming is real and that we have to do something about it. He has talked about green energy as being one of the three supports of the new American economy (along with health care and education). Right now, green energy means subsidized energy. We are subsidizing the conversion of food into fuel and the sales of automobiles as well as a long list of other technologies that only exist because of the subsidies.

The new focus on "green" has transformed the meaning of "green". Previously green meant good for the environment. Now it means low-CO2. Environmentalists from 30 years ago would be amazed that chemically inert light bulbs are being phased out in favor of ones containing mercury and other toxic chemicals.

The biggest driver of "green" is electricity generated through wind or solar and stored in high-efficiency batteries. An additional justification is energy independence but we are simply replacing an addiction to fossil fuels with one for lithium and rare earth metals. Most of these come from overseas and China, a major producer, has shown that it will use its exports as a political weapon.

Class Warfare

From the beginning, Obama made it clear that he does not like the wealthy and that he has a very broad definition of wealth. $200,000 ($250,000 joint income) sounds like a lot of money but it does not buy you the lifestyle of Paris Hilton, John Edwards or Al Gore. Obama makes no distinction by region, either. $200,000 buys you a lot more in West Virginia than in New York City.

It is toxic to society for the government to be dividing the population into the deserving poor and the undeserving rich. It also distorts the distinction between people who are really rich from those who are simply well-off.