Friday, April 21, 2017

Chess and Checkers

Hillary Clinton managed to lose two presidential races where she was the front-runner with a huge financial advantage. First she lost the 2008 primary to Barack Obama then she lost the 2016 presidential election to Donald Trump. I had a recent insight into how this could happen - Hillary was using checkers rules in a chess game.

There are two major differences between checkers and chess. The obvious one is that the pieces move differently. But that's minor. The biggest difference is that you win checkers by taking all of your opponent's pieces but you win chess by taking the king. Taking pieces in chess is a strategy but it can also be a distraction and it is possible for a player with fewer pieces to still win by effective use of his resources.

In both elections, Hillary had the wrong objectives. She went after large states, assuming that wins there would crush her opponents. Both Obama and Trump ran in states that Hillary ignored and, when she didn't do as well in the big states, they passed her.

Once you look at it this way, you can see several aspects of Hillary's campaign that showed the wrong strategy. Look at the first debate. The accepted wisdom was that Trump needed to act presidential and keep from losing his temper. Hillary was supposed to have consulted with experts on how to needle him and make him lose his temper. In a later debate she made a point of crossing the stage so she could be photographed with Trump looming behind her. Then her staff sent out the picture as an example of how women have to cope with angry men looming over their shoulder.

What Hillary forgot was that the goal of the debates was not to score points on your opponent. It was to convince the voters that they would be better off with you in the White House. Trump spent most of his opening statement explaining why renegotiating treaties would help put people back to work.

Hillary had twice the campaign funds as Trump but she only spent a fraction on ads promoting herself and those only told how she had fought for children all her career. The vast majority of her ads were aimed at telling us that Trump is a bad person. Like taking chess pieces, negative ads can put you in a stronger position but they miss the goal of convincing enough people to vote for you to win the Electoral College.

Trump did the opposite - me told people how he would help them. Trump, like Obama before him, never lost sight of the goal and both dark horse candidates went on to win the presidency.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Gotcha Politics

While making a point about the brutality of the Syrian government, White House spokesman Sean Spicer pointed out that even Hitler didn't use chemical weapons. This should have been an uncontroversial statement since it is true. World War One saw wide-spread use of mustard and chlorine gas warfare. It was widely anticipated that Hitler would order the V2s fired at London to be equipped with similar payloads and images of the Blitz show Londoners in gas masks in preparation for that.

Similarly, battlefield troops across Europe were equipped with gas masks which they never needed.

So why the controversy? It's because the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews and other minorities.

This is not remotely the same thing as dropping nerve gas on apartment buildings. Spicer did not try to compare Assad's brutality to Hitler's. He was referring to specific battlefield use of chemical weapons Pointing this out in no way diminished the horrors of the concentration camps or Hitler's final solution and no one would have been outraged if President Obama's spokesman had made a similar statement. It's just gotcha politics.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

About that Pepsi Ad

The big story of the day (not counting poison gas in Syria and rocket tests in North Korea) is a "tone deaf" ad by Pepsi featuring Kendall Jenner.

Assuming it hasn't been pulled, you can see it here.

The add contrasts a big but friendly street protest and a professional model in the middle of a photo shoot. The model is wearing a slinky silver dress, makeup and a blond wig. There is also a guy playing a cello (or similar large stringed instrument) which is not part of the sound track and a woman in Islamic headscarf who is looking at contact sheets or something. The guy with the cello drinks a Pepsi and joins the march. The woman in the headscarf screams in frustration, scatters she contact sheets, grabs her camera and runs out the march. The cello guy catches the eye of the model who apparently is suddenly "woke". She pulls her wig off, flashes to herself with different makeup, then hands her wig to an older black woman and joins the parade. She also manages to change clothes in an instant.

The model picks up a can of Pepsi, gives a Pepsi-fist bump to a couple of people including cello-guy and has her picture taken by headscarf girl. Then she hands the can of Pepsi to a good-looking cop who is standing peacefully nearby. He drinks it and the crowd goes wild.

The ad is sort of a feel-good version of the anti-Trump marches. People are carrying peace signs or signs that say "Join the conversation" and "love". There are a lot of minorities but the majority of the crowd is white. There are several cops present but none of them are visibly armed. A couple have riot helmets but most are simply standing there with their arms held behind them. There is no hint of violence.

If anyone should be offended, it's Trump supporters. It makes protests seem cool, especially if Pepsi is involved.

But that's not who's protesting. The complaints are all coming from the left, primarily Black Lives Matters. Here's a report on the backlash. The backlash is mainly split into two complaints. The first is Pepsi co-opting protest culture to sell soft drinks. That's a valid complaint.

The other complaint, and probably the real one, is that it makes the police look human. That's not how they put it but it's what they mean. It's a peaceful march, not a violent protest. The cops are engaged in traffic control. But the commenters keep going on about how a black marcher would be shot for approaching a cop like that.

Again, there is nothing in the ad to link it to the BLM marches. The closest anyone has come is a still of Kendal approaching the cop with a can and a picture of a BLM protestor being arrested.

But Black Lives Matters is all about teaching people that cops are terrible, people who will use any excuse to kill blacks. They still repeat the "Hands up, don't shoot" lie. So they can't allow an ad campaign that shows marchers and cops getting along. The ad has to go.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Nuking the Court

Senate Democrats are about to successfully filibuster a Supreme Court nominee for the first time ever. In response the Republicans are expected to "go nuclear" and change the rules governing the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees.The Democrats are making a mistake and doing it for very poor reasons. At the heart of their justifications are two truths - that they have no respect for principle and that they prefer to oppose President Trump than to serve the country,

They claim that the seat that Gorsuch was nominated to was "stolen" from Garland, President Obama's nominee and that no vote on Gorsuch should be allowed until a vote on Garland is first held. This sounds great in principle until you remember that President Obama and Vice-President Biden were both against a President nominating judges in their final year. I'd like to know if the Democrats would have held to these principles if Hillary Clinton had been elected and nominated a different, more progressive justice? I suspect I know the answer.

Gorsuch's elevation to the Supreme Court will not change the balance. He will be a conservative replacing a conservative and there is no chance that President Trump will withdraw his nomination and replace it with Garland.

A case can be made for leaving the court with eight members. Since Obama packed the lower courts with ideological appointments, that means that the court will keep ruling 4-4 on controversial matters letting lower court rulings stand. While terrible for jurisprudence, this would be good politically for the Democrats. But that would requite them to keep the seat open the entire Trump administration and to manage to win a 60-vote majority in the Senate after a Democrat replaces Trump. This would be a viable strategy if not for the nuclear option. The Republicans will not allow the Democrats to leave the seat vacant and by opposing such a well-qualified candidate who will not shift the court, the Democrats make the nuclear option inevitable.

That leaves obstructionism for its own sake as the Democrats' only motive. Their far-left base insists that Trump be opposed in every possible way and they are pandering to that group rather than serving their country.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Wonder Woman's Arm Pits

There's a controversy about Wonder Woman's arm pits. Some feminists are outraged that Diana shaves them. Here's some thoughts on that:

The character has been represented without excess body hair for decades.

Ancient Greek Women removed extra body hair (NSFW). Wonder Woman's culture is inspired by the ancient Greeks.

Many fashion trends, such as shaving, are as much about impressing other woman as they are looking good for men.

Men shave, too and much more often (and these days, men shave more of their bodies, too). I've seen speculation that both sexes are trying to preserve an adolescent look. Men shave world-wide including in cultures where women do not shave and this goes back thousands of years. There's something in the human makeup that makes us want to remove body hair. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Science and Dogma

Recently a student organization at Middlebury College invited Charles Murray to speak. Murray is considered a controversial speaker because he co-wrote the book The Bell Curve in the 1990s. His most recent work is about the effect that college recruitment has on income inequality. Rather than hear what Murray had to say or just ignore his talk, protestors shut it down and forced him to leave, injuring a professor in the process. The college paper published a letter from a guest contributor signed Nic Valenti '17 that gives some insight into the motivations of the protestors.

Nic begins with this:

I can understand the perceptions that would lead the AEI to invite a controversial speaker such as Charles Murray. Indeed, when I first arrived at Middlebury I was clueless to the systems of power constructed around race, gender, sexuality, class or ability, and found that when I talked about these issues as I understood them — or rather, as I didn't — I was met with blank stares and stigma rather than substantial debate. As a young bigot, I can recall thinking: "I thought at Middlebury I would get to have intellectual discussions, but instead it feels as though my views are being censored." However, as a first-year I had failed to consider a simple, yet powerful component of debate: not all opinions are valid opinions. I had fallen into the trap of false equivalence.

He then talks about a debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, a Young Earth Creationist, on the legitimacy of evolution. Naturally, Nye failed to convince Ham which seems to have infuriated Nic. That serves as a springboard into the controversy about Charles Murray:

And yet Charles Murray's views are even more dangerous than Ham's. Ham disavows a scientific theory; Murray disavows the fundamental equality of all human beings. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center: "In Murray's world, wealth and social power naturally accrue towards a 'cognitive elite' made up of high-IQ individuals (who are overwhelmingly white, male and from well-to-do families), while those on the lower end of the eponymous bell curve form an 'underclass' whose misfortunes stem from their low intelligence. According to Murray, the relative differences between the white and black populations of the United States, as well as those between men and women, have nothing to do with discrimination or historical and structural disadvantages, but rather stem from genetic differences between the groups."
This is an interesting juxtaposition and it shows how misguided Nic is about the world.

First of all, Nye didn't have a chance of convincing Ham. Nye was taking the scientific viewpoint which is that you go where-ever the evidence takes you. Ham was taking a dogmatic viewpoint that the Bible is to be taken as literally as possible and and evidence that says otherwise must be incorrect. I doubt if Nye ever expected to convince Ham. He was playing to the audience of people who might have been swayed by Ham.

So, on to Murray. Murray is not arguing dogma. He is a scientist and he is arguing in favor of an interpretation of the evidence. He uses genetics and statistics to make his case, both hard sciences.

Nic doesn't even bother to quote a dissenting scientist. Instead he quotes from the Southern Poverty Law Center which is not a scientific body by any stretch of the imagination. They are condemning Murray because they don't like the implications of his conclusions.

Nic doesn't realize it but he's in the same position as Ken Ham - he's spouting dogma against a scientist. If you look at Nic's earlier paragraph in this light you can see the parallels between it and a religious tract: "I was a sinner but I've received the word and I've been saved." Nic tells us that he came to college ready to debate issues but was indoctrinated.

This attitude explains the violence against a speaker. Science allows dissenting opinions to be voiced. They are then accepted or rejected on the soundness of their arguments. Dogma rejects all dissent out of hand and harshly suppresses heresy.

In late-17th century the Puritans in New England had a problem. The founders were sure they had been saved. But they weren't sure about their children. Salvation isn't hereditary and there's no visible mark to tell who is among the elect (the ones chosen by God). According to the Puritans. the only way to be sure was to constantly search your own soul and the souls of those around you for sin. That's what college campuses have become these days. The students are constantly searching each other's souls for and deviation from their dogma and engaging in ostentatious virtue signalling to prove that they are among the elect.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Kellyanne and the Gotcha photo

Earlier this week President Trump had a meeting with over 100 leaders of historically black colleges and universities. The press didn't run a picture of that. And pictures were taken. Here's one of Kellyanne Conway taking a picture with her phone.

Here's the picture that was run

Which was followed by criticism for Kellyanne for having her feet on the couch and fir sitting in the presence of the visitors. This is a "gotcha" picture. It had two purposes:

1) It keeps the press from having to report on Trump's outreach to a large group of black leaders.

2) It helps to discredit Kellyanne. The left hates her with a passion for orchestrating Trump's winning campaign.

Contrast this with eight years ago when CNN had a group of black kids singing and dancing in support of Obamacare.

That's why the press is no longer trusted.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Two Year Myth

Ever since the election I've been seeing people on the left talking about how Trump will be president for two years. The highest profile version of this I've seen to date is a column by former conservative Kathleen Parker. She says:

My "good" prediction is based on the Law of the Pendulum. Enough Americans, including most independent voters, will be so ready to shed Donald Trump and his little shop of horrors that the 2018 midterm elections are all but certain to be a landslide — no, make that a mudslide — sweep of the House and Senate. If Republicans took both houses in a groundswell of the people's rejection of Obamacare, Democrats will take them back in a tsunami of protest.

This is a total fantasy. There is no way that the Democrats can remove Trump from office, even in an unprecedented landslide. No chance at all.

Because Senators server six year terms, the people coming up for reelection in 2018 are the ones who last ran in 2012 with Barack Obama at the top of the ticket. The Democrats who won were riding on Obama's coattails and the Republicans who won were bucking a headwind. The numbers show that. The Democrats and independents who caucus with the Democrats are defending 25 seats. The Republicans are defending 8. That's long odds for the Democrats.

But, let's assume that the Democrats manage a clean sweep and win all 33 seats. That would give them 56 seats. Assuming that they also take the house and pass a bill on impeachment, then the Senate would have to vote on removing President Trump and that takes a 2/3s super-majority. They'd have to have 67 votes. Does anyone seriously think that 11 Republicans will join the Democrats in ejecting a Republican president? The best guide we have to go on was the impeachment of Bill Clinton which failed in the Senate because the Democrats refused to vote to remove him, even though there was no question that he was guilty of perjury.

And, even if the Democrats did manage to remove Trump, that just elevates Pence to the presidency. Are we to believe that they will find cause to impeach him, too, so that nancy Pelosi can be president (it goes without saying that they will also refuse to confirm a replacement vice president after Trump is removed).

So any hopes of removing President Trump involve a lot of wishful thinking.

But is it even rational to assume that 2018 will be a Democratic wave election? The White House changes parties regularly. Since World War II, it's switched every 8 years with two exceptions, both involving Reagan (Reagan defeated a sitting president and his successor was elected but only held the White House for a single term). The Senate has changed hands several times since the Republicans took it in 1980 but its shifts tend to take 6 years or longer. The Republicans have only controlled the Senate since 2014.

The House is a different animal. The Democrats controlled it continuously from the 1930s until 1994 with the exception of the Republicans controlling it twice, both times for single term in the 1950s. The Republicans finally won control of the House in 1994  after 40 years and kept it until 2006 then won it back again in 2010.

It's instructive to look at what was going on when the House changed hands. 1994 was partly a reaction to Bill Clinton's presidency but it also featured the Contract With America - a set of issues that the Republicans promised to vote on in their first 100 days. They delivered on their Contract, also, but it was mainly symbolic since the Democrats still controlled the Senate.

The Democrats took the House in two wave elections. The first, in 2006, was largely a reaction to the war in Iraq. The 2008 election was a reaction to the financial crisis. The Republicans formed the Tea Party in 2009 and took the House back the following year. Considering that the Democrats controlled the House for 58 out of 62 years then the House may be in a similar, long-term Republican period with short interruptions because of external events. If this is true then there is no pendulum to swing back.

There is good reason to believe this. The country in general tends to be center-right but in the last two decades people have self-selected so that the country is a sea of red with small clusters of urban-dwelling liberals. This makes it nearly impossible to draw competitive congressional districts. Ohio continues to be nearly 50/50 but the graphic below shows how the Democrats have retreated into only a few counties.

Even if we assume that it is possible to swing Congress back so soon, what will the Democrats' message be? Their post-election analysis rejected and moderation in favor of doubling down on progressive policies and identity politics. They have sworn to to all that they can to resist President Trump at every level. That satisfies their base but they already have the base's vote. A lot depends on how Trump's policies play out but the Democrats are taking a huge risk. They are convinced that Trump is a terrible president and that the rest of the country will eventually realize it. They have no plan B. If Trump succeeds or even muddles through then the Democrats will fail. 

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Elizabeth Warren (sort of) Gets It.

In a speech to the Democrats last weekend, Elizabeth Warren had some genuine insights.

Our moment of crisis didn't begin with the election of Donald Trump," she said. "We were already in crisis. We were already in crisis because for years and years and years, Washington has worked just great for the rich and the powerful, but far too often, it hasn't worked for anyone else."

"People don't just wake up one day and elect leaders like Donald Trump because 'hey, everything is awesome, but what the hell, let's roll the dice and make life interesting,'" she added. 

Democrats frequently enabled or participated in these trends, Warren said.

"Republican politicians have pushed one policy after another that has favored the rich and powerful over everyone else, and far too often, Democrats have gone right along," she said. "And no matter how extreme Republicans in Washington became, Democrats might grumble or whine, but when it came time for action, our party hesitated and pushed back only with great reluctance. Far too often, Democrats have been unwilling to get out there and fight."

She's exactly right when she says that people didn't elect Trump because they are satisfied. But she missed some important points.

Her biggest problem is her insistence that it's all the Republicans' fault.

This country is in an economic crisis. For more than 30 years, working families, middle class families, poor families, students, seniors have been squeezed harder and harder, and now they are at the breaking point. Republican politicians have pushed one policy after another that has favored the rich and powerful over everyone else, and far too often, Democrats have gone right along. And no matter how extreme Republicans in Washington became, Democrats might grumble or whine, but when it came time for action, our party hesitated and pushed back only with great reluctance. Far too often, Democrats have been unwilling to get out there and fight.

Warren needs to take a close look at her own party. They like to tell themselves that they are the party of the working people and not the rich and powerful but that's not how people outside the party see them. Who are their biggest donors? Wall Street, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. The super rich. And why do these super rich people donate to the Democrats if the Republicans are the ones pushing policies favoring them? Are these people crazy? Or maybe the Democrats have become the party of the rich while telling themselves that they still represent the poor.

Former President Obama likes to brag that he saved the economy but what he saved was Wall Street. No one went to jail. All of those companies that are too big to fail weren't broken up. Instead they were buttressed. Income inequality kept rising. The Fed pushed billions into Wall Street by lowering interest rates to an effective 0%.

Ideology rules the Democrats. When given a choice between jobs and ideology, ideology always wins. The XP pipeline may not produce all that many jobs but it is symbolic of how the Democrats think. Even after studies showed that it was safe and would not contribute measurably to global warming, the Democrats still killed it because it made the ideologists feel good.

First Obama and then Hillary came out against coal. Hillary actually said that she was going to put coal miners out of work. yes, she went on to say some platitudes about finding them new jobs in clean energy but they knew better than to believe that.

In every other recovery since WWII, small businesses have lead the way but not this time which is probably why the recovery was so weak. What happened to the small businesses? No one is sure but it's very possible that the mountain of new regulations the Obama administration created has something to do with it.

Then there was the Trans-pacific Partnership which Obama decided to call an agreement instead of a treaty so that he wouldn't have to get the Senate to ratify it. He did the same with the Paris Accords, too. Both were unpopular among working-class Americans.

So Warren is correct that people feel left out of the economy but she missed the fact that they blame the Democrats - on every level. The Democrats have become the party of the wealthy and the city-dwellers.

Trump is trying to change the economy and put jobs first. He may be wrong-headed but he's trying to help Americans.

And here's where Warren gets it completely wrong,

We are not the minority party. We are the opposition party, and we need to talk about the key difference between us and them every day—and we need to say it in the plainest possible way

She goes on to talk about all of the regular anti-Trump talking points. But she never talks about what the Democrats will do for the average worker. She never proposes a new economic agenda, just doubling down on the current platform. She never thinks about how that will look to the people who voted for Trump.

So she learned nothing from the election.

Friday, February 03, 2017

The Democrat's Dilemma

The Senate Democrats have a huge dilemma. They spent years complaining about Republican obstructionism in general and the last several months complaining that the Senate Republicans needed to "do their Constitutional job" and approve President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court. But now that President Trump has nominated someone, the Democrats suddenly turned obstructionist.

There is no good reason for opposing Judge Gorsuch. He is eminently qualified and he will not tilt the court further to the right. There are some ruffled feathers on the left because Obama's nominee didn't get a hearing but the precedent of the opposing party stopping lame duck appointments goes back to 1992 and both Barack Obama and Joe Biden supported it as senators.

The main reason there is any controversy is that the left hates President Trump with a white hot passion. They don't want to see the Democrats in Congress cooperating with Trump on anything.

The problem for the Democrats is that it makes what the Republicans did against Obama look mild by example. The Democrats are raising the level of obstruction. This will haunt them in two ways. When they inevitably return to power, the Republicans will use every trick that the Democrats have used. In the meantime, the Republicans have every excuse to throw away the rule book and use the "nuclear option" - changing the rules by a simple majority vote. The Democrats already did this for everything except Supreme Court nominees, something they are surely regretting right now. Doing away with the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees will make it easier to confirm more polarized justices. That's one of those things that's only good when your side can do it.

So the Senate Democrats have strong reasons to allow Judge Gorsuch to be confirmed. But that will anger the base and will probably lead to some primary challenges.

For many Senators, there is no good choice. Doing the right thing will hurt them and doing the wrong thing will hurt the country. So they have a dilemma.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Obama to Trump

A had a few thoughts during Donald Trump's inauguration about the difference between him and former President Obama. The quick version is that Obama's main priority was trying to transform America while Trump's seems to be trying to help Americans.

The XP Pipeline is a perfect example. Studies said that it imposed no significant risks and that the amount of oil produced from it would not affect global warming in any measurable way. Blocking the pipeline stopped American jobs and hurt relations with Canada. But Obama did it anyway for symbolic reasons.

After the Sandy Hook shootings, there was a major push for gun control. None of it would have stopped the tragedy. It was just an excuse for gun control.

The regulatory state went into overdrive during the Obama administration with the EPA claiming control over such diverse things as automobile mileage which had previously been under Congressional control.

Obama claimed that he was forced to use executive orders to reform immigration law because Congress refused to act. The reason Congress didn't act was because the legislation was highly unpopular. Pressure from illegal immigrants depresses wages of American workers.

Obama seemed to give more support to the Black Lives Matters movement than to police officers who were killed directly because of BLM protests.

Obamacare may have insured millions who didn't have insurance, but it also stifled tens of thousands of small companies. In every previous recession, small businesses were responsible for most of the new jobs during the recovery. Without the hiring from small business, the recovery has been, at best, tepid.

The Obama administration and the Democrats in general went out of their way to be as harsh as possible on dissenters. In 2008, Obama felt that he could not be elected if he admitted he favored gay marriage and the State of California passed an anti-gay marriage constitutional amendment. Regardless of that, any business that refused personal services for gay weddings was fined enough to put it out of business.

The same was true for religious exemptions for birth control under Obamacare. The Obama administration was very unforgiving in awarding exemptions.

I could go on. These are just examples off of the top of my head but they illustrate my point - that Obama and his administration valued conformity with its principles over the desires and well-being of the populous. This was especially true in coal country and managed to push a solidly blue state (West Virginia) to being solidly red.

All I have to go on so far from Trump is his campaign promises and his inaugural speech but he seems to desire to put American workers first, ahead of ideology. That is a huge change from the previous administration.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Obama's Legacy - Foreign Policy

Obama opposed the Iraq war. This gave him a big advantage in the 2008 primaries since Clinton and Edwards had both voted in favor of it. Of course, he was a state senator at the time but it gave him credibility when he made ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan the center of his campaign. During one of the debates he stated that he was willing to meet with the heads of hostile countries without pre-condition and spoke disparagingly of treating a presidential visit as a reward to foreign countries. THis was met with disbelief by Clinton and others with foreign policy experience. Regardless, Obama doubled down, implying that nations were hostile to us only because we hadn't approached them properly.

Although never stated publicly, this was the main thrust of Obama's foreign policy: approaching hostile nations and trying to forge friendly relations. He also was a proponent of nuclear disarmament. 

This sounds good in practice but requires careful implementation and care that traditional allies are not slighted.

The Obama years were not a good time to be a friend of the US, especially one who had good relations with the Bush (43) administration. The Obama administration decided that Germany was more important to us than England. India, which had been growing close to the US, got a cool reception from the US under Obama. Israel received the worst treatment as Obama put "daylight" between the two countries culminating with a UN resolution that declares that Judaism's holiest spots are illegally occupied conquered territory.

The various policies are so interconnected that it's hard to know where to start. An easy one is Cuba. The best policy would have been to wait fo the Castro brothers to die of old age and strike a bargain with their successors to lift sanctions in exchange for liberalizing Cuba. But that meant that a different president would get credit for reopening ties with Cuba and Obama wanted that to be part of his legacy. So he opened relations on nothing more than a vague promise from the Castros to release some political prisoners in the future. Unsurprisingly, the opening of Cuba was accompanied by government crackdowns instead of liberalization and Fidel Castro never softened his anti-American speeches until his death.

Iran is a more difficult case. Obama dreamed of being responsible for Iran being accepted back into the brotherhood of nations. He planned for it to take it's place as a regional power and to take our place as the peacekeeper in Iraq. The first step to that was to conclude the talks that were supposed to stop Iran's nuclear program. This cast a long shadow over all of Obama's other dealing in the middle-East. It was obvious to Iran that Obama wanted a treaty more than they did so they were able to dictate his actions elsewhere, particularly Syria. Syria is a client state of Iran and they let it be known that any actions we took to dispose the Syrian government would end the treaty negotiation.

This gave a sanctuary for the radical groups who had been forced out of Iraq to come together to form Isis. When he was finally forced to fight, Isis, Obama limited his efforts to Iraq. There was an effort to find and train Syrians to fight Isis but it was nearly impossible to find people who would promise not to take part in the raging Syrian civil war.

Since Obama had no intention of sending American combat troops to fight Isis, he had to rely on the Kurds. This caused tension with Turkey which has a Kurdish minority that wants to join with the Iraqi Kurds to form their own state. Obama's refusal to establish a no-fly zone over Syria caused more tension (the no-fly zone was vetoed by Iran). Eventually Turkey turned to Russia.

The Syrian civil war has caused humanitarian disaster. Hundreds of thousands are dead and millions displaced. Obama keeps saying that there is no military solution to Syria, only a diplomatic one and engaging in his favorite rhetorical device the straw-man choice (doing nothing vs a full scale invasion which no one has asked for). At this point, the Russians have proved that there is always a military solution if you are ruthless enough.

Libya is another humanitarian disaster, one we were responsible for. Obama supported a rebellion that overthrew a corrupt but stable government. The result is that Libya became a failed state.

The refugees from Syria and Libya are streaming into Europe and threatening to break apart the European Union. Anti-immigrant parties are on the rise in several countries across Europe and resistance to Europe's open border policy was a factor in the Brexit (Obama made things worse by threatening Great Briton that they'd go to the back of the queue in trade talks if they split from Europe. The Brits resented being lectured on their future by an American president and probably helped the leave faction).

We had a chance to change the governments of both Iran and Syria. After a rigged election, the Green Revolution broke out. We could have helped it. The CIA had a group that assists in organizing groups pushing for democratic reforms. Rather than assisting the Green Revolution, Obama ordered a hands-off policy. Later, the Iranian government was on the verge of collapse because of sanctions so he lifted some and lifted even more after the nuclear treaty was signed. He even shipped pallets of cash in small bills to Iran to pay for a hostage release.

At one point, early in the Syrian civil war, Russia offered to force the Syrian government out but we passed on that offer because we were sure it would collapse on its own soon.

Relations with Russia were already strained when Obama took office. He sent Secretary of State with a symbolic "reset button" then followed up personally. Instead of improving, relations continued to deteriorate. The Ukraine was invaded and the Crimea annexed. During a 2012 debate, Obama mocked Romney for calling Russia our biggest geopolitical rival. By his last month in office he was sanctioning them for interfering in the presidential election. Along the way Obama managed to convince Putin that we were planning on overthrowing him.

Egypt has had two revolutions on Obama's watch. In both cases, we started by supporting the current government, then supporting the revolution. The Obama State Department allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt because they were curious to see if it could turn into a responsible government. They couldn't and we supported a military coup which has turned out to be at least as repressive as the two previous governments.

One indirect benefit of Obama's pro-Iran policy is a stronger Israel. The Saudis and their allies are worried by Obama's support for Iran and see Israel as a strong ally, one that the US has similarly turned it's back on.

All of this for a treaty that was supposed to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons but instead gives them a timetable for becoming a legal nuclear power. Like Cuba, Iran was far from grateful. Instead they are working on ballistic missiles capable of striking all of Europe with the nuclear bombs that they are allowed to build in just a few years. And they have already declared that the US is in violation of the treaty which allows them to do anything they want (and can now afford after sanctions were lifted and billions of dollars delivered).

In 2004 Obama accidentally drew a red line for Syria - no chemical weapons. By 2005 it was obvious that they had been using them. Obama and Secretary of State Kerry promised that we would retaliate but it would be "unbelievably small". Then, after Britain's Parliament voted against taking action, Obama decided that he would not act without Congressional approval. Keep in mind that he had already expended his drone war into a half dozen countries and overthrown the government of Libya without Congress but he needed their approval for an unbelievably small retaliation. Congress refused. Russian intervened and Syria gave up its chemical weapons stockpiles and resorted to using chlorine gas instead. This was a terrible outcome. Obama and the US looked weak for making threats that we had no intention of following through on and for needing Russia to clean up after us and it didn't even stop Syria from using poison gas.

That sums up the world's view of the US under Obama. We talk a lot, often talking down to other nations, but we fail to follow through in any meaningful way. The world has stopped looking to the US and now goes it alone or looks to Russia for support.

I've rambled on long enough so I won't even mention China's incursions into the South Sea or Korea's weapons program.

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Obama's Legacy - Obamacare

Early in his presidency, Mr. Obama announced to his staff that he needed something big as his legacy. "Isn't saving the world's economy enough?" they asked. "No, it has to be bigger than that," the President told them.

Obama wanted to be remembered as the Roosevelts are for national parks and Social Security, respectively or LBJ and Medicare/Medicaid. He wanted something big.

Surprisingly, health care wasn't the first thing that came to mind for him. The Democratic party had been waiting impatiently since the early 1990s when Hillary Clinton's proposed health care reform collapsed under it's own weight. But health care reform was never a priority for Obama. He'd only included it in his platform to counter Hillary's proposal in the primaries. He'd even mocked her individual mandate. But health care reform was big - big enough to be his legacy.

Since he wasn't that interested in it, he left the details up to Congress and provided no guidance at all except that it should be something to address the uninsured instead of a total overhaul of the health care system. Even that was going to be a hard sell. And it was. Several Congressmen cut deals in exchange for their votes. It was decided early on that the Republicans would be cut out of writing the legislation which meant that they were unanimously against it. The Democrats had enough votes to go it alone but just barely.

The result was a mess but that was acceptable since it could be cleaned up during the reconciliation process with the Senate's version.

Then things got difficult.

Most Americans were happy with their insurance and worried that they'd end up with worse coverage. Opposition started to show up during the August recess when Democrats held town hall meetings to try to sell the legislation. It got worse when it came out that the Congressional leaders had no intention of actually reading the legislation. Public opinion turns against the bill. The final blow came when Ted Kennedy died and a Republican was elected to replace him on an anti-Obamacare platform.

That should have been the end of it. But Obama needed his legacy and the Democrats were convinced that the legislation would eventually become popular and assure them generations of majority status. With only 59 votes in the Senate they could not get past a filibuster so they used a legislative sleight-of-hand and used the House's bill, as written which only required a simple majority vote.

Obamacare became the law of the land without a single Republican vote and with more than half of the country against it.

The bill was flawed and they knew it but Obama and the Democrats preferred to pass something than nothing and they kept telling themselves that it would pay off in the long run.

It didn't. Obamacare never became popular and while Obama was reelected in 2012, the Democrats lost everywhere else.

As different parts of the law went into effect, left-leaning writers bragged about the number of people who were covered but neglected to mention that enrollment was always millions short of projections. This was an important shortfall. In order to work, a lot of young, healthy people needed to be enrolled to pay for the older, sicker ones. The program had no problem signing up the sick ones but the shortfall of healthy members meant that the participating insurance companies had huge losses. This lead to several insurance companies pulling out and others raising their rates much faster than inflation.

In selling the program, Obama promised "if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor". This was named the lie of the year.

One rather cruel part of Obamacare was the Cadillac Plan tax. If your employer-provided plan was too good then it was taxed at a punitive rate to pay for subsidies. This meant that millions of people (and I'm one of them) had their insurance cut because their employer couldn't afford the taxes. In my case, the cuts amount to hundreds a month in out-of-pocket costs and I'm not alone.

Obamacare called for the states to set up insurance exchanges. Many Republican-controlled states refused so Obama simply ordered that the federal government would provide an exchange instead. The roll-out of the federal system was a complete disaster and it was months before the exchange was working properly.

The states that did set up their own exchanges had similar problems and several of those have since folded.

There was an employer mandate in Obamacare but Obama used an executive order to push that back, regardless of not having any actual authority to do this.

Despite being 2,000 pages long, a lot in Obamacare was left to bureaucrats to write. That included what birth control methods would be mandated. At first the Obama administration wanted this mandate to be universal but religious institutions objected. A waiver was allowed for them but the definition of who could get a waiver was very strict. A church could but a school run by that same church could not. This lead to two court cases. In one, Hobby Lobby objected to three out of fifteen types of mandated birth control on the grounds that they caused abortions. The Supreme Court ruled in their favor. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns, objected to providing any birth control. This is still pending after being sent back to the lower courts. When no one in the Obama administration or the Democratic party noticed was that these administrative choices sent a clear message that the Democratic party was anti-religion. This cost them in the 2016 election when Evangelicals and Catholics turned out heavily for the Republicans.

As of this writing, it is unclear exactly what will become of Obamacare. The Republicans have vowed to Repeal and Replace Obamacare. Even if Hillary Clinton had won and the Democrats had swept back into office, the program couldn't survive without a major overhaul.

Obama saw Obamacare as his legacy, something that future generations would look back on. Instead, it will be looked back on as a cautionary tale against rushed, unpopular legislation.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Obama's Legacy - The Financial Crisis

No other president in my lifetime entered office worrying about his legacy as much as Barack Obama. As his second term ends, I'll look back at his tenure and rate his legacy.

The financial crisis of 2008, also known as the Great Recession, was a terrible thing for most people but it helped President Obama in many ways.

The crisis itself was not very well understood. During the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton insisted that it was caused by the Bush tax cuts. Even the left-leaning fact checkers rated this one false. The reason for Hillary's prevarication is that the crisis had its roots in Bill Clinton's presidency. During that period, it was decided that increasing home ownership, especially among minorities, would be a good thing. As part of this, many of the qualifications to get a mortgage were eliminated. Previously you needed a large down-payment and the mortgage could be no more than 15%-20% of your income. That made it unlikely that you would default.

At the same time, a weak-dollar policy designed to reduce the trade deficit and historic-low inflation pushed mortgage rates to the lowest in generations. Variable-rate mortgages pushed the rates even lower. All of this created a housing boom. Rising home values allowed people to constantly refinance their house for more than they paid for it while keeping payments low. The Bush administration continued these policies.

All of these mortgages were used to create something new. They would be bundled together and sold as a package along with some insurance against default. With stocks and bonds paying so little because of the low interest rates, these financial instruments were the best way to get an easy return on investments.

The problem was that the whole thing was a house of cards that depended on rising housing values and those couldn't rise forever. That should have been obvious but people were making so much money on all levels that no one seriously questioned  the bubble that they were creating.

The crash was inevitable but not the timing. This is where Obama had an amazing stroke of luck. The crisis hit after the conventions, just in time to derail Senator McCain's campaign as the voters blamed the Republicans. But the worst of it hit before Obama was sworn in. The parts where the world economy were in danger were handled by President Bush, who usually gets the blame for causing it but little credit for saving the world's economy. Many of the steps taken were unpopular, such as bailing out banks. Obama was there  as Senator and president-elect and supported Bush's actions but was able to distance himself from it.

By the time Obama was sworn in, his main job was to not mess up the recovery. But that's not how he was received. People expected him to work miracles. Some (including New Your Times Columnists) called on him to suspend Congress for a year so he could just fix things from the way Bush messed them up.

Congress acted on a stimulus bill that was supposed to save the economy by financing "shovel-ready" jobs that were already planned but needed funding. These didn't really exist and most of the $700 billion went for a grab-bag of programs as well as for propping up cash-strapped states.

Obama also had a free hand to save GM and Chrysler. He did that by having them go through bankruptcy but, in what would become an Obama trademark, by ignoring bankruptcy laws and dividing GM up by executive fiat.

Obama moved to shore up the banks, forcing them to take funds so no one could tell which banks actually needed the money then telling them that "he owned them" and that he was all that stood between them and the crowd with pitchforks.

Obama also announced a program to help people who defaulted on their mortgages. This provoked a backlash by people who felt that Obama was rewarding those who broke the rules and ignoring the ones who followed by the rules. The backlash gave rise to the Tea Party.

After the 2010 election, the Republicans took back the House. There would be no second stimulus. Without that, Obama relied on the Federal Reserve which cut interest rates to as close to zero as is possible to get.

How did all of that work out? Not so well. The recovery was the slowest since the Great Depression. Years later the interest rates are still near-zero. Unemployment has dropped below 5% but the participation rate is the lowest ever and a large percentage of the workforce is under-employed. Given that the Fed is still keeping the economy on life-support, it can be argued that we never actually recovered at all.

It's quite possible that the underlying problem is increased regulation. This is the only recovery ever where increases in employment came from large businesses instead of small ones. The Obama administration has issued a record number of new regulations and those might be dragging down small business. Or it may be other factors. Regardless, Obama's claim that he saved the economy rings hollow to large sections of the economy.

As a final exercise, let's imagine what would have happened if the crash had come a year earlier or later to see why Obama was so lucky.

McCain seemed totally out of his depth when the crisis hit. Had it hit earlier, then either he'd have managed to come to terms with it or a different candidate would have won the nomination - possibly Mitt Romney. The shock of the hundreds of billions in bail-outs would have passed, too.

Obama may not have even managed to capture the nomination if the crisis had hit in 2007. Hillary Clinton was the presumed candidate and her message of returning to the prosperity of the Clinton years would have resonated. Obama was a dark horse until after Super Tuesday when he dominated the news by winning caucus after caucus, giving him a sense of inevitability. An earlier crisis may have crowded that out of the news.

Had Obama managed to overcome all of that, he still would have taken office well after the crisis was passed and the recovery had begun. He'd still have been able to take credit for it but he wouldn't have had the same urgency.

Think how much worse it would have been for Obama if the crisis had struck after he was in office. Just as many Democrats blame Bush for not stopping 9/11 (Michael Moore is still going on about it), many would have blamed Obama for not stopping the economic melt-down. Far from having people clamoring for him to save the economy, he'd be trying to cobble together the same bi-partisan group that Bush needed to save the economy. But, Bush was much better at bi-partisanship that Obama. Obama barely gets along with the Democrats in his party. He might not have been able to salvage things. Or he might not have been willing to rescue banks given his antipathy to the wealthy.

It's very likely that the country would have been willing to elect a turn-around artist in the 2012 election and elect Romney.

So, like I said, Obama was very lucky that the crisis hit exactly when it did.