April 2011, Part 2
Jim Miller on Politics
Clever Campaigner, Lousy Leader: That's David Gergen's latest verdict on Barack Obama. After describing, with considerable admiration, how clever Obama's latest moves are, politically, Gergen ends with this:
These fun and games may be good for electioneering and for television ratings, but they aren't good for the country.(Republican strategists should pay close attention to Gergen's analysis. He's right, in my opinion, about the political effectiveness of the Obama team's latest moves.)
- 9:09 AM, 15 April 2011 [link]
In March, Illinois Dropped The Death Penalty: The New York Times applauded the decision.
When Illinois joined New Jersey and New Mexico this month as the third state to abolish the death penalty in the last four years, it made the choice compelled by a long record of judicial abuses, false convictions and other fundamental problems. That should be enough for all states to abandon the penalty once and for all.And Canadian Dimitry Smirnov noticed.
A 20-year-old Canadian man methodically stalked and tracked a Westmont woman before killing her Wednesday night in Oak Brook — even stopping to reload his gun and continue shooting during the attack.Unfortunately, it is not possible to ask Jitka Vesel her opinion of the Illinois decision.
(Has this story made the Times? Not so far.)
- 8:27 AM, 15 April 2011 [link]
John Kass Catches William Rhoden Playing the race card. In, of all things, a defense of Barry Bonds.
The Bonds piece had this ridiculous line: "But the eight-year pursuit of Bonds also reflects America's discomfort with prominent, powerful, wealthy black men."That sounds about right to me.
(If Rhoden's name seems familiar, that may be because you remember a post in which I criticized him for calling for the NBA to rig things to favor his team, the New York Knicks.
Here's the Rhoden column.)
- 8:27 AM, 14 April 2011 [link]
"Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" Ruth Marcus ends her column on Obama's political missteps by misquoting Casey Stengel's famous line.
Marcus is exasperated, not by what Obama is trying to do, but by his ineptitude in trying to do it. In general, she favors his reactionary plans for the nation, but she is beginning to notice that he is not very good at executing those plans.
But why should we expect him to be?
Since Marcus uses a sports metaphor, let's use one, too. Suppose that Casey Stengel had chosen a basketball player as one of his starting pitchers. Would we expect that man to succeed? Of course not, though there are a few great athletes who have starred in two or more sports. And if the basketball player had been mediocre, we would have even less reason to expect him to be an adequate major league pitcher.
Barack Obama had no executive experience before becoming president — unless you count his chairmanship of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which was a failure, or, going back further, heading the Harvard Law Review, where he did little. Playing a few games in the Little League does not prepare you to be a major league pitcher.
In principle, his time in the Illinois legislature and as a US senator would have given him time to learn something about the government and the people who make it work — and keep it from working. A basketball player turned pitcher would have to study hard to learn the subtleties of the game, but Obama seems to think that kind of effort is for other people.
All of this was obvious to anyone who bothered to look at what he had accomplished — two autobiographies, and not much else — when he announced for president. But it was not obvious to most journalists, and to many in the Democratic party.
What Obama is good at, politically, is carrying out a campaign plan. His strategists were better than Hillary Clinton's, and he was better at executing their plan than Clinton was at executing her plan(s). The strategy he used to beat McCain in the general election had been field tested in Deval Patrick's run for governor in Massachusetts, and worked well enough in the 2008 political climate.
(Whether either strategy would have worked without the help of "mainstream" journalists is hard to say.)
A good legislator will not necessarily be a good executive, and a good campaigner may not be good at either. To extend our sports metaphor one last time, we could say that campaigning is at least as different from the first two as football is from baseball and basketball.
If you want a good pitcher, you should look for someone who has been a good pitcher, at least in the minor leagues. If you want an effective president, you should look for a man (or woman) who has been a good political executive, as governor of a state, or something similar.
(Some of you will have noticed that I am implying that we get mediocre legislators and executives because we too often choose the better campaigner. I do believe that, and have been writing this blog partly to counteract that, to give at least a few readers more rational reasons to prefer one candidate over another.)
- 7:27 AM, 14 April 2011 [link]
Which Nation Has The Most Journalists In Jail? Let me give you a hint: It would most likely be a nation that was formally democratic but was slipping toward authoritarianism.
That wouldn't have been enough of a hint for me; it may not be enough for you, so here's the answer: Turkey.
The International Press Institute (IPI) today obtained a report from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) indicating that Turkey is currently holding at least 57 journalists in prison — apparently more than any other country.Well, yes, that does raise questions.
Especially since Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been following a salami-slice policy of gradual Islamization, ever since he won power. How far he plans to go is impossible for me to say, but American diplomats are suspicious of him, and his "Justice and Development" party. (Turkey's constitution puts severe limits on religion in government, but Erdogan has been replacing the judges who might take those limits too, shall we say, literally.)
By way of Barry Rubin.
(To be fair, Turkey has prospered since Erdogan took power, and his economic policies may even have contributed to that prosperity.)
- 4:23 PM, 13 April 2011 [link]
Worth Reading: Atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass's take on the problems at the University of Washington.
Much of what he says is applicable to our public universities, generally. For example, he says, fairly bluntly, that about 25 percent of the UW students shouldn't be there. And that many of the students have poor academic preparation and attitudes.
Although the percentages would vary from university to university (and from college to college), both problems are dismayingly widespread.
Our universities should not be expected to make up for the failures of our high schools (or even grade schools), nor should they be expected to teach students who are unwilling to make a real effort to learn.Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 12:38 PM, 13 April 2011 [link]
The Canadian Navy Has Submarines And Torpedoes: But it does not have torpedoes that will work with those submarines.
The Canadian navy plans to keep the country safe, just as soon as they get the torpedoes working.But they hope to solve that minor problem real soon now.
Some of our NATO allies don't take defense as seriously as they ought to, though none are as feckless as we were between World War I and World War II.
(Here, with the usual caveats, are the Wikipedia articles on the Victoria class submarines and the Mk-48 torpedoes.)
- 9:55 AM, 13 April 2011 [link]
"A Sluggish 6.9 Percent" Would you be unhappy if your revenue grew a "sluggish 6.9 percent" last year? I wouldn't, but the Agence-France-Presse thought that gain for the US Treasury was disappointing. Why?
Perhaps because, even with that gain in tax collections, the deficit grew much faster.
The US budget deficit shot up 15.7 percent in the first six months of fiscal 2011, the Treasury Department said Wednesday as political knives were being sharpened for a new budget battle.October through March is half the fiscal year, so we are on track for a deficit of about $1.6 trillion (or perhaps a little less, if the economy keeps growing, as I hope it will).
(Income tax collections do tend to rebound sharply in recoveries, especially if investors start taking profits. We have a moderately progressive tax system. Since the wealthy tend to have much less stable incomes than the rest of us, depending on them means that tax collections will go up and down even more than the economy does.
This is a good thing for the economy, because it provides an automatic stabilizer — but it has been too much of a temptation for many politicians in states that rely on progressive income taxes.
They spent as if the boom years would go on forever, and then were shocked when they didn't.)
- 9:06 AM, 13 April 2011 [link]
Praveen Swami Describes How The British Used To Handle pirates.
In the autumn of 1816, Admiral Lord Exmouth arrived off the port of Algiers with five ships of the line, and orders to use nothing but shot to negotiate with the city's pirates. In the battle that followed, the British lost 128 men, and their Dutch allies 13. But casualties among the enemy were monumentally greater, as Algiers's fleet was destroyed and its fortifications levelled. Even though the corsairs of the Barbary coast continued to prey on merchant ships until 1830, when the French occupied Algiers, their backbone was broken — and tens of thousands of lives that would have been lost to the slave trade were saved.And then gives the catch-and-release numbers.
Ever since 2008, almost 30 navies have been jointly operating against Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean — a level of international co-operation that has no precedent. Even Iran has a warship in the area. Yet little is being achieved. Jack Lang, the United Nations' special adviser on piracy, has admitted that nine out of 10 of the hundreds of pirates captured have been released because of legal issues.(Emphasis added.)
He ends with a call for going back to Lord Exmouth's solution.
That leaves just one option, which no one so far has wanted to take: punitive action against the pirates' bases on the Somali coast. As in 1816, the risks are considerable. But it is increasingly clear that the easier, softer way is leading nowhere.Is he right that there is only one option? Not in my opinion, though I would want to see a full-scale analysis before I was certain. (An appropriate analysis would begin by estimating how many Somali men have the desire and the equipment to be pirates, and how big risks they are willing to take. I would guess that even in Somalia few would become pirates if they knew they faced a 90 percent chance of dying or spending the rest of their lives in prison, for each attack. Somewhere between that 90 percent and the current risk level — surely less than 1 percent — would be enough of a deterrent to reduce the level of piracy to a mere nuisance. Even the best analysts couldn't give us an exact number, but they should be able to give us a plausible range, and some guesses at the costs of reaching that level.)
And there is an ethical objection to attacking their base areas. The Barbary pirates were agents of their states, and so the rulers of those states, and anyone who fought for them, were legitimate targets. But there is no government in that part of Somali, so any attack on shore installations would inevitably hurt people who had no control over the pirates. It is legitimate to destroy the pirate boats and ships while they are docked, of course, and I am surprised that we have not done that already.
- 7:58 AM, 13 April 2011 [link]
Social Capital And The Mapleton Tornado: This morning, I saw this ABC story on the marvelous survival of everyone in that small Iowa town.
George Stephanopoulos and Yunji de Nies seem surprised by Mapleton's quick reaction to the official warning, and by the cooperative behavior after the tornado had hit.
I am less surprised than they are because it is common (though not universal) for such towns to have high levels of "social capital". It is common for the people living in them to trust each other, and to work together, without the prodding of governments.
That capital helped the people in Mapleton survive, and will help them come back to some level of prosperity.
Sadly, there is good reason to believe that our levels of social capital are declining, nationally. If so, that will make almost all of us worse off.
Who won't be worse off? Some of the people who think of themselves as predators, and other people as their prey.
- 3:47 PM, 12 April 2011 [link]
Ever Wonder How The Sauropods Got To Be So Big? Or, alternatively, why no land mammal had come close to being as big as, for instance, a Brachiosaur? (The largest land mammal was probably the Paraceratherium — and it wasn't that much bigger than an elephant.)
You aren't alone; scientists have been wondering about their size ever since the first sauropod fossils were discovered. A German/Swiss team has been working on the problem for seven years, and has some answers, enough to fill up a book.
They've built on work by others, work, for instance, suggesting that the sauropods had efficient bird-like respiratory systems, rather than inefficient, mammalian-style lungs.
But, above all, they think the sauropods must have been fast eaters — and slow digesters.
One clear explanation has emerged: These were the ultimate fast-food gourmands. Reaching all around with their long necks, these giants gulped down enormous meals. With no molars in their relatively small heads, they were unequipped for serious chewing. They let the digestive juices of their capacious bodies break down their heaping intake while they just kept packing away more chow.Of course, their internal bacteria would have done most of the work, as they do in ruminants today.
Robert Bakker has suggested that these giants also had gizzards, very large gizzards.
- 3:15 PM, 12 April 2011 [link]
The NYT Publishes A Fine Piece On The Catholic Church: Unfortunately for the Times, it was an ad from the Catholic League, not an article, column, or editorial written by one of their staff.
In the ad, the League's president, Bill Donahue, responded to the criticism of the Catholic Church's sex scandals, conceding some points but arguing that the overall picture many people have is now false.
A common belief, fostered by the media, is that there is a widespread sexual abuse problem in the Catholic Church today. The evidence is to the contrary: In 2004, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued its landmark study and found that most of the abuse occurred during the heyday of the sexual revolution, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s. What we are hearing about today are almost all old cases. To wit: from 2005 to 2009, the average number of new credible accusations made against over 40,000 priests was 8.6. This is a tribute to the reform efforts that have taken place: 5 million children and 2 million adults have gone through a safe environment program. Indeed, there is no religious, or secular, institution that can match this record, either in terms of the low rate of abuse or the extensiveness of a training program.There is one point which Donahue mentions, but says less about than he might have. Most of the abuses, from inappropriate touching to rape, were committed by homosexual priests. As I understand it — and those who know more about the subject should tell me if I am wrong — during what Donahue calls the "heyday of the sexual revolution", the Church began accepting priests who admitted they were homosexuals — as long as they promised not to act on their sinful desires.
That policy appears to have been a mistake, at least without extremely careful monitoring.
(For the record: I suppose I should say that I am not a Catholic, not even an ex-Catholic.)
- 9:49 AM, 12 April 2011 [link]
The Royal Navy Is Following A Catch-And-Release Policy Toward Somali Pirates: It is hard to see how this policy can succeed.
When a Royal Navy warship captured a crew of Somali pirates, it seemed like a rare chance to strike back at the ruthless sea gangsters.As I understand it, there are legal reasons that make taking them back to Britain for a trial a bad idea. Which makes me think that Britain may want to make some changes in their laws.
Other nations — notably India, Russia, and South Korea — are less delicate in their treatment of Somali pirates. Remarkably, even the BBC seems to approve.
The new sea gangsters now have some 20 mother ships, most driven by hostage slave crews operating with virtual impunity on sea lanes stretching from Africa to India. The recent escalation highlights the impotence of the West's navies in facing the threat. Paralysed by indecision, the British and their NATO allies have virtually no authority to disarm, attack or aggressively confront the enemy. Only India, Russia and South Korea have taken the law into their own hands and blasted the Somali pirates out of the water when and where they have caught up with them - but at a price.The South Koreans have shown what can be done. In a remarkable operation last January, South Korean commandos freed a seized cargo ship and took captured pirates back to South Korea for a trial.
(The BBC has a partial explanation for the the legal difficulties in this Q&A.)
- 7:47 AM, 12 April 2011 [link]
22 Dollars Returned For Every 1 Dollar Invested? Last week, I learned about a local Ponzi scheme.
(He targeted older women, which makes him even more despicable than the usual Ponzi schemer, in my opinion.)
Almost every experienced investor will spot the red flag in that second paragraph; a return of 24 percent is implausibly high. Some of you are even now repeating that old line: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is." (Promised returns can be implausibly good in other ways. What should have tipped off authorities to Bernie Madoff was not just his higher-than-average returns, but their uncanny consistency.)
Yesterday, while watching KCTS Connects, I heard an even more implausible claim.
The program, on cuts in higher education here in Washington state, brought on a number of advocates for higher spending at our public universities, among them Colleen Fukui-Sketchley, the president of the University of Washington alumni association. She charmed me, but not so much that I forgot that too-good-to-be-true rule. When asked about the economic impact of the UW, she told viewers that the UW is the "economic engine of our state". (I'm not sure what that makes Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaeuser, et cetera. Mufflers, transmissions, and shocks, perhaps?)
And then gave us an extraordinary number, in support of her conclusion.
(Start about 21 minutes in, if you want to hear it yourself.)
All together now: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
The interviewer, Enrique Cerna, was more polite, or less skeptical, than I would have been. He let that statement pass by, without even asking for an explanation.
Where did that 22 come from? I don't know, but I do know that estimating the returns on higher-education spending is extraordinarily difficult. You can't, for instance, just compare yearly earnings of college graduates with those who didn't graduate, because the groups are different in many ways, and because those who didn't go to college have four (or more) earning years.
Nor does it make much sense to group all college graduates together. Studying history is great fun for many students, but it would be wrong to tell an undergraduate that a degree in history is likely to bring the same financial rewards that a degree in accounting will.
I could add a dozen or so more complexities if I had the time (and you the patience), but will limit myself to just one more: credentialism. One reason that college graduates earn more than others is that many jobs require a degree — even when the degree has nothing to do with the job. Thirty years ago, that was considered a serious problem. Now, to the extent that it gets discussed, most assume that the solution is to provide credentials for everyone, no matter the cost.
Finally, for the record: I don't think that higher education is a Ponzi scheme, but I do agree with those — and their number is growing — who think it is a financial bubble, and that when it breaks many will suffer.
If you agree with that conclusion, then you will also think that our colleges and universities are in great need of reform. They are more likely to get the necessary reforms if they receive intelligent criticism, not unthinking support. (That's a hint, Mr. Cerna. And if you aren't sure where to start, I would suggest this book.)Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 12:28 PM, 11 April 2011 [link]
Even The NYT Finds this suspicious.
Last summer the House Ethics Committee accused Representative Maxine Waters of bringing discredit on Congress by helping to secure a government bailout for a troubled bank where her husband held stock and had been a director. Ms. Waters, a California Democrat, angrily denied the charge and demanded a public hearing.And, assuming the editorial writers have the facts right, so do I.
(I assume the investigators were suspended before the Republicans took control of the House. You would think that Speaker Boehner and company would want to reverse that, assuming there is anything to the charges. But the ethics committees have odd, bipartisan rules, so the Republicans may not have been able to get the hearings re-opened, without Democratic support.)
- 9:15 AM, 11 April 2011 [link]
Is That Tuna On Your Breath? That, I suspect, is what the cat is thinking in this encounter with a dolphin.
(And the dolphin? That's harder to say, but I suspect that it is used to being fed by small mammals, and is wondering whether the cat will be as nice to it as its trainers are.)
But the two are fun to watch, whatever they are thinking.
- 9:00 AM, 11 April 2011 [link]
Prince William For King? British adults would rather have William than his father.
The Panelbase survey of almost 2,000 adults - conducted for the Sunday Times between Tuesday and Thursday - found that 59 per cent of people favour dispensing with tradition to see William, rather than the Prince of Wales, ascend the throne.And, for some reason, a separate poll found especially strong support for him in Scotland.
- 5:58 AM, 11 April 2011 [link]
Diesel Engines That Swallow Their Own Pollutants? Navistar has made an immense gamble that it can produce them. If they can, they will do a lot to reduce air pollution in our cities.
Diesel engines in the nation's 18-wheelers, buses and other heavy-duty vehicles power less than 10 percent of all vehicle traffic in the United States, but they account for an outsize portion of the haze of pollution that hangs over many American cities — as much as 25 percent by some estimates.Navistar's competitors have chosen to reduce diesel pollution by treating the exhaust with, of all things, liquid urea.
Navistar is trying clean up the exhaust by recycling it through the engine.
EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) is an emissions reduction technique already used in most gasoline and diesel engines. EGR works by re-circulating a portion of an engine's exhaust back to the engine cylinders and burning off excess pollutants.Here's hoping they succeed.
(This Wikipedia article is skeptical about using EGR in diesels.)
- 5:42 PM, 10 April 2011 [link]
In 2008, Obama Broke His Promise To Accept Public Financing And The Limits That Imposes: Even a few of the usual suspects in the "mainstream" news organizations were disturbed by this broken promise. (For example.)
Everyone knows why he broke it; he thought that he could gain because he was raising so much money, much of it from fat cats. (And some of it in illegal small donations.) And because he was pretty sure that our "mainstream" journalists wouldn't say much about his broken promise.
After breaking that promise, Obama made a second promise, that he would make everything better, eventually, by proposing a new round of campaign finance reform. Oddly enough, in 2009, the New York Times seemed to think that he might keep that promise, even though he had broken the first.
When candidate Barack Obama broke his promise to use public financing as a brake on lavish presidential campaign spending, he left another promise in its wake: to overhaul election financing and the federal commission that regularly undermines rather than enforces campaign law. President Obama has yet to deliver.Almost a year has gone by, and the Times is still hoping that Obama will keep the second promise.
The high-stakes preparation reported by Politico is not surprising as Republicans bolster their war chests. But the president's bid for hundreds of millions in private support should make voters wonder whatever happened to his 2008 pledge — after he spurned public financing — to repair the less-corrupting and less-expensive public system created in the wake of Watergate.When I was little kid, I learned, perhaps from my parents, perhaps from other kids, a useful little saying: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
The editorial writers at the Times must have missed that part of growing up.
Obama will propose campaign finance "reform" if he thinks it will benefit him politically. And since it probably won't, the Times will keep waiting, wistfully, for this unscrupulous politician to keep his second promise, even though he has broken so many, so casually.
(For the record: The Times and I disagree on what would constitute campaign finance reform. They want limits on free speech; I want full disclosure, and no donations from foreign sources.)
- 5:03 PM, 9 April 2011 [link]
Does A Billion Always Equal A Billion? No, because different nations use different "scales".
The long and short scales are two of several different large-number naming systems used throughout the world for integer powers of ten (10). Many countries, including most in continental Europe, use the long scale whereas most English-speaking countries use the short scale. In all such countries, the number names are translated into the local language, but retain a name similarity due to shared etymology. Some languages, particularly in East Asia, have large number naming systems that are different from the long and short scales.For example, by billion Americans mean 1,000,000,000 (109), and the French mean 1,000,000,000,000 (1012). Other large numbers, trillion, quadrillion, and so on, are also different.
And just to confuse things even more, the British switched from the long scale to the short scale in 1974, so a billion meant one thing in Britain before then and another afterwards.
Thanks to Charlie Martin for pointing me to this instructive Wikipedia article.
(I may have helped spread this confusion, because my edition of Fowler gives the older British usage, while recommending the American.)
- 4:22 PM, 9 April 2011 [link]
Cat And Dog Fight At The NYT: Columnist Gail Collins attacked Donald Trump in a recent column. Trump replied with a letter, which the Times put on line, but did not print.
The letter contained one devastating line:
Actually, I have great respect for Ms. Collins in that she has survived so long with so little talent.Since that's been my own opinion for some time, I was pleased to see someone else say it, even if that someone was Donald Trump. I have, many times, read through a Collins column without being able to find an argument. Almost always there are sneers and smears, but no rational argument. Sometimes her columns even remind me of Wolfgang Pauli's famous quip about a scientific paper, that it wasn't even wrong.
Collins replies to Trump in today's column — and illustrates my point. She says that unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers "had once given a house party for Obama", and implies that that single party was the extent of their relationship. Does she know about, for example, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and prefer not to tell her readers about that connection, or does she not know?
Trump claims that he has investigators in Hawaii digging into Obama's background. Collins says that he doesn't, without ever explaining how she knows that.
Trump explains the difference between a "certificate of live birth", which is what Obama has shown us, and a long-form birth certificate; Collins simply asserts that the first is enough, without ever confronting Trump's point.
And she ends, naturally, with a sneer.
(For the record: I believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States and is eligible to be president. I have often wondered why he has not requested his long-form birth certificate and supplied it to the press. Some days I think that he is just baiting his opponents; some days I think there may be something embarrassing in the certificate.
Also for the record: I am absolutely sure that there are embarrassing things in Obama's past that he has chosen to hide from the public. And I think it is disgraceful that our "mainstream" news organizations, including the New York Times, did so little to dig up those things, when he first ran for president.)
- 3:53 PM, 9 April 2011 [link]