December 2009, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Tanks For The Support:  That, I am sure, is what community colleges in Washington state are saying after reading this Lynne Varner column.

I'm not against another round of economic stimulus despite its breathtaking price tag for the next generation.  But the nagging unemployment rate is a battle best fought with education.   When America finds its footing again, everyone ought to be prepared.

I see community colleges as the heavy tanks in that necessary battle.  These institutions remain within financial reach, while four-year colleges have raised tuition beyond what most working-class and even some middle-class families can bear.  In addition, community colleges have an open door and community-inspired mission that place them on the front line of education and job training.

Alas, Varner does not fill out that metaphor.  If community colleges are the "heavy tanks", then what are the infantry?  Or the artillery?  Or the air support?

And who are those heavy tanks shooting at?

Seattle Times editorial writers have a taste for odd metaphors when they describe our community colleges.  In 2005, Kate Riley called community colleges the "work horses of higher education".   (Alas, I have been unable to get Riley — whom I generally admire — to tell us which institutions are the "show horses".)  In 2007, Jim Vesely called community colleges the "backbone" of our educational system.  (To the best of my knowledge, Vesely never told us what the fat in our educational system is.)

In my opinion, the Seattle Times editorial writers use these metaphors — and I am sorry to say this — in order to avoid thinking about what community colleges can, and can not, reasonably be expected to do.

By talking about "work horses", or "backbones", or "heavy tanks", they can avoid discussing the high dropout rates at these institutions, or the very high level of remedial classes they teach.  Or, even whether most of the students in our community colleges get useful job training from the classes they take.

It is unfortunate that our state's leading newspaper has been unwilling to even look at such basic questions.  Everyone who knows even a little about how our colleges and universities operate knows that they are filled with enormous amounts of waste, and that they meet many students' needs poorly.

More than two centuries ago, Adam Smith gave us a hint that should help us understand why our higher educational institutions often perform so poorly.

The discipline of colleges and universities is in general contrived, not for the benefit of the students, but for the interest, or more properly speaking, for the ease of the masters.

Let me finish with a small suggestion to the editorial writers at the Seattle Times:  Before you write about our community colleges again, think about Smith's hint, spend some time learning how true it is of our community colleges, and then write your column.  (Oh, and you might consider skipping the metaphors next time, too.)

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 1:14 PM, 16 December 2009   [link]

"On The Precipice?"  Yesterday, President Obama used an odd metaphor to describe the political prospects for ObamaCare.
"We are on the precipice of an achievement that has eluded Congresses and presidents for generations," Obama told reporters after meeting with Senate Democrats for about an hour at the White House complex.
Literally, a precipice is the face of a cliff, or something similar.  That leads, naturally, to this figurative meaning, the second meaning for the word in my American Heritage dictionary: "the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation".

If you come to a precipice, you should almost always take a moment to study the view — and then go back a bit, and look for another path.  And that, in my opinion, is exactly what we should do with ObamaCare.

(The Bloomberg reporter changes the word to "verge" in the first paragraph, which makes more sense, but leaves us wondering whether Obama knows what "precipice" means.)
- 8:02 AM, 16 December 2009   [link]

Obama Tells Us That ObamaCare Is A Wonderful Idea:  And that if it doesn't pass now, it will never pass.
In a provocative argument designed to rescue his foundering health care plan, President Barack Obama will warn Senate Democrats in a White House meeting Tuesday that this is the "last chance" to pass comprehensive reform.

Obama will contend that if it fails now, no other president will attempt it, aides said.
He doesn't seem to have much faith in the voters, does he?
- 9:15 AM, 15 December 2009   [link]

Martin Mayer On Markets And Bureaucracies:  Decades ago, I bought Martin Mayer's irritable little classic, Today and Tomorrow in America, and have been learning from it ever since.  Tonight, I'd like to share just one lesson, but a fundamentally important lesson, from that little book.

The great advantage of decision-making in an economic market is that markets automatically, routinely force the recognition of error.  Presumably, computers will someday make it possible for a bureaucratic society to recognize and correct mistakes; but this presumption is likely to remain just that, because bureaucracies are fundamentally motivated by fear of the discovery of error.  . . .  Keynes once observed that man is rarely so harmlessly occupied as when making money, but the values of market discipline are greater than that: greed is the cleanest of human vices, the one most easily rebuked by reality. (pp. 36-37)

Anyone who has made any investments can recognize the truth of the first sentence; anyone who has dealt with bureaucracies can recognize the truth of the second.

Or to put it in a way that engineers might like, markets have powerful feedback mechanisms; bureaucracies have weak and often defective feedback mechanisms.

Can recognize, but may not.  You do not have to look far to find politicians who are certain that they can erect immense new bureaucracies which will somehow cure the problems caused by earlier, somewhat smaller, bureaucracies.  That the new bureaucracies, or sometimes the old ones, slightly revised, will have the same old problems, that they will bury failures and fail to reward successes, does not occur to these politicians.  Or if it does, the politicians think the policy changes (or, cynics might say, the power they gain) from establishing those bureaucracies makes the cost of those inherent defects acceptable.

For some years, I have thought that we should, where we can, use market mechanisms to achieve social goals.  The preceding sentence is almost bad enough to have come from a bureaucracy; let me attempt to save it with an example.  For decades, American politicians worried about housing the poor, and tried many experiments, including building massive housing projects, projects that quickly became terrible traps for their occupants.  In the last two decades, we have begun to move, more and more, to a market solution, to giving the poor rent vouchers which they can use to buy their own housing.  The results, though not perfect (unlike other human endeavors), have been far better.

Not every social problem has a good market-based solution.  We know a little about how to use markets to destroy families; we know almost nothing about how to use markets to build families.

But that doesn't mean we can't use them in many areas, and that we shouldn't fear any program that requires an immense bureaucracy.  Bureaucracies are sometimes necessary, but we should always consider them guilty until proven innocent.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Immediately after making that argument, Mayer describes, at some length, the many defects of markets, but that's a lesson for another day, perhaps sometime next week.)
- 7:14 PM, 14 December 2009   [link]

Want To Reduce Health Care Spending?  Or even slow the rate of growth?  Everyone says they want to do that; everyone who has looked at our long-term budget problems know that isn't just desirable, it's necessary.

We know how not to do it, since we have been trying a failing strategy since 1965, when LBJ and a Democratic Congress established Medicaid and Medicare.  Ever since then, we have been trying to control costs with cost controls and regulations.  It would be unfair to say that all these attempts have failed; it would be foolish not to recognize that, in spite of all these efforts — in fact, often because of all these efforts — health care costs have soared.

Today, the Wall Street Journal reminds us of that unpleasant history, and of what does work: making people responsible, at least in part, for the costs of their own care.  There are economists in the Obama administration who understand this, for example, Jason Furman.
One liberal sage noted in a 2007 paper that "four decades of empirical research" have shown that insulating people through third-party insurance coverage "from the full cost of health care has been responsible for anywhere from 10% to 50% of the large increase in health expenditures."  Ultimately, he concluded, increasing cost-sharing would give individuals a direct stake in more prudent purchasing, as opposed to today's invisible health dollars that vanish as more expensive premiums, foregone wages and higher taxes.

Those are the words of Jason Furman, now the White House deputy economic director who seems to have been put into witness protection.  Every serious health economist in the country recommends reforming the tax exclusion for employer-sponsored insurance, perhaps by converting it to a deduction or credit.  Cost control will never stick unless it is extricated from politics and transferred to individuals to make their own trade-offs.
One particularly promising strategy would be to extend health savings accounts to more people.

We spend our own money more carefully than we spend other people's money.  That fact shouldn't be too hard to understand, even for members of Congress.
- 5:18 PM, 14 December 2009   [link]

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein Fears That Obamacare Will Not Pass The Senate:  How do we know?  Klein is smearing a prominent opponent, Senator Joe Lieberman.

I won't quote the smear, but I will take a little pleasure from seeing that Klein is becoming pessimistic about the chances for passage of this anti-reform plan.  Majority Leader Reid keeps changing the plan, in an effort to get 60 votes in the Senate, but so far has been unable to find a formula that doesn't — obviously — wreck the budget, and damage our current health care system.   I think that Reid, and most Democrats, would be willing to pass a plan that wrecked the budget and damaged our current health care system, but the obvious part keeps tripping them up.

(Klein is often described a "policy wonk".  I haven't read him often enough to have a firm opinion, but he doesn't appear to fit my definition of policy wonk.  Instead, he appears to be a partisan hack, who can read studies well enough to use them in policy arguments.  There are tens of thousands who fit that latter category, but rather fewer true policy wonks.)
- 1:11 PM, 14 December 2009   [link]

Could The Republicans Win A House Seat In Hawaii?  They have a good chance, thanks to Democratic Congressman Neil Abercrombie's resignation and a quirk in Hawaii election laws.  
Republican Governor Linda Lingle can call a special election and, since it was apparent that this was going to be an open seat, there are three candidates already running.  Two are Democrats, former Congressman Ed Case and state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, and one is a Republican, Honolulu Councilman Charles Djou.

Under Hawaii law, the candidates would all run in the same contest and the one with the most votes wins—which might give Djou a chance in a district which Barack Obama (who was born and grew up there) carried 70%-28%.
(The district is not a Democratic as you might think from the 2008 result; in 2004, George W. Bush won 47 percent of the district's vote, up from 39 percent in 2000.)

A Djou win would be a shock, especially to Democrats in "safe" districts.  The party switch might even, given the narrow majorities Pelosi has been able to organize on key bills, cause difficulties for the Democratic leadership.

(Michael Barone is doing a series on Democrats leaving a sinking ship.  That post was the fourth in the series; here's the fifth.)
- 10:07 AM, 14 December 2009   [link]

Just A Little Three Century Mistake On Those Himalayan Glaciers?   Here's the story.
The UN panel on climate change warning that Himalayan glaciers could melt to a fifth of current levels by 2035 is wildly inaccurate, an academic says.

J Graham Cogley, a professor at Ontario Trent University, says he believes the UN authors got the date from an earlier report wrong by more than 300 years.

He is astonished they "misread 2350 as 2035". The authors deny the claims.
Professor Cogley may be wrong about the source of the error, but if you read the entire article, you will learn that 2035 is, almost certainly, an error. Here's what a man with glacier credentials says:
Michael Zemp from the World Glacier Monitoring Service in Zurich also said the IPCC statement on Himalayan glaciers had caused "some major confusion in the media".

"Under strict consideration of the IPCC rules, it should actually not have been published as it is not based on a sound scientific reference.

"From a present state of knowledge it is not plausible that Himalayan glaciers are disappearing completely within the next few decades.  I do not know of any scientific study that does support a complete vanishing of glaciers in the Himalayas within this century."
Did the 2035 estimate seem plausible to the authors of the UN report because they have been making so many other frightening predictions?
- 8:35 AM, 14 December 2009   [link]

Actually, a "D" Would Be More Appropriate:  Barack Obama was a popular instructor at the University of Chicago law school.  Perhaps, in part, because he is an easy grader.
President Obama, in an interview that aired Sunday, gave himself "a good solid B-plus" grade for his first year in office.

Speaking with fellow Chicagoan Oprah Winfrey, the president claimed progress on economic and international fronts.

Obama said the only thing that stands in the way of giving himself a better grade is the fact that some elements of his agenda -- health care reform and putting more Americans to work -- remain undone.
(Those qualifications will remind some of the the old joke: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?")

My own grade for his first year is based on his series of failures in economic policy, the Pelosi-Reid stimulus plan, the "cash for clunkers", the anti-reform health insurance proposals, his hyper-partisan divisiveness, and his weakness in foreign policy, all around the world.  He gets a "D", rather than an "F" because he has kept some successful parts of Bush's foreign policies, and even kept Bush's Secretary of Defense.

(Perhaps I should have said that Obama is said to have been a popular instructor.  As is so often the case with Barack Obama's past, we have a conclusion from his political allies, but little concrete evidence on his popularity.)
- 6:45 AM, 14 December 2009
If you want to give Obama a grade, the New York Daily News has an on-line poll.  Currently, he is not doing very well.
- 9:46 AM, 14 December 2009   [link]

Which Party Is More Superstitious?  The Democratic party.
And the news on that front is that Democrats are far more likely to believe in supernatural phenomenon than Republicans.

"Conservatives and Republicans report fewer experiences than liberals or Democrats communicating with the dead, seeing ghosts and consulting fortunetellers or psychics," the Pew study says.  For example, 21 percent of Republicans report that they have been in touch with someone who is dead, while 36 percent of Democrats say they have done so.  Eleven percent of Republicans say they have seen a ghost, while 21 percent of Democrats say so.  And nine percent of Republicans say they have consulted a fortuneteller, while 22 percent of Democrats have.

There's more.  Seventeen percent of Republicans say they believe in reincarnation, while 30 percent of Democrats do.  Fourteen percent of Republicans say they believe in astrology, while 31 percent of Democrats do.  Fifteen percent of Republicans say they view yoga as a spiritual practice, while 31 percent of Democrats do.  Seventeen percent of Republicans say they believe in spiritual energy, while 30 percent of Democrats do.
This isn't a new finding, though it might surprise some Democrats.
- 1:02 PM, 13 December 2009   [link]

Pass Cap-And-Trade, Or The Economy Gets It:  The EPA power grab, in which they claimed the authority to regulate almost all significant carbon dioxide emissions, is intended as a threat.  
The Obama administration is warning Congress that if it doesn't move to regulate greenhouse gases, the Environmental Protection Agency will take a "command-and-control" role over the process in a way that could hurt business.
. . .
"If you don't pass this legislation, then . . . the EPA is going to have to regulate in this area," the [anonymous] official said.  "And it is not going to be able to regulate on a market-based way, so it's going to have to regulate in a command-and-control way, which will probably generate even more uncertainty."
In other words, if Congress doesn't damage the economy by imposing a "market-based" system for controlling CO2 (which will damage the economy), then the EPA will impose regulations (which will do even greater damage to the economy).

I suppose that we can give this anonymous official some credit for honesty.  It isn't every official who will admit that they intend to wreck the economy if Congress doesn't pass the bill they want.

(The anonymous official has more faith in the Pelosi-Reid Congress than I do.  I can not imagine Pelosi and Reid creating a truly "market-based" system.  Neither really understands markets, and both much prefer bills larded with special interest giveaways, giveaways that would destroy the potential advantages of a market-based solution.)
- 12:43 PM, 12 December 2009   [link]

The Recession Has Been Good To Federal Employees:  USA Today has some numbers.
The number of federal workers earning six-figure salaries has exploded during the recession, according to a USA TODAY analysis of federal salary data.

Federal employees making salaries of $100,000 or more jumped from 14% to 19% of civil servants during the recession's first 18 months — and that's before overtime pay and bonuses are counted.

Federal workers are enjoying an extraordinary boom time — in pay and hiring — during a recession that has cost 7.3 million jobs in the private sector.

The highest-paid federal employees are doing best of all on salary increases.  Defense Department civilian employees earning $150,000 or more increased from 1,868 in December 2007 to 10,100 in June 2009, the most recent figure available.
In principle, the federal government could have given lower raises to the top people — and hired more people at the bottom.

At one time, public employees, especially at the top levels, expected lower pay in return for their job security and slightly better benefits.  Now, in many places, they are getting all of the above, and public budgets are beginning to show the strain.

(The almost complete job security is as large a problem as the high compensation.  Many of our bureaucracies are filled with people who will not follow the orders of their political superiors — and can not be fired.  As a result, our elections mean less than they should.)
- 6:45 AM, 11 December 2009   [link]

Bush Is Gaining On Obama:  You may have heard about this poll.
Perhaps the greatest measure of Obama's declining support is that just 50% of voters now say they prefer having him as President to George W. Bush, with 44% saying they'd rather have his predecessor.  Given the horrendous approval ratings Bush showed during his final term that's somewhat of a surprise and an indication that voters are increasingly placing the blame on Obama for the country's difficulties instead of giving him space because of the tough situation he inherited.   The closeness in the Obama/Bush numbers also has implications for the 2010 elections.  Using the Bush card may not be particularly effective for Democrats anymore, which is good news generally for Republicans and especially ones like Rob Portman who are running for office and have close ties to the former President.
(And, no, Public Policy Polling is not a Republican firm.)

This result so surprised Chris Good of the Atlantic that he misread the poll
Beating someone 55 percent to 44 percent is a pretty good margin in politics, but it's surprising given that the two contestants in this numbers game are Obama and the wildly unpopular Bush.
Actually, most pollsters would divide up that 6 percent undecided, and predict a 53-47 outcome in this hypothetical election.  (Which is almost exactly what we had a year ago.)

Good got some recent history wrong, too.
Bill Clinton, you will remember, wasn't so popular when he left office, and his scandals seemed to have brought down the party and perhaps cost it the White House in 2000.  But he returned to become the star of the party just four years later with a rousing speech at the Democratic convention.
(Actually, Clinton's approval rating was about 65 percent when he left office.)

The Bush-Obama result may surprise Tom Jensen of the PPP and Chris Good of the Atlantic, but I don't find it surprising.  In fact, in September of last year, I predicted that, if Obama governed as a leftist, he would quickly lose popular support.  Naturally, George W, Bush looks better in comparison.
- 2:09 PM, 10 December 2009   [link]

Climate Audit Has A New Home:   Here.

I read the site regularly, though I must confess that I understand about half of what I read there.  (There have been some "translations" of McIntyre's work at other sites.  I hope to provide links to them for you soon, since I suspect others, like me, often struggle to understand the implications of his work.)

Before McIntyre tackled climate change issues, he worked in the mining industry, and helped expose a big scam.
McIntyre is not a climate science insider with peer-reviewed articles in journals that the hockey team firmly controlled.  He is an amateur with mathematical chops and a serious track record for spotting statistical funny business.  McIntyre, who spent decades in mineral exploration, was involved in exposing the Bre-X fraud in Canada several years ago.  Bre-X was a gold mining company promising fat profits on a new proprietary technology for ore deposits in Borneo; McIntyre smelled a rat and demanded the raw data. Bre-X collapsed shortly after.
Finally, I should mention, as I have before, that McIntyre has not taken an official position on climate change.  He is often described as a skeptic on climate change; it would be more accurate to say that he is a skeptic on the quality of some climate change research.
- 9:21 AM, 10 December 2009   [link]

Separate And Unequal:  The New York Times Gift Guide has a separate section for "people of color".  A small section.
- 7:02 AM, 10 December 2009   [link]

Worth Reading:  Lisa Schiffren's article describing how Tiger Woods' image was constructed and maintained — with the conscious help of "mainstream" journalists.  For example:
Nor was Woods' behavior unknown -- except to the public.  In one instance reporters had photos of a "transgression" . . . committed in a church parking lot, no less.  These journalists agreed to keep it secret -- if Tiger posed for a cover story at Men's Fitness Magazine -- a cover that would sell huge numbers.  Normally Woods wouldn't have been available, since he had an exclusive contract with Conde Nast's Golf Digest.  With full understanding of the situation, Conde Nast allowed the rival cover because he too profited from having Tiger remain an icon.
Schiffren doesn't shy away from making the obvious political parallel:
But enough about Tiger the man, who is, after all, only a golfer.  Let's move on to Tiger the metaphor.  Because anyone with four functioning brain cells gets that if this comprehensive a charade can be sustained for a decade as Woods and those around him amassed billions, it can happen elsewhere.  It can happen right in front of our eyes.

If I were watching the public's disgust with the newly revealed Tiger Woods from an office in the West Wing, I'd be concerned.  Because Barack Obama is about as completely manufactured a political character as this nation has seen.  His meteoric rise, without the inconvenience of a public record or accomplishments, and the public's willing suspension of critical evaluation of his résumé allowed his handlers and the media to project whatever they wanted to on his unfurrowed brow.
Did some of those who helped construct Obama's image know that large parts of it were false?   Probably, just as some of those who helped construct Tiger's image knew the truth — and chose to conceal it from the public.  But the public is beginning to catch on, is beginning, for instance, to realize that Obama is not a moderate.
- 1:04 PM, 9 December 2009   [link]

So Far, Obama Has Insulted Britain, Canada, The Czech Republic, Poland, And Now Norway:  (And there are probably a few other nations I missed.)

You may not have heard about how he has just insulted Norway.
The US president has turned down an invitation to lunch with the king of Norway, will not hold a press conference nor attend the Nobel concert held in his honour the day after the prize ceremony.

Mr Obama is due to arrive in Oslo in the morning and will stay in the Norwegian capital for less than 24 hours.  The official Nobel programme is usually spread out over three days.
Obama is the only recipient to skip those parts of the program.  I thought that he should have turned down the prize, since he obviously hadn't earned it, but since he decided to accept it, he should go to all the usual ceremonies.

His endless snubs of Britain can no longer be excused as amateur mistakes.  Nile Gardiner has been keeping a list of insults, and that list just keeps getting longer.  Gardiner thinks that Obama doesn't understand the importance of British support in military affairs.
Obama must be made to realise what a dangerous diplomatic game he is playing.  Time and again, history has shown - most recently, of course, in Iraq and Afghanistan - that when it comes to taking decisive military action, the only country the U.S. has ever been able to rely on is Britain.

When the U.S. marches in, it's only ever the British who can be depended on to march alongside them.
Although I agree with Gardiner that Obama seems to have "no real grasp of history", I do think that Obama understands that Britain has stood by our side, again and again, in war time — and I think that's one of the reasons Obama keeps insulting Britain.  (And other NATO allies that have been willing to support us in war time.)
- 9:08 AM, 9 December 2009   [link]

Inefficient Stimulus, Or Efficient Stimulus?  Mark Penn's firm received millions in stimulus money in order to preserve three jobs.
Nearly $6 million in stimulus money was paid to two firms run by Mark Penn, Hillary Clinton's pollster in 2008.

Federal records show that $5.97 million from the $787 billion stimulus helped preserve three jobs at Burson-Marsteller, the global public-relations and communications firm headed by Penn.
Economically, it was extraordinarily inefficient, but politically it was efficient, since it was a relatively cheap way to reward a Clinton supporter.  (A manufacturing worker who has lost his job may not appreciate the second part as much as a Beltway insider would.)
- 7:58 AM, 9 December 2009   [link]