December 2010, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

How Secure Are California State Legislators?  Secure enough so that one of them is suing for back pay and benefits, after an independent commission cut them last year.
State legislators are making yet another attempt to get back salary and benefits that were cut by an independent commission last year.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) has filed a claim against the state on behalf of all state legislators alleging that the 18% cut in pay and benefits was illegal.  The claim, filed with the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board, could result in taxpayers reimbursing elected officials for millions of dollars in lost pay and benefits.
Traditionally, legislators have been reluctant to raise their own pay, much less sue for back pay.   Almost every voter understands the pay issue, and few, even in California, think that their legislators are doing a great job.

So I am genuinely impressed by Cedillo's claim, in the same way I would be impressed by a exceptionally bold burglar.

(Here's the commission's web site.)
- 4:20 PM, 8 December 2010   [link]

Obama And Palin Weren't Ready For The Spotlight:  So says Noemie Emery, in a column that should annoy most partisans.
Obama and Palin needed the six years or so of semi-obscurity they were about to embark on before ambition -- and John McCain -- intervened.  Instead, their growth was checked at a critical moment, and, as it seems now, won't be resumed quickly -- not in the presidency as Obama is learning, or in a media frenzy, as Palin has found.

They are famous for life; they will always have money; what they can never have back are the years washed out by destructive celebrity.  "She's been microwaved, she needs now to marinate," somebody once said of Palin.  But the time for slow-cooking is gone.
Most partisans will agree with Emery on one, but not the other.  I agree with her on both, though I think her argument is somewhat less true of Palin than Obama.  (Palin has one great advantage over Obama — she had a real life before she entered politics.)
- 1:37 PM, 8 December 2010   [link]

Circulation At The Seattle Times Is Still Too High:  But they are working on that problem.

We have made some changes to our lineup of syndicated columnists.  Starting last week, we added Esther Cepeda, whom we had been running on a trial basis for the past month.  New to our pages is 2010 Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Kathleen Parker.  Look for her first column this week.

Gone from the lineup is Charles Krauthammer.  I know some readers will be disappointed not to read Krauthammer in The Seattle Times, but no columnist is forever and Krauthammer had run in The Times since 1986.

(Krauthammer appears in more than 200 newspapers, so he probably won't miss the Seattle Times.)

It is sad to see the continued narrowing of acceptable opinion at the Times, especially considering how open they were when Mindy Cameron was the editorial page editor.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Ryan Blethen says that he wants to hear from readers on these changes.  If you take him up on that, please be polite, especially if you disagree with him.  Too many of our "mainstream" journalists have abandoned even a pretense of civility, but there is no reason to descend to their level, and many reasons not to.)
- 1:12 PM, 8 December 2010   [link]

Needed Stimulus, Or Odious Deal?  Reactions from the left to Obama's tax agreement with the Republicans vary all the way across that spectrum.

David Leonhardt, who writes on economics for the New York Times, thinks that it is a needed stimulus.
Mr. Obama effectively traded tax cuts for the affluent, which Republicans were demanding, for a second stimulus bill that seemed improbable a few weeks ago. Mr. Obama yielded to Republicans on extending the high-end Bush tax cuts and on cutting the estate tax below its scheduled level. In exchange, Republicans agreed to extend unemployment benefits, cut payroll taxes and business taxes, and extend a grab bag of tax credits for college tuition and other items.
. . .
Tellingly, economists and Democratic policy experts were largely pleased with the deal. Forecasting firms on Tuesday upgraded their estimates for growth and job gains over the next two years. Economists at Goldman Sachs, who have been more negative and more accurate than most Wall Street forecasters lately, called the deal "significantly more positive" than they had anticipated.
Cheerleader Ruth Marcus, who writes for the Washington Post, backs the agreement tentatively, because she hopes this will give Obama a chance to kill those middle-class tax cuts.
Some blessing, right?

It could be.  If Obama makes the most of the opportunity it presents, the deal offers him a relatively painless way to wriggle out of his most irresponsible campaign promise: to permanently extend the so-called middle-class tax cuts, the middle in this case amounting to 98 percent of households.   Making those cuts permanent, as the president and congressional Democrats wanted, would cost more than $2 trillion over the next decade.
Higher taxes are good for the Washington, D. C. area (and, coincidentally, the Post) but they are bad for the nation as a whole.

Hard leftist Harold Meyerson, also writing in the Post, is deeply unhappy about the deal.
The best we can say of the deal is that it largely perpetuates, and only occasionally worsens, the status quo - in particular, the three-decade status quo in which the rich get richer at ordinary Americans' expense.  Obama vowed during his news conference Tuesday to take on that status quo over the next two years, but his inability thus far to frame that debate - even though most Americans share his opposition to extending tax cuts for the rich - is maddening.

Stasis you can grieve over.  Good grief.
And who thinks it is "odious"?  Among others, the editorial writers at Leonhardt's newspaper — who, nonetheless, think Democrats should vote for the deal.

(Marcus is wrong, of course, about that 98 percent, for two reasons.  Many households had already been removed from the income tax rolls before Bush took office.  And, though in any given year, only 2 percent of households may have income that makes them "rich" — that 2 percent is not the same people from year to year.)
- 12:40 PM, 8 December 2010   [link]

Congressman McDermott might want to use a different metaphor.
"This is the president's Gettysburg," Rep. Jim McDermott, a leading progressive and a subcommittee chairman on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, told POLITICO Monday.  Referring to Obama's choice about whether to compromise or stand firm against Republicans on the question of higher taxes for the wealthy, the Washington Democrat said: "He's going to have to decide whether he's going to withstand Pickett's Charge . . . I worry."
(McDermott is actually more of a reactionary than a progressive.  He's stuck partly in the late '60s, and partly in the late 19th century, but we know what Politico means.)

If, that is, he wants to help bring in a new era of civility to our politics.  (But maybe he really does see Republicans as enemies in a deadly civil war.)
- 10:22 AM, 8 December 2010   [link]

Morison On The Pearl Harbor Attack:  In Volume III of his History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Samuel Eliot Morison delivers this bitter judgement on the Japanese attack:
Thus, the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, far from being a "strategic necessity", as the Japanese claimed even after the war, was a strategic imbecility.  One can search military history in vain for an operation more fatal to the aggressor.  On the tactical level, the Pearl Harbor attack was wrongly concentrated on ships rather than permanent installations and oil tanks.  On the strategic level it was idiotic.  On the high political level it was disastrous. (p. 132)
Not just evil, but, in the long run, extremely stupid.

I am not sure I would go quite as far as the historian (and admiral) does, though I would agree with his general conclusion.  We were lucky that all our carriers were out when the Japanese struck.   If those had been sunk, along with our battleships, the war might have lasted months longer.  And we were lucky that Admiral Nagumo did not make a third strike on our facilities, especially the oil tank farms.

(Previous posts on the attack here, here, and here.)
- 5:20 PM, 7 December 2010   [link]

New Obama joke.
Obama walks into a bar with a parrot on his shoulder.  Bartender says, "Does he talk?"

Parrot says, "Not without a Teleprompter."
(New to me, anyway.)
- 12:18 PM, 7 December 2010   [link]

Chicken Soup In Every North Korean Pot?  The apparent heir to the North Korean throne has revived his grandfather's slogan.
As part of an ongoing propaganda drive to establish North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's son Jong-un as his father's successor, the podgy youth has apparently adopted the old slogan "feed the people with rice and meat soup," according to the Yomiuri Shimbun on Monday.
That's not as good as Henri IV's promise to give the French poor a whole chicken on every Sunday — but it would be a great improvement over current North Korean standards.

(Note, by the way, that Kim Jong-un is promising to bring back the standards of the 1960s and 1970s.   What an amazing confession that is.)
- 7:34 AM, 7 December 2010   [link]

The Obama-Pelosi-Reid Tax Policies:  After the 2008 election, the Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.  For part of the time after that election, they had a 60 vote majority in the Senate, so they could do whatever they wanted to with taxes, without any help from Republicans.

They made three large tax decisions during this time; they increased taxes on tobacco products, they temporarily cut taxes for workers as a stimulus, and they allowed the estate tax to expire this year.

The increase in tobacco taxes, whether or not it was warranted for other reasons, was quite regressive; people who use tobacco tend to spend about the same amounts regardless of income, so the habit takes a higher percentage of a poor person's income, and tobacco users are found mostly among the less well off.  The temporary stimulus was directed more toward the working poor.  The lapse in the estate tax helps wealthy families.

In sum, they made two regressive tax decisions, and one temporary, progressive tax decision.  Most Democrats told us, again and again, that the rich should pay more, but the party chose to let some of the rich pay less, and to make many of the poor pay more.

As E. J. Dionne admits, the Democrats, led by Obama, Pelosi, and Reid, could have acted differently.
Rather than allow the debate to focus on an old tax measure from the beginning of the decade, Obama and the Democrats should have sought early on to replace the Bush tax cut. Their proposal could have shifted the tax burden away from middle-income taxpayers toward the wealthy while providing strong incentives for job creation and innovation along lines suggested by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.).
Why didn't they?  Dionne does not say; in fact he does not even mention Pelosi or Reid in the entire column.

There are two possible explanations for those OPR tax policies, malice and incompetence.  If you accept the malice explanation, then you will conclude that the Democrats do not believe their own class-warfare rhetoric.  They attack the rich during campaigns because it helps them win votes — but they don't believe what they say (or are secretly on the side of the rich).

If you accept the incompetence explanation, then you will conclude that the Democrats really do want to shift the tax burden more on to the rich, but never figured out how to do that during this current session.  Which is strange, because they could have simply gone back to Clinton-era tax rates for the rich.  (Some Democrats may have been hoping for a quick recovery so that they could just let the Bush tax cuts expire.  In other words, they were hoping they could get tax increases on everyone who pays income taxes — without ever having to vote for them.)

I think both explanations are partly true, but lean a little more toward the second.
- 6:50 AM, 7 December 2010   [link]

What Has Julian Assange Been Charged With In Sweden?  You can find the answer — which is not appropriate for younger sprogs, and may not be appropriate in some work places — here.

If anything, the two charges make the WikiLeaks leader sound even weirder.
- 4:43 PM, 6 December 2010
Shannon Love has a plausible — and funny — explanation of those charges.  (The same possibility had occurred to me, for the same reasons.)
- 9:13 AM, 9 December2010   [link]

Partial Credit For The Obama Administration On The South Korean Trade Agreement:  Obama failed to get an agreement he could sign on his visit to South Korea, but American negotiators have finished the job.
American negotiators have completed a free-trade agreement with South Korea that will eliminate most tariffs on exports and solidify one of the nation's most significant alliances in Asia, the Obama administration said on Friday.

The agreement, which requires approval by the legislatures in both countries, is a first for the administration and would be the largest trade accord since the North American Free Trade Agreement took effect in 1994.
The New York Times article is almost entirely positive; the Wall Street Journal editorial (which is almost entirely behind their pay wall) is more cynical, or, if you prefer, more balanced.
What a long, strange trip it's been for the South Korea-U.S. free trade agreement.  The two sides announced this weekend that they've reached a deal on revisions to the draft that was signed in 2007 but never ratified.  It comes not a moment too soon, given the boost this will give to a U.S. economy stumbling its way to recovery and with tensions rising on the Korean peninsula.

The saga is also a lesson to future U.S. Presidents on the importance of trade leadership.  Having campaigned against the pact in 2008, President Obama rediscovered its benefits once in office.  Yet by then he was forced to re-open negotiations to justify his earlier opposition.  The result is slightly better than the excellent 2007 text in some ways, but worse in others.  And this after a delay that has cost the U.S. global credibility on economic issues, not to mention the cost to U. S. growth.
(Briefly, the United Auto Workers will do better under the new version; American beef and pork producers will do worse.  Coincidentally, Obama can expect more support in 2012 from the UAW than from beef and pork producers.)

Despite the delay, despite the payoffs to the UAW, this agreement is, on the whole, good news for the United States, and for South Korea.
- 2:59 PM, 6 December 2010   [link]

President Obama Is Making All Recent Presidents Look Better:  Except for Jimmy Carter.  If you look at the first table, every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush improved their approval ratings from 2006 to 2010.  (Several, granted, by amounts small enough to just be statistical noise.)

Except for Carter, whose approval rating fell from 61 to 52 percent.  The obvious answer is probably right:  Carter's approval rating has declined because people keep comparing him to Obama.

And the biggest gainer?  Gallup's analyst, Lydia Saad, seems annoyed by this, but the numbers are clear:
This is Gallup's first retrospective approval measure of George W. Bush since he left office in 2009.  His 47% approval and 51% disapproval rating puts him in Nixon's company as the only two presidents whose retrospective disapproval exceeds their approval, although the balance is much more negative for Nixon: 29% approve and 65% disapprove.  For Bush -- whose job approval ratings as president descended into the 20s in his final year -- a 47% retrospective approval is actually relatively positive, as his approval rating as president last reached that level in 2005.
Gallup doesn't answer the obvious question, but Politico does:
George W. Bush's job approval rating as president has spiked to 47 percent, according to a Gallup poll released Monday.

That's 1 point higher than President Barack Obama's job approval rating in a poll taken the same week.

This is the first time Gallup asked Americans to retrospectively rate Bush's job performance.  And it was a stunning turnaround from his low point of 25 percent in November 2008.  The 47 percent number is 13 points higher than the last Gallup poll taken before Bush left office in 2009 and the highest rating for him since before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
(Emphasis added.)

Saad should have added that comparison to Obama.
- 1:28 PM, 6 December 2010   [link]

David Brooks Has A Vision:  In his vision, the New York Times columnist dreams that Barack Obama will lead the way on tax reform, toward a tax system with lower rates and fewer deductions.

Would it be rude for me to note that visions are most often caused by drugs, alcohol, prolonged exposure to the sun, and mental illness?

Like Brooks, tax reform is something I would like to see; like Tom Maguire, I think that it is unlikely that this vision will ever come close to reality.  (Maguire notes that Brooks has contacts in the Obama administration, and that this column might be a trial balloon.)

Brooks believes that Obama might lead a tax reform movement because he thinks that "Obama and his aides are liberal or center-left pragmatists".  That's a fair description of a few of Obama's aides, perhaps, but it is hard to see how it applies to Obama, or to most of his administration.
- 6:37 AM, 6 December 2010   [link]

Favorite Apples:  Here are some of mine:  For a dessert apple, Cripps Pinks.  (Which you will usually find sold under the Pink Lady® trade name.)  If I were serving young children, I might substitute Honeycrisps.

When I serve Granny Smith apples, I almost always mix them with a sweet red apple, for contrast.

If I were making cider, which I haven't done in years, I would try to find some Winesaps.  (Incidentally, the apple farmers that I knew when I was growing up mostly raised Red Delicious and Golden Delicious apples, but often kept a tree or two of Winesaps for their own use.)

The Golden Delicious apple is a good choice in salads.

The Red Delicious variety was popular for both its taste and looks for many years, but, some think, was ruined by breeders trying to make it look too pretty for customers who were choosing mostly on looks.  (And it is a good looking apple.)

Since my modest cooking skills do not extend to pies, I won't recommend any apples for pies.   Mark Bittman's baked apple recipe, which you can find here, gave me good results with Cripps Pinks.  (That recipe doesn't seem to be on line at the New York Times, but you can find other apple recipes from him there, including this one, which makes my mouth water.)

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Those not from Washington state may need to know that two of our universities are staging a vigorous apple celebration this afternoon.)
- 10:50 AM, 4 December 2010   [link]

As You Can See, I'm Back:  After a brief illness caused by my failure to read a label.  (As we lactose-intolerant people need to remember to do.)

I hope to catch up with much of my email tomorrow, but some of it may have to wait until Monday, since — if the weather is good — I may head down to Rainier this weekend.
- 1:50 PM, 3 December 2010   [link]

A Green Goes Back To Her Religious Roots:  In this remarkably frank example.
Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, invoked the ancient jaguar goddess Ixchel in her opening statement to delegates gathered in Cancun, Mexico, noting that Ixchel was not only goddess of the moon, but also "the goddess of reason, creativity and weaving.  May she inspire you -- because today, you are gathered in Cancun to weave together the elements of a solid response to climate change, using both reason and creativity as your tools."
There's nothing new in comparing ancient religions to Green causes — but it is usually opponents who make that comparison, as in this classic example.

If you don't believe in Ixchel, should you be discouraged?  I am, and I don't expect much from UN functionaries, even or perhaps especially, functionaries who are Heroes of the Planet.

(Judging by this picture of Ixchel, she would not win many Miss Congeniality awards.  Ixchel appears to have been a goddess of fertility, which would probably appall Figueres.  According to Cortez, Ixchel may have received human sacrifices from time to time.)
- 12:54 PM, 3 December 2010   [link]

November's Job Report Was Lousy: Unexpectedly, of course.
The U.S. economy added fewer jobs than expected in November and the unemployment rate rose, dashing hopes that the recovery is gaining momentum.

Nonfarm payrolls rose by 39,000 last month as private-sector employers added only 50,000 jobs, the Labor Department said Friday.  The jobless rate, obtained from a separate household survey, unexpectedly rose to 9.8%, the highest level since April.

Economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires had forecast payrolls would rise by 144,000 and that the unemployment rate would remain unchanged at 9.6%.
(I've seen different numbers, but economists commonly say that we need to add somewhere around 150,000 jobs a month, just to keep up with population growth.)

But perhaps by now we should be expecting this kind of news.  Take a look at David Leonhardt's curves, which show that job losses in this recession are worse, and have lasted longer, than in recent recessions.

Why?  As far as I can tell, economists do not agree on an answer to that question — and might be wrong even if they did agree.  But I am inclined to think that over-regulation may be a large part of the problem — and there are studies that support that conclusion.
- 9:50 AM, 3 December 2010
Here's a flashier and bigger version of that unemployment chart, comparing post-World War II recessions.  (You may want to save a copy of one of these charts, for further study.)
- 7:57 AM   [link]

President Obama Says the darnedest things.

(You don't suppose he could believe that, do you?  He did add the "essentially" qualifier, so he might.)
- 6:09 AM, 2 December 2010   [link]

Speaker (And Soon-To-Be Minority Leader) Nancy Pelosi Knows More about science than I would have guessed.
Speaker Pelosi said the issues of Social Security solvency and balancing the budget through revenue and spending cuts should be kept separate.  "Don't raise the Social Security retirement age in order to give a tax cut to the rich," she said.  "Apples, oranges, and bananas don't mate."

It is fair to say that not everyone in the room understood the point she was trying to make.
And even less about budgeting.

(For the record:  I wouldn't be surprised to learn that genetic engineers were thinking of ways to combine genes from apples, oranges, and bananas.  But Pelosi is right to say that they don't mate now.)
- 2:28 PM, 1 December 2010   [link]

Republicans Integrated, Democrats Segregated:  That isn't how Josh Kraushaar would summarize his argument, but it isn't an entirely unfair summary.
Of the 75 black, Hispanic, and Asian-American Democrats in Congress and governorships, only nine represent majority-white constituencies—and that declines to six in 2011.  Two of the party's rising black stars who sought statewide office this year were rejected by their party's own base.  And when you only look at members of Congress or governors elected by majority-white constituencies (in other words, most of the governorships and Senate seats, and 337 out of 435 House seats), Democrats trail Republicans in minority representation.

In fact, Republicans experienced a diversity boomlet this year.  Cognizant of their stuffy national image, party leaders made a concerted effort to recruit a more diverse crop of candidates.  That resulted in more than doubling the number of minority elected officials from six to 13—and a ten-fold increase (from one to 10) in the number of minorities representing majority-white constituencies.
Kraushaar attributes the difference to all those majority-minority districts, which elect black and Hispanic Democrats — but Democrats who have trouble appealing to wider constituencies.
- 2:12 PM, 1 December 2010   [link]

WikiLeaks Loses Amazon:  WikiLeaks had been renting server space from Amazon in recent days, and the retailer decided, under pressure, that they didn't need that kind of publicity.
The United States struck its first blow against WikiLeaks after pulled the plug on hosting the whistleblowing website in an apparent reaction to heavy political pressure.

The main website and a sub-site devoted to the diplomatic documents were unavailable from the US and Europe on Wednesday, as Amazon servers refused to acknowledge requests for data.

The plug was pulled as the influential senator and chairman of the homeland security committee, Joe Lieberman, called for a boycott of the site by US companies.
(There are some legal implications from putting the leaks on servers located in the United States; as I am no lawyer, I won't comment on that issue.)

Julian Assange still has many fans at Slashdot, judging by this poll.  (With the usual caveats about internet polls.)
- 1:43 PM, 1 December 2010   [link]