December 2014, Part 2

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Venezuela May Go Bankrupt Within The Next Year Or Two:   Which is a pretty good trick for a nation with, by one measure, the world's largest oil reserves.

If you are wondering how they are going bankrupt, you can find an explanation in this article, or you can just look at the five charts the article points to.
Among oil producing counties, Venezuela may be the worst prepared for lower oil prices, with dwindling reserves and a budget deficit of 17 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).  Oil accounts for 95 percent of Venezuela's export earnings and, combined with gas, it's 25 percent of the country's GDP. Rampant inflation has pushed consumer prices up as much as 50 percent a year, while currency controls have caused shortages of many consumer goods.
. . .
"Venezuela was already knee-deep in a financial and political crisis before oil prices began to slide," Nicholas Spiro, managing director at Spiro Sovereign Strategy, said via email.  "The fact that default is now being considered as an option shows the extent of the oil-exacerbated deterioration in the country's creditworthiness and economy.  Indeed, some economists advising the opposition movement claim the country has already defaulted on its citizens and contractors and should stop prioritizing its foreign bondholders."
(Minor clarification:  The reserves mentioned are financial, not oil.)

In that article, and others, I have seen the claim that Venezuela needs an oil price of about $120 a barrel just to stay afloat; the current price is about half that.

That decline explains the parallel decline in the value of Venezuela oil bonds, which are now yielding something like 30 percent (and are probably a bad bargain, even at that yield).

How did Venezuela get into this mess?  The regime did almost everything wrong; they bought support by lavish spending, they tolerated massive levels of corruption, and they mismanaged the economy spectacularly.

The regime is already blaming the United States for its failures, and will probably step up that propaganda, as the failures become worse and worse.

(The Venezuelan regime reminds me of this old Cold War joke.  In 1987, two Soviet citizens are talking.  The first says:  "You know, Ivan, this must be the richest country in the world."

"Why do you say that?", asks Ivan.

"Because for seventy years everyone has been stealing from it, and there is still stuff left to steal.")
- 7:19 PM, 16 December 2014   [link]

A Minor Technical Point About The "Cromnibus" Negotiations:   We all know about the power a supplier monopoly has to set prices, and we all should know about the power a buyer monopsony has to set prices.

But what you may not know is what happens when a monopoly, a single supplier, negotiates with a monopsony, a single buyer.  And what economic theory and game theory tell us is that the outcome of such negotiations is usually predictable only within a range, often a large range.

And that, I think, is how we should understand the negotiations between the Senate Democrats and the House Republicans.  (You can decide for yourself which side was the buyer, and which the seller.)

An agreement between the two was inevitable, but there was no way to predict exactly where, in the range of possible agreements, the two would converge.

Which implies that those on the left, and on the right, who think that their side could have done better in the negotiations, may both be right.

But it is also true that experienced negotiators, and Speaker Boehner and Majority Leader Reid are certainly experienced, understand that insisting on too big a share can be damaging, long term.  And so it was likely that the two would come to an agreement that no one particularly liked but most didn't hate, which, as far as I can tell, is just what happened.
- 9:26 AM, 16 December 2014   [link]

Seattle's "Congressman-For-Life" Jim McDermott thinks that President Obama doesn't know how to negotiate.
"The president is going to have to listen to some people other than the little group of people around him now,” McDermott said.  “He is all by himself.  He doesn’t have the Senate to save him as they have in the last six years.  He is really in danger of really doing some awful things because he really doesn’t understand.”

McDermott was baffled by Obama’s move announcing his intent to sign the [Cromnibus] bill if passed, comparing it to a bad move in poker.
Is McDermott right?  In general, yes — and possibly on the Cromnibus, too.   The Democrats might have been able to get more in the negotiations if Obama had not announced his position on the bill as early as he did.

But we have to recognize that Obama doesn't care much about the details of these negotiations, or about the fates of the Democrats who are, more and more unhappily, tied to him.  So, losing a few points in the negotiations, or a few more House members, simply doesn't matter much to him.  That's why, for instance, Obama has had the worst congressional operation of any modern president.  I was startled when I learned that the Obama White House was not routinely returning phone calls from congressmen.

But you can understand that political malpractice if you realize that Obama just doesn't care much about many of the things that almost everyone else in Washington cares about, deeply.

(For the record:  There is no reason to expect Obama to listen to anyone other than "the little group of people around him" — and no reason to expect that little group to start giving him better advice.)
- 8:48 AM, 16 December 2014   [link]

Two Different Takes On The Taliban School Massacre:  One from the BBC.
Militants from the Pakistani Taliban have attacked an army-run school in Peshawar, leaving at least 135 people dead, most of them children.

Pakistani officials say the attack is now over, with all of the attackers killed, although security forces are still checking for bombs.
It's the deadliest attack by the Taliban in Pakistan, according to the BBC.

And one from the Daily Mail.
A teacher was burned alive while her pupils were forced to watch during the massacre at the Peshawar school that saw over 130 killed, it has been reported.

Nine Taliban gunmen stormed a military school in the north-western Pakistani city today, in the worst ever militant attack to hit the troubled region.
The BBC's Aamer Ahmed Khan thinks this attack may turn public opinion in Pakistan even more against the Taliban.  We can hope he's right, while recognizing that terrorists don't need a lot of public support.
- 7:52 AM, 16 December 2014   [link]

Did The National Security Agency "Tap" German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Phone?  That was the sensational charge that the German magazine, Der Spiegel, relying on material from Edward Snowden (or his Soviet handlers?), made, last year.

(It was never clear to me whether "tap" was the right word to describe the charges.  In the United States, when we tap a phone, we do so to listen to the conversations.  But it is also possible to gain useful intelligence just by keeping track of what numbers that phone is connected to, and for how long.  In war, this kind of data collection is used in "traffic analysis").)

Now, the German federal prosecutor, Harald Range, who was investigating the charges, has said, in effect, "Never mind."
Range said at a year-end news conference Thursday that his agency doesn't have an original NSA document ordering the surveillance, the NSA has declined to comment and NSA leaker Edward Snowden hasn't responded to an offer to give a statement.

Range said: "As of today, there is no evidence leading to charges that connection data were recorded or a phone call by the chancellor was listened to."
Which implies that President Obama may have apologized to Chancellor Merkel for "nothing".
Which leads to a whole bouquet of new questions: could Snowden’s information possibly be inaccurate, or could it be some sort of disinformation?  What was the Der Spiegel document that seemed so convincing a few months ago?  And: if the tapping wasn’t real, why did Obama rush to apologize and make nice to Merkel?  If true that there was no wiretap, an entire diplomatic drama needs to be reinterpreted.
It is easy for me to believe, even without any direct evidence, that President Obama never bothered to check to see whether the charges were true.

But that still leaves some mysteries.

Meanwhile, Der Spiegel has their story, and they are sticking to it.   And they are getting support from Deutsche Welle, and many German leftists.)
- 8:15 AM, 15 December 2014   [link]

If You Want To Follow The Australian Hostage Crisis, you might want to keep a tab open to Tim Blair's site, and refresh from time to time.

Blair may not always have the most up-to-date news, but he will be funny, and he won't be politically correct.

As usual, it is good to remind ourselves that first reports, in such situations, are often wrong.
- 7:00 AM, 15 December 2014   [link]

Did Senator Ted Cruz Enable Democrats To Confirm Some Dubious Obama Nominees?  That's what Paul Mirengoff (among others) is saying.
Cruz and [Utah Senator Mike] Lee accomplished nothing in terms of the spending bill or the executive amnesty.  But, again according to the Post, their maneuvering enabled Harry Reid to confirm around 20 of President Obama’s nominations.  Here’s how:

Reid blocked the Cruz-Reid request for a vote on blocking Obama’s executive amnesty and angrily clashed with them on the Senate floor, ensuring that debate on the spending bill would spill into Saturday.  Then, come Saturday, Reid used the session to begin consideration of around 20 of Obama’s nominees, almost half of whom Republicans had been blocking.   Consequently, votes on the nominees will take place on Monday morning.
When it will be easier to collect enough Democratic senators than it would have been, later.

To be fair, Reid might have been able to confirm most or all of those nominees, anyway.  But I think we can say that Cruz and Lee made it easier for Reid.
- 12:54 PM, 14 December 2014   [link]

With The Passage Of The "Cromnibus" Budget Bill, It's Time to recycle the sausage comparison, often misattributed to Chancellor Bismark.

This version comes closest to my own opinion:  "Laws are like sausages.  It is better not to see them being made."

Many of us could see something of how the bill was being made, and didn't like the process.  And I can understand why, since I don't like continuing resolutions, or omnibus bills.

But it may have been about as good as we can get, under the circumstances:  The Republicans control the House; the Democrats control the Senate and the White House.  Both parties have members who will stage dramatics instead of legislating, or, if you prefer, members who will stand on principle instead of accepting outrageous compromises.

It isn't a situation likely to produce clean legislation.

From what I can tell — and unlike everyone else I haven't read and studied the entire bill — on the whole the bill moves public policy in the right directions.  But not very far in those directions.

To switch culinary metaphors, think of it as a slice, rather than half a loaf, net.

(Better for most people.  I've seen sausage and legislation being made and found both processes interesting, even fascinating, at times.  But I have unusual tastes in these matters.)
- 9:01 AM, 14 December 2014   [link]

"Cut Your Losses Short, And Let Your Profits Run"  That's standard advice given to speculators; it is also, I learned some years ago, a strategy followed by many bacteria.

Let me suggest that it is also a good, first-cut way to evaluate public policies.

Two examples:  First, crime has fallen sharply in recent decades in the United States.   There is, and probably always will be, debate about why that has happened.

But I do think we should be willing to draw this tentative conclusion from that decline:  We should continue the policies that we have been following during the decline.  We have been doing some things right, and we should keep doing them while we try to figure out which ones have been most effective.  We ought to let our profits run.

Second, illegitimacy has risen sharply during the last half century, imposing heavy costs on the children, and society as a whole.  We have, collectively, been doing something to encourage that rise, and we ought to stop it, and try to cut our losses, though it is far too late to cut them short.

Now, any of you can think of examples where this simple strategy would not work — as can I.  But I do think it is still worth considering, as a first cut, especially in complex policy areas, where cause and effect can be seen only dimly, as if we were peering through a heavy fog.

That is one of the reasons that I have paid less attention to the Rolling Stone rape story (or perhaps "rape" story) than many others.  I knew that violent crime, including rape, had been declining for decades and was reasonably sure that was true on college campuses, too.   So, I tentatively concluded, we were doing something right, and should continue doing it.  Whether or not the story was true, in whole or part, I saw no reason for drastic policy changes.
- 10:09 AM, 13 December 2014   [link]

Too Good To Check, Too Funny Not To Share:  This article about the problems that Vogue is having, with rats.
The rat infestation in Vogue's new 1 World Trade Center office is getting worse.

Pests are now 'taking over' the newly-developed New York City premises and Anna Wintour no longer wants to step foot inside at all, reports claim.

This week, after rat droppings were allegedly found on an editor's computer keyboard, staff of all Conde Nast's titles were issued with a new rule: no eating at your desk.
Lauren Weisberger, the author of The Devil Wears Prada, must be smiling, perhaps even laughing.

As are those of us who don't care for Wintour's politics.
- 8:58 AM, 13 December 2014   [link]

If You Thought That Maureen Dowd does not always follow standard journalism rules, you now have more evidence for that conclusion.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd promised to show Sony Pictures co-chair Amy Pascal’s husband, Bernard Weinraub, — a former Times reporter — a version of a column featuring Pascal before publication.

The end result was a column that painted Pascal in such a good light that she engaged in a round of mutual adulation with Dowd over email after its publication.  It also scored Pascal points back at the studio, with Sony’s then-communications-chief calling the column “impressive.”
. . .
Dowd quoted Pascal as saying women received “paltry” salaries compared to men in Hollywood.  Pascal, according to leaked salary data from the hack, is tied for the highest earning executive at Sony Pictures with Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton.
There's more in the piece, though that may be enough (or even more than enough) for most of us.
- 10:03 AM, 12 December 2014   [link]

Jonah Goldberg Does The Review of torture that I was thinking of doing (and have done before).
It’s true that torture is to some extent in the eye of the beholder.  Everyone can agree that hot pokers, the rack, and the iron maiden qualify.  But loud music, sleep deprivation, and even waterboarding?  At first, maybe not.  But over time, yes.  Torture can be a lot like poison:  The dosage matters.

One of the great problems with the word “torture” is that it tolerates no ambiguity.  It is a taboo word, like racism or incest.  Once you call something torture, the conversation is supposed to end.  It’s a line no one may cross.  As a result, if you think the enhanced interrogation techniques are necessary, or simply justified, you have to call them something else.  Similarly, many sincere opponents of these techniques think that if they can simply call them “torture,” their work is done.
The dosage matters, and so does the person.  For instance, there are health conditions that make standing for long periods of time painful for some people, but not others.

So torture does not have a clear definition, and can not have a clear definition, however much "human rights" groups, or bureaucracies, try to give it one.

But you would never know that from most discussions of the subject.
- 9:39 AM, 12 December 2014   [link]

The Smiling Killer:  Yesterday evening, on TV, I saw a young man, Ja'Mari Jones, plead guilty to his second murder.   I wouldn't mention this local crime story, except that Jones seemed to find his latest killing, and his sentence for it, amusing.
A young man already convicted for beating a man to death when he was only 15 years old pleaded guilty to another killing on Wednesday.

Ja’Mari Alexander Jones was just 19 when he gunned down Deshawn Milliken inside Bellevue’s Munchbar on Christmas Eve, 2012.

The now-21-year-old Jones had a smile on his face during most of his short appearance in King County Superior Court when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
(It is possible that Jones was amused because, in return for the guilty plea, the prosecution was dropping an illegal firearm charge, which could have increased his sentence from 18 to 28 years.)

Jones may well have been amused by his previous killing of Edward McMichael, Seattle's beloved tuba man.  Jones served just six months for that killing, partly because he was a juvenile at the time, partly because there were no witnesses, at least no witnesses willing to come forward.

(I've seen several versions of his name, but have no idea which one is correct.)
- 7:49 AM, 11 December 2014   [link]

Worth Watching:  This BBC animation showing the death toll, in one month, from jihadist groups
Jihadist attacks killed more than 5,000 people in just one month, an investigation by the BBC World Service and King's College London has found.

Civilians bore the brunt of the violence, with more than 2,000 killed in reported jihadist incidents during November 2014. Islamic State carried out the most attacks, adding to the spiralling death toll in Iraq and Syria.
Most of those civilians were Muslims, as is generally true of jihadist victims.

The animation is just the most visible part of the research; there are five more tabs, including a useful Q&A, for those who want to learn more.

(Sadly, so far, other readers of the BBC site don't seem to agree with me;  as I write, none of the stories in this study have made the top ten most-read stories.  I'll have to check later in the day to see if that changes.)
- 5:40 AM, 11 December 2014   [link]

Why Did Senator Feinstein Release Her Report Attacking The CIA, Now?  Apparently, the report has been ready to go for a year of so.   As far as I can tell, there is nothing particularly new in it — nothing that those who have been paying attention hadn't heard some years ago.

The release comes after the election, and I think that explains the timing.  Feinstein had until next January to release it as a formal, Senate report (which is how the TV stations in this area have been describing it).  And she must have known that the minority report, which is also an official Senate document, would get much less coverage.

So, she put it out now because now was the last time she could do it , and get the effect majority-leader-to-be Mitch McConnell described so vividly.
"It served absolutely no purpose other than one last thumb in the eye of the Bush administration and was a big mistake in my opinion," McConnell said.
Former Democratic senator Bob Kerrey makes the same point, less vividly.
I also do not have to wait to know we are fighting a war that is different than any in our country's past.  The enemy does not have an easy to identify and analyze military.  In the war against global jihadism, human intelligence and interrogation have become more important, and I worry that the partisan nature of this report could make this kind of collection more difficult.

I do not need to read the report to know that the Democratic staff alone wrote it.  The Republicans checked out early when they determined that their counterparts started out with the premise that the CIA was guilty and then worked to prove it.
. . .
The worse consequence of a partisan report can be seen in this disturbing fact: It contains no recommendations.  This is perhaps the most significant missed opportunity, because no one would claim the program was perfect or without its problems.  But equally, no one with real experience would claim it was the completely ineffective and superfluous effort this report alleges.
No recommendations!  Now that is extraordinary, and really calls for an explanation from Senator Feinstein.

(I assume that the report wasn't released before the election because Feinstein calculated that it might hurt vulnerable Democrats.

Younger readers may be unfamiliar with Kerrey's heroics in Vietnam.)
- 3:57 PM, 10 December 2014   [link]

You Will, No Doubt, Be Shocked by this news.
Anyone who followed this year's Senate race in Kansas — the one longtime GOP incumbent Pat Roberts appeared to be losing to Greg Orman, the businessman running as an independent — knows Orman and his supporters vigorously denied Roberts' allegation that Orman was really a Democrat running to further the Democratic agenda.

"By word, by deed, by campaign contribution, this man is a liberal Democrat," Roberts said of Orman during a debate in October.  "A vote for Greg Orman is a vote to extend the Barack Obama/Harry Reid agenda."

Not true, Orman answered.  "The senator can say that over and over again, but it doesn't make it so."

What voters did not know was at that very moment, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid's political action committee, the Senate Majority PAC, was preparing to pour more than a million dollars into the pro-Orman effort in Kansas.  Reid was just waiting to make sure the donations came so late in the campaign that the public wouldn't find out about them until after the election.
(In the same way that Captain Louis Renault was shocked to find gambling at Rick's in Casablanca.)

That Kansas campaign was interesting for political technicians, or just those who like to think like them from time to time (as I do).  Orman had a good chance of winning if he could convince the voters that he was really an independent, but would lose, otherwise.  What the polls show was that his strategy was working until fairly late in the campaign.  (Though we shouldn't put too much weight on the exact numbers in those polls, considering how badly they missed the final result — which was not close.)
- 9:20 AM, 9 December 2014   [link]

The Power Of High-Heeled Shoes:  No, not over women, over men.
Scientists from the Universite de Bretagne-Sud conducted experiments that showed that men behave very differently toward high-heeled women.  The results, published online in the journal "Archives of Sexual Behaviour," may please the purveyors of Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo shoes — yet frustrate those who think stilettos encourage sexism.

The study found if a woman drops a glove on the street while wearing heels, she's almost 50 percent more likely to have a man fetch it for her than if she's wearing flats.

Another finding: A woman wearing heels is twice as likely to persuade men to stop and answer survey questions on the street.  And a high-heeled woman in a bar waits half the time to get picked up by a man, compared to when her heel is nearer to the ground.
Many women know about this power — but they don't always share their knowledge with the men they know.

Of course, you would want to see this study replicated elsewhere, but I suspect the findings would be similar in other Western countries, and countries where the culture has been heavily influenced by the West.

And, naturally, I would love to see a parallel study of the effects of those shoes on other women.

(For the record:  I don't think that high heels have much effect on my behavior, except when the wearer appears to be handicapped by them.  But that may be because I consciously fight against the effect.  Or I may be fooling myself.

Here's the university's web site (with ten good reasons to study there) and here's the French Wikipedia article on the university.  Even if you don't know any French, you can probably read much of it, if you pretend that it is written in misspelled English.)
- 8:22 AM, 9 December 2014   [link]