February 2012, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

"Seit 12 Jahren Ist Die Erd-Erwärmung Gestoppt!"   That headline isn't surprising to those who have been following the climate debate, but the man who said that, is.

(A couple of years ago, I asked a scientist who believes in the "official" global warming arguments how many years of non-warming it would take to make him change his mind.  I don't remember his exact answer, but it was at least fifteen years.  My own view is more probabilistic; each year the predictions fail make the computer models less likely to be true in the future, less likely to be useful guides to action in the present.

As usual, here is my global warming disclaimer, which, I must warn you, needs updating.)
- 7:05 AM, 8 February 2012   [link]

Postponing The Keystone XL Pipeline Was A Terrible Decision, Says Joe Nocera:  But it wasn't Obama's fault.  And it is mean of the Republicans to point out his error, especially in an election year.
I realize that President Obama rejected Keystone because, politically, he had no choice.   My guess is that, in his centrist heart of hearts, the president wanted to approve it.  But to give the go-ahead before the election was to risk losing the support of the environmentalists who make up an important part of his base.

I also understand that the Republican decision to force Obama's hand was a political stunt, allowing them to denounce his decision during the campaign.
Nocera's argument has a perverse charm.  He recognizes that the postponement was a bad decision for the United States — but then blames everyone but the man who made the decision.  And Nocera believes that Obama has a "centrist heart", a conclusion which requires Nocera to ignore Obama's past — and his actions in the White House.

Like most of the columnists at the Times, Nocera does not appear to care much about the American jobs that will be lost, at least temporarily, by this decision.

(Nocera is wrong, of course, when he says that our oil imports come "Mostly from countries that don't like us".  We have bad relations with only three of the nations in that list of fifteen, Venezuela (4th), Ecuador (8th), and Russia (10th).

To be fair, from Nocera's point of view, Obama may indeed be a "centrist".  When I use terms like moderate or centrist to describe American politicians, I define them with respect to American voters.  American voters definitely see Obama as a leftist.  But many people, including journalists who should know better — or should be explicit about their definitions of the words — define the terms, with respect to their own views.)
- 5:42 AM, 8 February 2012   [link]

What's Fair?  Libertarian Stephen Moore has a different answer to that question than President Obama, as you can tell from the questions Moore asks.

Is it fair that President Obama sends his two daughters to elite private schools that are safer, better-run, and produce higher test scores than public schools in Washington, D.C.—but millions of other families across America are denied that free choice and forced to send their kids to rotten schools?
. . .
Is it fair that some of Mr. Obama's largest campaign contributors received federal loan guarantees on their investments in renewable energy projects that went bust?
As President Kennedy said, life is not fair.  But we can make it less unfair, with the right government policies.

And I do think that the Obama administration has, on the whole, made life less fair, perhaps not always intentionally.
- 3:41 PM, 7 February 2012   [link]

Ron Paul Carried Just One County In The Nevada Caucuses:   Nye County, which is known for its legal "brothels" and its most famous resident, Art Bell.

Inicdentally, Paul put considerable effort and money into his campaign in Nevada, so his defeat there wasn't because he wasn't trying.

(Polls show that Congressman Paul gets his strongest support from young men, probably unmarried young men.)
- 8:41 AM, 7 February 2012   [link]

Germany Is Still Planning To Give Up Nuclear Power:  In spite of rising air pollution.
German air pollution levels were higher in 2011 than in previous years, despite environmental zones banning certain cars from urban areas.  Authorities attribute the rise to weather and industry.
I'm not sure why they expected a decrease in air pollution from this ban.  Modern cars emit much less pollution than their predecessors.  Perhaps they banned a few older models, especially older diesel models.

(The article doesn't mention nuclear power — but it should have.  If you really want to reduce air pollution, you should replace coal plants with nuclear plants.)
- 7:59 AM, 7 February 2012   [link]

Time Management At The End Of The Super Bowl:  There were some unusual decisions at the end of yesterday's game.
The Giants, trailing by two points, drove 88 yards to the winning touchdown on a six-yard run by tailback Ahmad Bradshaw with 57 seconds left.

It was one of the oddest game-winning touchdowns in Super Bowl history.  The Patriots, trying to preserve their final timeout and precious seconds on the clock for their offense, allowed Bradshaw to score.  Bradshaw, realizing that, attempted to stop just shy of the goal line but tumbled into the end zone.
The thinking on each side is easy to understand:  That close, a field goal is nearly certain — and would win the game for the Giants.  So the Giants wanted to use as much time as possible, and then score as time expires, or as close to that as possible.  Recognizing that, the Patriots gave them a touchdown.

This morning, thinking about it, I realized that the Giants missed another chance to manage the clock, after that winning touchdown.  Instead of trying for a two-point conversion, as they did, they should have given the ball to their strongest running back, and told him to run back and forth behind their line, using up as much time as possible.  At a guess, that would have let them use up at least 20 seconds, and maybe more.

Or am I missing some rule that makes that tactic impossible?  (I did do a quick search and found one case where an NCAA team deliberately let the clock expire, rather than trying for an extra point.)
- 2:08 PM, 6 February 2012
Correction:  The time clock does not run during NFL extra points, as I explain here.
- 2:55 PM, 19 February 2012   [link]

Win-Win?  The Egyptians, by a large majority, don't want US economic aid.
About 7 in 10 Egyptians surveyed by Gallup in December 2011 oppose U.S. economic aid to Egypt, and a similar percentage opposes the U.S. sending direct aid to civil society groups.  This rebuke of U.S. financial support may be a challenge for Egypt's newly elected parliament and its future president as the government attempts to bolster the nation's financial stability.
That last sentence is obscure enough to have been constructed a professional diplomat.  Here's my rough translation:  Egypt is dependent on the American aid.  They have had a significant tourism industry, but most tourists are now, with good reason, avoiding Egypt.

So Egyptians can try to get along with us, find another patron, immigrate by the millions, or starve.  But the new majority in the Egyptian parliament may not understand those facts, and I think we can be almost certain that they do not want to understand them.

What should we do?  Beats me, though keeping a very low profile will have to be part of any successful approach, for now.

By way of Kathy Shaidle.

(More on Egypt's food problems here and here.)
- 1:32 PM, 6 February 2012   [link]

Michael Ramirez gives us a brutal cartoon on the Obama administration's attack on the Catholic church.

I'll have something to say about the politics of this decision — if I can figure them out.  As every political tactician knows, white Catholics are classic swing voters, exactly the people you want to keep happy before a close election.  (According to exit polls, white Catholics gave majorities to the winners in eight out of our last ten presidential elections.   The exceptions were 2000, when Bush lost the popular vote, and 2008, when Obama received 47 percent of their vote.)
- 8:08 AM, 6 February 2012   [link]

Bankruptcy Reactions In Ireland And Greece:  Last week, I picked up a used copy of Michael Lewis's Boomerang, and have read through his descriptions of how cheap credit affected Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany — and California.  (Much of the book appeared, previously, in Vanity Fair.)

The book has the virtues and vices we have come to expect from Lewis, with entertaining anecdotes supporting a story that you suspect he has gotten mostly right.  You'll enjoy it, but if you are a critical reader, you will want to check his conclusions with sources that are less entertaining, but more careful.

I'll probably have more to say about the book in future posts, but for now I just want to tell you about the bizarre contrast between how Ireland and Greece went into bankruptcy — and how the two countries have reacted to that bankruptcy.

Ireland had a classic, maybe even a super-classic, real estate bubble, financed by three banks, one a newcomer, Anglo Irish, and two old banks, the Bank of Ireland and Allied Irish Banks, that began imitating the newcomer.  They borrowed money from foreigners so that the Irish could buy property from each other at higher and higher prices, and put up buildings on that property that no one would need, in decades.  As anyone who has read about other bubbles would know, that could not go on forever.

In contrast, the Irish government kept spending under control and was even running a surplus.

When the three banks collapsed, the Irish government picked up their losses, in full.

Greece, in contrast, had boring banks that behaved prudently, other than buying Greek government debt, which they could hardly avoid doing.

The government, under both major parties, spent wildly, borrowing the money for their spree from foreigners, and passing it out to Greeks, especially Greeks who worked for the government.

Now here's what strikes me as bizarre:  The Irish have mostly accepted their losses, passively, even though most Irish taxpayers had nothing to do with the banks' folly, or even the property developers' misguided decisions.  The Greeks, on the other hand, are mad as hell, and are taking it out on everyone else, including their mostly blameless banks.

Lewis attempts to explain these different reactions, but doesn't succeed, in my opinion.   But I don't blame him much, because I don't have an explanation, either.

(The Irish politicians who made the decision to accept the bank's losses claimed that they were required to do so by law.  Lewis is skeptical, but doesn't give me enough details so that I can form an opinion on the question.)
- 7:36 AM, 6 February 2012   [link]

Skipping The Super Bowl Half Time Show was the smart thing to do.
The NFL and a major television network are apologizing for another Super Bowl halftime show.

There was no wardrobe malfunction, nothing like that glimpse of Janet Jackson's nipple eight years ago that caused an uproar and a government scrutiny.  Instead, it was an extended middle finger from British singer M.I.A. during Sunday night's performance of Madonna's new single, "Give Me All Your Luvin.'"

I have never figured out why the NFL has made so many dubious choices over the years for these acts.  I don't think whoever chooses the acts is trying to embarrass the league and annoy most viewers — but they have succeeded in doing both many times.
- 4:49 AM, 6 February 2012   [link]

John Kass Is Unimpressed by Obama's campaign speech at the National Prayer Breakfast.
- 8:09 AM, 5 February 2012   [link]

A 102% Tax Rate:  On, granted, James Ross's taxable income, not his gross income.  Here's a partial explanation:
Like me, he lives and works in New York City, which all but guarantees a high tax rate.  Nearly all of his income is earned income and thus fully taxable at top rates.   (He said that's not always the case, but given the recent dire condition of real estate, in 2010 he had few capital gains and his carried interest didn't yield any income.)   Unlike me, he can't make any itemized deductions, which means his adjusted gross income exceeds $1 million, the level at which New York State eliminates all itemized deductions, except for 50 percent of the value of charitable contributions.  Mr. Ross said he gave 11 percent of his adjusted gross income to charity.

That means Mr. Ross can't deduct any interest expense on the money he borrows to finance his real estate investments, which is substantial, nor can he deduct any other expenses or other itemized deductions except for part of his charitable contributions.  This means he pays an enormous amount in state and local taxes.  Since those are among the deductions that are disallowed when computing the federal alternative minimum tax, Mr. Ross is in turn especially hard hit by the A.M.T.
His accountant says he can save on taxes if he fires everyone in his office and moves to Florida.  (Which has no income tax.)

No doubt, many others in his situation have already done this, or something similar.  (From the article, I get the impression that he hasn't because he needs to monitor his New York real estate holdings closely, at least in part.  And he may like living in New York.)

I was unable to feel sorry for some of the others in Stewart's article.  Here is the basic arithmetic:  The federal government is now spending close to 25 percent of our Gross Domestic Product, and states and localities are spending close to another 10 percent.  To pay for all that, we need taxes that take, in total, close to 35 percent of our Gross Domestic Product.

(No one in the article mentions that they would be paying even more if it weren't for the Bush tax cuts.)
- 2:30 PM, 4 February 2012   [link]

Bernanke's Latest Warning Seems clear enough.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke told a congressional panel Thursday that shrinking the deficit "should be a top priority," saying that spending projections over the next decade are "clearly unsustainable."

Stressing that the budgetary threat did not emerge from the past three years alone of $1 trillion-plus budget deficits — with a fourth expected for 2012 — meant to ease the recession and aid the recovery, Bernanke warned the debt could explode over the next 20 to 30 years to levels that could paralyze the economy.  The government faces an aging population, fast-rising health care costs, and a failure to close the gap between taxes and spending.
Especially coming from a Federal Reserve chairman.

It's clear enough so that even President Obama can understand it.

(Past chairmen often spoke obscurely, deliberately.  Once a reporter wrote a light piece saying that he could figure our what a chairman was thinking by watching his foot movements.   At the next press conference, there was a cloth over the table, hiding the chairman's feet.)
- 9:13 AM, 3 February 2012   [link]

Hillary Clinton As A Bond Villain?  See the pictures and judge for yourself.

I like the idea of an American Secretary of State who is thought to be tough, because I think that gives them an edge in negotiations with our adversaries.  So, if this new look helps her get the respectful attention of, for example, her Russian counterparts, I am all for it.
- 8:53 AM, 3 February 2012   [link]

Just So You Can Keep Up With The Important Stories, here's the sheep-herding rabbit.  Which is, I will admit, impressive — for a rabbit.

I would guess that the rabbit learned this behavior from the farm's sheep dog.

(The video is repetitive — one minute is probably all you will need — and the background song wildly inappropriate.)
- 8:09 AM, 3 February 2012   [link]

How Many People Go To Party Caucuses?   Not many.
In Nevada four years, ago, less than 3 percent of adults participated in the caucuses.   Pollsters using standard sampling techniques would need to screen out virtually all of their initial respondents to identify true likely caucus-goers.

In the other states, the 2008 turnout was even lower, varying between 1.8 percent of all adults in Colorado to 0.5 percent in Maine.
The Iowa caucuses have become a quasi-primary, so attendance there has been higher, 5.2 percent and 6.3 percent in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

You should correct those numbers in two ways, limiting them to eligible adults and Republicans.  Blumenthal does the first, which does not make much difference, but not the second, which does.

If we multiply those numbers by three, we can get a rough idea of what percentage of Republicans in those four states go to their party's caucuses, somewhere between 1.5 and 18 percent.

(As Blumenthal says, this low turnout makes caucuses even harder for pollsters than primaries.)
- 7:01 PM, 2 February 2012   [link]

Without Comment:  From me, anyway.  Here's the lead paragraph from an article on President Obama's remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast.
President Barack Obama has been taking lumps from Republicans for years over his support for Wall Street and health care reform, but today at the National Prayer Breakfast he claimed support from on high to defend two of his most controversial legislative achievements.
And here's the White House transcript with the complete remarks.
- 6:41 PM, 2 February 2012
Without comment from me, but not without comment from Keith Koffler, who reminds us that the Obamas were not generous with their own money, until he decided to run for president.  Even then, giving just 5 percent of your income in charitable contributions does not seem entirely consistent with what Obama now says he believes.
- 8:41 AM, 3 February 2012   [link]

Too Funny To Check:  Ron Paul has a strong connection to . . . . the Bilderberg Group.
- 2:37 PM, 2 February 2012   [link]

Derek Bok On Our "Underachieving Colleges"  Ten days ago, I criticized Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat for proposing that we build a new university in this area.

Westneat thought that I was objecting to the public money that would be spent on a new university — and there would be large sums from the taxpayer, even if it were a private university, as he had proposed.

Actually, my objection is more fundamental:  Before we build another university, we should find out why our universities are failing to educate so many of their students.

Westneat strikes me as man who is impressed by credentials, so I will bring in, as a witness for my argument, Derek Bok, twice president of Harvard University.  (As far as I can tell, Bok is very respected by his peers.)

In 2006, Bok published Our Underachieving Colleges, a book with a modest title, and a set of dismaying conclusions.  (If you are going to read it, you may want to find the 2008 paperback version, which has an afterword on his second time as president of Harvard.)

In his introduction, Bok summarizes some earlier criticisms and says that, net, college students do learn something — and that many of them are pleased with their college experience.  He then gives his own indictment:

These positive results suggest that the critics were too harsh and too one-sided in their judgements.  They do not prove that all is well with undergraduate education.   Far from it.  Despite the favorable opinions of undergraduates and alumni, a closer look at the record in the chapters that follow shows that colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should.  Many seniors graduate without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers.  Many cannot reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems, even though faculties rank critical thinking as the primary goal of a college education.  Few undergraduates receiving a degree are able to speak or read a foreign language.  Most have never taken a course in quantitative reasoning or acquired the knowledge needed to be a reasonably informed citizen in a democracy.  And those are only some of the problems.

I didn't write that; Derek Bok did.  But many others could have, and since 2006, a number of researchers have followed up with studies that strengthen Bok's conclusions.

How bad is it?  Roughly this bad:  About thirty or forty percent of the graduates from our colleges and universities get little from their years in college, except some pleasant social experiences — and some very large debts.

Those college students who do not graduate — and there are millions of them — learn even less, though they may have almost as many pleasant social experiences — and almost as large debts.

Failure on that scale calls for analysis, not replication.  Rather than building a new college or university, we need to learn why our current colleges and universities are failing so many of their students.  When the first Tacoma Narrows Bridge fell down, we didn't build another one like it, we studied it to see what was wrong with the design.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.
- 1:40 PM, 2 February 2012   [link]

Golfers Will Like this post.

As will all those who admire how the British behaved during the Battle of Britain.

(Suspicious fellow that I am, I checked for references, and found some at Snopes, and the club.)
- 9:01 AM, 2 February 2012   [link]

"Newt Gingrich's Nevada Campaign Appears In Disarray"   Does that headline shock you?

It shouldn't, not if you have been paying even a little attention to Gingrich's long political career.  Among other things, he makes always-late Barack Obama look punctual.

But our "mainstream" journalists still love him, and probably always will.  Partly for that "disarray", which is far more interesting than a well-organized campaign.

(Milbank is wrong, of course, when he claims that Gingrich "created the modern era of politics-as-blood-sport".  Politics has always been a blood sport, as anyone familiar with ancient Athens or Rome could tell you.  And it has always been a blood sport here in the United States, as JFK and LBJ could tell you, if there were phones where they are now.)
- 7:33 AM, 2 February 2012   [link]

The Next Six States Look Good For Romney:  On February 4th, Maine and Nevada will hold caucuses.  Romney won both states in 2008.

On February 7th, Minnesota and Colorado will hold caucuses.  Romney won both states in 2008.

On February 28th, Arizona and Michigan will hold primaries.  In 2008, Romney's ally, John McCain, won Arizona, and Romney won Michigan.

As of now, I would make Romney the favorite in all six races.

If he wins all six, he is almost certain to have enough — and I can't escape the word — momentum to win the nomination.  The schedule may be unfair, may skip over states where Gingrich would have a better chances, but it is what it is.

That said, caucuses are harder to predict than primaries, which, in turn, are harder to predict than general elections.  Caucuses are often dominated by better organizations, more intense activists, or both.  Romney probably has the advantage in organization in the caucus states over Gingrich (though not necessarily over Ron Paul), but may not have the advantage in intensity.

(Here's the essential data on the next six races.  I would discount the PPP poll in Arizona that gave Gingrich a lead there.  Again, I think that voters are likely to return to their previous choices.  And, of course, Romney's Florida win is likely to help him in Arizona.)
- 6:30 AM, 1 February 2012   [link]

Obama's Enemies List:  Theodore Olsen thinks the Obama campaign has one, and that his clients, the Koch brothers, are on it.
How would you feel if aides to the president of the United States singled you out by name for attack, and if you were featured prominently in the president's re-election campaign as an enemy of the people?

What would you do if the White House engaged in derogatory speculative innuendo about the integrity of your tax returns?  Suppose also that the president's surrogates and allies in the media regularly attacked you, sullied your reputation and questioned your integrity.  On top of all of that, what if a leading member of the president's party in Congress demanded your appearance before a congressional committee this week so that you could be interrogated about the Keystone XL oil pipeline project in which you have repeatedly—and accurately—stated that you have no involvement?
The Obama campaign probably doesn't have an actual enemies list, as Nixon did — Obama isn't that organized — but they have treated the Koch brothers, and others, as if they had such a list.

This is, from one point of view, simply practical politics.  Voters, especially poorly educated voters, respond better to attacks on named villains than to attacks on abstract villains, to attacks on the Koch brothers than to attacks on misbehaving businessmen, generally.  And if your named villains do oppose some of your policies, all the better.

But it is also destructive, deeply unfair, and risks governmental abuses.  For example, someone at the IRS might decide that the Koch brothers deserve unusual scrutiny, after hearing the president attack them.  Someone at the EPA might decide that they should check their factories more closely.  And so on.

Don't expect to hear many "mainstream" journalists make these points, though they would if the parties were reversed.

(It should be said that Richard Nixon did have many very real enemies.  Some, for example, hated him for being right about Alger Hiss.  Others hated Nixon for who he was.)
- 5:27 AM, 1 February 2012   [link]