January 2007, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Open Letter To The New York Times #5:  This one on the different ways they treated Republican and Democratic scandals.
To the Editor:

On December 29th, the House ethics committee issued a statement that would lead almost anyone to conclude that Democratic Congressman John Conyers had abused his staff, broken House rules, and broken a number of laws.  He had done this, it is clear from the testimony of former aides, for years.  Congressman Conyers has agreed to "clarify" the rules for his staff, so that they understand that they should not be used as personal servants and campaign aides.  Conyers is not being prosecuted or punished in any other way.  The New York Times buried this story deep inside its pages on December 31st.

On January 3rd, the House ethics committee issued brief statements saying that Republican Congressman Tom Feeney and former Republican Congressman Curt Weldon had each accepted a free trip that he should not have.  Feeney and Weldon have agreed to repay the money for the trips.  The New York Times put that news on the front page on January 4th, in an article by Carl Hulse and David Kirkpatrick on ethics reform.

Apparently the New York Times believes that ethical lapses are newsworthy only if they are committed by Republicans.

And there is a larger issue.  Should a man who has, apparently, violated House rules and broken laws for years be chairman of the House judiciary committee?  Speaker Pelosi thinks so, but I suspect that most voters would disagree.

James R. Miller
Kirkland, WA, January 8, 2007

Full Disclosure:  This letter is one of a series that I have written to the Times, not because I expect them to publish them, but to criticize the letters editor, whom I have taken to calling the New York Times censor.  (In every case, I would be delighted if the letters editor proved me wrong and published the letter.)

The fact is that the New York Times is much less willing than most American newspapers to publish letters critical of its own work.  And they are completely unwilling to publish letters with the kind of abuse directed at the Times, or Democratic officials, that they routinely publish directed at President Bush and other Republicans.  (I am thinking especially of the columns by Dowd, Herbert, Krugman, and Rich, and many editorials.  The Times is even unwilling to publish letters pointing out factual errors in these columns and editorials.  And, let me assure you, it is not hard to find factual errors in those places.)

This unwillingness to publish letters critical of the Times removes the feedback that might keep the newspaper from being, so often, just plain silly in its attacks on Bush and Republicans.   How can they learn that they are wrong — and they often are — if they won't listen to those who disagree with them?

(You can find the previous letters in this series here, here, here, and here.)
- 10:52 AM, 8 January 2007
Note:  I revised the letter after posting it, but before sending it.
- 12:45 PM, 8 January 2007   [link]

General Motors Gets The Concept Right:  The Toyota Prius, I have long thought, got the concept wrong, because it is not a plug-in hybrid.  Now General Motors has shown the Chevrolet Volt, which gets the concept right, and gets startling gas mileage when used for commuting.
When General Motors unwraps the Chevrolet Volt for the press today at the North American International Auto Show, it will be revealing much more than the latest fantasy from its styling studios.

Beyond its striking coupelike lines, the Volt is also a declaration of G.M.'s intent to mass-produce a new type of hybrid-electric vehicle, one that can drive up to 40 miles on batteries alone and recharge itself with an onboard generator — or by plugging into a standard 110-volt household outlet.
Before you rush out to buy one, you should know that the "batteries to make it roadworthy do not yet exist".  But batteries are improving steadily, so you may be able to buy one within the next five years.

Performance is decent; it has a top end of 120 miles per hour and goes from 0 to 60 in 8 to 8.5 seconds.

And the mileage?  If you used it only for commuting, and drove it less than forty miles a day (which is typical), then you would use no gas at all.  And the electricity that you used to charge it would cost you, per mile, about a third of what gasoline costs.

(From the brief description in the article and what little I know about the Prius, it looks like the Volt has another advantage, a simpler drive train.

More on the Volt here and here.)
- 6:40 PM, 7 January 2007   [link]

Can LCD Monitors Pay For Themselves?  After writing and updating this post on the cost advantages of compact fluorescents, I started wondering whether an LCD monitor might also pay for itself in energy savings.  A quick search found this Google answer, which explains how to calculate the cost savings.

Applying it to my own case (I have an Iiyama monitor which draws 130 Watts), I found that an LCD monitor would save almost 20 dollars a year in electricity.  That implies that an LCD monitor would pay for itself in about 10 years, since decent LCD monitors cost about 200 dollars.  But the calculation is a little more complicated, for two reasons.  First, as I mentioned in the earlier post on compact fluorescents, I heat with electricity and so, in the winter, the additional energy used by the CRT, which goes into heat, should not be counted in the total costs.  Second, if I don't spend the money on a monitor, I can draw interest on it, not a lot, but perhaps 6 dollars a year.  Allowing for those two factors, I would guess that an LCD monitor might pay for itself in 20 years, which makes it a much less attractive proposition, even for someone who uses a computer as much as I do.

There is one more complication.  These calculations assumed a constant price for electricity.  But I am not sure that is realistic, since the price of electricity has been rising — and is likely to rise even more now that the Democrats have taken control of Congress.  Assuming that the price of electricity continues to rise, then an LCD monitor might pay for itself in 15 years.  So I won't rush out to buy one, but I will keep thinking about the question.  And if their prices fall much farther, I'll redo my calculations.

(I was assuming that the LCD monitor draws about 40 Watts, which is typical, but not universal.   When I glanced at some LCD monitors at Newegg, I found an Acer monitor that draws 60 Watts.

There are two other complications for me.  Linux distributions do not always support the native resolutions of the larger LCD monitors without some fiddling.  And, at least until recently, CRTs were better for working with photographs.)
- 7:53 AM, 6 January 2007   [link]

The Walls at Crater Lake are spectacular, more spectacular than this photo, or most others, can show you.

Crater Lake wall

I was lucky to be there on two days with a light breezes, which added a touch of the surreal to the reflections.  But I should have picked a time with less haze, for clearer pictures.   Next year, maybe.

If you look at the wall around Crater Lake, you will see a strange irregularity, for a volcanic crater.  That's because the wall you see was formed not by addition of lava, but by the subtraction, subtraction from a mountain that had been carved by glaciers.  The U-shaped valley that you see in the center below is the bottom part of a glacial valley that once extended thousands of feet higher.

Tilted Crater Lake from Google

We now call it Crater Lake, but, considering how it was formed, it would be more precise to call it Caldera Lake.

You can find the earlier posts from my 2006 disaster area tour here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

You can find the last post from the 2005 disaster area tour, with links to all the other 2005 disaster tour posts, here.
- 3:45 PM, 5 January 2007   [link]

The Sins of John Conyers:  After I wrote the post just below, I realized that you may not have seen or heard what Conyers had done wrong.  The House committee reproof did not get wide coverage.  A search at Google News on "Conyers + ethics" got just 186 hits, some of them false.  Looking through those hits, I found the reproof at only one important "mainstream" news organization outside Michigan; ABC picked up this routine Reuters story.  (A similar, routine AP story got picked up by some smaller papers.)

The best description of Conyers' sins that I have found is in this Investor's Business Daily editorial.
The House Ethics Committee closed a three-year investigation of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., and found enough cause to require him to tell staffers in writing they won't have to work on his campaigns or do other nonofficial work for him.  What to others may be Government Ethics 101 is a problem for Conyers.

Three former aides claim that the incoming chairman of the House Judiciary Committee made them baby-sit and chauffeur his children, run personal errands and work on political campaigns while they were on his congressional payroll.

The aides said they performed campaign activity on official time and "in some instances using official resources," according to the panel's finding, which was released over the holidays and buried in news.  Aides say they even had to work on Conyers' wife's own bid for public office.

One aide says her baby-sitting duties turned into a stint as a full-time nanny.  She says Conyers moved her into his Detroit home for six weeks to take care of his boy while his wife attended law school.
In short, Conyers turned people who were supposed to be working for the public into personal servants and campaign aides*.  That's not just sleazy and abusive; that's almost certainly illegal.

And what will happen to Conyers?  Will he be prosecuted?  Not as far as I can tell.   Will he repay the taxpayers?  No way.  Will he be stripped of his seniority?  No, in fact, he is even now chairman of the judiciary committee.  Will he even be reprimanded by the House?  Not a chance.  It may — or may not — make you feel a little better to learn that he has promised to sin no more.

(*There are legal ways for congressional aides to work on campaigns.  What they do, typically, is go on leave from their Washington job and simultaneously go on the campaign payroll.

One reason this reproof got so little coverage is that the House committee released their statement on December 29th, quite deliberately, I am sure.

It looks to me, by the way, that the Republican chairman of the committee, Doc Hastings, got snookered by the Democratic ranking member, Howard Berman.  They released the Conyers report on the December 29th, but they released two reproofs of Republicans on January 3rd, when they would get more attention — though the two congressmen, Tom Feeneyand Curt Weldon, had done much less wrong.  Each had taken one free trip that he should not have.  And both, unlike Conyers, have promised to repay the money.)
- 12:51 PM, 5 January 2007   [link]

Ethics And Speaker Pelosi:  Let's try a simple thought experiment.   Suppose you knew a manager who repeatedly tried to put known crooks in responsible positions.   Suppose that manager then put forth a new and supposedly tougher set of ethics rules for the organization.  Which of those two would tell you more about the manager's ethics?

I think almost all of us would say that the first does, that promoting crooks shows that the manager does not care about ethics.  And I think almost all of us would say that the ethics rule changes are not sincere, that they are a show for outsiders.

Let's review Pelosi's actions before she was elected Speaker.  She promised, according to some news accounts, to make Alcee Hastings chairman of the sensitive House intelligence committee.  (Before Hastings was elected to Congress, he was a federal judge — and was impeached and convicted by a Democratic congress for corruption and perjury.)   She worked hard to make John Murtha majority leader.   (Murtha was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam scandal, and has not improved his behavior since then.)  She backed John Conyers for chairman of the judiciary committee.  (Conyers has just been formally reproved by the House ethics committee for breaking House rules and abusing his staff.)

So when I see all these news accounts (for example, here and here), about the new House ethics rules, I am not impressed.  In fact, I will predict, with considerable confidence, that House members, under Speaker Pelosi, will behave even worse than they did under Speaker Hastert.

There is one puzzle.  Journalists are supposed to be a cynical bunch, wary of politicians' promises and skeptical about promises of reform.  So why don't I see any of that cynicism in these accounts?  There may be a clue in this one exception from the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger, who is almost as cynical as I am about these rules changes.  I don't know for certain what party he belongs to, but I think we can be fairly sure that he is not a partisan Democrat, unlike most in the "mainstream" media.

(Those who recall my posts describing Pelosi as a machine politician (for example, here) may wonder whether rule changes such as those just passed by the House are typical of big city machines.  In fact, they are, and are one of the most common responses to scandals by machines.  No doubt, Pelosi's father, the Baltimore boss, explained all that to her, when she was growing up.)
- 7:23 AM, 5 January 2007   [link]

Why Are the Media Praising President Ford?  Jim Bennett explains:
The reason for the media praising dead republican presidents is to make the current Republican president look bad in comparison.
Exactly right.
- 8:11 AM, 4 January 2007   [link]

Worth Reading:  Amir Taheri reminds us that, outside Baghdad, most of Iraq is prospering.
While the American political elite is using Iraq as an excuse for fighting internal political wars, a different reality is taking shape in parts of this war-torn nation.  Wherever some measure of security is assured - that is to say in more than 80 percent of Iraq - towns and villages long left to die a slow death are creeping back to life.
. . .
When the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank reported two years ago that the Iraqi economy was heading for a boom, skeptics dismissed it as misplaced optimism.  Now, however, even some of those who opposed the toppling of Saddam Hussein admit that many Iraqis share that optimism.
. . .
But a good part of the boom is due to an unexpected flow of foreign capital.  This has been facilitated by the prospect of a liberal law on direct foreign investments, which exists only in such free-trade parts of the region as Dubai and Bahrain.  None of Iraq's six neighbors offers such guarantee for the free flow of capital to and from the country.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the number of private companies in Iraq has increased from a mere 8,000 to more than 35,000 this year.  Each week an average of 60 new companies spring up in Iraq's booming areas.  A good part of the investment in southern Iraq, including in Um Qasr, comes from Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
How can this be?  Don't those investors read the New York Times?  Don't they watch CBS?   Don't they consult the BBC?  And what could the Iraqis and their neighbors possibly know that Western journalists do not?

Those investors are risking, in most cases, their own money.  The journalists, who have such a different picture of Iraq, are risking their reputations.  And that risk isn't very great, because there are so few Western journalists making different arguments.  I am more inclined to trust people who are risking their money than people who are risking their reputations.  (Both may be risking their lives, of course.)

Taheri reminds us of something often forgotten:  Most of Iraq has "some measure of security".   Or to put it another way, assuming his 80 percent is about right, we have solved four-fifths of the problem.  Or to put it still another way, we have to pacify 5 million people, not 25 million.

And, although Taheri does not say so, we must remember that some of the terrorist attacks occur in Baghdad precisely because most Western journalists are there.  I am not saying that there would no terrorist attacks if there were no Western journalists in Baghdad, but I do believe that there would be fewer terrorist attacks.  And I can't think of a single "mainstream" journalist who has confronted that unpleasant possibility.

(You may recall that Newsweek was surprised by the boom in Iraq.  That they were surprised shows just how poorly informed they are about Iraq, since this boom is not a new phenomena.)
- 4:55 PM, 3 January 2007   [link]

The Race Car Driver And The Federal Elections Commission:  More evidence, not that more is needed, that our campaign finance laws are often silly.
Kirk Shelmerdine — one of the greatest pit-crew chiefs ever, most famously for the late Dale Earnhardt, Sr. — is today engaged in a less-successful second career as a driver.  But to the Federal Election Commission, he's just a reckless campaign-finance law violator.

The day after Christmas, the FEC announced that it was sending Shelmerdine a "letter of admonishment" for his actions during the 2004 presidential campaign — namely, putting a "Bush/Cheney '04" decal on a panel of his car for a total of four races.

In late summer of 2004, a rumor hit the Sylvania 300 race at the New Hampshire International Speedway that President Bush, on the re-election trail, was going to stop by.  Having not sold the left rear quarter panel of his car to a paying sponsor, Shelmerdine chose to put the Bush/Cheney decal there.
And left it there for three more races, none of which he won.

That earned him a letter of admonishment from the FEC.

I wouldn't say that's the strangest campaign finance law violation I've seen, but it makes my top ten list.  (Two others:  Jimmy Carter got in trouble in Oregon in 1976 for passing out bags of peanuts to voters.  Somewhat later, a Minnesota candidate got in trouble for going to a retirement home and serving the residents coffee and doughnuts.  In each case, the candidate violated the state's laws by giving something of value to voters.)

Shelmerdine got admonished for his contribution, but what we might call the entertainer's loophole is untouched.  You and I can volunteer a few hours of our time to a candidate or party, and so can entertainers.  Barbra Streisand, for instance, can give a concert and donate the proceeds to the candidate of her choice, as she done, more than once.  And she probably could have worn a bumper sticker while she sang, without being admonished by the FEC.

Perhaps absurdities like this letter of admonishment will eventually let us get rid of these campaign fianance "reform" laws, which have done so much damage, and are often so silly.

(You can find similar comments here from Brad Smith, who knows a little about election laws.)
- 1:03 PM, 3 January 2007   [link]

Wal-Mart Saves The Environment:  That isn't the headline on this New York Times article, but it could be.  Wal-Mart, in a shrewd marketing move, is promoting compact fluorescent light bulbs, just as consumers are beginning to accept them.
As a way to cut energy use, it could not be simpler.  Unscrew a light bulb that uses a lot of electricity and replace it with one that uses much less.

While it sounds like a promising idea, it turns out that the long-lasting, swirl-shaped light bulbs known as compact fluorescent lamps are to the nation's energy problem what vegetables are to its obesity epidemic: a near perfect answer, if only Americans could be persuaded to swallow them.

But now Wal-Mart Stores, the giant discount retailer, is determined to push them into at least 100 million homes.  And its ambitions extend even further, spurred by a sweeping commitment from its chief executive, H. Lee Scott Jr., to reduce energy use across the country, a move that could also improve Wal-Mart's appeal to the more affluent consumers the chain must win over to keep growing in the United States.
The New York Times sees this as a virtuous move by Wal-Mart since, for the Times, anything that reduces energy use is good.  (Well, almost anything.  I can't recall seeing any articles in the Times telling us how much energy we could save by reducing foreign travel, or by getting rid of second homes.  It is probably just coincidence that the Times sells many ads for both.)  I think the move is shrewd marketing.  Wal-Mart will make money helping consumers switch — and get applause from greens at the same time.

Unlike the New York Times, I am not superstitious about energy use.  The rise of civilization has depended on increasing energy use.  We live better lives than our ancestors because we use more energy than they did.  And our descendants will probably live even better lives because they will use even more energy.  But the rise has also depended on more efficient energy use.  (One famous example of more efficient energy use is the horse collar.  It is not going too far to say that the introduction of the horse collar made the rise of Europe possible.)  So this switch to compact fluorescents is fine with me.  And I have no objection to Wal-Mart — and other retailers — making money on the switch.

(For what it is worth, last year I began to switch over to compact fluorescents.  When I first tried them a few years ago, they were unsatisfactory in a number of ways.  They were expensive, their light was unpleasant, and they did not fit into many light sockets.  Their price has come down, their light is fine, and they fit more sockets.  I suspect many consumers have been doing what I did, waiting until the manufacturers solved those problems before switching.

The calculations on savings are more complicated for many households than those given in the article.   For example, my apartment has electric heat, so the additional heat produced by incandescent bulbs is not wasted during the winter, when I am heating the apartment anyway.  On the other hand, in areas where air conditioning is common, the compact fluorescents may save even more energy, by reducing the need to run air conditioners.)
- 6:42 AM, 3 January 2007
For a contrasting view, see this "Jane Galt" post; she tried the compact fluorescents and couldn't stand the light from them.  The discussion that followed makes me suspect that there is enough difference in the compact fluorescents so that you should try several different kinds before rejecting them entirely.  (FWIW, the one I am using now is a Sylvania CF40EL/Twist/1/BL, with a 3000K temperature rating.  Its light is a bit different from the 150 watt soft white incandescent bulbs I had used in the lamp before, but no worse, and perhaps better, because it is a little brighter.)

In the comments following her post, there was a link to another, which gave savings estimates.   The bottom line is that compact fluorescents are a great investment — though he does forget about electric heating, which reduces the savings, as I explained above.

As a friend reminded me, LEDs are even more efficient than compact fluorescents, and they are slowly becoming cheap enough to be used more widely.  (As I mentioned last December, I have been quite satisfied with my 30 LED camp lantern, both for camping and for emergencies.)

Without naming any names, I'll just add that I am amused to see how many people make the same mistake spelling fluorescent that I often do, beginning it with "flour", rather than "fluor".
- 10:50 AM, 5 January 2006
Still More Skepticism, now from the New York Times.  The writer just doesn't like the light from compact fluorescents, especially on skin.
- 2:19 PM, 7 January 2006   [link]

It's Called Freedom Of Speech, Mr. Horsey:  The Seattle PI cartoonist asks a revealing question.

Unquestionably, there are good things resulting from the democratization of the media.  The best bloggers are delving into issues and information that may be bypassed by professional journalists.   But with everyone holding a virtual megaphone, will we be able to hear the wiser voices amid the din of full-throated free expression?

Here's my Burning Question:

All things considered, is our understanding of the world made better or worse by an unfiltered cacophony of opinions?

Even to ask that question is to reveal a dangerous misunderstanding.  Freedom of speech is not something owned by public officials and "professional journalists".  It belongs to all of us, regardless of how wise David Horsey may think we are.  It is up to the listener, or the reader, not some filter, however "professional", to decide what should be believed — and what should not be believed.

The loss of their monopoly has hit many journalists hard.  But to see one half wishing for filters on the freedom of others is still dismaying.  I have criticized David Horsey more than once, but I have never said that he should be filtered.  But he seems to believe that it might be better if I were.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Just so there is no misunderstanding, I will be immodest and say that I began blogging because I thought that I could do better than almost all "professional journalists" on some subjects.   And the same is true of many other bloggers.  For instance, I can't think of a single journalist who is as good at covering legal issues as UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh.  And if you are familiar with blogs, you can undoubtedly think of many similar examples.

For an example of where I was right and nearly all "professional journalists" were wrong, see my first post on the much exaggerated Baghdad museum looting.

For an example of David Horsey getting something completely wrong, see this post.  And just because it was so hilarious, I will throw in this post.  A substitute for Horsey, travel writer Rick Steves, asked whether Europeans have healthier atttitudes about sex than Americans.  Nearly all the PI readers who responded thought that the the Europeans are better in the bedroom — though few could have any evidence for that claim.  And those who did should not talk about it in public.)
- 4:15 PM, 2 January 2007   [link]

To Celebrate Speaker Pelosi, The Party Of The Working People Will Throw A Lot Of Expensive Parties:  The main purpose of these parties is to persuade the voters that Nancy Pelosi is not an extremist.
"It is an introduction of her to the country — and certainly who she is, as an outgrowth of her family, her growing up in Baltimore, where she went to school, and the values and the roots she had in that community," said Representative George Miller, Democrat of California and a close Pelosi ally.

In other words, she is not the liberal extremist her detractors have tried to depict (one Republican advertisement during the midterm election cycle warned that "liberal Democrat Nancy Pelosi" would embrace illegal immigrants and reward them with welfare, ominously asking, "How do we stop her?").
(The main purpose, but not the only purpose.  The Democrats also want to reward their rich supporters.)

A quick glance at my 2006 Almanac of American Politics shows that Nancy Pelosi received scores of 100 and 95 in 2003 and 2004 from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action.  And those are the kinds of scores she has received all through her career in Congress, and not just from the ADA, but from other liberal (I would say leftist) groups.  To present this proud liberal as "mainstream" is almost as bizarre as presenting her as a man.

Does the New York Times reporter, Anne Korblut, actually believe that Pelosi is "mainstream"?  Or is Korblut just happy to pass along the Democratic line, regardless of how absurd it is?  It's hard to tell.

(By the way, Pelosi does want to give welfare to illegal immigrants, just as the Republicans said.

For more on Pelosi, see this comparison of Hasterland and Pelosiville.  Her San Francisco district is failing in many ways, while Speaker Hastert's Illinois district is succeeding.  And for some idea about what she learned growing up in Baltimore, see this discussion of what she learned from her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., the boss of Baltimore.)
- 12:41 PM, 2 January 2007   [link]

Yesterday, I Decided I Would Watch One Football Game:  For no special reason, other than timing, I picked this one.
Boise State proved it belonged in the BCS and started another lively college football debate.   The ninth-ranked Broncos completed a perfect season with an exhilarating 43-42 overtime victory over No. 7 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl Monday night, leaving Boise State and top-ranked Ohio State as the only teams with perfect records.
. . .
In one of the most dramatic finishes in BCS history, the Sooners and the Broncos combined for 22 points in the final 86 seconds of regulation.

Boise State blew an 18-point lead midway through the third quarter, then twice rallied from seven-point deficits.
It turned out to be a pretty good choice.

(The announcers for the game were not, I hope, Fox's first string.  Through much of the game, they kept talking about what a David-and-Goliath match this was, even when Boise State jumped out to an early 14-0 lead.  They talked about it so much that I finally picked up the sports section of the Seattle Times, which gives the betting lines for important games.  Oklahoma, I learned there, was favored by just a single touchdown.  So the Bronco win was an upset, but only a mild upset.

That difference between the announcers and the bookies may show, again, the different perspectives of numbers guys and words guys.  The announcers kept talking about all the history of Oklahoma, so that they could create a David-and-Goliath story, which is most sportswriters' favorite script.   The bookies looked, I suppose, at the numbers, and how well the teams had done against strong opponents.

Although the numbers guys were closer to the actual result, romantics will like what the Broncos' star running back, Ian Johnson, did after the win.)
- 10:39 AM, 2 January 2007   [link]

Happy New Year!

- 2:46 PM, 1 January 2007   [link]