January 2011, Part 4

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Ross Douthat Isn't Sure What Our Policy Should Be toward Egypt.
The memory of Nasser is a reminder that even if post-Mubarak Egypt doesn't descend into religious dictatorship, it's still likely to lurch in a more anti-American direction.  The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire.   But then again they might be worse.  There are devils behind every door.
And neither am I, which is why I haven't said anything about the riots/demonstrations going on in that misruled nation.

(Douthat and I know that we don't know, which probably puts us ahead of most of those commenting on Egypt.)
- 12:34 PM, 31 January 2011   [link]

Should Elected Officials Watch How Tax Money Is Spent?  And object if they think it is being spent in ways taxpayers would not approve?

You may think that's a trick question, that no one would say no.  In fact, most of you would say that elected officials have a positive duty to make sure that tax money is spent as the citizens intend.

But not everyone agrees with you.

Take, for example, Michael Kimmelman of the New York Times.  Mr. Kimmelman is absolutely enraged that elected officials have asked the Smithsonian not to insult the majority of Americans.  Kimmelman is certain that Europeans do things much better — because Europeans ignore what their voters want.
For all the talk about one big, globalized art world, the trans-Atlantic gulf reasserted itself the other evening via a small but telling event.  An overflow crowd of several hundred people, young and old, men and women, gay and straight, packed Starr Auditorium at the Tate Modern here to pay tribute to David Wojnarowicz, the artist and AIDS activist who died, at 37, from AIDS, in 1992.

Last week, on a visit to Los Angeles, the secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, was still struggling to account for why he caved two months ago to Republican lawmakers and the leader of the Catholic League, a group that calls itself a defender of free speech.  Mr. Clough told The Los Angeles Times that, among other things, fear of retaliatory budget cuts caused him to remove a video by Wojnarowicz from "Hide/Seek," at the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery in Washington, a show about same-sex themes in American portraiture.
(As you probably guessed, Kimmelman is leaving out some of the more interesting details about that show.)

Kimmelman is certain that he knows what Europeans think:
In the United States, where no hubbub over art interests the tabloids or cable news unless it does become a federal case (or involve newly obscene auction prices), there is nonetheless the presumption that ordinary taxpayers have a right to intervene via their political representatives in curatorial affairs because museums get tax breaks.  It has something to do with the ideal of the American Everyman.  As with the military or medicine, so with museums, we are by national inclination meddlers.

Europeans are not, which is why they have reacted to the Smithsonian flap with the same mildly appalled bafflement that they express toward American opposition to the health care bill.  It all seems inexplicable to them.  Cultural free expression and the independence of public arts institutions, like the right to medical treatment, are taken for granted across modern Europe.  Since at least the war these have been considered basic rights.
Kimmelman is either misinformed or dishonest when he says "tax breaks" are the reason American taxpayers feel they have a right to intervene in the Smithsonian.  In fact, most of the Smithsonian's budget comes directly from taxes.

And I think that he would be enlightened if he were to go out on the streets of London and ask a few people, not connected with the art world, whether they think that UK taxpayers should have something to say about how their tax money is spent.  I think most of them would agree that they ought to have a say — even when that money is being spent on art (or, judging by the sample Kimmelman provides of Wojnarowicz's work, "art").

(There's a separate point that requires mention.  The Times published Kimmelman's rant as a straight news story, not labeling it commentary, or even analysis.  I'll be sending an email to their public editor, asking about that odd decision.)
- 9:37 AM, 31 January 2011   [link]

If You Are An American, You Should Feel Lucky:  While reviewing Branko Milanovic's The Haves and the Have-Nots, Catherine Rampell passes on this little comparison:
As Milanovic notes, an astounding 60 percent of a person's income is determined merely by where she was born (and an additional 20 percent is dictated by how rich her parents were).  He also makes interesting international comparisons.  The typical person in the top 5 percent of the Indian population, for example, makes the same as or less than the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American population.  That's right: America's poorest are, on average, richer than India's richest — extravagant Mumbai mansions notwithstanding.
Which, Rampell goes on to say, helps explain why so many in the third world want to come to the first, legally or otherwise.

(How many?  In some countries, according to a World Bank survey — which I will have to locate — as much as half of the population would leave for the United States, Europe, or Australia, if they could.)
- 6:49 AM, 31 January 2011   [link]

The Obama Administration Has Been Busy Granting Waivers From ObamaCare:   Milton Wolf thinks there's a pattern to those waivers.
In short, the administration has decided that you will face increased health insurance premiums, but special friends in the unions will not.  Look closely, and you'll see not only the White House's duplicity but also what the Obama administration really thinks of its crown jewel, Obamacare.   White House words say that the annual insurance benefit cap is a feature of the program, but its actions say that it's a bug.

The question remains: If Obamacare is such a great law, why does the White House keep protecting its best friends from it?
And if you look at who has received those waivers, you have to admit that he has a point.   (A few of the waivers, for example, the waiver to McDonald's, seem to have been issued in order to keep the company from dropping health insurance all together.)
- 6:16 AM, 31 January 2011   [link]

Zero Interest Rate?  Chase recently sent me an offer:  If I start a new savings account with at least $5,000, they'll give me a $100 bonus.

There are some other conditions on the offer, but what surprised me most is that they didn't say exactly what the interest rate would be on that new account.  They did give a rate, but at the same time told me that it would vary at "Case's discretion".  And their web site doesn't exactly advertise their rates either, but if you drill far enough down, you can find the current rate.  For a basic savings account, it's a lavish 0.01 per cent.

So it isn't exactly zero, but it's close enough to zero so that $100 bonus would be almost the only thing worth while about the account.  (Almost because the money would be safer there than in a mattress, and you can access it from an ATM.)

(For their "plus" savings account, you can get an interest rate of 0.40 per cent — if you have more than $5,000,000 in your account.)

This is, of course, just another effect of the Federal Reserve's policy of keeping interest rates low, in an effort to stimulate the economy.  So far the effort does not seem to have succeeded, though it has reduced the cost of borrowing for the federal government, markedly.

Way back in the Jurassic, when I took a basic economics course, I recall being told that "you couldn't push on a string", that high interest rates could be used to restrain an economy and cut inflation (pulling on a string), but that low interest rates did not necessarily stimulate the economy (pushing on a string).

I don't doubt that Ben Bernanke forgets more about economics every week than I have learned in my entire life time, but I can't help wondering whether he is trying to push on a string.

(There are winners and losers for every policy; the losers in the Fed's efforts to keep interest rates near zero are the savers, especially the savers who had been using interest from their savings to supplement their incomes.

Chase didn't send me that offer because they like the color of my eyes, or because I sometimes tell jokes to their tellers, but because they are trying to rebuild the business that they took over from Washington Mutual.)
- 7:19 PM, 30 January 2011   [link]

If This Were A Government Building In California, its collapse would be even more symbolic.
The roof of a Quick Mart gas station in Vacaville, Calif., came crashing down under the weight of pigeon poop.  Yes, that's right, pigeon poop.  Twenty years of leaving the birds to it.
- 8:44 AM, 28 January 2011   [link]

Bomb-Spotting Plants?  Researcher June Medford, and her team, have shown that they can work, in principle.
The next hydrangea you grow could literally save your life.  With the help of the Department of Defense, a biologist at Colorado State University has taught plant proteins how to detect explosives.   Never let it be said that horticulture can't fight terrorism.

Picture this at an airport, perhaps in as soon as four years:  A terrorist rolls through the sliding doors of a terminal with a bomb packed into his luggage (or his underwear).  All of a sudden, the leafy, verdant gardenscape ringing the gates goes white as a sheet.  That's the proteins inside the plants telling authorities that they've picked up the chemical trace of the guy's arsenal.
Genetically engineered plants could also be designed, using the same method, to detect many common pollutants.

There are limits to the method.  For example, Medford does not think the plants can be designed to detect ammonium nitrate, a common fertilizer that is also used to make explosives.  But this definitely seems worth further research.

(For academics:  The lead author on the paper they link to is Mauricio S. Antunes, not Medford.  And there are nine other co-authors on the paper, whose separate contributions are described, briefly, at the end.)
- 7:36 AM, 28 January 2011   [link]

So Much For Filibuster Reform:  Byron York explains why it failed, and why a day in the Senate (or the House) can last way longer than an ordinary day.
Lost in the hubbub over President Obama's State of the Union speech was the quiet death of liberal Democratic hopes to "reform" the Senate filibuster.  Those hopes officially expired at 10:20 p.m. Tuesday, as lawmakers prepared the leave the Capitol after the president's speech, when the Senate adjourned for the first time this year.
It isn't hard to understand why Republicans and Democrats decided to keep the filibuster; the Republicans need it now and the Democrats are nearly certain they will need it after the 2012 election — and may need it even sooner.

(The Hill has a little more.

The New York Times puts on a brave face, but is obviously disappointed.   They were pleased when Democrats used the filibuster to block Bush court nominees, which might lead some to think that their stance on the question varies with the immediate partisan needs of the Democratic party.)
- 2:34 PM, 27 January 2011   [link]

Republicans Rising:  Or perhaps I should say, recovering.
Americans' opinions of the Republican Party have improved to the point where now more have a favorable than unfavorable opinion of the party.  The last time more Americans viewed the GOP more positively than negatively was in 2005.

For the early part of the 2000s, Americans had a net-positive image of the Republican Party.   That changed in 2005, as Americans soured on the Bush administration over the ongoing Iraq war, the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina, and rising gas prices, among other issues.   After the 2006 midterm elections, which saw Americans remove the Republicans as the majority party in Congress, the Republicans' ratings were 35% favorable and 58% unfavorable.
And then watching Democrats run, first the Congress and then the White House, made some voters think that the Republicans weren't so bad, after all.  (Unfortunately, almost none of those voters work in our "mainstream" news organizations.)

That isn't a big margin — 47 percent favorable to 44 percent unfavorable — but I expect it to grow, a little, during the rest of this year.

(If you compare the two graphs accompanying the release, you'll see that Republicans gains and Democratic losses (and vice versa) almost always go together.  This isn't necessarily logical, as any Libertarian could tell you.  Both parties could be performing badly, or well, as unlikely as that may seem, but we do tend to judge each major party by comparing it to the other, not to some absolute standard.)
- 9:03 AM, 27 January 2011   [link]

Gerry Adams, Crown Steward And Bailiff Of The Manor Of Northstead:   The British Parliament now has one less IRA member.   Gerry Adams has resigned in order to run for a seat in the Irish Parliament.

Except, for reasons explained here, members can not simply resign from the British Parliament.  And so, for centuries, the British have gotten around that by giving members who wish to resign crown appointments.  So Gerry Adams, who does not accept the legitimacy of the British monarchy, is now officially a servant of Queen Elizabeth.   Which, I imagine, does not please him at all.

(Adams was a member of the British Parliament from 1983 to 1992 and from 1997 until his resignation yesterday.  He accepted the pay and benefits but did not vote.

This method of resignation has become so routine that there are two offices used in rotation for it, Northstead and Chiltern Hundreds.

Prime Minister Cameron, who is still new at the job, got the title wrong, and called Adams the "Baron of the Manor of Northstead" — which must have annoyed Adams even more.

It's likely that Adams will be replaced by a member who shares his views, though not his notoriety.)
- 7:58 AM, 27 January 2011   [link]

How Did Obama Choose Those Heartwarming Personal Stories?   Politically.
A Smart Politics review of the State of the Union Address finds that every personal, episodic story told by the President about regular Americans was rooted in a battleground state carried by Obama in 2008: Michigan, Colorado, North Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

To be sure, if the President is going to be reelected in 2012, he will need to carry almost all of these states.
The only thing surprising in that list is that he (or his speechwriters) left out Ohio and Florida.   Perhaps they wanted to include those states, but decided that the speech was already too long.
- 7:23 AM, 26 January 2011   [link]

Obama's Numbers Don't Add Up:  So says the Associated Press, and they have examples to prove that point.
The ledger did not appear to be adding up Tuesday night when President Barack Obama urged more spending on one hand and a spending freeze on the other.

Obama spoke ambitiously of putting money into roads, research, education, efficient cars, high-speed rail and other initiatives in his State of the Union speech.  He pointed to the transportation and construction projects of the last two years and proposed "we redouble these efforts."  He coupled this with a call to "freeze annual domestic spending for the next five years."

But Obama offered far more examples of where he would spend than where he would cut, and some of the areas he identified for savings are not certain to yield much if anything.
Freezing spending at current levels is like deciding to maintain your current diet after you have become obese.

USA Today comes to a similar conclusion.
The president says any investments should not increase the deficit, but he didn't say how to do that, other than by eliminating billions of dollars in tax breaks to oil companies.  House Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica, R-Fla., has mentioned using money left over from the $814 billion stimulus law passed in 2009.  Ed DeSeve, the White House point man on stimulus implementation, said in October that only $110 billion remained unspent, including $45 billion in tax cuts.
Have Obama's numbers ever added up?  Or is that question too cynical?
- 6:00 AM, 26 January 2011   [link]

Tonight, I Felt Sorry For Speaker Boehner:  I even felt sorry for Vice President Biden.

Ever since the Nixon administration, I have mostly avoided watching big political speeches, preferring to read them afterwards.  I have found that lets me get a more accurate idea of what the speaker said — and didn't say — since I don't have to watch the theatrics.

And since I read quickly, I can usually read a speech, and even do a quick analysis, in less time than it takes me to watch one.

But tonight, I watched most of President Obama's speech — and reminded myself of the wisdom of my usual policy.  Most of his 2012 campaign speech tonight was boring, annoying, or both.

I could break away any time I wanted to, but the Speaker and the Vice President had to sit there pretending to pay attention.  In addition, the Speaker had to look dubious from time to time, without seeming ungracious.  (When I was watching him, Speaker Boehner seemed to get that about right.)  In contrast, Vice President Biden had to look pleased from time to time when the script called for it.  (And to be fair, he seemed to look pleased at least as well as Speaker Boehner looked dubious.)

If you watched the whole speech, you have my sympathy.
- 7:43 PM, 25 January 2011   [link]

Peter Sissons On The BBC Mindset:  Peter Sissons was, for years, a BBC "presenter", or as most Americans would say, a BBC "anchor".  (FWIW, I prefer the more sensible term, also used in Britain, "news reader".)

Sissons has left the BBC and is writing a memoir.  Judging by this piece, and by the early chapters of the memoir, which you can read here and here, the BBC is unlikely to be happy with what he has to say, now that he can speak freely about the news organization.
For 20 years I was a front man at the BBC, anchoring news and current affairs programmes, so I reckon nobody is better placed than me to answer the question that nags at many of its viewers — is the BBC biased?

In my view, 'bias' is too blunt a word to describe the subtleties of the pervading culture.  The better word is a 'mindset'.  At the core of the BBC, in its very DNA, is a way of thinking that is firmly of the Left.

By far the most popular and widely read newspapers at the BBC are The Guardian and The Independent.  Producers refer to them routinely for the line to take on running stories, and for inspiration on which items to cover.  In the later stages of my career, I lost count of the number of times I asked a producer for a brief on a story, only to be handed a copy of The Guardian and told 'it's all in there'.

If you want to read one of the few copies of the Daily Mail that find their way into the BBC newsroom, they are difficult to track down, and you would be advised not to make too much of a show of reading them.  Wrap them in brown paper or a copy of The Guardian, would be my advice.

I am in no doubt that the majority of BBC staff vote for political parties of the Left.  But it's impossible to do anything but guess at the numbers whose beliefs are on the Right or even Centre-Right.  This is because the one thing guaranteed to damage your career prospects at the BBC is letting it be known that you are at odds with the prevailing and deep-rooted BBC attitude towards Life, the Universe, and Everything.
(As you probably guessed, the Guardian and the Independent are left-wing newspapers and the Daily Mail is a conservative newspaper.)

With some obvious modifications — for example, substituting the New York Times for the Guardian — I think that's a good description of the problem of bias, or if you prefer, mindset, in "mainstream" American news organizations.

In particular, I think the closed-minded attitudes found at the BBC can be found in our own "mainstream" news organizations.  It is not just that they are wrong — as they often are — but that they refuse to look at the other sides of all too many stories.

And I have seen the same tendency for a few news organizations to set the agenda for all of them.   For example, the Seattle Times ignored a local school reform organization, Where's the Math?, until the New York Times published an article on the reform group.  And only then did the Seattle Times jump in with an article of their own.  (You can see my own amateur efforts to cover the group here and here.  I shouldn't say this myself, but I think my amateur posts were better than either newspapers' articles.)

And if those few news organizations are wrong, as they sometimes are?  Then almost all the stories will be.  The stories, especially the early stories, on the Tucson shootings illustrate, all too dramatically, that problem.
- 10:46 AM, 25 January 2011   [link]

We Can't Get Much Satisfaction:  So says Gallup.
When President Obama delivers his State of the Union speech Tuesday, he will be addressing a nation that is less satisfied with a variety of aspects of U.S. life than it was in 2008.  Americans' satisfaction with six of seven different economic, moral, or governmental aspects is down significantly compared with Gallup's prior measurement three years ago, as the economy was slowing down but before the financial crisis hit.
We are less satisfied with the quality of life, the opportunity to get ahead, our system of government, the size and power of the federal government, the moral and ethical climate, and the size and influence of major corporations.

The exception?  Organized religion.  We are not blaming our ministers, priests, and rabbis for our ills.

What to make of all this?  It is not as easy to tell as it should be, because Gallup's questions are too vague.  For instance, if you are unhappy with the size and power of the federal government, that could be because you think it is too large and strong, too small and weak, too large and weak, or too small and strong.  (I could construct arguments for all four positions, and, given time, find people who believe in each of the four.)

But, even without the follow-up questions Gallup should have asked, we can, with some confidence, conclude that Americans are not happy with what has happened since 2008.   And we are not giving our leaders high marks for trying hard; only 30 percent, a record low, are satisfied with our "moral and ethical climate".

(Some, having seen that headline, will want to hear the song from the Rolling Stones.)
- 8:20 AM, 25 January 2011   [link]

Columnist John Kass Doesn't Have Much Sympathy for Rahm Emanuel.
Rahm Emanuel as a poor innocent victim of ruthless insider Chicago politics?

It seems to be the approved narrative.  Especially now that he's been knocked off the mayoral ballot in Monday's ruling by the Illinois Appellate Court because he didn't meet the state's residency requirements.

Now Rahm will have to troll for sympathy, and demand that the rights of the people be respected.   You know, the regular folks.  Guys like the Daley boys, and big donors from New York and Hollywood.

It'll be a hard sell, Rahm as the victim, but he'll have to try.  Victim status is critical to applying pressure and getting back on the ballot.
Emanuel is not a sympathetic figure except, perhaps, to the kind of people who keep piranhas as pets.  But I do have to concede that he might be a better mayor of Chicago than one of his opponents, Carol Moseley Braun.  (Who may be running for the job because she needs money.)
- 7:54 AM, 25 January 2011   [link]

Fannie And Freddie Add Insult And Injury To Insult And Injury:   Not only are we taxpayers paying billions for the errors, to put it kindly, of their managers, we are paying millions to defend them in court.
Since the government took over Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, taxpayers have spent more than $160 million defending the mortgage finance companies and their former top executives in civil lawsuits accusing them of fraud.  The cost was a closely guarded secret until last week, when the companies and their regulator produced an accounting at the request of Congress.
The Times article says, vaguely, "at the request of Congress".  Most likely the request came from one of the new Republican chairmen in the House.
- 7:32 AM, 25 January 2011   [link]