March 2009, Part 1

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Worth A Look:  Ramirez's March 6th cartoon.  In fact, I would say that the cartoon is the best commentary on the Limbaugh kerfuffle that I have seen.

(I can understand why Obama supporters, and Democrats generally, would want to change the subject from Obama's performance, but I can't understand why Republicans would go along with them.)
- 5:01 PM, 8 March 2009   [link]

One Third Of Obama's Potential Nominees May Have Tax Problems?  That's what Al Kamen says.
And the problem, as Volcker also noted, is a severe case of Daschle-itis -- with a strong dose of Geithner-itis -- that has sparked an intense spate of re-vetting of potential nominees.  We've heard the process compared to some rather unpleasant medical procedures.  According to one estimate, as many as a third of potential nominees were found to have had some tax questions to answer.

During February, after its breakneck pace through January, the Obama White House formally nominated only six people and announced its intention to nominate 15 others, according to a data analysis by our colleague Sarah Cohen in cooperation with the New York University Wagner School of Public Service's Presidential Transition Project.  (This count doesn't reflect White House intentions revealed over the weekend to nominate Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as secretary of health and human services .)   Seven Obama officials were confirmed by the Senate in February, the data show, in addition to three former Bush administration officials who are remaining in their jobs and do not require Senate confirmation.
There are several ways to interpret that number.  The most pleasant is that, after having goofed with Daschle, Geithner, and others, the vetting team is now erring on the side of caution.  A less pleasant interpretation is that our tax laws are so complex that it is easy to err in paying taxes — especially if you hire domestic help.  An even less pleasant interpretation is that many high-ranking Democrats are casual about paying taxes.  And the least pleasant explanation that I can think of is that Obama doesn't really care whether his nominees are law-abiding — unless, of course, that becomes an issue that hurts him, as it has.

Those four interpretations are not exclusive, of course.

(By way of Betsy Newmark.)
- 12:28 PM, 6 March 2009   [link]

Trumka and Pritzker:  Some of the people Obama has named to his Economic Recovery Advisory Board don't have the best of reputations.

For instance, Richard Trumka:
One board member, Richard L. Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, surfaced during a Clinton-era federal investigation into a money-laundering scheme involving the Democratic Party and Teamster's President Ron Carey.  Court documents and a congressional report claimed that Mr. Trumka helped divert $150,000 in union funds to Mr. Carey's 1996 re-election campaign through a liberal consumer-advocacy group known as Citizen Action.
And, Penny Pritzker:
Another member of Mr. Obama's advisory board is Penny Pritzker, chairwoman of Classic Residence by Hyatt, a chain of luxury senior living communities.  Listed among Forbes magazine's 2008 richest Americans with a net worth of $2 billion, she served as the campaign finance chairwoman for Mr. Obama and was one of his bundlers, personally raising $200,000.

Ms. Pritzker saw her Chicago-area bank shut down after it pursued a failed strategy of subprime loans.   The Office of Thrift Supervision, a Treasury Department agency that regulates federal savings associations, closed Superior Bank and its 18 branch offices in July 2001, after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said its financial condition had "rapidly deteriorated" and its management was "unable to resolve existing problems."
Almost all the members of the board contributed to Obama's election.

I suppose that Trumka and Pritzker could contribute expertise to the board, for somewhat the same reasons that successful criminal hackers sometimes get hired as security consultants.  On the other hand, one can also see why Trumka and Pritzker might be willing to spend some money so that they would have friends in the Justice Department.
- 1:13 PM, 5 March 2009   [link]

Worth Study:  Robert Bryce's column on energy sources and costs.  It is full of numbers, as this sample shows:
If Mr. Obama is only counting wind power and solar power as renewables, then his promise is clearly doable.  But the unfortunate truth is that even if he matches Mr. Bush's effort by doubling wind and solar output by 2012, the contribution of those two sources to America's overall energy needs will still be almost inconsequential.

Here's why.  The latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that total solar and wind output for 2008 will likely be about 45,493,000 megawatt-hours.  That sounds significant until you consider this number: 4,118,198,000 megawatt-hours.  That's the total amount of electricity generated during the rolling 12-month period that ended last November.  Solar and wind, in other words, produce about 1.1% of America's total electricity consumption.
After years of taxpayer subsidies.

So, when Obama promises to double our supply of electricity from renewable sources, he is promising to increase it to about 2.2 percent of our total.  That increase is unlikely to be enough to take care of the increases needed because of population growth.

Will these numbers matter to our current policy makers?  They should, but I fear that Green superstition will be more important to their decisions, because it is so common among their supporters, and because they share that Green superstition, to some extent.

(Bryce also notes how much solar and wind power grew under President Bush.  I was aware that they were growing, but did not realize how fast they were increasing during his time in office,)
- 7:14 AM, 5 March 2009   [link]

One More Song For Obama:  A reader suggested Mac Davis's Oh Lord, It's Hard to Be Humble.  You would need to modify the lyrics a bit, but I think the song would work well for an Obama impersonator.

(The song reminded me of one more strange thing about this strange man.  He has many political allies, but doesn't seem to have many friends.  That's especially strange for a politician, of course.)
- 2:56 PM, 4 March 2009   [link]

Maureen Dowd Is Right:  (Didn't expect that, did you?  But I do take some pleasure in complimenting journalists who don't often earn my compliments.)  Dowd (and Senator McCain, whom she compliments in this column) are right to attack Obama for breaking promises and for, at the very least, tolerating wasteful spending.
In one of his disturbing spells of passivity, President Obama decided not to fight Congress and live up to his own no-earmark pledge from the campaign.

He's been lecturing us on the need to prune away frills while the economy fizzles.  He was slated to make a speech on "wasteful spending" on Wednesday.

"You know, there are times where you can afford to redecorate your house and there are times where you need to focus on rebuilding its foundation," he said recently about the "hard choices" we must make.   Yet he did not ask Congress to sacrifice and make hard choices; he let it do a lot of frivolous redecorating in its budget.
. . .
Obama spinners insist it was "a leftover budget."  But Iraq was leftover, too, and the president's trying to end that.  This is the first pork-filled budget from a new president who promised to go through the budget "line by line" and cut pork.
Since I never expected a product of the Chicago machine to be a budget hawk, Obama's tolerance for waste does not surprise me.  I never took Obama's promises on spending seriously, and so I am not disappointed.  But Dowd may be.

(Over the years I have had my differences with Seantor McCain, but I have always known that, on some issues he was very, very good.  And one of those issues is wasteful spending.)
- 2:33 PM, 4 March 2009
Support group for pundits disappointed in Barack Obama?  One may be needed.  Soon.
- 8:25 AM, 5 March 2009   [link]

What Does Barack Obama Know About The Stock Market?   Not much.    Probably.  Here's the mistake Charles Johnson spotted:
President Obama said Tuesday that now is a good time for investors to buy stocks if they focus on the big picture.

The Dow plunged Monday to its lowest level in 12 years.

"What you're now seeing is a profit and earnings ratios get to the point that buying stocks is a good thing if you have a long-term perspective on it," he said to reporters after meeting in the Oval Office with visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
(Emphasis added.)

As any novice investor can tell you, it is the price-to-earnings ratio, often written P/E.

To be fair, this could be one of those verbal slips all of us make from time to time.  Obama may know what P/E means, at least if he thinks about it a little.  But I doubt whether many of our "mainstream" journalists would have given George W. Bush the benefit of the doubt had he made a similar slip.

(I have long believed that how a man manages his own money tells us something about how he will manage other people's money.  And so I think that we should pay more attention when a politician manages his own money badly.  In 2000, financial planners laughed at what Gore had done with his money, and praised how George W. Bush had managed his.  There was little coverage of Obama's financial decisions in 2008, but, from what I could tell, his finances were not as badly managed as Gore's, but not nearly as well managed as Bush's.

John McCain is a special case, since his wife has most of the money, and manages the family finances.   From what little I have read, she appears to be a competent businesswoman.

Is Obama right about his general point, that now is a good time to buy stocks, if you are a long-term investor?  Historically, it has almost always been a good time to buy stocks for very long-term investors, for people who are looking at least a decade ahead.  So he is probably right about that.  But it is also true that his policies are making future prospects worse for investors.   Much depends on whether he is checked by moderate Democrats and Republicans over the next two to four years.)
- 8:07 AM, 4 March 2009   [link]

All Obama, All The Time:  Here's the lead paragraph in this New York Times article:
In seeking bipartisan support for his economic policies, President Obama has tried every tip on the standard hospitality crib sheet: beer and football, milk and cookies, Earth, Wind and Fire.
And the subject of the article?  I should make you look it up, but I won't.  The subject of the article is cooperative breeding in humans, how we are able, unlike other primates, to share the task of raising babies.

Does the author of this article, Natalie Angier, realize just how silly that opening paragraph sounds?   I suppose not; otherwise she would not have written it.

It isn't even correct.  Obama had some civil interchanges with Republicans — but asked them to agree to almost his entire package, even though almost all of them had gotten elected by promising to do no such thing.  (It shows how far civility has decreased in Washington, D.C., that Obama's little chats were seen as unusual, and how memories have faded, since George W. Bush did similar things, and more, in reaching out to Democrats in 2001.  But Angier doesn't seem aware of Bush's efforts at bipartisanship.)  Obama did not try "every tip on the standard hospitality crib sheet".  Far from it.

(The article is mildly interesting, maybe even more than mildly interesting.  Most likely, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy is correct when she says that we humans are distinct from other primates in our ability to cooperate in raising children.  But it is also true that many other animals cooperate in raising their young, lionesses for example.  Many birds are known to cooperate in raising their young, crows, for example.

That paragraph may seem too dismissive, but I have read books by both women (Angier's Woman and Hrdy's The Woman That Never Evolved), and decided that neither was entirely willing to accept scientific findings — if those findings are politically incorrect.

You should read them with some skepticism, but both are interesting, and often informative, writers.)
- 3:51 PM, 3 March 2009   [link]

Another Theme Song For Obama?  Usually, my favorite choice for an Obama theme song is Carly Simon's You're So Vain.  But sometimes I think that Sam Cooke's Wonderful World would be a better choice.

Yesterday, as I was getting irritated at all the Obama speeches that I really should read and analyze, but hadn't gotten around to yet, I realized that another song, Joe Jones' You Talk Too Much, expressed my feelings.

Obama is a community organizer, a Harvard-trained lawyer, and a politician, so I don't expect him to be silent, but I do wish that, just for a day or two, he would say nothing in public.  Maybe even three or four days.  He must have a few memos to look over, perhaps even a book or two on military strategy to read.

(As younger readers probably know, Run-DMC also has a piece titled You Talk Too Much, with a similar message.)
- 1:02 PM, 3 March 2009   [link]

Will Obama Be Re-elected In 2012?  Right now, the InTrade bettors say yes, but by a smaller margin than I would have guessed.  As I write, the odds are just a little over 60 percent that he will be re-elected.

Obama odds, March 2009

It is very early and the market is thinly traded, but the trend is interesting.
- 11:10 AM, 3 March 2009   [link]

And Another One Pays His Taxes:   (To be sung to the tune of Another One Bites The Dust.) Or, at least promises to pay his taxes.  
Word today that yet another Barack Obama appointee has a little problem with taxes -- a $10,000 problem.

Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas who would be the White House chief trade representative if confirmed, didn't pay taxes on some speaking fees he donated to his alma mater and he tried to write off the full $17,000 costs of his Dallas Mavericks season tickets.
There are three possible explanations for this string of non-tax-paying nominees.  Almost all prominent Democrats have problems paying all their taxes.  Or, the Obama team is not checking potential nominees carefully enough for tax problems.  Or, the Obama team doesn't care whether prominent Democrats pay all their taxes, and thinks we won't care either.

It is probably a mixture of all three.  But I am enough of an optimist to think that the first reason isn't the most important, that Obama could find Democratic nominees without tax problems, if he tried a little harder
- 10:46 AM, 3 March 2009   [link]

Will The Republicans Pick Up A House Seat In New York?  Probably.  When Kirsten Gillibrand was named to Hillary Clinton's senate seat, that gave Republicans a chance to win back a seat in a traditionally Republican district.  New York 20th did vote for Barack Obama last year, but Bush won it in 2000 and 2004 with 51 and 54 percent of the vote, respectively.

Republicans have a better-known candidate, Jim Tedisco, and should benefit from the usual pattern of out parties doing better in special elections.   (Oh, and the Democratic candidate, Jim Murphy, has tax problems.)

Barone says that out parties do better in special elections in the first year of a presidency.  It's my impression that out parties tend to do better in special elections, period, but I admit that I have not seen a formal study of that question.

The election is March 31st.

(Gillibrand won in 2006 because the Republican incumbent, John Sweeney, was tarred by a domestic violence scandal, because it was a very Democratic year, and because she ran as moderate, even conservative on some issues.  Her switches in positions since becoming senator make me wonder just what she does believe in — besides, of course, Kirsten Gillibrand.

I don't know of any explanation for the advantage that out parties have in special elections.   I am inclined to think that it is a matter of differential turnout.  Voters in the party that lost the last general election are more motivated to vote in a special election.  But that's just a guess.)
- 6:13 AM, 3 March 2009   [link]

"What's The Constitution Among Friends?"  That's what Tammany Hall leader Tim Campbell said more than a century ago.  That also appears to be the position of all too many Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

The latest evidence that many Democrats (and a few Republicans) don't care about the plain text of the Constitution comes from the Senate passage of S. 160, which gave a House seat to the District of Columbia (and another to Utah, for balance).

What's wrong with that?  Nothing, except Article I, Section 2, of the Constitution:
The House of Representatives shall be be composed of members chosen every second year by the people of the several States, and the electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislature.
And Amendment XXIII, which states plainly that the District of Columbia is not a state.  (Just in case anyone had any doubt about that.)

You don't have to be a law professor to understand that argument.  But if you were a law professor, you might say something like this.   (And when a law professor can't even think of an argument, then there probably isn't one.)

For the record:  I would be pleased if we passed an amendment to the Constitution, giving the District a House seat.  I would be even more pleased if we transferred the District, except for federal property, to Maryland and gave District residents a vote that way.  (And I say that knowing that such a shift would make it nearly impossible for Republicans to win a state wide election in Maryland.)

We should find a way to give District residents a vote in Congress.  But we can — and should — do it without violating the Constitution.

Congress should not treat the Constitution this lightly, should not treat the Constitution as no obstacle when friends want to do something.

(Here's the Senate roll call vote, in case you want to see how your senators voted, and here's the text of the bill.)
- 12:50 PM, 2 March 2009   [link]

How Bad Is The Recession?  So bad that real disposable personal income increased by only 1.5 percent in January.
Personal income increased $44.8 billion, or 0.4 percent, and disposable personal income (DPI) increased $183.0 billion, or 1.7 percent, in January, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis.  Personal consumption expenditures (PCE) increased $56.4 billion, or 0.6 percent.  In December, personal income decreased $24.0 billion, or 0.2 percent, DPI decreased $17.8 billion, or 0.2 percent, and PCE decreased $101.2 billion, or 1.0 percent, based on revised estimates.

Real disposable income increased 1.5 percent in January, compared with an increase of 0.4 percent in December.  Real PCE increased 0.4 percent, in contrast to a decrease of 0.5 percent.
And we are beginning to spend a little more, too.

To be sure, most of the January increase in personal income came from "special factors", such as an increase in social security payments.

That said, as long as personal income continues to rise, as it did all last year, I will continue to think that we are not yet in another Great Depression.
- 9:47 AM, 2 March 2009   [link]

Card Check, Worse Than You Thought:  The union-backed card check bill would allow unions to organize a business without a secret ballot.  Instead, a union could organize a business by getting a majority of workers to sign cards, openly, where the workers can be pressured, and even intimidated.  (And if you think that never happens in union organizing, you don't know the history of labor unions, here and in other countries.)

That's bad enough, but there is more.   If a union organizes a company and can't come to an agreement with the company, the government will provide an arbitrator.  ("I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you by setting wages and work rules.")
That seems like a parody of liberal Washington meddling.  It's one thing for employer and union to have to abide by the decision of a mutually selected third party.  It's another to have a strange bureaucrat from D.C. come and tell everyone how to run things--not just setting a minimum wage but setting wages and job categories up and down the hierarchy.  I figured [Jennifer] Rubin was being alarmist.

But it turns out Rubin is right.  Or at least she might be right. The arbitration parts of the card check bill are so vaguely drawn that nobody knows who the arbitrators will be.  The job appears to be delegated entirely to the Federal Mediation Service.  The FMS might decide to use its own employees.  It might decide to use arbitrators from the private sector selected along more traditional lines.  The two breakfast debaters (Prof. Richard Epstein and attorney Anthony Segall) did seem to agree that, since thousands of arbitrators might quickly be needed for the expected explosion of mandatory arbitration, it's unlikely they would all be newly hired GS-12s.  But they don't know.
Why does all this matter?  Shouldn't we favor strengthening unions?  Not necessarily.   Unions are cartels, and like other cartels, introduce inefficiency in markets.  (For three current examples, see Chrysler, Ford, and GM.)  Though unions may raise pay for their members (and provide them job protection), they generally hurt the rest of us and make society, net, worse off.  For example, economist Larry Summers has said that unionization causes increased long-term unemployment.  And I think most economists would agree with him.

(Here's the Jennifer Rubin post Kaus mentioned.)
- 9:07 AM, 2 March 2009   [link]

The Gore-Hansen Effect?  Since becoming a global warming prophet, former vice president Al Gore has shown an uncanny ability to bring cold and snow wherever he goes.   Now another alarmist, NASA employee James Hansen, may have shown the same power over the weather.   Hansen is supposed to be in Washington, D.C., to protest a coal plant, just when a big snowstorm hits.

Sometimes I wish I had enough money to follow Gore and Hansen around — with my cross country skis.
- 6:29 AM, 2 March 2009   [link]

Another Obama Appointee, Another Set Of Ethical Problems:  Here's the much-linked story.
The man who is President Obama's newly minted urban czar pocketed thousands of dollars in campaign cash from city developers whose projects he approved or funded with taxpayers' money, a Daily News probe found.

Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion often received contributions just before or after he sponsored money for projects or approved important zoning changes, records show.

Most donations were organized and well-timed.
Lots more details in the article, enough to show a pay-to-play pattern.

Presumably Obama is thinking ahead to the 2010 and 2012 elections and signing up another fund raiser and Hispanic campaigner.  If Obama knew about this pay-to-play pattern, he probably thought that it would not matter much because few "mainstream" reporters outside New York will say anything about it.

(The New York Times admits that Carrión has ethical problems, deep inside this article on his political career.
Mr. Carrión received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from several individuals who worked for developers, companies or institutions building retail, housing or other developments in the borough, often as plans for those projects were still winding through the approval process.  Those donors included officials with Boricua College and the Atlantic Development Group.
That's about as harsh as the Times is willing to be on a Hispanic Democrat.

But they are honest enough, in the rest of the article, to show that Carrión was, on the whole, a failure as borough president — but a success as a politician and fund raiser.)
- 5:57 AM, 2 March 2009   [link]

Is An 83 Percent Reduction In CO2 Emissions Possible?  Obama is promising to reduce our CO2 emissions by 83 percent, by 2050.  (Coincidentally, long after he has left office.)
Potentially one of the most far-reaching elements in the budget blueprint is the call to combat global warming by adopting a so-called "cap and trade" system for reducing carbon emissions from power plants and other industrial facilities.  Overall, the plan would cut emissions 14 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.
And he plans to do it without a big expansion of nuclear power.

Last year, Steven Hayward described what such a drop would require.
Begin with the current inventory of carbon dioxide emissions — CO2 being the principal greenhouse gas generated almost entirely by energy use.  According to the Department of Energy's most recent data on greenhouse gas emissions, in 2006 the U.S. emitted 5.8 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, or just under 20 tons per capita.  An 80% reduction in these emissions from 1990 levels means that the U.S. cannot emit more than about one billion metric tons of CO2 in 2050.

Were man-made carbon dioxide emissions in this country ever that low?  The answer is probably yes — from historical energy data it is possible to estimate that the U.S. last emitted one billion metric tons around 1910.  But in 1910, the U.S. had 92 million people, and per capita income, in current dollars, was about $6,000.

By the year 2050, the Census Bureau projects that our population will be around 420 million.  This means per capita emissions will have to fall to about 2.5 tons in order to meet the goal of 80% reduction.

It is likely that U.S. per capita emissions were never that low — even back in colonial days when the only fuel we burned was wood.  The only nations in the world today that emit at this low level are all poor developing nations, such as Belize, Mauritius, Jordan, Haiti and Somalia.
And poor developing nations that generally don't require as much winter heating as much of the United States does.

Is an 80 or 83 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050 even possible?  That depends on what you mean by possible.  And what technological advances are made in between now and then.

That large a reduction is probably physically possible, in the sense that there are enough resources to build an all-electric economy, with the electricity coming from an immense increase in nuclear power.   (We might have to give up air travel, though.  Although it would be physically possible to replace our cars and our trains with electrically powered alternatives, it is not obvious that we could do the same for airplanes.)  Without nuclear power, or some great breakthrough, it is hard to see how we could achieve that great a reduction.  (Obama does not plan a big expansion of nuclear power.)

One example of the difficulty:  Suppose that we generated a very large fraction of our power with solar cells.  That would require building immense power storage facilities, since solar cells work less well during the shorter winter days, and not at all at night time — just when you would need additional electricity to heat and light homes.

Even if it is physically possible, it might not be economically and politically possible.  Investing at the levels required could be paid for (honestly) by direct taxes, or (less honestly) by forcing up the price of energy.  (Obama plans to use the less honest alternative.)  Shifting, at a very rough guess, ten percent of the GDP every year into investments in alternate energy production might be possible for a few years, but it is hard to believe that the voters, who are already skeptical about theories of global warming, would support that level of investment for forty years.

And then there is the trifling problem of emissions from China and India.  If we achieve an 80-83 percent reduction in CO2 emissions, and those two nations continue their current policies, the world's emissions will still be far higher than they are now.  In fact, any cutbacks in emissions we make would probably encourage greater emissions elsewhere, as manufacturers moved away from the United States to nations with lower energy costs.

By way of Jim Lindgren, who has some interesting thoughts of his own.

(One bit of irony:  Achieving an all-electric economy with the electricity coming from nuclear power plants would be far easier if Greens had not been so successful in blocking the construction of new nuclear power plants, during the last thirty years.)
- 5:15 PM, 1 March 2009   [link]

Moderate Bush Deficits Bad, Immense Obama Deficits Okay:  That appears to be the position of the New York Times.

John Hinderacker has some harsh words for their inconsistency:
"Unpaid-for government," to a greater extent than that which the Times denounced during George Bush's administration, is, in fact, "the norm" as far as the eye can see.  But that's what you expect from the Times: either deliberate falsehood or impenetrable ignorance; it's often hard to tell which.   The Times' editors are in the bag for the Left, and there is little pretense of consistency or intellectual integrity; in fact, the editors are not very bright--to be a Times editor is to be a full-time shill.
I have never met any of their editors, so I won't comment on their intelligence.  But I will say that, over the years, I have met many people who would do quite well on an intelligence test — and were unwilling to think logically.

(One way to explain their seeming inconsistency is that the Times favors higher taxes in all cases, and will use whatever argument they think might work to support higher taxes.  Or perhaps it is just another example of the Bush derangement syndrome that afflicts the editorial board.  Or both.)
- 3:55 PM, 1 March 2009   [link]