November 2007, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

Bold DC Crooks:  The city of Washington, D.C. has earned a reputation for corruption.  It isn't the most corrupt city in the United States, partly because it is supervised by Congress — but it has never been a model of honesty.  (It may have been in top ten during Marion Barry's administration.)

In recent years, corruption has been cut, and the management of the city has been improved, but there is still work to do, as this case shows.
Harriette Walters, the former city worker accused of masterminding the largest theft in the D.C. government's history, is seeking to negotiate a guilty plea over the next 30 days, according to statements in court and sources close to the case.

Walters's attorney told a judge yesterday that his client needed time to have "ongoing discussions" with prosecutors about her alleged role in the theft of $20 million or more from city coffers.  The government had faced a Dec. 8 court-imposed deadline to bring an indictment against Walters, a required step if prosecutors take the case to trial.  But Walters agreed to let them postpone a decision until Dec. 20, and sources said they will discuss the possibility of a plea agreement in the meantime.
. . .
Six people have been arrested in a scam that prosecutors say relied on illegal property tax refunds.   Harriette Walters, 51, a mid-level manager in the city's Office of Tax and Revenue, is accused of signing off on six-figure refund checks to sham companies and then using the proceeds to enrich herself and others.  Authorities have said the scam began at least seven years ago.
The New York Times adds an amusing (or, perhaps, infuriating) detail.
Prosecutors say the ringleaders were Harriette Walters, 51, the manager of the city tax office, and a subordinate, Diane Gustus, 54, who set up sham companies with names like Bilkemore LLC so that they, colleagues and relatives could steal millions.
Bilkemore!  Bold crooks, indeed.

(The city's chief financial officer, Natwar M. Gandhi, may have been in on the scam.  At the very least, he was not paying enough attention when he was managing the tax office.)
- 1:46 PM, 24 November 2007   [link]

White Friday:  While others were shopping, I took advantage of the beautiful weather to go cross country skiing on Mt. Rainier.

The mountain was gorgeous, and the people friendly, as usual.  As often happens, I ran into some soldiers from Fort Lewis, and had some interesting conversations with them (about the mountain, not the war).  I've noticed that almost all of them call me "sir", out of habit, I suppose.  It's fun to talk to someone from, for example, Georgia, who is seeing glaciers for the first time.

On the way home, I took this picture of the mountain, shooting over the heads of a herd of beef cattle.

Mt. Rainier, November 2007

If you are thinking of visiting in the winter, you should know that the park suggests snow tires, and requires you to have a set of tire chains in your car.  Even when there haven't been recent snows, the roads can be slippery, since the snow blows on to the roads, after they are cleared.  The road up to Paradise was slick in many spots yesterday, and I saw one car that had gone off into a ditch.
- 1:04 PM, 24 November 2007
More:  The park again has a working web cam, pointed at the mountain.   I've added a link to it on the right side, just above "Best Posts".  I'd advise looking at it before any trips to the mountain, especially in the winter.
- 7:54 AM, 25 November 2007   [link]

Happy Thanksgiving!  (Though Audubon's turkey may not share the sentiment.)

(Yes, I am fond of that painting — and wild turkeys.)
- 3:58 PM, 22 November 2007   [link]

In October, I argued that Hillary Clinton's nomination was not inevitable, and that she had a good chance of losing in Iowa.

Others are now coming to the same conclusions, for instance, ABC.

I don't claim to be prescient, but I can remember earlier nomination races.  Iowa and New Hamshire often upset national leaders, in both parties.  And polls have been showing for months that Clinton was vulnerable in Iowa.

Last month, I said that the nomination race hadn't even begun.  I haven't changed my mind on that point, though the candidates are putting on their track shoes, and soon will be moving toward the starting line.
- 8:49 AM, 21 November 2007   [link]

Modest Fellow, Isn't He?  Near the end of this column by the Seattle Times editorial page editor, Jim Vesely, is this claim:

Media companies, especially newspapers, are by default nearly the lone agents of the democratic form of government.

I would have thought that elected officials had something to do with democracy, but what do I know?

If his view is widely shared in newsrooms, then we can understand some things that otherwise seem inexplicable, such as the New York Times' belief that newspapers have the right to overrule the president of the United States on national security questions.  Being a journalist is more important, in their view, than being elected.  Getting your job from, for instance, the Sulzberger family, is worth more than getting your job from 62 million voters.

That this view is profoundly undemocratic, in fact anti-democratic, does not seem to occur to many journalists.  Somehow, they believe that they can demand aristocratic privileges — in the service of democracy.  I doubt that I can convince many journalists that they are wrong on this point, but I will give them this warning:  One of the things that makes many Americans despise journalists is the arrogance so common in that profession.

Cross posted at Sound Politics.

(Not satisfied with puffing his own work, Vesely also has sharp criticisms to make of his competition, including blogs:

Foremost, a decent newspaper is the enemy of rumor and a citizen of its place.  Blogs are not the enemy of rumor, nor is talk radio or cable television.  Rumor is not the substitute for truth, and it takes journalism to sift for truth.

Note the clever comparison.  Decent newspapers are compared to all blogs, talk radio, and cable television.  In fact, there are good newspapers and bad ones, good blogs and bad ones, good talk radio shows and bad ones.  There may even be good cable television shows (other than those on C-SPAN), though I have seen so few cable shows recently that I won't venture an opinion on that question.

Unlike Vesely, I won't make great claims for my own work.  But I will say this:  I routinely see factual errors on Vesely's editorial pages, in pieces by Seattle Times employees, and pieces by outside writers.  If they really want to "sift for truth", they should take a close look at the sieves they are using.)
- 3:07 PM, 20 November 2007   [link]

Friends Of John Edwards:  As George Will explains, some of them have legal problems.
John Edwards launched his slight public career -- one Senate term, two presidential candidacies -- with the money and reputation he made as a trial lawyer.  Today he is the candidate of a small fraction of the electorate but a sizable portion of America's trial lawyers. Edwards says Washington is "corrupt."  Well.

Within Edwards's lucrative trial bar constituency, there has been a flurry of criminal indictments.   Their target has been what Fortune magazine calls the law firm of Hubris Hypocrisy and Greed.  (See Peter Elkind's jaw-dropping report in the issue of Nov. 13, 2006.)  The real name of the nation's foremost securities class-action firm is Milberg Weiss.

It has been indicted as a "racketeering enterprise" that obstructed justice and committed perjury, bribery and fraud while collecting about $250 million in fees from about 250 cases using paid plaintiffs, which is illegal.  Several of the firm's members, past and present, also have been indicted.

Since 1965, the firm has won, often by tactics indistinguishable from extortion, $45 billion from corporations -- more than $1 billion a year for plaintiffs claiming to have been cheated as investors.
When a corporation loses such a law suit, or fears that it might, it raises prices.  So that $45 billion came mostly from American consumers.

Edwards has raised much money from Milberg Weiss, and is giving a little of it back, according to this post.  (The author of the post, lefty Jeralynn Merritt, sees no reason for him to return any of the money.)

Edwards is not the only Democrat to have taken money from members of the firm.  Here's how the New York Times, which is not an organ of the Republican party, summarizes the relationship.
Over the years, as it became Exhibit A for critics of shareholders' class action lawsuits, the law firm of Milberg Weiss often enjoyed the support of Democrats who called the suits an invaluable weapon in the universal conflict between big business and the little guy.

The Democrats, in turn, enjoyed the support of Milberg Weiss and its partners, who together have contributed more than $7 million to the party's candidates since the 1980s.
And some Democrats, including Edwards, are still taking money from the firm.

(More here, including an account of a lawyer who will make you think that there may be something to all those lawyers' jokes.

I may have had an encounter or two with the firm myself.  When I was an active investor, I sometimes found that I was part of a class action law suit.  I never got anything out of these law suits, was never even asked if I wanted to be a plaintiff.)
- 11:22 AM, 20 November 2007   [link]

Just In Case You Missed It:  The latest Heather Mills story.
During another typically bizarre day for Heather Mills, the former model yesterday urged people to try drinking milk from rats and dogs to help save the planet.

Media-shy Heather started off by storming out of a radio interview with London's LBC station.

She then drove a gas-guzzling Mercedes 4x4 to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park to speak about ecological matters - and kept the engine running for part of the morning.

Once there she proceeded to launch into an extraordinary ecological rant and exhorted the assembled crowds to try drinking rat's milk instead of cow's milk in a bid to save the planet from deforestation for livestock.
Seems like it would be hard to milk a rat, but I will admit that I haven't given the problem much thought.  Perhaps you could do it with teeny-tiny milking machines.

(Must say that I like that "typically bizarre" phrase.  And if they are right, perhaps I will have to pay more attention to her from now on.  Purely for entertainment, of course.)
- 7:33 AM, 20 November 2007   [link]

Those Rising Gasoline Prices?  They are the fault of the China.  And India.  And other developing nations.

This New York Times article gives half the story.
At the root of the stunning rise in the price of oil, up 56 percent this year and 365 percent in a decade, is a positive development: an unprecedented boom in the world economy.

Demand from China and India alone is expected to double in the next two decades as their economies continue to expand, with people there buying more cars and moving to cities to seek a way of life long taken for granted in the West.
. . .
While demand is growing fastest abroad, Americans' appetite for big cars and large houses has pushed up oil demand steadily in this country, too.  Europe has managed to rein in oil consumption through a combination of high gasoline taxes, small cars and efficient public transportation, but Americans have not.  Oil consumption in the United States, where gasoline is far cheaper than in Europe, has jumped to 21 million barrels a day this year, from about 17 million barrels in the early 1990s.
But there's more to the story, as I could see from the charts accompanying the print edition of the article.  (Charts which I could not find on line.)  It is true that US oil consumption has risen since the 1990s — but that was after it fell in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  At about 1978 (the chart does not have much detail), the United States was using almost 20 million barrels of oil a day, while the rest of the world was using about 43 million barrels of oil a day.  Now, as the article says, the United States is using about 21 million barrels of oil a day — but the rest of the world is using 64 million barrels of oil a day.

In the last two decades, oil use in the United States has grown more slowly than the population — and much more slowly than the economy.  In 1980, the US population was about 227 million; it is now estimated to be more than 300 million.  In 1980, the US GDP was about 5 trillion; it is now about 11 trillion (both in 2000 dollars).

Incidentally, controlling for inflation, oil is at about the same price that it was at its peak in 1980.
- 5:52 AM, 20 November 2007   [link]

Worth A Look:  Byron Dazey provides pictures of "anti-war" Olympia Port protesters, pictures that go a long way toward answering the question I asked in this post.  Some, perhaps most, of the "anti-war" protesters are hard leftists.  They are not opposed to war; they are opposed to the United States, at least with its current form of government and economy.  (And probably to other democratic, capitalist nations, too.)

To be fair, I should add that I would not be surprised to learn that a few of the protesters are genuinely anti-war.  But I don't think those few are running these often violent demonstrations.
- 4:28 AM, 20 November 2007   [link]

NNN?  NIS?  SNS?  Or something else?  In the past few days, I have been trying to make sense of all the new — new to me, anyway — binding standards for cross country skis.  Yesterday, a clerk reminded me of something I had known, but forgotten; it is wise in buying cross country equipment to start with the boot.  The different manufacturers use different lasts, so what fits one person well may be uncomfortable for another.

As it turns out, Rossignol boots seem to fit me best, which means that, for ordinary touring skis, I have a choice of NNN or NIS bindings.  (Look here if you want those decoded.)  And, as I remembered while I was shopping, it is wise not to skimp on the boots, so I bought a package that included Rossignol X-5 boots.  And, NIS bindings, which have an advantage over most (all?) other cross country bindings.

For what it is worth, the Salomon SNS Pilot bindings also look as though they would have some advantages, but Salomon boots don't fit my feet as well as Rossignol boots.

Now back to politics.  Mostly.

(I had trouble paying for the package at REI.  For some reason, the clerk, even with some help, was unable to get the right price to come up for the package.  Finally, with the help of a supervisor, they got a price that was less than advertised, and I accepted that, having told them four or five times what the price on their sign was.  Probably, there was an unadvertised discount.  They are having a big sale this week.

And if you are wondering, what I have been using are three pin bindings, which are practically Mesozoic.   But they kept working, so I saw no reason to change.)
- 6:07 PM, 19 November 2007   [link]

Why Can't They Answer The Driver's License Question?  As even the New York Times has noticed, the three leading Democratic candidates have trouble saying whether they are for or against driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.
Democrats have dwelled less on the issue and are becoming increasingly cautious, especially after Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's stumble in a debate two weeks ago as she tried to explain her position on whether illegal immigrants should be able to get a driver's license, as had been proposed by New York's governor, Eliot Spitzer.

Mr. Spitzer backed down from his proposal last week in the face of stiff opposition, but at the Democratic debate in Las Vegas on Thursday, Mrs. Clinton's chief rivals, Senator Barack Obama and John Edwards, both struggled to explain whether they supported the concept.  Mr. Obama said yes, with caveats; Mr. Edwards said no, with more caveats.
(Actually, as anyone who has listed to part of that debate two weeks ago knows, Clinton struggled to avoid explaining her position.)

In some ways, it is strange to see these three candidates fudging on this issue, again and again.   There are two practical positions to take on the issue, practical in the sense of not losing the next election.  A candidate could, as Biden did in the last debate, simply say they are against licenses for illegals.  (Though Biden would have been wise to temper that, a bit, with some sympathy for illegals.)  Or, they can say they favor it for practical purposes, for example, for safety reasons, as Bill Richardson did.

Either strategy might be the winning strategy in a Democratic primary, especially with a number of serious candidates running.  But two strategies are almost certain to hurt the candidate that uses them, either refusing to answer, or flip-flopping.  Obama and Edwards have come close to the first, and Clinton has used both, in order.

All this is obvious to any political tactician.  So, why have these three candidates had so much trouble picking one of the two winning strategies, and sticking with it?  I can only speculate, and when I do I come up with this answer.  All three of them — in their hearts — favor driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.  All three of them — in their heads — know that is not a winning position in a general election.  They don't want to say what they really believe.   Nor do they want to outright lie.  And so they fudge.

And it may be worth noting that the candidate many think is most driven by a lust for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, is the one who has finally moved to the first strategy, the one that is most likely to help her win a general election.

(Incidentally, I am not sure whether Edwards and Obama really have firm positions; I'll have to take another look at the debate transcript to be sure.)
- 10:38 AM, 18 November 2007   [link]

Sometimes It's How They Say It:  Consider these words and phrases: "dominatrix", "disciplining", "flick the whip", "punishing", "brought to heel", "belittling", "keep him in line", "tortured", "letting her take control", and "so easy to spank".

Where do you think they came from?  A cheap bondage and discipline paperback sold to those with with deviant tastes?  Nope.  They are from the good, gray New York Times, specifically today's column by Maureen Dowd.

(Which, if you care, is about how Hillary Clinton has been able to keep her male Democratic opponents, especially Barack Obama, off balance.  Dowd seems to think this is a bad thing because Clinton won't be able to do the same thing to a Republican, should she win the nomination.)

Dowd's a clever writer, so we can be certain that all those words and phrases were used intentionally.   The column is flashy, a little funny, and more than a little tasteless.  And it is hard not to suspect that Dowd is using these tricks to disguise the fact that she doesn't have much of substance to say, even about the candidates, much less about the issues.
- 7:03 AM, 18 November 2007   [link]

Bigger Than The Sun:  Trivia, but interesting trivia.
The Sun is no longer the largest object in the Solar System: that honour has fallen temporarily to a previously innocuous comet.  The comet, called 17P Holmes, shot to prominence in late October when its brightness suddenly increased roughly a million-fold.  Since then, both its size and its profile have grown — earlier this month astronomers at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy declared that its diameter had outstripped that of our Sun.
- 7:32 AM, 17 November 2007   [link]