October 2009, Part 4
Jim Miller on Politics
A Question Of Character: David Brooks consults military experts on the war in Afghanistan, and finds that they aren't much interested in questions of strategy. Instead they wonder whether Obama has the tenacity required to win this war, and whether he really wants to win.
Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence.Brooks doesn't know the answers to those two questions, and neither do I. Nor do either of us know what historical analogies Obama is using to come to a decision. But, as I said in earlier posts, I fear that Obama — like almost everyone else on the left — has misread the lessons of Vietnam.
- 3:40 PM, 31 October 2009 [link]
The Real Three Envelope Joke: This Charles Krauthammer column begins with an old joke:
Old Soviet joke:I read that far, and stopped briefly, because Krauthammer's version isn't the one I had heard many times before, and it struck me as just a little wrong.
(Here's a standard version, and here's an elaborate military variant.)
Despite not getting the joke quite right, Krauthammer goes on to make a strong criticism of Barack Obama: that the President keeps opening envelopes — and blaming Bush.
After a sensible discussion of the military problem Obama faces, Krauthammer ends with this:
In other words, Obama is facing the same decision on Afghanistan that Bush faced in late 2006 in deciding to surge in Iraq.I fear that Obama doesn't agree with that last sentence; in fact, I fear that Obama will never stop opening envelopes and blaming Bush.
- 3:12 PM, 31 October 2009 [link]
Want To Mix A Little Culture With Your Politics? Then read Hamlet's soliloquy — as re-written by neo-neocon for Barack Obama.
Here's how it starts:
To surge, or not to surge: that is the question:
- 2:15 PM, 30 October 2009 [link]
Cash For Clunkers Was A Clunker: This shouldn't surprise anyone.
Edmunds.com, the premier resource for online automotive information, has determined that Cash for Clunkers cost taxpayers $24,000 per vehicle sold.But the White House was, or pretended to be, outraged that Edmunds should document the obvious.
It's worth adding that the benefits of these subsidies probably went more to people with above average incomes, than to poor people. New car buyers are generally better off than average, and I would expect that to be even more true during this economic downturn.
(Though Edmunds doesn't mention this, the program may have hurt the poor by making used cars more expensive.)
- 1:48 PM, 30 October 2009 [link]
Mt. Rainier In Autumn: During my attempt to circle Mt. Rainier, I took some pretty pictures of the mountain, but this one gives you a better idea of what Rainier looks like — from the northeast — during the autumn.
(You can see one of the pretty pictures here.)
There weren't many animals out, but I did see a mountain goat, comfortably sunning itself and ignoring the hikers.
While hiking, I came upon a group that included some climbers who had climbed some of the fifty highest summits in the fifty states. Listening to them made me think of a geography question, which I asked them. They got it right, I got it wrong, reversing the top two states.
Here's the question: Which state has the highest low point? None of the coastal states, obviously, since all of them have sea level as a low point. (And California has Death Valley, parts of which are below sea level.)
Cross posted at Sound Politics.(Wait till next year. I once worked out that I had cross country skied on Mt. Rainier in every month except October. I was hoping to get up there this October, but it looks like I won't make it. The snow has started, but there is less of it than I like, and the driving conditions during the last few days have been just so-so.)
- 1:12 PM, 30 October 2009 [link]
Rising Unemployment, Stable Temperatures: Megan McArdle wonders why Obama's popularity is falling, and why Americans are less ready to believe in global warming.
So Obama's polls are dropping. A lot. In fact, he's had the biggest third-quarter drop in fifty years. Andrew points out that by recent historical standards, his absolute approval rating is still perfectly fine. Especially since he started out in the stratosphere.Neither shift seems puzzling to me. I gave my answers in the post title, and will expand on them, just a bit.
Fairly or not, American voters hold the president responsible for the state of the economy, and what worries them most is usually unemployment. Unemployment has been rising. Worse yet, from Obama's point of view, it has risen much higher than he promised it would when the stimulus package was passed. Then, the Obama administration predicted that the package would prevent unemployment from getting higher than 8 percent; now, unemployment is approaching 10 percent.
Voters don't have to know the exact numbers to know that the economy is not doing well, or to know that Obama painted too rosy a picture of the stimulus package.
Voters may also be starting to blame Obama for the lack of progress — or at least the lack of perceived progress — on other issues, from Afghanistan to trade. Finally, as I mentioned in this post, independent voters are probably turned off by Obama's hyper-partisanship. (Independent voters are responsible for much of the change in his approval ratings.)
The shift on belief in global warming shows, I think, a similar pattern. For more than a decade, "mainstream" news organizations have been warning us about global warming. For more than a decade, as the BBC admitted recently, the earth has not been warming. The earth hasn't been cooling particularly, either, but it hasn't been warming.
It is sensible — in fact, it is scientific — to judge complex computer models against their predictions. When, year after year, actual temperatures fail to match the models' predictions, it is right to be more skeptical about the predictive ability of the models.
These two examples share something. In both cases, "mainstream" journalists oversold an idea, that Barack Obama was a uniquely wonderful leader, and that global warming was an immediate threat. When the predictions failed to materialize in almost a year, or in a decade, voters became more skeptical about what they had been told. And in both cases, that shift went faster, I think, because of the growing skepticism toward "mainstream" journalists.
All this may make the voters appear more informed, and more rational, than they often are. But I do think voters will usually be rational — when they can test predictions against their own experiences, as they can on both the economy and global warming.
(There are some mistakes in McArdle's post. I won't nitpick, but you can, if you like.)
- 9:24 AM, 30 October 2009 [link]
How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall? Almost everyone knows the answer to that question. But we usually assume that we are talking about performers when we ask that question.
But what if you want to work at Carnegie Hall as a stagehand? This New York Times article doesn't answer that question, but it will show you why the question is interesting.
Some of the highest-paid people at Carnegie Hall will never have their names on the big posters outside or sit in its executive suites or stand next to famous conductors. They are members of Carnegie's permanent stage crew, the self-effacing men in dark suits who glide out to tote a podium, shift a music stand and make sure that concerts start on time, or at all.So, how do you join Local 1 of the IATSE and get assigned to Carnegie? The article doesn't say, beyond that vague "passed down through generations", perhaps because "Local 1 officials declined to be interviewed for this article". But we can guess.
Almost certainly, you get to Carnegie Hall as a stagehand through family connections. (And just possibly, with the help of a little bribery.) And I suspect that there are very strong informal rules governing just which relative gets one of those jobs, when one opens up.
The pay these men receive is an impressive demonstration of monopoly power; they can be replaced, but they can not be replaced quickly, and that's enough. It may also show the greater vulnerability of non-profit organizations to this kind of exploitation. Over time, most profit making businesses would start thinking about ways to renegotiate those contracts, and reclaim some of that money.
If you read the article, you'll find that much of the high pay comes from overtime. In principle, Carnegie could hire twice as many stagehands to avoid most of the overtime, pay them well even by New York standards, and still save money. That's sounds like a better arrangement, but I doubt that anyone running Carnegie would want to go through the fight necessary to get there.
(If you somehow have missed the joke, here it is:
A young tourist in New York stops at a newstand for directions.
She asks: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?"
The news dealer looks at her briefly and says: "Practice, practice, practice!")
- 6:13 AM, 30 October 2009 [link]
Double Their Pay And Send Them Home: There probably isn't any legal way to do this, but if there is, I would like to double the pay congressmen and senators receive — if they would pass continuing resolutions to fund the government, and go home and stay there until January 2011, when a new Congress can be sworn in.
Yes, that would be bribery, but in some circumstances, bribery is better than the alternatives.
(If you can think of a legal way to do this, let me know.)
- 1:20 PM, 29 October 2009 [link]
Go Ahead, Speaker Pelosi, add ten more pages.
The main House health bill -- H.R. 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act -- has arrived.You know you want to make it an even 2,000 pages long.
That's almost twice as long as the first House bill to become public, HR 3200, and about
I suppose that I should take this latest monstrosity seriously — and I will, soon — but it is awfully hard to be serious after seeing how long it is, and after listening to Pelosi's claims for the bill.
(I wonder if Speaker Pelosi has ever heard of the KISS principle?)
- 12:52 PM, 29 October 2009 [link]
Helen Smith Has Some Fun With Barack Obama's coed exercise problem.
This president and his administration need to live up to the very rule that helped get Obama elected: Diversity is one of the most fundamentally important goals of our time. It would be hypocritical for liberals to accept anything less than standing by their goal of achieving 100 percent diversity.Sound right to me.
(Kathleen Parker is bored by these controversies. Maureen Dowd has a practical suggestion; she wants to play Scrabble with Obama.)
- 8:01 AM, 29 October 2009 [link]
Inaccurate Stimulus Job Numbers? The Associated Press says that the Obama administration overstated the number of stimulus jobs.
A Colorado company said it created 4,231 jobs with the help of President Barack Obama's economic recovery plan. The real number: fewer than 1,000.Kudos to the AP for doing some real fact checking. (And I have seen several similar examples from them in the last few months.)
- 6:44 AM, 29 October 2009 [link]
Not The Simile I Would Have Chosen: Hillary Clinton backs Obama and bashes Bush, but doesn't choose her words carefully.
In a lively give-and-take with students at the Government College of Lahore, Clinton said inaction by the government would have amounted to ceding ground to terrorists.(Emphasis added.)
Last I looked, Barack Obama's tan was better than George W. Bush's.
This endless Bush bashing overseas is foolish, as well as disgusting. Obama and Clinton will need support from Republicans. (Especially after the 2010 election, I predict.) These attacks will make that support harder to get. And the attacks will have less success (other than with Western journalists) than Clinton and Obama expect, since the administration has adopted, without admitting it, so many Bush policies.
(And, no, Clinton did not spend her entire eight years in the Senate opposing Bush.)
- 5:38 AM, 29 October 2009 [link]
Medvedev Is Coming, Obama Isn't: To the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will attend the festivities, he said.Both are interesting decisions.
Medvedev (who probably ran the decision past Putin) will come because he was invited — and because he sees a chance to lessen suspicions in Europe, especially in Germany. His decision is easy to understand.
Obama's decision is not easy to understand. It is true that he would be not be the star of the show, but he would still get a good part, and another chance at a world audience.
Two astute political observers, Bret Stephens and Michael Barone, think that Obama isn't going because his foreign policy has been inconsistent with his Berlin campaign speech. In 2008, he was all for human rights; now he seems to regard them as inconvenient obstacles to deals with our enemies.
There is a much worse possibility. It may be that Obama did not much celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and doesn't see much reason to celebrate it now. It is no secret that many on the far left, almost certainly including some of his associates, were not happy at the collapse of the Soviet Empire. But we don't really know why he isn't going, so I will stress that I see that explanation as possible, but no more.)
(Sometimes, I can't help but put on my Dick Morris hat, and think about the best strategy for a politician, even a politician I don't support. And I have an idea which I think would be brilliant for Obama: He should go — and he should ask President George H. W. Bush to come along as part of the delegation. Asking Bush to come along would make Obama look both generous and bipartisan. It would strengthen Obama's support among independents. And it would, to a some extent, divide the Republicans, since some still have suspicions of Bush.
I mention this idea only because I am certain that the Obama team would never adopt it. That's unfortunate because this would be good policy, as well as good politics.
There's a good description of the events immediately before fall of the Berlin Wall here.)
- 3:40 PM, 28 October 2009 [link]
Which Groups Are More Knowledgeable About Political Issues? From time to time, Pew Research gives respondents a knowledge quiz. (You can find the latest one here, if you want to try it yourself. If you read this site regularly, you'll find it easy.)
Consistently, some groups do better on these quizes than other groups. This probably won't make the front page of your newspaper, but Republicans consistently do better than Democrats.
(Note that I said better, not well. I'll come back to that point later.)
This time, there were 12 questions; Republicans did better than Democrats on 10 of the questions, the same on one question, and worse on one question (whether we spend more than Europe on health care). Independents had the same average score as Republicans, doing better on some questions, and worse on others.
Men did better than women. Older people did better than those under 30.
Do you see the same pattern that I saw? Groups that were more likely to support John McCain last year, Republicans, men, and older people, are also more knowledgeable about political issues.
That's probably just a coincidence.
But there is another lesson we can draw from the results of this quiz. In this post, I agreed with Jay Cost that the public probably didn't know enough about the "public option" to have an opinion on it.
In the quiz, Pew asked respondents to tell them which issue area the "public option" is in, giving them four choices: Unemployment, Banking reform, Energy and environment, and Health care. Just 56 percent got that right. (And we have to remember that 25 percent could get it right just by guessing, so 56 percent is almost certainly an overestimate.)
From the quiz, we have no way of knowing how many in that 56 percent know more than the issue area. But I doubt that more than one in four citizens could even give a brief description of the arguments on each side, which is about the minimum you need to know to have an opinion on the subject.
So, when you see a poll saying that more than 50 percent favor the public option, just laugh at it, since it is unlikely that 50 percent even understand the public option.
(By way of Mary Katharine Ham.)
- 2:11 PM, 28 October 2009 [link]
The New Head Of The National Endowment Of The Arts isn't much of a scholar. (But Rocco Landesman appears to be an excellent sycophant.)
- 7:13 AM, 28 October 2009 [link]
How Do You Hire The Best People? Organizations have been trying to figure that out approximately forever. Here's a summary of the research on the subject. Bob Sutton lists twenty factors, from work sample tests (pretty good) to age (worthless). Briefly, organizations will do best if they hire people who show they can do the work in tests, are smart, have integrity, and do well in structured interviews.
For what it's worth, years of education is closer to the worthless end than to the valuable end. Years of experiences is better than years of education, but only mediocre.
Presumably, different factors would be better predictors for different jobs, though Sutton doesn't mention that.
(By way of Arnold Kling.)
- 6:31 AM, 28 October 2009 [link]
Barney Frank Gets Frank: When he says, in this video, that Democrats are "trying on every front to increase the role of government in the regulatory area . . . . " (He thinks that's a good thing.)
- 12:01 PM, 27 October 2009 [link]
Eugene Robinson Tips Us Off On Obama's Preferred Afghanistan Strategy: Probably. By telling us what book Obama is requiring his advisors to read.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan who has devised the counterinsurgency strategy, is reportedly asking for 40,000 or more additional troops. Obama is right to examine the general's calculations, but it would make no sense to try to take a middle path and approve, say, a troop increase of 20,000. That would just put more Americans in harm's way without giving McChrystal the resources he says he needs. This game's been going on for eight years. It's time to raise or fold.Robinson draws this conclusion from Goldstein's book:
We invaded Afghanistan to ensure that the country could never again be used to launch attacks against the United States. That mission is accomplished, and our only goal should be making sure it stays accomplished -- whether the place is run by Hamid Karzai or the Taliban. The counterinsurgency campaign that Obama is contemplating looks like a step onto the slipperiest slope imaginable. It doesn't matter if the step is tentative or bold.Now, here's the strange part: Obama is asking his advisors to read a defeatist book on Vietnam, a book that would lead those advisors to favor a pullout from Afghanistan, but at the same time he is, if Jake Tapper is right, planning to increase our forces in Afghanistan.
If a pullout (or, if you prefer, a counter-terrorism strategy) is Obama's preferred strategy, then we have to ask why he isn't following it.
We don't know for sure, but, though Obama loyalist Robinson doesn't mention it, Obama promised to win in Afghanistan all through last year's campaign, and promised to win again in March, when he set out his strategy for the war (mostly copied from the Bush administration). Probably, Obama feels trapped by his own casual campaign promises, promises that he made without much thought.
But it is possible — and remember that Obama is even better than most politicians in saying what his particular audience wants to hear — that Obama fed Robinson this story about the book because he knew that Robinson would love it, and that Obama either does not have a preferred strategy, or even prefers counter-insurgency, but thinks he has to slip into that strategy gradually.
(The column is full of nonsense, but it is nonsense worth reading since it — probably — gives us some insight into what Obama is thinking as he tries to find a strategy for Afghanistan. Note that Robinson is on the Obama-approved list of journalists. He wouldn't be there if Obama considered him a tough critic.
In this post, I suggested that the book would be used to make the argument for pulling out of Afghanistan, and it looks like Obama is using it that way, but then not using his own argument to guide policy.)
- 11:04 AM, 27 October 2009 [link]
Mervyn King Agrees With Paul Volcker: The Governor of the Bank of England agrees with Paul Volcker that investment banks (which more and more people are calling "casinos") should be separated from ordinary commercial banks.
King, who has had to help clean up a mess in Britain that may be just as bad as our banking mess, made that argument in a much-noticed speech in Scotland. Some samples from the speech:
Tonight I want to focus on the second of those challenges — reform of the structure and regulation of the banking system. Why were banks willing to take risks that proved so damaging both to themselves and the rest of the economy? One of the key reasons — mentioned by market participants in conversations before the crisis hit — is that the incentives to manage risk and to increase leverage were distorted by the implicit support or guarantee provided by government to creditors of banks that were seen as 'too important to fail'. Such banks could raise funding more cheaply and expand faster than other institutions. They had less incentive than others to guard against tail risk.(King would probably agree with Alan Greenspan that we would also benefit by breaking up the institutions that are too large to fail.)
King is skeptical that the banking problems can be solved by greater regulation. With good reason, I would say. In the short term, the clever people being regulated are likely to find loopholes in the regulations; in the long term, the regulators are likely to be "captured" by those they regulate.
- 12:58 PM, 26 October 2009 [link]
Is The Obama Administration Opposed To Expanding Nuclear Power? Last June, after reading his position paper on energy closely, I concluded that he was for nuclear power in principle, but against it in practice. Here's the key section from his energy plan again.
Safe and Secure Nuclear Energy. Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity. It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation. Barack Obama introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to establish guidelines for tracking, controlling and accounting for spent fuel at nuclear power plants. To prevent international nuclear material from falling into terrorist hands abroad, Obama worked closely with Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN) to strengthen international efforts to identify and stop the smuggling of weapons of mass destruction. As president, Obama will make safeguarding nuclear material both abroad and in the U.S. a top anti-terrorism priority. In terms of waste storage, Barack Obama and Joe Biden do not believe that Yucca Mountain is a suitable site. They will lead federal efforts to look for safe, long-term disposal solutions based on objective, scientific analysis. In the meantime, they will develop requirements to ensure that the waste stored at current reactor sites is contained using the most advanced dry-cask storage technology available.(In fact, that's the only section in the plan that mentions nuclear energy.)
What you see in that section is a classic Obama pivot. He begins by saying that nuclear power is essential, or nearly so, to "meet our aggressive climate goals". He then pivots immediately, saying that nuclear power can not be expanded until "key issues" are addressed, among them waste storage.
So far, the Obama administration's actions have been consistent with the second part of the section, the part that begins with "However".
Since Obama took office, we've seen a provision in the stimulus bill providing additional federal loan guarantees for the building of nuclear power plants eliminated, and the Yucca Mountain project to store nuclear waste largely derailed by Yucca-specific budget cuts in the omnibus spending bill and subsequent energy appropriations legislation. These actions will have a disastrous impact on the construction of nuclear plants.Which we may need soon.
New reactors cannot be built soon enough if the United States hopes to have an impact on carbon emissions. The U.S. nuclear reactors, 104 in 31 states, are aging, mostly built decades ago, and many are pushing their decommissioning deadlines. Nuclear plants provide 21 percent of our nation's power supply. Meanwhile, wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass--the nonhydro renewables--accounted for roughly 3 percent of total net electric generation in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration.So far, Obama is keeping his promise to hold up the development of nuclear power. (The administration may be working hard to find a waste storage method they would accept. If so, that effort hasn't gotten much news coverage.)
But that promise is inconsistent with his much louder promises to reduce our CO2 emissions and stop global warming. I'm not alone in coming to that conclusion; so has Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace. And so, I think, would almost anyone who is willing to do the arithmetic.
That combination — blocking new nuclear power plants while promising reductions in CO2 emissions — doesn't make sense as a long-term policy, but it does make sense, I regret to say, as a short-term political tactic. Most of the people with a superstitious fear of nuclear power are in the Democratic party. If Obama were to back nuclear power, he would alienate many supporters.
(For the record: As I have said many times, I have mixed feelings about the possible dangers from climate change. But I would favor building new nuclear plants even if the dangers from increased CO2 were zero, simply because nuclear plants are cleaner and safer than coal plants.
We can probably extend the lives of those old nuclear plants, but those extensions might increase the chance of accidents. It would be far better, for many reasons, to replace them with newer, safer plants.)
- 9:02 AM, 26 October 2009 [link]
Cosmic Rays And Tree Growth? British researchers are puzzled by their own findings.
The growth of British trees appears to follow a cosmic pattern, with trees growing faster when high levels of cosmic radiation arrive from space.Though they are willing to speculate.
(The article doesn't say so, but these findings — assuming they hold up — may have implications for the climate debate.)
- 6:29 AM, 26 October 2009 [link]
Patterico Catches Mistakes In The Los Angeles Times: Again. But the newspaper had the help of a leftist college professor, Peter Dreier.
You should read the whole thing, but this part is too good not to repeat.
Let's start with Dreier's false claim that only two offices offered to help shield an underage prostitution ring:I wouldn't have known there were at least five, but I would have known, immediately, that there were more than two. But somehow, Professor Dreier, or to give him his full title, E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics Peter Dreier, didn't know that, and neither did the LA Times editor who accepted the piece. And neither of them took a few minutes to check.Two "gotcha" right-wing activists showed up at about 10 ACORN offices hoping to entice low-level staff to provide tax advice for an illegal prostitution ring. In most ACORN offices, the staff kicked the pair out. In a few cities, staffers called the police. In two offices, however, the staff listened and offered to help. That was wrong. But ACORN immediately fired the errant staffers."Two" offices? Try at least five, if not more.
(In a post last month, I criticized another piece by Professor Dreier, and suggested that he was "surprisingly casual about his research". Just how casual I hadn't realized.)
- 4:51 PM, 25 October 2009 [link]
The Big Clown's Grin On The Face of the Mazda 3. (The reviewer thinks it's a fine car, in spite of that grin.).
(The most famous car face may still be the Edsel, which inspired this description: "It looked like an Oldsmobile sucking on a lemon".)
- 1:20 PM, 25 October 2009 [link]
Will Taxing Medical Equipment Providers Cut Health Care Costs? It's seems unlikely, but that is what Obama and company are planning to do.
The more fiscal details of the health care bills emerge, the more appalling they seem. The Senate Finance Committee bill includes a broad provision taxing all manner of medical devices. This tax includes such frivolous luxuries as pacemakers, stents, artificial heart valves, defibrillators, automated wheelchairs, mechanized artificial limbs, replacement hips and knees, surgical gurneys, laparoscopic equipment and the like.Why? Here's Dick Morris's explanation:
The medical device industry had its day at the White House, as did the insurance industry, the drug makers, the nurses and the doctors. In turn, each group heard the White House request that they come up with voluntary cuts in their health care costs and support Obama's proposed changes in return for assurances that Congress would not impose deeper cuts (or, in the case of the doctors, that it would actually rescind cuts already scheduled under current statutes).You would almost think that the Obama admininstration is putting crude politics ahead of a rational health insurance plan. (And if you don't think that, you'll want to read the rest of the column for some of the details.)
(For the record: I wouldn't be surprised to learn that we use too many of these devices, or even that we spend too much for some of them. But I can't see how taxing them will solve those problems.)
- 9:10 AM, 25 October 2009 [link]