Friday, October 31, 2008

Premature Obituaries

I'm not personally going to declare a winner until after the election, but it's interesting to read the premature obituaries being penned about the McCain campaign and the Republican Party.

On the right, Clark Stooksbury describes the Republican Party as the "Party of Delusion", calling for an honest assessment of the reasons for the party's failure from inside, but expressing doubts about Republican-oriented conservatives' ability to do so:
A good example is this post from Robert Stacy McCain, who was engaged in some preemptive complaining about media spin of next week’s election. McCain describes the GOP as “the party of low taxes, limited government, traditional values and strong defense.” Only the part about taxes is accurate. the GOP would be more accurately described as the party of tax cuts, debt, cronyism, aggressive war and cultural resentment. The formula that worked for a couple of election cycles, but the party’s chickens have come home to roost.
In the referenced post, McCain also seems to expect that (the other) McCain will lose, but has words of criticism only for the mainstream media. Dan Larison is more in tune with Stooksbury,
Endorsing Obama is a vote of no confidence in the Republican Party, but in a weird way it is also an expression of what is probably utterly misguided hope that the Republicans will learn from the defeat and adjust to new political realities.
He seems to regard it as foolish to vote for Obama to "punish the GOP" out of hope "that there is some small chance that the GOP might change its ways", but presents no alternative. If you concede, as Larison does, that from a conservative standpoint "the GOP has failed so badly that it has made the unthinkable [a vote for Obama] mundane and ordinary", how could you possibly justify a Republican vote? While I recognize that there are third parties, and would not be surprised if Larison ends up voting for a third party candidate, the fact remains that our system is heavily biased against third parties and, in this election and into the foreseeable future, the two dominant parties will remain dominant.

On the left, Paul Krugman speculates on what the Republican Party will look like ("assuming that McCain doesn’t pull an upset"), suggesting,
the GOP that’s left after this election will probably be even further off in right field, even further out of touch with the rest of the country, than before.
If the Republican Party heeds those conservative intellectuals who call for it to reexamine its platform and priorities, that might be avoided. Or not. There's a possibility that if various conservative factions were invited to try to impose their brand of ideological purity on the Republican Party, the ensuing bloodshed would actually harm party unity, or that the bizarre, hybrid consensus version of conservatism emerging from the process would be a cure worse than the disease. Also, the branding issue would remain, as even a fruitful meeting of the party's best minds would have to overcome recent experience - "We're the Republican Party, and this time we really mean all those things we've been telling you we stand for all these years.... Trust us!"

But again, I'm not going to write the party off before it even loses, or after. Similar things could have been said about the Democratic Party many, many times over the past thirty years. They could have been said a year ago. No, actually, they have been - for most of the past year we've been hearing about how this election should be easy for the Democratic Party, how Obama can't "close the deal" and how the Democratic Party's only real strength lies in its ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. If Obama weren't ahead in the polls, people would be saying them right now. If Obama loses, well, I don't have to tell you, do I.

When a party seems to be destined to lose, its pessimists expect the party to be reduced to ashes and its optimists expect a phoenix to rise, but a more likely outcome is that the party somehow manages to hobble itself together, keeps its "party faithful" in the fold, and gets the benefit both of time making people forget its past, and the other party's overreaching making them once again seem like the "lesser of two evils" to the block of "swing voters" that ultimately decides elections.

If I were to speculate as to what future path the Republican Party might take that would help keep it in the minority, at risk of trying to get rich by overestimating the intelligence of our nation's people, it would be the path endorsed by Robert Stacy McCain, who offers an unabashed "defense of ignorance". For example, McCain argues,
Palin's honest ignorance of presidential-level issues was held up as evidence that she is, or was, unprepared for the vice-presidency - as if years of studying such issues were in itself qualification for the office. Evidence contradicts this idea.
Even if we assume that "evidence" contradicts the idea that years of serious study of foreign policy better qualify somebody to serve as Vice President, that does not automatically mean that foreign policy ignorance is an equal qualification to foreign policy study, let alone make ignorance a qualification for the job. And it's more than being unschooled - somebody who has lived a lifetime demonstrating disinterested in a particular subject, to the point that in her forties she is described by her supporters as "ignorant", is unlikely to ever achieve proficiency. Is it possible? Sure, but that's a gamble. McCain's observation that Palin is "a very popular and for all I know a very good governor" is fascinating - before urging the party to jump on her bandwagon, might it not make sense for him to learn enough about her that he doesn't have to qualify his endorsement of her record?
Sarah Palin is extraordinarily shrewd and is a natural as a politician. She figured out early on that some people on the McCain campaign are profoundly incompetent (hello, Tucker Bounds) and that other people on the McCain campaign are selfish and arrogant beyond words (you know who you are, sweetheart).
So if you can identify Tucker Bounds - this Tucker Bounds - and Michael Goldfarb - this Michael Goldfarb - as less than the best, you're "shrewd"? That seems like a pretty low bar - as low as the ground level bar set for Palin in the Vice Presidential debate. So really, what's the reason McCain likes (the other) McCain's pick so much?
Sarah's shortcomings on Aug. 29 have been rapidly remedied, and by 2011 could be remedied entirely. Considering that she is the strongest, most viable alternative to Jeb Bush, I would suggest that some of her conservative critics should try to befriend her, and not merely join the sneering snobs.
The only other choice being Jeb Bush, and the Bush brand having been burned so badly by his brother that, despite his having what appear to be far superior credentials, experience, intellect and interest in national and international affairs, you should saddle up the unknown horse and hope for the best?

Truly, J.S. McCain has a limited memory if he believes that the presidential nominee or eventual president can be spotted four years out. The Republican party doesn't have to hope, so much as it should expect new leadership to emerge over the next four years. If Palin turns out to be the best of the bunch, without wishing to caricature her, diminish her accomplishments, or underestimate her political skills and charisma, the party has a lot to worry about... assuming it loses on Tuesday.

But again, the election ain't over 'till it's over.

Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Iran?

Clifford Orwin serves up plenty of nothing in an editorial that refuses to endorse either Obama or McCain, but attempts to attack Obama who Orwin clearly expects to win.
Fact No. 1 is that the new president will face very bad times. Already last spring, when lecturing at a leading U.S. political science department, I learned that a majority of my colleagues there, regardless of their leanings, held that each party should hope the other won this race. And that was before the financial meltdown.

Is Mr. Obama the man for such a dire moment?
Orwin attempts to insulate himself from criticism of this point by refusing to endorse McCain, but the obvious retort is, "Is McCain?" or "Is anybody?" As Orwin notes,
Already last spring, when lecturing at a leading U.S. political science department, I learned that a majority of my colleagues there, regardless of their leanings, held that each party should hope the other won this race. And that was before the financial meltdown.
So what we have here is not really so much a point about Obama or his qualification as Presidency, but Orwin setting himself up to say "I told you so" if things don't quickly come up roses without actually having to put his neck on the chopping block by suggesting how McCain might be more qualified or what a candidate might do to make roses grow from the fertilizer into which G.W. has transformed most aspects of American government.
Look at Mr. Obama's domestic plans. Behind his rhetoric of unity shelter the same old Democratic policies that the two parties have wrangled over for four decades. If that's what Mr. Obama means by Change We Can Believe In, well then Yes We Can.
So Democrats support Democratic policies, and believe that implementing Democratic policies in the place of Republican policies constitutes change? Is Orwin unfamiliar with the meaning of the word, "change"?

Now if he means to argue that the Democratic policies he chooses not to identify are somehow worse than the Republican policies they would replace, I'm eager to hear the argument - to me, that's red meat and, as with pretty much any policy debate, a robust debate can follow with valid points to be made on both sides. But the way Orwin goes about this? It's a cop-out.

Orwin's only specifics come in relation to "foreign policy", by which he apparently means war, war, and only war:
Here, the best news is that not even Mr. Obama's own advisers believe he intends an early withdrawal from Iraq.
Given Orwin's open support for the Iraq war, and ability to find self-vindication in any outcome, it's no surprise that he apparently finds perverse pleasure in the difficulty of ending that war. But what nonsense:
Al-Qaeda has declared again and again (contra Mr. Obama) that the main theatre of its struggle with the United States is not marginal Afghanistan but geopolitically crucial Iraq. Lately, it has been absorbing a royal beating there. Nothing would delight it more than for the Americans to abandon Iraq prematurely to chase Osama bin Laden. Handed a new lease on life in Iraq, it would press on with renewed confidence in Kandahar.
This man is a political scientist who has been writing for years in favor of the Iraq war, yet he is ignorant of Al-Qaeda's actual goals? In their wildest pipe dream, Al-Qaeda doesn't imagine gaining control of Iraq, and it's absurd and dishonest for Orwin to pretend otherwise. Their unambiguous goal has been to drag the U.S. into a perpetual conflict that bankrupts us as a nation, in much the same manner as Russia's war in Afghanistan contributed to its own collapse. Orwin tells us that we're in "an era of shrinking resources" that would force us to forego policies that might improve the lives of Americans - well, you know, that's kind of what Al-Qaeda wants, isn't it.

If Orwin were more honest, or is it more knowledgeable, he would be aware that a Shiite-dominated Iraq is not going to tolerate Al-Qaeda. They'll be vastly less tolerant than Hussein's Sunni government and, despite various specious efforts to tie Hussein to Al-Qaeda, they weren't connected. Odds are they'll be significantly more ruthless in rooting it out, once the U.S. is gone and they are no longer limited by western sensitivities or insistence upon "reconciliation".

Even if we assume that Orwin is engaged in the all-too-typical sleight of hand, conflating Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) with Bin Laden's Al Qaeda, really, does he think that the Shiite government is going to make any sort of home in Iraq for an aggressively expansionist, militaristic, fundamentalist brand of Sunni Islam, openly dedicated to its overthrow? Where in the Shiite world is Al-Qaeda tolerated, let alone welcomed? Meanwhile, there's a real price being paid for turning Iraq into a proving ground for AQI and other terrorist groups:
Despite debate over the extent to which AQI fighters are dispersing to new battlefields, there's little question that the organization's methods are increasingly being employed outside of Iraq. The number of suicide attacks, for example, rare in Afghanistan and Pakistan before 9/11, has grown exponentially; according to Pakistan's intelligence service, in the first eight months of this year, there were 28 suicide attacks in Pakistan and 36 in Afghanistan, together claiming over 900 lives. (During that same period, for the first time, suicide bombers killed more people in Pakistan than in Iraq: 471 versus 463.) "Whether or not the actual people migrate, the tactics and techniques are [migrating], and they're going to change the nature of warfare," says [Bruce Hoffman, a counterterrorism expert at Georgetown University]. "The people coming from Iraq have expertise almost across the board in insurgency, from suicide tactics to force-on-force attacks to sophisticated standoff attacks with remote-controlled missiles or rockets to IED types of technologies. It just means that the learning curve for insurgents is now short, and they're able to learn from previous experience and adapt almost immediately, almost in real time."
The disingenuous nature of Orwin's argument is only amplified by his suggestion that Obama's policy in Iraq would "hardly differ from Mr. McCain's". If that's true, what happens is going to happen under either leader.

So far, Orwin's offerings have been pretty generic. At best, he can be said to be criticizing Obama for offering "change" that doesn't involve ideas that are new enough, while refusing to endorse McCain who I guess we are to infer is offering "more of the same". So what's the one point of distinction that Orwin is willing to openly make?
Which brings us to Iran, whose impending nuclear weapons (in tandem with its global terrorist network, advanced ballistic missile systems and proneness to messianic delusions) is the real sum of all fears confronting the next U.S. president. Mr. Obama has declared that a nuclear Iran is absolutely unacceptable to him, and I believe him. I believe that he'll talk just as hard as he can to prevent it, "without preconditions" if necessary. But what will he do once talking has failed?
I guess we are to presuppose that McCain would bypass any attempt to resolve Iran's nuclear ambitious through diplomacy, and would skip straight to the song and dance? If Orwin wants us to go to war with Iran, without bothering with so much as an attempt at diplomacy, he should have the courage and honesty to say so. If not, then we're first going to take steps short of war.

What Orwin appears to offer here is his disappointment that Obama isn't going to advance domestic policies that he prefers (but won't specify), and that neither candidate is likely at this point to endorse a never-ending war in Iraq or expanding that war into Iran.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Making The Most of that Fifteen Minutes....

As if we needed more evidence that John McCain detests our celebrity culture.

I have to hand it to "Joe the Plumber," though. He has apparently discarded his fantasy that he can become the owner of a plumbing business worth $250,000.00, with a comparable annual income, without engaging in the hard work and discipline involved in becoming an actual plumber or saving up a down payment, in favor of making the most of his momentary fame. Paris Hilton, eat your heart out.

"No, You Can't Have That Discount"

You've probably seen banner ads for Lamps Plus on major media websites, including newspaper websites, offering $10 off a purchase. Well, I was in the market for a new lamp, and thought I would try them out. They have a really clever database design, "powered by EasyAsk", they have nice, clear images of their merchandise, their prices are comparable to other online vendors, and they do a great job trying to upsell accessories at the end of your purchase.

So what are they doing wrong?

They wouldn't honor their discount.

Now I'll grant, when you click through their ad you get a paragraph-long set of exclusions from the $10 discount offer, but they do nothing to explain to you why a particular lighting fixture doesn't qualify for a discount. You just get an impersonal error message and no discount.

To me, that's worse than not offering a discount in the first place.1

So what did I do? I searched the same product at Yahoo! shopping, used Google to look up coupon codes for the various merchants listed, and found one that offered a ten percent discount plus free shipping. Lamps Plus ended up saving its $10, and I ended up saving quite a bit more.
1. It feels like enough of a cheat when you see the "coupon code" box and don't have a code. I like the approach of KidSurplus, where they offer up a coupon code on every page of their site - so you have the easy opportunity to get a discount if you don't have a better code from another source.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Cost of the Candidates' Health Care Proposals

The Washington post, demonstrating astonishing credulity, tells us about the McCain and Obama health care proposals:
Overall Price Tag


Says his plan would cost $50 billion to $65 billion a year when all elements are phased in. Money would come from ending tax cuts for people with incomes exceeding $250,000.


Says his plan would be budget-neutral over 10 years.
How hard would it be to find somebody else's estimates - devoting about five seconds to searching with Google, I came up with this from the Wall Street Journal:
The Tax Policy Center, which is affiliated with the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, projected the Obama plan would cost $1.6 trillion over 10 years, and the McCain plan would cost $1.3 trillion. Lewin Group had different figures putting the cost at $2.1 trillion for McCain’s plan and $1.2 trillion for Obama.
So if you ask anybody outside of Obama's campaign, you're likely to hear that he's probably (at best) halving the likely cost, and if you ask anybody outside of McCain's campaign you're likely to get a "He's claiming what?!"

Not that I'm suggesting that you shouldn't take political candidates at their word, but... No, wait, that's exactly what I'm suggesting.

A Freshly Recalibrated ATM-Style Voting Machine At Work

This is reassuring....

Via The Independent.

Aren't People Embarrassed To Make This Argument?

... Yet it inevitably comes:
If rewards for America's entrepreneurs and firms are reduced through higher marginal tax rates, their incentives to earn, invest and create jobs will be diminished. Americans will have less incentive to save, and firms will have less incentive to pay dividends. Tax avoidance will become more profitable. A smaller capital stock will mean a less productive economy and lower wages for middle-class and other workers. These disincentive effects also mean that the revenue gain is likely to be smaller than Obama envisions.
Even assuming it ever becomes reality, where in recorded human history have the wealthy thrown up their hands and stopped trying to make money because they faced a 4.6% income tax increase? When in recorded history did a <40% tax on a nation's highest income earners (before deductions) cause entrepreneurs to close up shop?

Despite the authors' effort to offshift the notion onto Obama, there's also a huge element of "Who is Obama to interfere with our free lunch" in this type of argument. Obama's tax and spending proposals are not consistent with what I would do. I wouldn't struggle to slash spending or balance the budget during a recession, but my long-term view would be toward fiscal responsibility. Yet by all accounts, McCain's proposals are even worse for our long-term fiscal picture - the Tax Policy Center estimates that McCain's tax plan will add $5 trillion to the national debt while Obama's plan will add $3.4 trillion.

It also gets into the pie-eyed wishful thinking that we can deficit spend, in increasing amounts, forever. If we're to support McCain's larger deficits because Obama will impose a modest tax increase on the wealthy, this argument isn't, "We can't raise taxes on the rich." It's, "We can never raise taxes at all, and we should deficit spend until the end of time." They argue that middle class tax cuts must be accompanied by spending cuts - but leaving aside the short-sightedness of that notion as we enter what appears to be a serious recession, haven't they notices the giant hole that their boy, G.W., burned in our pocket? Or the even bigger hole McCain is eagerly proposing to burn? You don't even get into Grover Norquist-style nonsense about drowning the government in a bath tub - the authors aren't even pretending to oppose McCain's out-of-control spending proposals and massive deficits.

Funny... it took three people from the American Enterprise Institute, a fount of low-quality anti-Obama hit pieces, to write this claptrap. Three? And this is the best they can do? Well, if it's good enough for Fred Hiatt and the Washington Post, it should be good enough for everybody. Right?

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Now That's Desperation....

You're not terrified that McCain won't win the election? Then perhaps you would like a nice tall glass of Kool-Aid. I'm sure you've already encountered the breathless accusation that Obama is a socialist, backed up by mendacious distortions of a comment he made to "Joe the Plumber" and tendentious interpretations of a segment from a seven-year-old radio call-in show.

What? You're not shivering in your boots? Well, then, Pat Buchanan is racing to the rescue with an effort so frantic, it makes Chicken Little look like a Zen Master. Border security? None of that - the border with Mexico will be wide open, and all illegal immigrants will be given amnesty. Taxes will be raised on the wealthiest 5% of Americans, in order to "redistribute" it to the bottom 40%. He'll somehow magically rewrite the Constitution, such that homosexuals have equal rights in all areas of life (the horror), affirmative action can be instituted based on quotas, and we'll have something just shy of forced abortions in every state ("America will become the most pro-abortion nation on earth"). Oh yes - and outrageous deficit spending that didn't get in the way of Buchanan's endorsement of G.W. back in 2004? It's once again a valid issue.

I hope you've drained your Kool-aid glass and are ready for your next helping, courtesy of Steven Calabresi in the Wall Street Journal. You may be thinking, "Republicans have appointed federal judges for twenty of the past twenty-eight years, and have pretty solid majorities throughout the federal judicial system, including the Supreme Court." But no - Obama will be able to appoint two - count them, two - judges to "the most important lower federal court in the country: the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit," G.W. having personally named a "only four". This will apparently cause the world to end. Presenting one of the most bizarre extrapolations I've heard to date of the Obama radio interview, Calabresi writes,
[Obama] he noted that the U.S. Constitution as written is only a guarantee of negative liberties from government -- and not an entitlement to a right to welfare or economic justice.

This raises the question of whether Mr. Obama can in good faith take the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution" as he must do if he is to take office.
It does? How?
Does Mr. Obama support the Constitution as it is written, or does he support amendments to guarantee welfare?
Well, there's no evidence that he has proposed or endorsed any such amendments, and even somebody whose knowledge of the Constitution barely meets the level of a high school civics class knows that the President cannot unilaterally amend the Constitution. (And anybody with a whit of sense knows that a "right to welfare" amendment would have a zero percent chance of passing.) But as you know, when you're trying to create hysteria you need not let facts or common sense get in the way.
Is his provision of a "tax cut" to millions of Americans who currently pay no taxes merely a foreshadowing of constitutional rights to welfare, health care, Social Security, vacation time and the redistribution of wealth?
That's right, Steve... Keep pouring the Kool-Aid....
If Mr. Obama wins we could possibly see any or all of the following: a federal constitutional right to welfare; a federal constitutional mandate of affirmative action wherever there are racial disparities, without regard to proof of discriminatory intent; a right for government-financed abortions through the third trimester of pregnancy; the abolition of capital punishment and the mass freeing of criminal defendants; ruinous shareholder suits against corporate officers and directors; and approval of huge punitive damage awards, like those imposed against tobacco companies, against many legitimate businesses such as those selling fattening food.
Ooh - let's not forget open borders and amnesty for all illegal aliens! And everybody will be forced to learn a second language!

But what about the war on terror? Buchanan doesn't mention Iraq, perhaps because he doesn't want to remind people that he's an isolotionist who opposes the entire Iraq venture. (Like deficits, the Iraq war also didn't stop Buchanan from endorsing Bush over Kerry.) And apparently (surprisingly?) Calabresi doesn't anticipate a Constitutional amendment that will make it illegal for us to fight wars against our enemies.

But don't worry - the WSJ is still serving up the Kool-Aid. Here's Pete Du Pont: It seems certain that "The U.S. military will withdraw from Iraq quickly and substantially, regardless of conditions on the ground or the obvious consequence of emboldening terrorists there and around the globe." You know, because Obama has made clear that he will consider conditions on the ground and is committed to focusing on the real threats to our nation's security around the world. When you write for the WSJ, it seems, every day is "opposites day".

It also "seems clear" that we'll become economic isolationists (is he trying to calm Pat Buchanan down), labor unions will be stronger, there will be more federal regulation (probably foisted on us by radical left-wingers like Alan Greenspan), we'll be "Europeanized" (perhaps there will even be a law that makes us give our kids Europeanized names like "Pierre") with "nationalized health care, Kyoto-like global-warming policies, and increased education regulation and spending" (something no conservative President would ever do, right?), and:
Free speech will be curtailed through the reimposition of the Fairness Doctrine to limit the conservative talk radio that so irritates the liberal establishment.
With the evidence in support of that being... er, being... No, stop thinking and start fearing. (And they say that the WSJ editorial page is full of drek - well, they've showed you now, haven't they.)

So much to be afraid of... I can barely stop shaking in my boots. It makes me long for the good old days, when I was "only" supposed to be terrified of Obama because he's secretly Muslim and is "palling around with terrorists".

Monday, October 27, 2008

Where'd The Other McCain Go?

Remember John McCain when he was funny, genial, collegial, able to make fun of himself? Whether you think that was a carefully cultivated image or a reality lost to desperation as his campaign flounders, you actually don't have to look back very far. The old John McCain showed up a couple of weeks ago at the Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner.

If that John McCain were the one running for office, I suspect he would be doing better in the polls.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

"If Only Those Idiots Treated Our Ideas With Respect"

Mixing common sense with nonsense, Douglas MacKinnon warns, Don’t Count Him Out Yet, "John McCain can still win." Well, no kidding.

In pointing to things that can drag Obama down, MacKinnon presents an interesting exercise in contrasts. Having recently written, GOP unfairly branded racist, lamenting the suggestion that the GOP might play to racial prejudices, he now argues,
Finally, the ugly side of this equation. Race is going to be a factor in this election. How much, no one knows. A New York Times/CBS News poll gave some indication when it found out that “one-third of voters said they knew someone who would not vote for Mr. Obama because he is black.”
It is unfair to assume in advance that a campaign is going to take a particular political low road, even factoring in history, and it's certainly unfair to work from the assumption that most or all GOP supporters are racist or sympathetic to racism. But if you're going to concede that one third of voters aren't going to vote for Obama because he's black, you don't have to spend much time scrutinizing the polls to know where those votes are flowing. The fact that McCain has largely stayed away from race issues does not mean that there aren't people at other levels of the state and local party, or people who enjoy a national audience who informally align themselves with the party, who are doing their utmost to depict Obama as the scary, dark-skinned, supposedly Muslim "other".

I don't happen to think that the election is going to suddenly swing to McCain because voters have a sudden revelation that, <gasp>, Obama's black. I suspect that most of the 1/3 of voters MacKinnon describes have already made up their mind to vote for somebody other than Obama, and advice pollsters accordingly. I doubt that there are more than a tiny number of people who think that they are voting on the issues but will decide, upon entering the voting booth, that they're really part of that 1/3. The rest of us will decide out votes on other issues.

MacKinnon doesn't like unfair stereotypes of Republicans, but....
Beyond today’s experience argument, why do Democrats sometimes lose when all indications are that they will coast to victory? One reason that has gained traction in certain quarters is that the people who control the Republican Party understand and respect their opponents. Republicans think Democrats are wrong, but Democrats think Republicans are stupid, and that’s why Democrats lose.
Oh, really? So if I listen to the speeches McCain and Palin gave at the national convention, I'll hear their deep respect for the Democratic party and its ideas?1 If I flip on talk radio, I'll hear Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage sensitively analyze the issues of the day with great respect for the positions of Democrats? No, wait, if I listen to the pundits and analysts who pen best sellers directed at Republican readers and read their books, I won't find their ideas exemplified by titles like "Godless: The Church of Liberalism", "Obama Nation" or "Liberal Fascism"? Or "If Democrats Had Any Brains, They'd Be Republicans"?

Spare me.

The leading difference is that the GOP manages to gin up its base with fantasies of a "liberal elite" that is plotting to "take away your rights" (or, in the case of gay marriage, abortion or birth control, give you rights or protect the rights you have), an approach that is perhaps exemplified by MacKinnon's, "They think we're stupid" line.2 But what you're seeing there isn't Democrats condescending to Republican voters or treating them like they're stupid. And it's certainly not a demonstration of Republican respect for the ideas and values of the Democratic Party.
1. Some have suggested that the Republican Party's past anti-intellectual stances are serving to both undermine conservatism and marginalize conservative intellectuals.

2. There are similar caricatures that some Democrats attempt to present to excite their base, but for a variety of reasons they're much more scattershot and much less effective.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Kathleen Parker: If Only McCain Were Less (or More?) Like Jörg Haider....

In a column that is insulting of men in general, and particularly of John McCain, Kathleen Parker can find only one explanation for John McCain's choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate - and she does emphasize "mate":
One does not have to be a psychoanalyst to reckon that McCain was smitten. By no means am I suggesting anything untoward between McCain and his running mate. Palin is a governor, after all. She does have an executive résumé, if a thin one. And she's a natural politician who connects with people.

But there can be no denying that McCain's selection of her over others far more qualified -- and his mind-boggling lack of attention to details that matter -- suggests other factors at work. His judgment may have been clouded by . . . what?

* * *

As my husband observed early on, McCain the mortal couldn't mind having an attractive woman all but singing arias to his greatness. Cameras frequently capture McCain beaming like a gold-starred schoolboy while Palin tells crowds that he is "exactly the kind of man I want as commander in chief." This, notes Draper, "seemed to confer not only valor but virility on a 72-year-old politician who only weeks ago barely registered with the party faithful."
You know, just maybe his mind was "clouded" by advisors who kept harping on the deficiencies of the other candidates on his short list, as contrasted with a couple who waxed poetic about how Palin would excite "the base". (No, I'm not using the term "excite" in the same sense as Parker.)

(Meanwhile, in Austria....)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Of All The Things To Obsess About....

Sarah's song?

Seriously, it seems silly, but can you actually imagine a candidate, male or female, running for national office in a wardrobe by JCPenney? With a Borics haircut? And wearing the same "nice clothes" for multiple pubic appearances, perhaps even within the same two week period? The horror....

I will grant, it's easier for a man to get away with wearing the same suit more than once in two weeks. As long as it's sufficiently generic that nobody will notice. (Even then it's probably at least $1,500 - $5,000 worth of "generic", before we start adding in the cost of the shirt, shoes, tie and accessories.) There's a different standard for women, in no small part resulting from the fact that women's clothes are (and are expected to be) less generic.

Had Palin not been professionally dressed, coiffed and polished, that would have been the focus of news stories, rumors, and jokes. Now, having been found to have expended quite a lot of RNC money on her appearance, she risks the "John Edwards" treatment. And while the McCain campaign's defense of her,
With all the important issues facing the country right now, it's remarkable that we're spending time talking about pantsuits and blouses. It was always the intent that the clothing go to a charitable purpose after the campaign.
is weakened by its silence in relation to similar non-scandals directed at candidates from the other side of the aisle and its celebrity ads aimed at Obama, they're right.

Now let's get back to the real issues. Like falsely accusing our political opponents of being "socialists" and of "palling around with terrorists", or of having a secret plan to eviscerate Medicare.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Up To Your Neck In Debt? In Foreclosure?

Then you may be mentally deficient. At least according to a recent unpublished decicion of the Michigan Court of Appeals.

Under MCL 700.5401 a probate court may appoint a conservator for a person if:
The individual is unable to manage property and business affairs effectively for reasons such as mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power, or disappearance.
Interpreting that provision, the Court of Appeals wrote:
As respondent notes, when a statutory term is not defined by the statute, this Court construes the term according to its plain and ordinary meaning. Cox v Flint Bd of Hosp Managers, 467 Mich 1, 18; 651 NW2d 356 (2002). Resort to dictionary definitions is acceptable and useful in determining ordinary meaning. Id. “Mental” is defined as “of or pertaining to the mind.” Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (1995). “Deficiency” may be defined as “the state of being deficient; lack; insufficiency.” Id. In addition, “deficient” is further defined as “a person who is deficient, esp. one who is mentally defective.” Id. Based on these definitions, “mental deficiency” as used in the statute could plausibly refer to someone who has simply made consistently bad decisions with respect to his or her property, without being afflicted by some form of officially recognized mental illness or incapacity, as respondent argues.
Brickman v Brickman, No. 278403 (Mich. App., Oct. 16, 2008).

I am initially skeptical of the court's separation of the term "mental deficiency" into two separate terms. This can be problematic - consider the interesting results you could produce by defining "ice cream" in a similar fashion. Contrast what you find if you actually try to define the term "mental deficiency":
mental deficiency - n. See mental retardation. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).
That leads us to:
mental retardation - n. Subnormal intellectual development as a result of congenital causes, brain injury, or disease and characterized by any of various cognitive deficiencies, including impaired learning, social, and vocational ability. Also called mental deficiency. (The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition).
A similar definition of "mental deficiency" can be found in Merriam-Webster and WordNet.

The fact that the term "deficient" could be used to "a person who is deficient, esp. one who is mentally defective" is not instructive. Applied in this context, this becomes a circular argument that, as somebody who is mentally deficient may be informally called "deficient", any person who is in any way deficient in any manner relating to their mental functioning is "mentally deficient". (And how far do we take this type of reasoning? Should we interpret the word "confinement" in the statute to reference the onset of labor in a pregnant woman?)

Further, consider what the court's interpretation means for the interpretation of the statute. The statutory language suggests that a court ruling on a conservatorship petition should find both that "The individual is unable to manage property and business affairs effectively" and that there's a reason for that incapacity "such as mental illness, mental deficiency, physical illness or disability, chronic use of drugs, chronic intoxication, confinement, detention by a foreign power, or disappearance." Under the new ruling a probate court need not find that there's a reason for the incapacity: "The individual is unable to manage property and business affairs effectively because the individual has not managed his or her property and business affairs effectively."

As I read the statute, making bad financial choices is not of itself grounds for the appointment of a conservator, nor should it be. But... now it is.

You Play The Hand You're Dealt

This comment, from a venture capitalist, is pretty typical following... well, pretty much any election:
I think Obama has the election pretty wrapped up absent a major external event. I think my parents might vote for him. They are army people, lifelong republicans, who are in their late 70s/early 80s. But if they vote for Obama, they are not really voting for him, they are voting against the GOP and what is has become and what it has done to this country. Obama's mandate, if he wins, will be thin and he should not overplay it. He must win these skeptics who held their nose and voted for him if he wants to govern with a real mandate. And that won't be easy and he must govern from the far center which is where our country really is right now. And I think he can and will do that.
If you recall how G.W. overplayed his hand following the 2004 election ("I earned capital in this campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it.") this might appear to be common sense. G.W. was narrowly elected, didn't have great public support for the changes he wished to press, and his initiatives failed. Something similar might be said about Bill Clinton's first couple of years, where he was stymied by his own party.

But in both cases, was the problem that they didn't have a strong enough mandate? Or that they overplayed their hands? Bill Clinton probably anticipated greater support from his own party - in retrospect he should have worked to build that consensus, or in its absence to at least build a popular consensus for his initiatives, before he tried to push them through. G.W. wanted to reinvent Social Security, proposing "reforms" that were supported more in theory than in practice within his party and which were viewed skeptically by the public. Like Clinton, and in contrast to the party unity of his first four years in office, he suffered a breakdown in party discipline that made it impossible for him to advance his proposals. After that, his continuing efforts to advance his "reform" agenda eroded his public support.

Don't underestimate G.W.'s tactics merely because they failed. He managed to cram through a great many controversial initiatives during his first two years in office, most of which were treated as minor issues or non-issues by the time the 2004 election rolled around. Saving "Social Security reform" for his second term reflects the greater political risk involved. But the Republicans had the sense to know that initiatives that pass more than two years before an election generally won't be big issues when the election finally comes. News coverage will dwindle, pundits will move on to other issues, voter anger will subside, and in all likelihood the election will turn on other issues.

To advance his agenda, the new President, Obama or McCain, should evaluate his position: What initiatives are likely to be well-received in Congress, by the public, or both? What important initiatives might pass with some finessing of Congress, the public, or both? What initiatives are likely to fail? He can build a first term agenda based upon that analysis.

But what he shouldn't do is worry about whether three or four years later a particular set of swing voters will be offended that he carried out his promises, when they had secretly hoped he would not. Really, what's the advice here? "Wait four years to see if you get a bigger mandate"? Absent catastrophe a President probably has only one chance to be transformative - and that chance most likely comes (and goes) in the first half of the first term. No, certainly, the newly elected President won't want to overplay his hand - but if he wants to change the country in any meaningful way he needs to play his hand for all it's worth.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Credit Where Credit Is Due

Given the tendency to try to hold candidates responsible for the worst behavior of their supporters, we should remember that the larger body of supporters is often opposed (and perhaps appalled) by some of that behavior.

Waiting for the Second Coming... of Reagan?

Michael Gerson laments the collapse of John McCain's campaign, in a piece that is 80% of the way to reading like a parody.
For all their talk about respecting the constraints of reality, conservatives generally hold to the great man theory of history. It is leftists who embrace economic determinism. Conservatives read biographies of Winston Churchill and wait in constant expectation for the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Charisma and truth, in this view, can always overwhelm material conditions.

And this often leads to the small man theory of electoral setbacks. A losing Republican is not merely unfortunate; he must be incompetent, politically blind, and betrayed by his bumbling underlings. If he is not a winner, he is a fool.
This reminds me a bit of the evolution I've seen in a lot of idealistic people who become fascinated with politics at too young an age. The first time he votes, he's backing the great leader of the best party - the man who is going to save the country. A few elections later he's voting for "the lesser of two evils" and hoping that a great man emerges for the next election. A few elections after that, and he's realized that you have only two choices - picking "the lesser of two evils" or not voting. The candidates are human, and humans are flawed. The parties are flawed. The system is flawed. And you gotta live with it.

I think both parties try to present their presidential candidates as a "great man", and many voters happily oblige them by buying into a mindset that their candidate is going to fix the world, while the opposing candidate is going to destroy it (metaphorically, and sometimes perhaps literally, speaking). More sophisticated voters are apt to recognize that while great leaders can transform a nation, no matter what the political parties say, it's unlikely that they're voting for a great leader. They're also apt to note, perhaps particularly if they're conservative, that a great leader out to transform a country can take things in the wrong direction. The opposing party is often happy to emphasize that point - vote for Barry Goldwater and... boom!

Meanwhile, how many attacks have been launched on Obama's supporters for being a "cult of personality", entranced by the man but ignorant of his policies? For goodness sake, McCain even had a "second coming" ad about Obama's rise. Now we're to believe that this conduct, attributed to Obama's supporters, represents their acting like conservatives?

As for "leftists" embracing "economic determinism", it's almost as if Gerson is trying to pick marxist terms out of Wikipedia to create... I'm not sure what. Which "leftists" believe that economics are at the root of all political issues or problems? You point out, "It's the economy, stupid", and suddenly you're a marxist? Then what of Gerson's own argument:
The diverging political fortunes of Barack Obama and McCain can be traced to a single moment. In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points. Did McCain suddenly become a stumbling failure? No, the world suddenly went into an economic slide.
Clearly, then, you can be something other than a "leftist" and recognize the role - at times the central role - of economic factors in political events and world history. You might even enjoy talking about this - for example, crediting Reagan with winning the cold war by bankrupting the USSR. And what does Gerson believe that "Club for Growth"-type tax policies are about, but the idea that you can create an economic circumstance that forces a political outcome. What of the cult of privatization, ignoring the contexts that markets create efficiencies in favor of a delusional mantra that private entities will always perform better than public entities?

No, really, not all conservatives believe in "the great man theory of history", let alone see it as desirable. There are almost no actual marxists in the United States, and none that I'm aware of with any political influence. And both parties correctly see that economics play a role, often a significant role, in politics - while simultaneously avoiding any endorsement of Marxist theory. Go figure.

Why did Gerson attempt to frame the election as a competition between hero-worshiping "conservatives" and marxist "leftists"? Because:
While America remains a center-right country, this may well be a Marxist election in which economic realities are determining the political superstructure.
Earth to Gerson: Marxists don't play any discernible role in American politics, and neither they nor their theories win elections in center-right countries.

I was amused by Gerson's reaction to other pundits, as he complains about their advice to McCain:
If only the candidate would fire his entire campaign staff and travel the country in a used Yugo, speaking in the parking lots of 7-11s, the gap would be closed. If only the candidate would buy three hours in prime time and give a bold, historic speech (which has been helpfully sent under separate cover), the entire election would be turned around. If only the candidate would finally highlight his opponent's ties to Colombian drug cartels, the illuminati and the British royal family -- or perhaps abandon all this suicidal negativity -- the election could certainly be won. And yes, above all, the candidate must be himself.
I'm not sure who the first target is, but the "buy airtime" comment seems to be about Kristol, and the "smear, baby smear" comment seems to be about Krauthammer. (When even Michael Gerson recognizes your advice as bad....)

Gerson is also much to quick to blame the economy for McCain's problems at the poll. It's been very important, certainly, but there's a lot more to McCain's problem.
In the middle of September, the net favorable rating for each candidate was about the same. By Oct. 7, Obama was ahead on this measure by about 16 points.
I think McCain's problems started with his leading campaign tactic - one Gerson continues to endorse:
But the McCain campaign also proved itself capable of constructing an effective narrative: Obama as lightweight celebrity, McCain as maverick reformer. Until history intervened.
Political junkies forget that, although political buzz and ads can have a significant impression on the voting public, for many people the election doesn't begin until after the political conventions. McCain ran a pre-debate campaign that was largely premised on the notion that, "I'm so much better than him, all I should have to do to win is list my name on the ballot." Then he picked Gov. Palin as his running mate and enjoyed a brief surge in the polls. Then she was interviewed by Charlie Gibson, and independent voters started to shift in large numbers from McCain to Obama. By September 17, he had lost his lead. A couple of days later, we met Henry Paulson's $750 billion bailout plan. McCain was down in the polls, but only by a couple of points - within the margin of error.
Following the onset of the crisis, McCain was left with flawed options. He reasonably chose to work for a responsible bailout while hoping the markets would stabilize quickly.
McCain's slide in the polls was continuing. As the nation was introduced to the financial crisis, McCain engaged in some obvious grandstanding, noisily "suspending" his campaign to feign taking leadership of negotiations for a bail-out package. Except he didn't really suspend his campaign, didn't really contribute to the debate over the first bail-out proposal, and came across as trying to grab headlines to obscure his diminishing poll numbers.

Then, on September 26, Obama stood on the same stage as McCain and managed to not only hold his own, but in many ways to appear more presidential than McCain. McCain's "lightweight celebrity" theme crashed and burned and his campaign seemed to lose focus. Recall at this moment that Gerson's complaint is not that McCain's standing in the polls slipped, but that his favorables slipped. The performance of the markets played a part in the erosion of his support, but I suspect that the slide in his favorables had much more to do with his grandstanding on the fiscal crisis, his debate performance as contrasted with Obama's, and the fact that attacks that may well have been fair if raised at a different time or in a different manner seemed small, mean-spirited and misplaced within the context of a major financial crisis - they seemed timed and constructed to try to overcome a slide in the polls. How much of that is perception and how much is reality? It doesn't matter - that perception caused McCain's favorables to slide.
(Can anyone doubt that the past political association of McCain with a right-wing terrorist would attract some attention?)
Letterman had fun with that one.

Gerson's column seems to have three goals: Reinvigorate the failed "Obama's a lightweight celebrity" theme;1 reinvent McCain as something "close enough" to a great man and second coming of Reagan; and to try to remove the economy and the financial crisis as bona fide election issues. Is it just me, or did he fail on all counts?
1. Gerson attacks Obama, claiming,
His only recent accomplishment has been to say questionable things in the debates - attacking Republicans and capitalism for a credit meltdown congressional Democrats helped to cause, blaming America for Iran's nuclear ambitions, talking piously about genocide prevention when his own early Iraq policies might have resulted in genocide - all while sounding supremely reassuring and presidential.
The first? That's what passes, in this nation, as "good politics". As Gerson concedes, the government's contribution to the meltdown was bipartisan in nature, but this is the season for finger-pointing. The second, a silly exaggeration by Gerson. The third? What's Gerson smoking?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Palin's Shameful Obstructionism Continues

Yes, we get it. You have a lot to hide....
The office of the Republican vice-presidential nominee has quoted prices as high as $15 million for copies of state e-mails requested by news organizations and citizens. No matter what the price, most of the e-mails of Palin, her senior staff and other state employees won't be made public until at least several weeks after the Nov. 4 presidential election, her office told on Thursday
Oh yes.... that doesn't include copying costs and no electronic copies will be provided - in support of the nation's lumber industry, you'll be receiving ream after ream of electronic documents printed out on paper.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bloodsucking Lenders

Bob Herbert called his piece Climbing Down the Ladder; I might have called it "The Bloodsucking Lenders of Transylvania County". His column describes an elderly widow in Rocky Mount, N.C. (in case you haven't guessed by now, Transylvania County) who may lose her house to foreclosure.
If you believe Ms. Richardson’s account, and I do, she was fast-talked into a mortgage that would have been impossible to pay off with her fixed income. Foreclosure would have seemed inevitable. But Ms. Richardson and her current lawyer, Carlene McNulty of Raleigh, N.C., said the figures that would have made it obvious to Ms. Richardson that she couldn’t afford the mortgage were deliberately concealed.
I think it goes without saying that there were lenders for whom deceit was a primary tool in closing loan agreements. I think we can all agree that the elderly as a group are more likely to be targeted by, and are more likely to fall for, predatory schemes involving their homes and money. But even then, a common thread in a lot of scams is "getting something for nothing (or next-to-nothing)" or "believing an offer that's too good to be true."

I don't know the background to the story Herbert shares, and I'm content to accept his impression that Ms. Richardson was scammed. But at the same time, I have to wonder what she received under her mortgage. Was she refinancing an existing mortgage for what she thought was a lower rate? Refinancing a mortgage and withdrawing equity for what she believed would be approximately the same rate? Or was this a new mortgage where she was receiving a substantial amount of cash in return for a mortgage payment that, in retrospect, was simply too good to be true?

I can see a lender targeting her for a "too good to be true" deal - "Refinance your current $80K mortgage, pull out $60K in equity to pay off all your bills, buy a new car, and redecorate, and your monthly payment only goes up $45! [until the teaser rate expires]" Who wouldn't want to believe that? Mix in a vulnerable population to target, and you have a formula for big, ill-gotten profits.

But at the same time, how do we get past that part of human nature that just doesn't want to hear the message, "There's no such thing as a free lunch"? (And if we accept that we can't - that at some level, all of our educational efforts will fail - what else can we do?) If we can't answer that, whatever the nature of the scheme or scam, it's another case of "same story, different day".

Friday, October 17, 2008

Krauthammer's Late To The Party

Months ago, Peggy Noonan lamented that it would be difficult to attack Barack Obama because many of the attacks on him would be construed as having racial overtones. Her column made it appear that she wished to use attacks with racial overtones, so I guess she was doubly vexed. But then the whole Rev. Wright thing blew up, and it appeared that her concerns were misplaced. And then, whodaguessedit, Obama pulled through.

Now, Charles Krauthammer is in one of his trademark tizzies because the McCain campaign didn't follow his advice of "Smear, smear, and smear some more." You know, Charles, some useful advice you could have given to McCain? "Don't underestimate Obama. Don't assume that you'll win just by showing up." Except, you know, underestimating Obama is Krauthammer's other theme.

Krauthammer's thesis, that McCain could win if only he would get down in the gutter and smear Obama, has two huge flaws: First, it would require McCain to abandon the public persona that he has carefully built over the last couple of decades, risking both that he would alienate his more moderate supporters and look desperate, and second, polling showed that the smear tactics employed by "independent" groups are not working. Does it need to be said? It's counterproductive to tarnish your own image through tactics that do not diminish your opponent's support. Further, as Krauthammer has to know, there has been a concerted effort made to attack Obama's character and associations through Sarah Palin, resulting in negative media attention and perhaps contributing to Palin's diminishing approval rating with independents.

Krauthammer takes umbrage over this New York Times editorial, which dares to accuse the McCain-Palin team of "race-baiting and xenophobia". That editorial notes some of Palin's antics:
Ms. Palin, in particular, revels in the attack. Her campaign rallies have become spectacles of anger and insult. “This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America,” Ms. Palin has taken to saying.

That line follows passages in Ms. Palin’s new stump speech in which she twists Mr. Obama’s ill-advised but fleeting and long-past association with William Ayers, founder of the Weather Underground and confessed bomber. By the time she’s done, she implies that Mr. Obama is right now a close friend of Mr. Ayers — and sympathetic to the violent overthrow of the government. The Democrat, she says, “sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
Now perhaps the Times is reading too much into how some of the people at McCain-Palin rallies have responded to statements like that - "Kill him", "Terrorist", etc. - while Krauthammer is happy to divorce the campaign tactics from those responses. But how would he characterize those dishonest attacks? Or does he endorse them?

Krauthammer proceeds to attack Bob Herbert, pointing to Herbert's misinterpretation of some of the imagery in McCain's "celebrity" ad.
He took to TV to denounce McCain's exhumation of that most vile prejudice, pointing out McCain's gratuitous insertion in the ad of "two phallic symbols," the Washington Monument and the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Except that Herbert was entirely delusional. There was no Washington Monument. There was no Leaning Tower.
The truth is a bit more amusing.
Celebrity Ad Images
Herbert mistook the images flashed across the ad behind Obama as being of landmarks that were more familiar to him.

Krauthammer's apoplectic that people see racial overtones in "the Republican attack on ACORN". You know, the organization McCain lavished with praise a couple of years ago. Maybe Krauthammer is correct that this is political opportunism and the racial element is purely coincidental, but you don't have to be a genius to see how an attack on Acorn, particularly one replete with misrepresentations and distortions, is likely to be perceived.
What makes the charges against McCain especially revolting is that he has been scrupulous in eschewing the race card. He has gone far beyond what is right and necessary, refusing even to make an issue of Obama's deep, self-declared connection with the race-baiting Rev. Wright.
Here, Krauthammer is attempting to blow out of proportion and generalize the Times editorial's criticism of the tactics of the McCain-Palin campaign, and most notably of the tactics employed by Palin, as an unfair broadside against McCain. It seems too easy to point out that McCain has to know about, and should be held responsible for, the tactics of his vice presidential candidate. Otherwise, how could we not infer that he's so out of touch that he is completely incapable of governing a nation? But more to the point, Krauthammer is doing what he's accusing others of doing - taking an isolated comment, blowing it out of proportion, then suggesting that the exaggerated version he presents is typical of McCain's critics.

It is not. McCain's favorables have slipped, certainly, but that appears to relate to his performance in the debates, his simultaneous floundering and grandstanding on the fiscal crisis, and his (as far as independent voters are concerned) poor choice of a running mate. There's no evidence that he's being affected by racial issues, and there's reason to believe that his eschewing Krauthammer's chant of "Smear, baby, smear" has saved him from further erosion of his support.

Even at this point, Krauthammer can't bring himself to cut his losses. He has to accuse Obama of having played "the race card" against McCain. For this he resorts to the Obama comment that inspired some of McCain's campaign staffers to accuse Obama of "playing the race card", in what turned out to be a severe and premature overplaying of their own hand. Those poor tactics, still endorsed by Krauthammer, got media play, but their limited effect on poll numbers likely play a role in McCain's reluctance to again delve into race issues.
And Obama has shown no hesitation in [deploying the race card] to McCain. Weeks ago, in Springfield, Mo., and elsewhere, he warned darkly that George Bush and John McCain were going to try to frighten you by saying that, among other scary things, Obama has "a funny name" and "doesn't look like all those other presidents on those dollar bills."
That's all he has? Obama's joking about how he has a "funny name", even as McCain supporters continued and continue to make Obama/Osama comments, or emphasize that his middle name is Hussein? Or that he doesn't look like other presidents on the dollar bill? You mean, like this McCain web ad illustrated even before Obama made that comment? Obama's response to the "race card" nonsense was to point out that it was nonsense. Krauthammer's case against Obama here seems far weaker than the one he is attempting to refute against McCain. (And let's just say, some of McCain's backers aren't helping.)

All in all, I suspect Krauthammer's tantrum will play well with some factions on the far right, but will do nothing to help McCain with the voters he needs to win over. But that's no surprise - other than their mutual underestimation of Obama, one place McCain has demonstrated a great deal of sense is in consistently rejecting Krauthammer's notions of what it will take to win the race. The obstacle before McCain is not insurmountable, although I suspect it will quickly become so if Krauthammer takes the lead on his campaign.

Brooks on Obama

David Brooks seems to be back in his pre-McCain form, (mostly) flattering Obama. He seems to sense which way the wind is blowing.
And it is easy to sketch out a scenario in which he could be a great president. He would be untroubled by self-destructive demons or indiscipline. With that cool manner, he would see reality unfiltered. He could gather — already has gathered — some of the smartest minds in public policy, and, untroubled by intellectual insecurity, he could give them free rein. Though he is young, it is easy to imagine him at the cabinet table, leading a subtle discussion of some long-term problem.
Of course, he's still obligated to throw in a counter-example:
Of course, it's also easy to imagine a scenario in which he is not an island of rationality in a sea of tumult, but a cold blooded serial killer. Hailing from the land of Gacy, perhaps he's been moving into bigger houses because his crawlspace is full - and now he could be moving into a really big house. Remember, it's always the quiet ones.
No, really, what he wrote was,
Of course, it’s also easy to imagine a scenario in which he is not an island of rationality in a sea of tumult, but simply an island. New presidents are often amazed by how much they are disobeyed, by how often passive-aggressiveness frustrates their plans.

It could be that Obama will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama greatness will give way to the Obama anti-climax.
But you know what? It's easy to imagine a lot of things, and to "sketch out" scenarios. That's why they call it imagination.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

All The World Loves a Bubble

As if you need to be told, I'm not an economist. But at the same time, I haven't had a great deal of difficulty identifying the two big "bubbles" of our time - the "dot com bubble" and the "real estate bubble". With the dot com bubble, I "knew" that the moment I tried to "cash in" would be the moment people figured out that it was largely a house of cards, so I didn't try to cash in - silly me, overestimating the intelligence of the financial community.

For the more recent bubble, I wasn't trying to get a loan to buy a house I couldn't afford, and don't want a McMansion, so I wasn't aware of how absurd the housing market had become, but it wasn't lost on me that housing inflation had reached absurd levels in parts of the country or that a lot of new construction was priced well above the reasonable means of a lot of people who seemed to be buying it. And for the last two years, a growing number of voices have been warning laypersons about the impending problems of the housing market and mortgage industry - those warnings could not have escaped the attention of industry professionals. If we are to assume that there is value to the field of economics, I find it difficult to believe that an economist who was truly studying the housing market wouldn't have seen this coming.

The other day on Marketplace, I heard an economist, Susan Lee, give a simplistic explanation for how the government is responsible for... well, everything that goes wrong with the economy:
Just take a look at monetary policy. Back in 1998, when the giant hedge fund Long Term Capital Management went under, the Fed rushed to the rescue. Tons of unnecessary dollars were pumped out. Those dollars generated the dot-com bubble. When that bubble burst in 2001, the Fed again threw dollars at the crisis, generating the housing bubble. And when that bubble burst last year, the Fed once again shoveled out more dollars which will, eventually, create another crisis somewhere else.
A similar argument is raised in the Washington Post today, by Peter Schiff: Don't Blame Capitalism.
Yes, many Wall Street leaders were irresponsible, and they should pay. But they were playing the distorted hand dealt them by government policies. Our leaders irrationally promoted home-buying, discouraged savings, and recklessly encouraged borrowing and lending, which together undermined our markets.
Schiff tells us how government policy has stripped people of the fear of losing their investments,
But over the past generation, government has removed the necessary counterbalance of fear from the equation. Policies enacted by the Federal Reserve, the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (which were always government entities in disguise), and others created advantages for home-buying and selling and removed disincentives for lending and borrowing. The result was a credit and real estate bubble that could only grow - until it could grow no more.
That's nonsense. Nobody made a private lender participate in this scheme. Nobody said, "Hey - don't pay any attention to that ginormous bubble that's completely unsustainable and could wipe us out if it bursts." If we're supposed to believe that the financial industry "wizards" who get paid between tens and hundreds of millions of dollars per year couldn't see this coming, or did but chose to do nothing, they don't even deserve minimum wage.

With all due respect for the distorting effects of tax policy, subsidies, and government guarantees, it's not as if any of those distortions are a mystery. They're among the best known, most obvious, and most predictable aspects of the housing market. When people like Schiff tell us, "Market forces would have kept out unqualified buyers and prevented home-price appreciation from exceeding the growth in household income," they're both overstating the responsibility of those policies for the bubble and are grossly understating the responsibility of financial professionals. For goodness sake, Schiff argues,
Prominent among these wrongheaded advantages are the mortgage interest tax deduction and the exemption of real estate capital gains from taxable income. These policies create unnatural demand for home purchases and a (tax-free) incentive to speculate in real estate.
Those policies make it possible for people to afford "more house" than they could in their absence, but they are far from "prominent" in the current financial crisis. They have existed for many decades without causing a bubble. Nobody - nobody - is proposing that it's necessary to repeal them in order to prevent a future bubble. And I doubt any sensible person, economist or otherwise, would suggest that now is the time for a repeal resulting in downward pressure on home values and a further reduction in the amount prospective homeowners would be able to borrow. Removing those distortions may well be an appropriate long-term goal, but would be short-term stupidity.

Schiff provides a similar argument to that heard on Marketplace,
Artificially low interest rates invigorated the market for adjustable-rate mortgages and gave birth to the teaser rate, which made overpriced homes appear affordable. Alan Greenspan himself actively encouraged home buyers to avail themselves of these seeming benefits. As monetary policy caused houses to become more expensive, it also temporarily provided buyers with the means to overpay. Cheap money gave rise to subprime mortgages and the resulting securitization wave that made these loans appear safe for investors.
Who says the "loans" appeared safe for investors? They were combined, sliced, diced and securitized, and certified as high grade securities, all by financial industry professionals - with the apparent goal of making it impossible for investors to figure out what they were buying or make an accurate assessment of risk. The accounts from inside the mortgage industry suggest two primary lines of thought: First, the absurd notion that housing inflation could continue at 10-20% per year, indefinitely, and second that it was more important to buy up garbage mortgages, securitize them, and turn a profit than it was to let somebody else do so and grab the "profits".

Schiff notes, correctly in my opinion, that "Real credit can be supplied only by savings", and suggests that nonetheless "the government cannot abide solutions that ask for consumer sacrifice". But it's not just the government that can't stand the idea of consumer sacrifice - our economy is built on consumer largesse. What happens if you reign in consumer spending, some 2/3 of the economy, as part of your effort to shift the economy back to savings and "real credit"? In the long-term we're likely to be better off, but boy does that short-term picture get rocky.

I respect the consistency of Schiff's argument, which appears to be a form of free markets purism where the government shouldn't create tax or fiscal policies that affect the markets, and also should let markets self-correct in times of crisis.1 And I respect the fact that government actions that distort the markets will have unintended consequences. But the markets have an atrocious record of self-regulation, and the unfettered capitalism of the industrial revolution has little appeal.

Schiff implies that "fear" will cause self-regulation in the absence of government regulation, but that's presented as an article of faith, and seems contradicted by the fortunes lost in these market corrections.2 If Lehman Brothers truly saw no risk and had no fear of failure, again, its principals didn't deserve so much as minimum wage. Beyond that, how far does even Schiff truly wish to roll back worker rights, workplace safety requirements, environmental regulations, and other regulations of business and industry in the name of "free markets"?

1. Schiff writes,
By refusing to allow market forces to rein in excess spending, liquidate bad investments, replenish depleted savings, fund capital investment and help workers transition from the service sector to the manufacturing sector, government is resisting the cure while exacerbating the disease.
Now, I've not seen any great evidence that the markets are interested in training or retraining workers, except as made necessary by labor shortages. But what transition from service to manufacturing is he talking about? Granted, I'm in Michigan, so my perspective may be skewed, but I see a continued bleed of middle class manufacturing jobs with retraining directed at moving people into office or service jobs.

2. I don't want to overstate this. I find truth in the quip that, had current government policies been in effect in the 18th century, we would still have (heavily subsidized) neighborhood blacksmith shops.
Update: Recession-Plagued Nation Demands New Bubble To Invest In (via Paul Krugman).

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If We Are To Judge By Appearances....

Then Henry Paulson's financial industry bail-out seems ill-conceived, unfocused and ineffective. The only consistent inference is that, top to bottom, start to finish, it appears designed to benefit financial industry insiders.

I can easily find Paulson's explanation that his current plan won't work. But where can I find him explaining how it will work.

Monday, October 13, 2008

McCain Didn't Insult Arabs

McCain is being attacked in some corners over this exchange:
"I have read about him and he's not…he's not…he's a…um He's an Arab. He's not..."

"No ma'am. No ma'am."


"No ma'am, no ma'am. He's a decent family man, citizen, that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues."
This is clearly not a response to the woman's words, but to her subtext, and to the larger set of attacks coming from some of McCain's supporters at public events. In calling Obama a "decent family man", he's not saying that Arabs cannot be "decent family men".

Does anybody believe he was saying that non-citizens can't be decent family men? Or that Arabs can't be citizens?

This was an off-the-cuff remark. Banter. You can fault him for not trying to shut down some of the anti-Obama rhetoric earlier if you wish, or for not going far enough in his response, but I see no evidence at all that this was an insult directed toward Arabs or Americans of Arab descent.

Using Student Test Scores to Evaluate Teachers

For many years, perhaps too many, schools have relied heavily on standardized tests to evaluate students - their performance, improvement, and needs. Teachers dutifully park their students at desks and have them spend countless hours filling in little ovals with number 2 pencils. But there are other potential uses for that data.

For quite some time there has been a showdown in New York, with the state's Department of Education trying to use the test data to evaluate teachers, and the teacher's union objecting to the proposal. Now there's a compromise that, in my estimation, should have been reached a long time ago. Why did it take so long? The state's legislature imposed a two year moratorium on the use of test data for teacher pay and tenure decisions and, with that off the table, the Department of Education and teacher's union quickly reached a compromise. To me, that was the Department of Education biting its own nose off to spite its face. Now it can illustrate the utility of the data for purposes of educational improvement, and can start building the case for expanding its use to teacher pay and tenure. Right now, there's good reason to believe that school administrators don't even know how to apply this data in a meaningful manner.

This data should help school administrators target classrooms in need of assistance, but should also enable them to identify teachers whose classroom performance is consistently good to excellent. (Although if that turns out to involve a lot of "teaching to the test", this whole venture would have to be reconsidered.) Data can be used to gauge improvement by class, ethnicity, gender, and perhaps even on an individual level. By making the initial focus corrective, teachers have the opportunity to improve their performance, and both teachers and administrators have the opportunity to identity classroom management and teaching techniques that could help everybody. And all sides will get a sense of how fair or useful this information is, prior to its being used for purposes of promotion, discipline or tenure.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

But What If God Makes You Infertile?

The New York Times has a rather vapid piece on same-sex marriage, Using Biology, Not Religion, to Argue Against Same-Sex Marriage. The authors present the views of a Christian couple who contend that their opposition to same-sex marriage arises from biology, not their religious beliefs:
“It takes a man and a woman to create children and thus create a family,” Mrs. Galloway, 60, told a legislative panel in Connecticut last year as it was considering a bill to legalize same-sex marriage.
For the Galloways, the notion that same-sex couples should not marry because they cannot have children is complicated by their own story. They married nearly 17 years ago, and tried to have children. When they couldn’t conceive, they became foster parents in the hope of adopting.
If the argument truly is that biology dictates the answer - couples who can't have children shouldn't be allowed to marry - why should the Galloways be permitted to remain married? Why should any infertile person be allowed to marry? If the solution to God's will is adoption, as the Galloways suggest at least in relation to their own inability to bear children, how is their marriage different from that of a same-sex couple that adopts?

What of a fertile couple that chooses not to have children, or an infertile couple with no intention of adopting - should they be allowed to marry? How does "biology" justify their marriage?

It's sleight of hand - the argument is quietly shifted from biology - the capacity to reproduce - to "gender roles":
The notion that gender roles are unimportant in raising children is “bunk,” added Mrs. Galloway. “It is not an accident that it takes a man and a woman coming together to create a child,” she said.
Certainly, it's not an "accident" that species that reproduce sexually engage in sexual reproduction. That's a given. But what do we make of "biology" when mommy mantis bites off daddy's head or mommy wolf spider eats daddy. Even if we stick to humans, the mere fact that a species engages in sexual reproduction does not necessarily require that the father have any involvement in the child's life past the point of conception. And that's true even when parents have the best of intentions:
Mr. Galloway, whose father died when he was 3, said being raised solely by women - his mother and his aunts - hindered his development and altered his sense of self-worth.
The Galloway's argument is premised in sociology, not biology. And even in that context, its based upon personal experience and opinion, not empirical data.

This emphasis on biology roughly parallels the idea that "if we call it 'intelligent design' it's not really creationism." When the religious argument doesn't gain traction, spin it into something you can try to rebrand as science, even if there's no actual science involved.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

You Gotta Watch Out For... Talking Dolls

Have you heard about the talking doll whose short, pre-recorded stream of babble has been represented to include both pro-Islamic and pro-Satanic messages? If you made up this story, you would no doubt be accused of "elitism" and insulting the intelligence of the very people who are insisting that these "messages" are real.

What we are seeing, of course, is how impressionable the mind is, and how easy it can be to "hear" something in babble or nonsense syllables once you are told it is there. As well as how religious (and other) symbols, combined with fear, can make people... dare I say, irrational.

Read more here, along with links to videos and audio samples, and examples of other dolls that supposedly said horrible things.

Addendum: This is an amusing comparison.

Michelle Rhee's Secret Plan for Teacher Pay

The Washington Post is again pushing Michelle Rhee's plan for eliminating tenure at for new hires and any teachers who join the new program, and increasing teacher pay for those teachers:
The bold plan of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is two-tiered: Salaries as high as $130,000 would be available to teachers who forgo tenure and tie their pay to student performance, while those retaining tenure would still receive generous raises. No teacher with tenure would be forced to give it up under the voluntary plan.
I remain puzzled by this, for reasons also raised by this editorial:
Montgomery County teachers have been told that they'll probably have to forgo the 5.3 percent pay raise they had been promised for next year because of a worsening economy. Fairfax County, which this year could afford only 2 percent cost-of-living raises for its teachers, has no idea what it will be able to provide with revenue shrinking.
In other words, funds for increased teacher pay are unlikely to come from taxpayers - and given the state of the economy, school budget woes can reasonably be expected to get worse before they get better.
Still, union leaders have balked, thus jeopardizing the $200 million that Ms. Rhee says she has raised from national foundations willing to fund the contract -- but only if the District revamps how teachers are compensated.
Finally a hint at how D.C. will pay for the plan - at least initially - but more details are needed. That $200 million will last how many years? Followed by what? Massive reductions in salary? Teacher layoffs? Seriously - what's the plan to sustain this level of expenditure?

The Post complains about a critic of the plan:
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the plan in a letter to the editor of the New York Times even though, as she admitted to us, she hasn't seen the plan.
So the Post believes you can't comment on this plan unless you've seen it? Even though they have yet to print the plan, post it on their website, or point people to a place where they can read the plan?

I can't really argue with that, as I want to see the plan and its details so I can evaluate it for myself. I would like to know the specifics. Weingarten may be encountering the same problem I am having - the details of the plan appear to be a closely guarded secret, so to comment on the plan you have to rely on inferences and second-hand accounts.

But wait a second:
The union's refusal to put the proposal to a vote before its general membership is telling. Much misinformation about the proposal has been floated. Contrary to what has been said about the plan, there is apparently an appeals process for teachers who are terminated, as well as programs to aid in teacher development.
Apparently? So the Post hasn't seen the plan either, and the authors of this unsigned editorial are relying upon second-hand descriptions that they don't even know to be true. I guess it's okay to support a plan you haven't read, just not to oppose it.