Sunday, December 21, 2008

Wait! Obama has a speechwriter?

A man named Jon Favreau hit the news a couple of weeks ago when the Washington Post identified him as “President-elect Barack Obama's immensely talented chief speechwriter” and reported that:

... some interesting photos of a recent party he attended -- including one where he's dancing with a life-sized cardboard cut-out of secretary of state-designate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and another where he's placed his hand on the cardboard former first lady's chest while a friend is offering her lips a beer -- popped up on Facebook for about two hours. The photos were quickly taken down ...

Some observers were quite outraged and I believe correctly so. You can read Anglachel for a round-up of feminist objections and for her own deeper analysis. Reclusive Leftist has some pungent thoughts on the sight of three men on a news program telling women to get over it. And in the “politics make strange bedfellows” department, the Washington Times is disgusted and furious.

My first reaction however was surprise. I thought only Sarah Palin needed an immensely talented speechwriter to “repackage” her. Surely I read in Time magazine that Obama writes his own speeches.

Oh, I see. Now that Favreau’s been spotlighted - or maybe just because Obama is safely elected - we’re hearing that Favreau had a bigger role in endeavors like the Philadelphia race speech and the convention acceptance speech than previously reported. (In fairness to Time, they did mention Favreau in their article about “How Obama Writes His Speeches” - although they equated him with Axelrod in terms of influence - and they did say Obama “delivered” his Philadelphia speech - silly me for thinking they were implying he wrote it himself.)

In all seriousness, only total idiots ever believed Sarah Palin used speechwriters and Barack Obama didn’t. What is sad about the whole "Favreau groping a Clinton cutout" incident is Hillary Clinton’s response:

... Clinton senior adviser Philippe Reines cast the photos as evidence of increased bonhomie between the formerly rival camps.

"Senator Clinton is pleased to learn of Jon's obvious interest in the State Department, and is currently reviewing his application," he said in an e-mail.

I certainly agree with Anglachel that no purpose would have been served if Clinton had acted out some type of revenge fantasy in response. But there’s a lot of working room between going ballistic and letting it slide. As I said in response to Anglachel, Hillary Clinton could have said something like:

Mr. Favreau is quite young so perhaps he does not understand how disrespectful he was being to me, to women in general, to the Office of the Secretary of State, and to the man who chose me to represent the United States to the rest of the world. I trust that Mr. Favreau’s supervisor will explain the penalties for sexual harassment in the workplace and that there will be no more incidents like this.

Instead Clinton chose to dismiss Favreau’s behavior as essentially a high-spirited prank. By doing so, she undercuts all the feminists who have been expressing outrage over the sexist attacks launched by the Obama campaign and Obama supporters against her (and against Sarah Palin for that matter). If it’s acceptable - even cute - for the President-Elect’s anointed White House Director of Speechwriting to grope a cardboard Clinton, then isn’t a Hillary Clinton nutcracker just a clever gag gift?

I’ve written before about my disgust with Hillary Clinton's willingness to abet her husband’s sexist approach to women of the “wrong” class and about how I nonetheless slowly and grudgingly began to respect her during the Democratic primaries. Unfortunately her willingness (there’s that word again) to laugh off Favreau’s actions brings me right back to where I started with Hillary Clinton: she has no problem enabling sexist behavior as long as doing so benefits her and hers.



Fresh blood for the vampire by Camille Paglia. I love this article for many reasons but its relevance here is this sentence:

Similarly, Bill Clinton's support for abortion rights gave him a free pass among leading feminists for his serial exploitation of women -- an abusive pattern that would scream misogyny to any neutral observer.

Admit it! You’re jealous of Jon Favreau!. This is Ann Althouse’s take on the the Washington Post’s recent story about Favreau as speechwriter. Althouse on the cardboard cutout incident is here.

So What If Sarah Palin Used a Speechwriter? by Betsy Newmark. Writing immediately after the Republican National Convention, Newmark points out that all politicians use speechwriters and concludes: “Big whippety doo.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

Gag me

It seems a little perverse to categorize this under “Links I like” but “like” can be somewhat flexible. In this case it means, “reminds me how stupid people can be”.

Caroline Kennedy As America's Princess Leia

(Via The Corner)

On the other hand I actually do like (in the usual sense of the word) this link:

Cinderella vs. the Barracuda

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dave, meet Mike

I’ve been consistently opposed to the bailout of GM, Ford, and Chrysler. Now that Ford has decided to forego Federal money, I’m simply opposed to the bailout of GM and Chrysler. There are lots of people who can explain why the bailout is bad financially and/or philosophically: I’ve listed some sources at the end of this post. I want to make a few somewhat personal points.

I was born in Alabama and lived there off and on until my late teens. For as long as I can remember the state has been poor. That’s turning around to some degree now and part of it is foreign investment. In October of 2007, the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama stated, “Currently, more than 300 foreign-based manufacturers from more than 30 nations operate in Alabama.” (If you click on the “Foreign Manufacturing Investment in Alabama by Country” hyperlink you get a cute little PDF with country names and flags and the number of projects each has in Alabama.) So when those who favor a Big Two bailout bring out GM’s Dave from Detroit to play on the heartstrings, I think about Hyundai’s Mike from Montgomery. Mike from Montgomery makes a good wage but he doesn’t make what his GM counterpart Dave makes. And Mike sure as heck won’t have the retirement benefits afforded to Dave’s dad when he retired from GM several years ago. So why is Mike from Montgomery going to have some of his Federal taxes go to help out Dave from Detroit and his dad?

If you prefer a more once-removed argument then think about competitiveness. Mike from Montgomery makes less than Dave from Detroit. That means Hyundai can sell its cars more cheaply than GM which in turn means more Hyundais sold. As Hyundai prospers so does Mike. He might get an extra shift now and then; he might get a promotion as more workers are hired and thus more line foremen are needed; he might get a bonus if there’s a really good year. Hyundai might hire his wife, Maureen. Even better, it might hire his brother, Matt, who could then stop freeloading off Mike and Maureen and get his own apartment.

But if the Federal government bails out GM it’s subsidizing Dave’s greater earnings. That means GM can sell its cars for the same as Hyundai - or even less. So fewer Hyundais sell. Matt and Maureen can forget about getting jobs and Mike might see his shifts cut back. If GM continues to outsell Hyundai by pricing its cars below what it costs to produce them, Mike might even lose his job entirely. So now Mike’s own taxes have been used to put him out of work.

As for the argument that it’s cruel to let Detroit autoworkers lose their jobs, let’s take a look at some recent Southern history. Between 1997 and 2002 Alabama lost 32,000 textile and apparel jobs. I would imagine the same sort of story is true for many Southern states which now have auto manufacturing plants. If the jobs lost weren’t in the textile and apparel industries they were in something like furniture manufacturing. I suspect that if you added up all the manufacturing job losses to those Southern states you’d probably get pretty close to the number of workers GM employs in the United States: 100,000.

Perhaps my memory is faulty but I don’t recall hearing about Federal money to help the Alabama workers or their colleagues in other Southern states hold onto their jobs. I’m pretty sure the argument then was that this is how economic systems work: jobs go where operating costs are lowest. Sure in the short run individual employees - like those Alabama apparel workers - might get hurt but in the long run the whole country benefits. After all those same Alabama apparel workers and their families are consumers, too. So it’s to their advantage - and to the advantage of the whole country - if we can all buy our clothes more cheaply when they’re made in China. I think there’s a lot of truth in that argument so let's apply it to automobiles, too: car manufacturing goes where operating costs are lower and that's better for everyone in the long run.

Finally and most personally, I retired early, before I was eligible for Medicare. I buy my own health insurance. It costs me well over $10,000 a year and I just got a notice that my premiums will go up by about 15% in January. I’ve yet to hear anyone explain to me why I should pay my health insurance premiums and the health insurance premiums for retired GM workers.

So if I’m not in favor of a bailout what am I in favor of? Chapter 11. I know the government might end up providing some financing as part of a structured bankruptcy deal, perhaps guaranteeing warranties so buyers wouldn't worry about their GMs and Chryslers being orphaned if the companies couldn't make it. I still wouldn't like that but I could live with it a lot more easily than I could live with my tax dollars - and those of Mike from Montgomery - going to prop up unsustainable labor, retiree, and dealer commitments headed up by clueless management.

Now, having said that, I must admit to a tiny, sneaking hope that GM and Chrysler do get their $15 Billion “loan”. Despite their assurance that they just need a little time and money to pull themselves together, I figure they’ll be back for more in no time at all - perhaps as soon as January 21. Maybe realizing the handouts don't help and never end will finally make us all realize it’s time to stop the bailouts.



The Detroit and Birmingham newspapers are arguing about incentives:

Alabama emerges as foe to auto aid - The Detroit News (2008)

Alabama in middle of auto bailout fracas: State’s incentives to land automakers at issue - The Birmingham News (2008)

Some random articles on locating auto plants:

Cars Fall on Alabama - Site Selection (2002)

Score one (Honda auto plant) for the Midwest - Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago (2006)

South provides global appeal for foreign auto makers - CNN (2007)

Incentives for VW plant total $577 million - Chicago Tribune (2008)

Wooing Foreign Investment Comes At A High Price For Some States - University of New Hampshire (2008). Even though this paper was written in 2008, it considers the Mercedes Benz deal in Alabama rather than the more recent Mobis deal which included state-paid education for workers.

Arguing against an auto bailout:

Megan McArdle - She has a lot of posts on this: you can simply look at her archives and scan down to find them. I’ve listed a bunch from December and late November here:
Invidious comparisons
Just desserts
The death of a bailout
Fuel efficient or market efficient
GM goes nuclear
How much is a Detroit autoworker really worth?

TigerHawk - Again a number of posts on the subject. Unlike McArdle, Tigerhawk has that nice Blogspot Search box which will return the posts if you enter “General Motors”.

The Truth About Incentives for Foreign Automakers - Stephen Spruiell at The Corner pushes back on the argument that foreign automakers are receiving incentives to locate in the United States. He also pushes back on the idea that only foreign automakers receive such incentives pointing out that US automakers get similar incentives when they build plants.

Bankruptcy Is the Perfect Remedy for Detroit - Wall Street Journal (2008)

In case you’re worried that everyone arguing against an auto bailout is an evil Republican who wants to punish unions and blue states while helping out Japanese automakers, you can read what Joseph Stiglitz has to say about it. I don’t believe he could be classified as Republican or conservative. (via Greg Mankiw)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Replacement Windows

It’s been pushed off the front pages partly because the situation has been resolved and partly by the Blagojevich brouhaha but I’m still wondering about Republic Windows and Doors.

On Wednesday, December 3, the Chicago Tribune reported that Republic would close on Friday. Republic told its employees that Bank of America had cancelled its line of credit because business at the plant had fallen off sharply: sales fell from $70 million last year to $44 million this year. According to the Tribune story, the workers “are directing their ire at Bank of America, not Republic.” The workers staged a sit-in demanding that they receive the 60-day notice required under The Worker Adjustment and Retraining Acts (Federal and Illinois) along with the severance and vacation pay owed them.

Over the weekend, support for the workers grew and Bank of America was cast more and more strongly as the villain. Monday, December 8, was a busy day:

Bank of America released a statement explaining that it was up to management to honor its commitments to employees; that Bank of America had “provided the maximum amount of funding [they] can under the terms of [their] agreement”; that it was clear Republic was “unable to operate profitably”; and that Bank of America had been working with Republic and “sharing” concerns for the past several months.

Republic Windows released its own account of its dealings with Bank of America in the form of a chronology. According to Republic, it had been trying to wind down operations in an orderly fashion since October 16 but Bank of American rejected all wind-down plans and refused to allow Republic to pay employees for owed vacation time.

Some Chicago aldermen announced they would prohibit the City from doing business with Bank of America. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich announced the State would stop doing business with the bank also.

The statements made by Bank of America and Republic Windows on December 8 partially contradict each other. While Republic is claiming that BofA refused to allow Republic to pay employees for accrued vacation pay, Bank of America’s statement said:

When a company faces such a dire situation, its lender is not empowered to direct the company's management how to manage its affairs and what obligations should be paid. Such decisions belong to the management and owners of the company.

More interesting, I don’t know what Republic means when it claims that Bank of America refused to accept Republic’s orderly wind-down plans. BofA could not have literally stopped Republic from announcing to employees on October 16 that the plant would shut down 60 days later on December 11. Rather Bank of America’s leverage with Republic probably came from the debt Republic seems to have already owed BofA. Republic’s chronology is out of order but if you look at the dates you see that the current chain of events began on October 15 when Republic “Informed Bank of America that Republic had a 10/24/08R buyer for the existing Note for ±$3.0M, discount of $1.5M.” This is a little obscure but it sounds like Republic owed Bank of America $4.5 million and had found someone who was willing to buy the debt from BofA for $3 million. Bank of America rejected this and demanded a plan for an orderly shutdown. I would very much like to know who that buyer was, how much Republic currently owes Bank of America, and whether any hope exists that Republic will repay all the money it owes to Bank of America.

The rationale behind blaming Bank of America for the short notice and lack of vacation and severance pay was that Bank of America received $25 billion from the TARP bailout and therefore had an obligation to continue lending to businesses. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that logic. In my BUB posts, I said that if we’re going to give money to people who did stupid things I’d rather it go to homeowners than to large financial institutions. Similarly I’d rather money given to banks to make loans actually be used to make loans rather than hoarded and certainly a small local company seems like a good business to keep afloat.

The problem with applying that logic to Republic Windows and Doors is two-fold. First, Bank of American determined Republic was not viable: loaning money to a company with no hope of success is not a good use of funds from the government - or from depositors. Second, Republic may not be a small local company looking to be kept afloat. Richard Gillman, the man who owns Republic, has formed another window company, Echo Manufacturing, LLC, and has bought a manufacturing facility in Iowa. According to a report at Omaha Newstand, Echo Manufacturing was registered with the State of Illinois on November 18. On December 3, Red Oak Real Estate (“another company linked to Republic Windows”) purchased the Traco Window Plant in Red Oak, Iowa.

This raises some interesting questions. Did Republic decide to relocate to Iowa after Bank of America refused to sell their debt? Or was Republic planning to relocate and finding a buyer for their debt was the first step in doing so? If Republic Windows didn’t have the money to keep their Chicago plant going or even have the money to give their employees the legal notice required and pay them their vacation and severance pay, how could they afford to buy another window company? And if Republic Windows did have the money, why is Bank of America the bad guy?

By the way, the workers union, the owners of Republic, and Bank of America finally negotiated a deal that paid $1.75 million to the workers for vacation, severance, and temporary health care benefits. That’s a little over $7000 for each of the 240 employees. At an average hourly wage of $13.80, each employee got the equivalent of about 13 weeks of pay.

Meanwhile, Bank of America announced it will reduce its workforce by up to 35,000 jobs over the next three years.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

If you pray, this is a good time for it

I didn’t think Barack Obama should be President. He’s inexperienced. He fostered a cult of personality. His most fervent followers are, let’s face it, unbalanced in the most literal sense. His campaigns against Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin were disgusting displays of misogyny. His behavior in the RFK/June imbroglio was disgraceful. He’s some weird combination of corrupt Chicago machine politician and unthinking radical socialist. Nonetheless he was elected. He is, as his very large and very stupid sign endlessly reminds us, “The President-Elect”. As I’ve said before, I sincerely hope Obama has a wildly successful Presidency because the country desperately needs one.

The Illinois Governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, is in trouble for allegedly trying to “sell” Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Some of the deals Blagojevich supposedly considered anticipated favors from Obama including one deal that involved getting the President-Elect to appoint Blagojevich Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to The Corner, Lynn Sweet has explained that Blagojevich talks a lot and there may be nothing much to any of the charges against Blagojevich.

If you pray, pray that Sweet is right. Or - since that seems too much to hope for - pray that Blagojevich was talking big about Obama and none of the Blagojevich scandal spills over onto the President-Elect. As disastrous as I believe Obama will be for the country, I believe a Constitutional crisis involving charges of corruption against a President-Elect or a sitting President would be even more disastrous. We would have another special prosecuter, another investigation that drags on and on and resolves nothing, another fertile field for every conspiracy theory under the sun: we’ve had more than enough of all of that in the past twelve years.

So pray fervently that Blagojevich is a braggart spinning stories to himself and a captive audience about deals Obama wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.

Monday, December 8, 2008

From there to here: Disenchanted with HuffPo

In my first post about my journey from a (mostly) liberal to a (mostly) conservative state of mind, I gave the stream of consciousness version that I emailed to a new friend who asked about my political orientation. In this post I’ll talk more about the mechanism by which I was converted beginning with the realization that the sources I trusted to tell me the straight story - Huffington Post, MSNBC, and most of all Andrew Sullivan - were so biased that no hint of evenhandedness existed. I know this makes me sound stupid: after all, HuffPo and Sullivan never claimed to be unbiased. Nonetheless, I assumed I was getting the whole story from them. I understood that when they wrote a story about how terrible Bush was or how badly the Iraq War was going or how racist the Republicans were, I was getting their interpretation of the facts but I also believed I was getting all the facts.

Realizing differently took place in stages. I began to distrust HuffPo first over their eagerness to conflate immigration and illegal immigration. I started out believing they were simply being sloppy but I kept reading HuffPo articles that could be summed up as:

The United States is a country of immigrants. Immigrants are good. Immigrants are what make this country strong. You are the descendant of immigrants. How can you deny to other immigrants what your ancestors found here?

Therefore if you oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants you are a racist.

Finally I read enough of those to realize HuffPo’s confusing immigration and illegal immigration must be deliberate - and deliberately dishonest. That left a bad taste in my mouth and made me uneasy about HuffPo’s world view. Still it was just one issue and so I persevered with HuffPo.

Then came Jean Rohe’s HuffPo post about her “preemptive strike” against John McCain at the New School graduation. At first I found Rohe’s post merely that strange combination of puerileness and arrogance that seems common among the young who have worked themselves up into a righteous lather. Once I had actually read McCain’s speech, however, I realized Rohe was either unable to hear what McCain was saying - which made her stupid - or unwilling to do so - which made her terrifying. How could Rohe in her speech and in her post totally miss - or totally ignore - the very core of McCain’s speech:

Americans should argue about this war. ... I believe the benefits of success will justify the costs and risks we have incurred. But if an American feels the decision was unwise, then they should state their opposition, and argue for another course. It is your right and your obligation. I respect you for it. I would not respect you if you chose to ignore such an important responsibility. But I ask that you consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.

Americans deserve more than tolerance from one another, we deserve each other's respect ...

In one installment of her compelling “change story”, neo-neocon is speaking of changes that occurred during the Vietnam War. She focuses on changes to the media and says (emphasis mine):

during this time, the press turned from government associate to government adversary, and questioned not only tactics, theory, and judgment, but even the goodwill and motives of those in charge of decisions.

That change by the media, that willingness to attribute bad will and worse motives to government has now spread through our political discourse and in far too many people has mutated into a willingness to believe the worst about all those who do not think as they do. Jean Rohe’s “strike” on John McCain was the embodiment of this disastrous turn of events. In her speech and even more in her HuffPo piece she consistently assumed the worst of McCain, crediting him with only bad will and bad motives. McCain asked that she “consider the possibility that I, too, am trying to meet my responsibilities, to follow my conscience, to do my duty as best as I can, as God has given me light to see that duty.” Yet in her arrogance that is the very thing Rohe will not do.

For all my distress over Rohe’s blindness, she was young and - as McCain himself said in his speech - the young believe they are always right. Far more jarring to me than Rohe was the response to her: HuffPo chose to showcase her as a heroine and the vast majority of the commenters* hailed her for “speaking truth to power”. Rohe insulted a man who was a war hero, sitting Senator, and - most important - an invited guest and did so in perfect safety. Yet, through some alchemy beyond my understanding, she was magically equated with the iconic student who faced a tank in Tiananmen Square. Yeah, right.

This may have been the first significant crack in my political view. I realized that it was McCain whose speech and reaction sounded moderate, reasonable, compassionate, intelligent, and healing while it was Rohe and her supporters in the comments who sounded like the vicious, divisive partisans the left always accused Republicans of being. In my comment to her post, I quoted Joseph Addison: “A man must be both stupid and uncharitable who believes there is no virtue or truth but on his own side.” In this go-round, it was pretty clear it was Rohe and her supporters who were both stupid and uncharitable - not the dreaded Republican.

Hard on the heels of the Rohe post came the comment moderation disasters. First was the news that a HuffPo techie was posting comments in a possibly less than straightforward way; I found that disconcerting. Then came the confusion about HuffPo’s comment policy. Although the policy claimed comments were not edited or deleted based on political or ideological point of view, it became clear that individual posters were, in fact, deleting comments they didn’t like. Furthermore, one of the HuffPo co-founders - in a post that attempted to lay to rest the techie controversy - stated that (emphasis mine):

From a technical standpoint, it is challenging to process literally thousands of comments a day in a way that features the best comments and eliminates postings from spammers and trolls.

That sure sounded like editing for content.

This may sound trivial but it reinforced my earlier realization: by censoring those who disagreed, the very liberal Huffington Post was exhibiting the type of dissent-silencing behavior it regularly accused the Republicans of. Similarly, the techie’s forays into commenting and the co-founder’s first ignoring and later defending his behavior made it clear that at HuffPo the passionate conviction that one was right was sufficient to excuse unprincipled behavior - just like being “right” about amnesty for illegal immigrants excused deliberate dishonesty about the topic. But surely the idea that being on the side of the angels meant dishonesty was okay was the sort of bad belief the left claimed was the exclusive property of Republicans.

As I write all this down for the first time, I realize the incidents that bothered me so much at HuffPo arose out of issues I already had opinions about, opinions that conflicted with HuffPo’s stands. I opposed amnesty for illegal immigrants because I believe the law should be obeyed. If I had not, then HuffPo’s dishonest conflation of immigration with illegal immigration might never have registered with me. Similarly, I thought well of John McCain so Rohe’s attack on him made me want to read his speech for myself to see if what he said was really so awful. Had Rohe attacked someone I did not think well of, like George W. Bush, I would probably have accepted her interpretation of his remarks without further investigation. I would not have noticed that she did not include a link to his speech and I would certainly not have bothered to track it down on my own. Likewise for the comment imbroglio. Big on rules, I disliked the fact that a HuffPo techie was bending them. Since I commented rarely and then usually when I disagreed with a post, I had firsthand experience of my comments being stuck in moderation. Thus I was sensitive to the issue of how dissent was handled. If I had commented when I agreed with posts and had those comments been moderated promptly, I might never have thought twice about how HuffPo reacted to dissenting views.

These incidents weren’t enough to make me re-evaluate my self-identification as a liberal but they were enough to make me decide HuffPo was not a trustworthy source of information and they helped prepare the ground for the disillusionment I would suffer when the left turned misogynist - once again exhibiting a bad behavior it had always insisted was the sole province of Republicans.

At the same time I was reading - and becoming disenchanted with - the Huffington Post, I was also watching a little MSNBC and reading a lot of Andrew Sullivan. My disillusionment with them took longer but that’s a story for another day.


* You’ll have to take my word about the comments to Rohe’s post. Those comments are no longer available; instead the foot of her post says, “Comments for this entry are currently under maintenance but will be restored soon.” This message has been up since at least June 4, 2008. The same message is up on a number of older posts at HuffPo, perhaps on all HuffPo posts before a certain date.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

From there to here: The short version

I’ve been thinking for a while about doing a post documenting my journey from a (mostly) liberal to a (mostly) conservative state of mind. I figured my narrative would be logical, structured, insightful, and so on. Then a relatively new and totally apolitical friend mentioned in an email that she'd been reading the Jezebel website. I replied that I’d pretend not to have heard that given Jezebel’s ugliness toward Sarah Palin. My friend replied that she only read the non-political stuff on Jezebel. As she put it, “if I had to choose between a headline that said ‘Migration habits of slugs’ and 'Latest from the campaign trail', it would be slugs all the way.” She then went on to ask:

But -- does this mean you are a Republican??? I would have thought you were a Democrat.

I explained myself to her and realized I had just written the short version of my journey post. Here’s what I wrote (cleaned up a little for spelling and grammar and with links added):

I'm in transition. A year ago I would have described myself as a Democrat and I pretty much would have described myself that way for my entire adult life. There were always cracks in the facade. I never quite bought the whole "police are the enemy" idea that liberals liked so much in the 60s and 70s. The bumper sticker "The next time you need help call a hippie" really resonated. I've always thought a strong military was a Very Good Thing and most Democrats are ambivalent about that. I just never bought the idea that really, really bad countries would love to have peace if only we'd stop spending so much money on weapons. I hated the Vietnam War but never felt really good about abandoning the South Vietnamese to the tender mercies of the North. And so on. So, a Democrat, but with Republican tendencies.

Then, for a very long time, feminism became virtually synonymous with being liberal and therefore Democratic. So that was another thing that made me think of myself as a Democrat/liberal and that identification stuck with me even as I thought less and less about feminism on a regular basis. And although I am not convinced the Iraq War was necessarily a bad idea, I do think torture and listening to phone calls without warrants and stuff like that is incredibly dangerous to the Constitution. And since I think the Constitution IS the United States, I didn't much care for George W. Bush.

Somewhere along the line, probably about two years ago, a very anti-Bush blog I read (Andrew Sullivan; nope, not linking) linked to a story from a pro-Bush blog (The Anchoress). It was on a non-political topic, probably something to do with religion. I read the story on the pro-Bush blog and then poked around a little and read some of her political stuff and, holy Toledo, it actually made sense. It didn't make me think that the damage Bush was doing to the Constitution was acceptable by a long shot but it did make me stop and think about stuff like, "How would I react if I was President and the US was subjected to a vicious sneak attack? Would I, for example, inter all Japanese-Americans in desert camps?"

Then Obama and his minions started treating Hillary Clinton like "a vicious lying bitch who ought to be killed" and my feminist radar, forged in the heat of the 70s, sprang to attention. This was misogyny of a kind and intensity not openly displayed in 30 years. The more the ”Boyz” attacked Hillary with sexist rhetoric, the more I hated Obama and his lying, skanky friends. And the more I realized this type of vicious sexism was becoming the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. My side, the side that was supposed to be synonymous with feminism.

So I started taking a closer look at some of the links in the pro-Bush blog and found all kinds of interesting bloggers. First I got referred to some blogs with military connections. Not the real milblogs - I simply can't understand them - but a wonderful blog written by a woman whose husband is career Marine but blogs little about the military and lots about social issues and what America means (Villainous Company). She did a blog on Hillary Clinton and sexism that literally made me cry. From her I got to a blog written by a guy who writes for the milblogs but also has his own more accessible blog (Grim’s Hall). From there to Rachel Lucas who is filthy-mouthed and hysterical; then TigerHawk who warns you if he is going to use bad language in a post and is very smart and very financial; then neo-neocon whom I adore (she's a therapist who writes a political blog with side trips into ballet); then The Corner at National Review Online, the veritable bastion of mainstream conservative writing, founded by William F. Buckley himself. For variety, I also read two super-liberal blogs both written by women who loathe Obama's misogyny and both of whom are far more liberal than I am and probably than I ever was (Anglachel’s Journal and Reclusive Leftist). And I worship at the feet of Greg Mankiw's economic blog.

Then Sarah Palin happened and virtually all of the Democratic/liberal feminists treated her like dirt. It's not that they hated her politics or thought she was too inexperienced; they went after her on sexist grounds. That was it. My one litmus test for being a feminist is that you don't attack other women in sexist terms. Almost the entire female membership of the Democratic Party failed that test. And the Obama machine just cranked up the misogynist weaponry it had used against Hillary Clinton - including the media - and aimed it at Sarah Palin. By the time the Democrats and the media got through with Palin, I'd have voted for her if she swore on a stack of Bibles that she thought Sacramento was a small country in Africa.

All of which is probably more than you want to know and a terribly roundabout way of saying what I started out with: I'm in transition. Republicans believe in free-market capitalism (me, too); in a strong military (me,too); in doing away with racial, ethnic, sexual, etc preferences (me, too, but I kind of like Title IX); in free trade (I'm really waffley on this one). They also generally oppose abortion (I'm for it but not unrestricted and never in the 3rd trimester) and gay marriage (I have real problems with forbidding some type of gay civil union partly because it becomes an economic burden for gays not to be able to marry). So economically I'm a Republican; socially I'm not a Republican but I'm certainly not a Democrat, at least not where the Democrats are now on abortion - ugh!

On the other hand, I'm all for protecting our national security but torture, warrant-less wiretapping, over-extension of Executive power? Nope. Too much of that and we'll save the country physically while destroying it ideologically. At the same time, I have no problem with ethnic profiling and while I think non-US citizens should have clearly defined rights in our legal system I don't insist they have the same rights US citizens do. I oppose illegal immigration (neither Presidential candidate did); I think English should be the official language and see no reason ballots need to be printed in any other language while also believing that in legal proceedings and medical situations interpreters are essential. I don't believe in Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Global Warming but even if I did Obama's cap-and-trade policies would scare the bejeesus out of me. Somehow freezing in the dark doesn't seem to me to be a good way to save civilization.

So not only am I in transition, I also don't fit neatly anywhere.

What’s not in that stream of consciousness explanation is the exact mechanism by which I was converted: the realization that the sources I trusted to tell me the straight story were so biased that no hint of even-handedness existed; how that realization freed me to think about everything differently; and what I began to believe once I did that different thinking. But those parts of my journey are for another post - or posts.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django

Thanks to a reference - though hardly a recommendation - by Grim, I recently watched Sukiyaki Western Django and I really liked it. It’s bloody, violent, and often gross but mesmerizing. I saw bits and pieces of a lot of different movies in it and developed the following viewing guide for anyone who is interested in getting the most out of this movie.

First, watch Sukiyaki Western Django with subtitles ON. They’re incredibly annoying because they cover part of the action but you really need them to understand the dialogue.

Then some weekend this winter when you’re snowed in or recovering from the flu (please wait until your fever is gone) or miserable with a cold, watch the following movies:

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
For A Few Dollars More (1965)
Django (1965)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
From Dusk Til Dawn (1996)
Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill Vol. 2 (2004)

The order isn’t terribly important except for sequels (A Fistful of Dollars should be watched before For A Few Dollars More and Kill Bill Vol. 1 should be watched before Kill Bill Vol. 2) but I’d probably watch Night of the Living Dead first (I seem to be the only person who watched Sukiyaki Western Django and saw Night of the Living Dead in it but hey, the Marshall) and Django last (it’s the clearest influence).

For extra credit you can also watch Yojimbo (1961) and Last Man Standing (1996), earlier and later versions respectively of A Fistful of Dollars.

Check out the “Other views” list at the end of this post. It’s now safe to read the reviews since spoilers don’t matter and the reviewers provide some background and will have seen things you didn’t. If you’re really snowed in or plan to be sick for quite a while you can watch the movies they reference.

If you want some historical perspective, read the Wikipedia entries on the Genpei War and the Battle of Dan-no-ura. If you prefer your history from the movies, try Gojoe (via Sarudama - I have not yet seen it) or the “Hoichi the Earless” story in Kwaidan.

Finally, watch Sukiyaki Western Django again without the subtitles.

Good luck shoveling out of that snowdrift and feel better soon.


Other views:

Here’s a look at a random group of reviewers and the allusions, references, and echoes they found in Sukiyaki Western Django. I’ve only listed what they saw that I didn’t.

Warning: Most of these reviews contain serious spoilers.

Hollywood Video sees Rio Bravo, Duel in the Sun, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Wild Bunch, Apocalypse Now, First Blood, plus Bruce Lee and Tex Avery.

KPBS sees West Side Story and suggests Duck You Sucker for companion viewing.

HorrorPhile suggests a pairing with Dead Man.

Rotten Tomatoes sees Desperado.

The Armchair Critic sees The Lord of the Rings referring to the Marshall as “Gollum-like”. (This was my husband’s take on the Marshall also.)

New York Times sees Reservoir Dog. (I assume they mean Reservoir Dogs.)

Slate lists The Good, The Bad, and The Weird, Tears of the Black Tiger, and Sholay as other examples of Asian Westerns.

Japan Navigator sees Raiders of the Lost Ark. I didn’t see it myself originally but oh, yeah.

Last but not least, Amoebablog sees turducken.

Friday, November 28, 2008

How bad? How long?

Both of the points I’m making here seem pretty obvious but I haven’t seen anyone else make them quite the way I think of them so here goes. (Plus it’s possible that what seems obvious isn’t always. The Corner recently linked to an article by using the tag line “Bailout capitalism is crony capitalism”. While the article itself said more than just that, I would have thought the only possible reaction to The Corner line would be “Duh.”)

So how bad is the economic mess? It’s bad and I’m not going to try to argue otherwise. However, it strikes me that there are now an awful lot of people whose interests are best served by telling us loudly and often just how bad it is. The current administration wants to retain control of the $700 billion it’s already got plus get more; that won’t happen if things start to look up. The incoming administration knows that the worse things sound now the more credit they get for any turn-around that happens after January 20. State and local governments want money from the Federal government; the best way to get it is to point out just how much trouble they’re in. And as for corporations, how much bailout money do you think the financial system or CitiGroup or the automakers would get if they said, “Sure, things are tough. But we’ll cut back a little here, layoff a little there, slash some executive salaries, and we’ll be able to hang in there until things improve?” Not too much. And if painting the bleakest possible picture of their own financial woes doesn’t bring forth that money, they can always up the ante by reminding everyone that if they go down they take the rest of the economy with them.

I’m not claiming that things are rosy. I’m just pointing out that when the time comes to talk about the state of the economy it’s hard to find anyone who would benefit from passing along whatever good news or rays of hope actually exist. And it’s equally hard to find anyone who would benefit by making realistic claims about their impact on the rest of the economy. So while things are undoubtedly bad they may not be quite as bad as everyone is saying.

How long will the economic mess last? Actually, there are two aspects of the economic mess and we have to consider them separately. The first aspect is the crisis we’re in now where things are going from bad to worse. Unfortunately, I believe this part will get worse yet after the first of the year. Right now consumers are still spending money they really shouldn’t be for Thanksgiving and beyond that for Christmas and Hanukkah. They are unwilling to forego (or have already committed to) travel, food, liquor, gifts, and decorating for the holidays and they’re dipping into savings or loading up their credit cards to buy those items. Once the holidays are over, though, consumers will start cutting back and the crisis will deepen.

Nonetheless, I’m hopeful that this really terrible aspect of the economic mess will begin to subside by the end of 2009. This hope of mine is partly based on a general feeling about what I’m reading. It’s also partly based on politics. By the end of 2009, the new administration will have been in power for almost a year by which time they will “own” the economic mess. It will thus be in their interest to stop harping on how terrible things are and start talking about signs of improvement. Take, for example, the recent AP article titled “4 new reports reveal battered economy” which begins:

Jobless claims remain at recessionary levels, Americans cut back on their spending by the largest amount since the 2001 terrorist attacks, orders to U.S. factories plummeted and new-home sales fell to the lowest level in nearly 18 years.

That sounds terrible but if you drill down into the article you’ll find that the beginning could just as easily have been:

Initial and continuing unemployment claims fell; consumer spending is still not as bad as it was after 9/11; housing is becoming affordable again; and the Dow Jones is rising.

I expect that by late 2009 we’ll see more stories that look like the latter than the former. Even if much of the media isn’t still honeymooning with the new administration, Barack Obama as President will have a powerful bully pulpit to promulgate his views on a recovery. Since it’s pretty clear that Obama’s rhetorical gifts are such that he would be able to sell flame-throwers in Hell and since at least some of the economic misery is psychological, having him push the idea that the economy is on the road to recovery will help lead it there. And, of course, there’s always the possibility that his economic team will be able to effect real improvement.

Unfortunately, the second aspect of the economic mess will not show signs of improvement any time soon. A draggy economy, a slow-growing economy, an economy in the doldrums is going to be with us for quite a while. Why? Simple. Everyone is in debt: individuals, companies, local governments, state governments, and the Federal government.

When you’re in debt what you’ve really done is spend money you expect to get in the future. Let’s say you make $50,000 a year and you’ve got $25,000 in debt between credit cards and your car. Every year you pay off about $5,000 of that debt but you add a new $5,000. You’re constantly in the position of having spent five years worth of money you don’t have yet. That’s workable as long as everyone is willing to stay in debt. This year’s economic growth (aka, spending) is being fueled by money we all expect to get five years from now; next year’s economic growth will be fueled by money we all expect to get five years from then; and so on.

The problem arises when we’re no longer able or no longer willing to stay in debt. I’m pretty sure we’re at the point where many people are no longer able to stay in debt and I sincerely hope we’re at the point where hardly anyone is willing to stay in debt. I believe that’s good in the long run since we’ll start living within our means and probably even start saving for a rainy day. In the short run, though, it’s bad because it means we all have to get caught up with ourselves. That is we have to spend some number of years paying off all the debt we’re currently saddled with before we can start doing a significant amount of discretionary spending. That means that consumer spending is going to go way, way down. I say “way, way” because this is a double whammy: not only are we not going to be living beyond our means anymore by running up debt, we’re actually going to be living below our means to pay off existing debt.

How long will this second, “economic doldrums” aspect last? I don’t know. It depends on what the country’s total debt load is, how much income continues to come in, and how substantially people and institutions can cut back so as to devote more money to retiring debt. If I had to make a pure wild guess, I’d say five years. Five years for us all to dig out of the hole we’ve gotten ourselves into.

There are, however, two ways the economic doldrums period could be interrupted. First, the Federal government can simply pump more and more and more money into everyone’s hands: individuals, companies, state and local government. This would enable everyone to pay off their existing debt and thus avoid the period when people live below their means. In fact, by removing the pain of having to pay off that debt there’s a good chance this course of action would encourage people to go right back to living beyond their means. Of course, this would simply transfer the entire debt load to the Federal government and eventually there would be a day of reckoning either through runaway inflation or simply because the government would be so overburdened by debt it would eventually be unable to finance even its most crucial functions.

The other possible interruption of the economic doldrums period is a new economic bubble. I’m not sure how possible this is since a bubble apparently requires the ability to take on lots and lots of debt. However, the government has pumped a lot of money into financial institutions and that money may be ripe for bubbling. One excellent candidate for a bubble is carbon trading.

It’s pretty clear that the Obama administration wants to address Apocalyptic Anthropogenic Global Warming. Leaving aside what I think of the basic idea of AAGW (not much), we have to decide how to address it. If the country is stupid enough to go with a cap-and-trade system rather than a simple carbon tax, the bubble won’t even need the money already pumped into the financial system: it can form itself solely from all the new government “money” handed out in the form of carbon allowances. (I find it hard to believe the government is going to auction those off given the sad financial state of most corporations; it’s more likely they’ll be given away.) The markets can go crazy bidding them up - heck, someone will probably even create derivatives - and we’ll have another bubble.

Like massive Federal handouts, though, a bubble is a bad idea in the long run. By definition, a bubble creates imaginary profits and fake productivity. That means there’s always a day of reckoning. Do we really want to concentrate our hopes and our efforts on pushing that day off on our children and grandchildren? We created this mess. I think we should take the hit involved in cleaning it up.

Monday, November 24, 2008

BUB Five

There’s chatter on the Sunday morning talk shows about help for homeowners with unwieldy mortgages and in particular a reference or two to FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair’s “aggressive” mortgage plan. As usual the chatter - and Bair’s plan - focus on helping people who are already in trouble with their mortgages. If you want a plan to help individuals because you feel bad for those who are losing their homes, this is fine. If you want a plan that will help stabilize the economy then this is - I’m sorry - just plain stupid.

Stop playing catch-up. We need to leap aboard the onrushing freight train and start slowing it down, not continue to go chasing after it rendering medical assistance to the people it runs over as it picks up speed. Heck, Austan Goolsbee himself was on George Stephanopoulos this morning talking about how we need to think big in getting out of the economic crisis in order to “startle the thing into submission.” So let’s not parcel out money in dribs and drabs as homeowners get into trouble; let’s clean up the whole real estate mess now.

We need a Bottom-Up Bailout (BUB) and we need it now. There are a number of differences between BUB and Bair’s plan; I believe almost all of them mean BUB is a better plan:

1) BUB cleans up all primary residence mortgages not just those already in trouble.

2) BUB reduces mortgages to no more than 25% of income not 31% as Bair proposes.

3) BUB assumes fixed-rate mortgages; Bair calls for adjustable rate mortgages. (Isn’t that part of how we got into this mess?)

4) BUB reduces principal; this helps soften the landing for the housing bubble implosion. Bair does not reduce principal; this keeps housing prices jacked up too high and will stick some mortgage holders with 40-year mortgages which I think is psychologically tough. Also I don’t see anything about what Bair will do if even extending the life of the mortgage and using adjustable rates isn’t enough to get mortgage payments down to 31% of income.

5) Under Bair’s plan the FDIC provides default protection. BUB does not but by reducing mortgage amounts to 80% of current market value lenders will be protected in the result of default by being able to sell the house for more than the amount of the mortgage.

6) Bair’s plan will “pay servicers who process mortgages $1,000 for each re-worked loan”. BUB has no such provision but it’s a good idea especially since BUB would be mandatory not optional. We just have to remember this is a fixed cost which the government has no hope of recouping under BUB - unlike the mortgage paydown itself.

Anglachel has proposed something similar and - as I say in my comment to her post - although I like my plan better I do like Anglachel’s restrictions on equity extraction once a mortgage holder has availed himself of this program and her restrictions on getting around the payback by transferring the house to the kids or turning it into revenue property.

The other thing I say in my comment’s to Anglachel’s post is (link added):

Third, if Wheelan and you and I have all managed to come up with pretty much the same straightforward plan - easy to understand, simple to implement - why the heck are the people in Washington having so much trouble figuring out something like this? This is not - if you’ll pardon the expression - rocket science.


Since I keep adding BUB posts, I updated this on December 13, 2008, to put all BUB posts in their own category. That way they can easily be found without my having to keep updating all the existing ones each time I add a new one.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Summers dilemma

Word is that Barack Obama is considering Lawrence Summers for the position of Secretary of the Treasury. This has presented me with my first Obama Presidency related dilemma.

I found Obama’s misogyny during the campaign disgraceful; Summers is probably most famous for supposedly saying “girls can’t do math.” I find it very difficult to resist the temptation to fan the flames of this fire by blogging about how even considering Summers proves that Obama doesn’t respect women and by emailing my woman friends who voted for Obama and saying, “See? I told you so.”

Furthermore the left-leaning media is giving Obama grief about this possibility. What could be sweeter than seeing Obama attacked by the same media that gave him such an easy ride during the campaign? I would be less than human if I did not experience a great urge to encourage such media outlets to keep up their attacks by joining the ranks of commenters who are criticizing Obama for considering Summers. (via neo-neocon)

Unfortunately I have taken a look at the “girls can’t do math” story and I simply can’t find much to it. The story is based on remarks Summers made at a 2005 National Bureau of Economic Research Conference on “Diversifying the Science & Engineering Workforce.” Summers prefaces his remarks by saying that he is speaking only because he wants to get “some questions asked and some attempts at provocation.” and he restricts his remarks to “the issue of women's representation in tenured positions in science and engineering at top universities and research institutions.”

I’ve tried a couple of times to summarize his remarks but cannot do so without doing violence to his meaning. In fact, I believe attempts to summarize them are what have led to the perception that he is sexist. To judge fairly you simply have to read his remarks for yourself. My conclusion is that Summers was advancing hypotheses for which he had some backup while conceding that not enough is known to be sure about what is really going on.

So I can’t really convict Larry Summers of sexism and, sadly, am going to have pass up this opportunity to club friends over the head with Obama’s sexism and to foment dissension in the Obama-supporting media. Even worse, the other controversies surrounding Summers don’t seem all that damning either. Wikipedia currently has a good summary of those incidents: follow the footnote links to the source documents and most of the controversies appear misrepresented or trivial. In fact, from reading the Wikipedia entry it looks like the charge with the most validity is that he wanted tenured professors to teach more of their own classes.

On the other hand, he does seem to have a talent for rubbing people the wrong way and that may be a bad thing under the current circumstances. Given the state of the economy and the incredible power vested in the Treasury by the bailout bill, it might be advisable to have a Treasury Secretary who plays well with others, thinks before he speaks, and can sound reassuring. Obama will simply have to balance Summers’ negatives - an (apparently unwarranted) reputation as sexist and otherwise politically incorrect plus a reportedly blunt managerial style - against a possibly overwhelming positive - many people consider him both brilliant and competent.


It caused me terrible psychic pain to entitle this post “The Summers dilemma” rather than “The Summers dilemna”. As far as I can remember, I have always used the “mn” spelling rather than the “mm” spelling but my spellchecker and my dictionary both insist “mm” is and always has been correct. In response to which, I can only agree with baysailor’s comment:

*I* think that "dilemna' simply looks better on the page. I think "dilemma" is awkward and clunky.


Every so often during the past endless year of campaiging, I have felt vaguely queasy about Barack Obama. His policies worry me and his misogyny enrages me but I was having a hard time tracking down the source of that low-level nausea. I felt it again a couple of days ago and I’ve now got a pretty good idea what’s bothering me.

Greg Mankiw has up a post which includes the following quote from the “America Serves” section of Obama’s presidential transition Website (emphasis Mankiw’s):

Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by developing a plan to require 50 hours of community service in middle school and high school and 100 hours of community service in college every year.

I highly recommend Mankiw’s post for content but my roiled stomach was caused by his update:

Update: The presidential transition website to which I linked above no longer uses the word "require." The passage quoted above was copied and pasted from that website (with bolding added by me). But within a few hours after I posted it here, the wording changed to "setting a goal."

I am delighted to see this blog having so much influence on the policies of the new administration. That's change I can believe in!

He is correct. Obama’s Website now says (emphasis mine):

Obama will call on citizens of all ages to serve America, by setting a goal that all middle school and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year and by developing a plan so that all college students who conduct 100 hours of community service receive a universal and fully refundable tax credit ensuring that the first $4,000 of their college education is completely free.

I realize changing positions is not new for Obama but this really creeps me out. It feels less like Obama’s famous flip-flops on telecom immunity in FISA, public campaign financing, and NAFTA and more like the Universal Mortgage Credit modification, another small issue that made me feel a little green around the gills.

Why does this make me queasy?

First, the language was changed after it was publicly criticized. (Mankiw wasn’t the only person writing about this.) This feels less like correcting a misstatement that someone has spotted and more like shifting ground to avoid being held accountable. As Holtz-Eakin put it when talking about the Universal Mortgage Credit changes, trying to pin Obama down is like “trying to pin Jello to the wall.”

Second, Obama’s previous statements on community service for students have been ambiguous enough to support either version. In a July 2 speech Obama described his plans to integrate service into learning:

I will set a goal for all American middle and high school students to perform 50 hours of service a year, and for all college students to perform 100 hours of service a year. This means that by the time you graduate college, you'll have done 17 weeks of service.

We'll reach this goal in several ways. At the middle and high school level, we'll make federal assistance conditional on school districts developing service programs, and give schools resources to offer new service opportunities. At the community level, we'll develop public-private partnerships so students can serve more outside the classroom.

For college students, I have proposed an annual American Opportunity Tax Credit of $4,000. To receive this credit, we'll require 100 hours of public service.

In this formulation the community service for middle and high school students sounds like it’s going to be required: if Federal funding is contingent on “service programs” then schools will require service. Unless, of course, the schools are only required to “offer ... service opportunities” and will get their Federal money regardless of how many students avail themselves of those opportunities.

The college community service sounds totally voluntary, just a nice way to offset some of the costs of higher education.

Meanwhile the Obama campaign Website says:

Obama and Biden will set a goal that all middle and high school students do 50 hours of community service a year. They will develop national guidelines for service-learning and will give schools better tools both to develop programs and to document student experience. [snip]

Require 100 Hours of Service in College: Obama and Biden will establish a new American Opportunity Tax Credit that is worth $4,000 a year in exchange for 100 hours of public service a year.

In this formulation the middle and high school service sounds more voluntary - there is no mention of tying Federal funds to community service - although the “set” part of “set a goal” is pretty ambiguous. Meanwhile the description of the American Opportunity Tax Credit here is virtually identical to the description from the speech but the heading before the description clearly says “Require 100 Hours of Service in College”.

A third source, the campaign National Service Plan Fact Sheet, says (pages 3-4):

That plan [school funding] conditions that assistance on school districts developing programs to engage students in service opportunities. Obama and Biden believe that middle and high school students should be expected to engage in community service for 50 hours annually during the school year or summer months. [snip]

Require 100 Hours of Service in College: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will make college affordable for all Americans by creating a new American Opportunity Tax Credit. This fully refundable credit will ensure that the first $4,000 of a college education is completely free for most Americans, and will cover two-thirds the cost of tuition at the average public college or university. Recipients of this credit will be required to conduct 100 hours of public service a year, either during the school year or over the summer months.

At the middle and high school level, we’re back to Federal funding being contingent on schools “developing ... service opportunies” while student community service is now “expected” - whatever that means. Meanwhile the college community service still sounds voluntary - you only do it if you want the Tax Credit - but the label still says “Require”

The upshot of all this is that Obama’s campaign positions on integrating service into education can be cited to support both the original “required” policy on the Website and the new gentler version that has replaced it. Which brings me to:

Third, the new gentler version doesn’t actually mean the original “required” version isn’t accurate. The new version doesn’t say anywhere that community service won’t be required. It just no longer says that it will. In other words, it reintroduces the ambiguity that we’ve seen on this issue throughout the campaign.

So why does this kind of maneuvering make me queasy? Because it does away with accountability both in campaigning - which is irrelevant now but will be important in four years - and in governing. In campaigning, an opponent cannot make a charge against Obama stick. If that opponent says, “Obama is going to require community service,” Obama can reply, “You are misrepresenting my position. I simply want to encourage students to participate.” On the other hand, if that opponent says, “Obama is going to give schools money to develop community service programs but the schools can simply take the money and do nothing,” Obama can say, “A typical Republican smear. I make it perfectly clear community service is expected from schools in return for Federal funding.” (No wonder Obama was afraid of those ten town-hall meetings. The more time he spends talking without a script the harder it is for him to get away with this sort of “nuance”. An answer he gives in Dayton in July can be used against him if attempts the opposite answer in Pittsburgh in August.)

More crucially, such maneuvering will make it almost impossible to hold President Obama accountable for what candidate Obama promised. If four years from now eleven-year olds are still playing video games rather than picking up trash in parks, Obama can tell voters who are disappointed that he only promised to encourage community service and it’s not his fault that American children didn’t answer his call. On the other hand, if Obama marches fifth graders off to help with ACORN voter registration drives he can tell those who object that he said he was going to do just that before he was elected.

No wonder everyone who supports Obama can see exactly what they need to see when they look at him. And no wonder I feel queasy from time to time.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Rahm Emanuel strategy

There’s been a lot of chatter about what Rahm Emanuel’s selection as Chief of Staff will mean. I don’t have any strategic analysis to offer but after watching him on “Face the Nation” this morning, I believe I do understand what his strategy is going to be when explaining Barack Obama’s administration to the country: use many words, say nothing, and put everyone to sleep.

Kudos to Bob Schieffer who began the analysis portion of his show with:

Well, gentlemen, I have to preface this by saying I don’t think we found out a lot this morning from Rahm Emanuel.

First word after the election

I would never have been completely happy that Barack Obama won the Presidential election. Given my concerns about his policies and his inexperience, I would always have preferred a different result. All the same, I would have liked to be able to wholeheartedly rejoice in the fact that his victory has provided incontrovertible proof of how far the United States has come in healing racial wounds and has thus meant so very much to so many people.

Yet I cannot. I can appreciate the abstract importance of his election and honor the meaning it has for so many African-Americans. But I simply cannot be even the slightest bit glad Barack Obama has won the Presidential election. The misogyny unleashed by Obama, his campaign, and his supporters has been disastrous for women. While it has left parents of all races, ethnicities, and religions more able to honestly tell their sons that any little boy can grow up to be President of the United States it has also left them far less able to tell their daughters the same is true for little girls. Obama has asked all Americans to believe that "[our] dreams do not have to come at the expense of [his] dreams" but his own philosophy is quite different. He believed achieving his dreams required vandalizing women’s dreams and he was perfectly willing to do just that.

So I am not happy that Obama won and I am not likely to be. Nonetheless he will be my President after January 20 and I will support him when I believe he is right and oppose him respectfully when I believe he is wrong. And I very much wish him a wildly successful Presidency - we desperately need one.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Final word before the election

On August 3, 2008, Senators Joe Lieberman and John Kerry appeared on “Meet the Press”. This was just a few days after Barack Obama had made a series of stump speeches in which he said:

Nobody thinks that Bush and McCain have a real answer to the challenges we face. So what they're going to try to do is make you scared of me. You know, he's not patriotic enough, he's got a funny name, you know, he doesn't look like all those other presidents on the dollar bills.

I deeply admired Senator Lieberman's response to that:

I want to say just a word about the, the racial question here. And I, I speak personally. In the first place, the McCain campaign is, to use Barack Obama's words, raising the question is he a risky guy? But it has nothing to do with his name or his skin color. It has to do with his lack of experience and bad judgment, his unreadiness to be president. When you use the expressions that Senator Obama did three times this week, you're making a personal insult to John McCain.

I, I know John McCain. I've been with him for 20 years, private and public. This man does not have a bigoted bone in his body. His wife and he adopted a baby from Bangladesh, who, who they love. It's just wrong for Senator Obama to have done that. It was right for the campaign to call him on it. Let me just add a final word, Tom. In 2000, Al Gore gave me the extraordinary honor of being the first Jewish-American to run for national office, and Al Gore said he had confidence in the American people that they would judge me based on my record, not on my religion. And I urge Barack Obama to have the same faith in the American people that they will judge him on his record, or lack of record, certainly not on his name or his race.

Why I would never vote for Obama



I am about to say the sooth

During my Italian class Thursday evening the teacher spent some time talking about a long-ago trip to China. Finding this irrelevant to my desire to learn Italian, I amused myself by jotting down what I believed would be the undesirable international consequences of an Obama Presidency. Before I got around to posting them I found that Ralph Peters had covered many of the same issues and done so in a far more interesting fashion that I can. Nonetheless, given the name of my blog I feel compelled to prophesy and after all there's absolutely no downside to being totally wrong.

International prophecies

Taiwan will fall to Mainland China. This will probably not happen militarily but without a United States strongly committed to Taiwan’s independence the move into China’s control will be inevitable.

As part of the drive to cut defense spending by 25%, Obama withdraws troops from South Korea. Once the United States tripwire is removed, South Korea realizes it is wide open to attack from the North. It must choose between accepting protection from and control by China or fighting a bloody and probably unwinnable war against North Korea. It is possible Japan will be sufficiently alarmed by the drawdown of United States troops and the opening this gives China to extend its sphere of influence that Japan will decide to remilitarize and offer South Korea Japanese protection. That would inflame China; consequences are unpredictable.

Obama will give Iraq a choice between fully funding the United States military presence in Iraq with its oil revenues and losing United States troops. If Iraq’s government chooses the former, the resultant financial upheaval and resentment will breathe new life into al-Qaeda’s efforts which will destabilize the government and permit Obama to either declare Iraq a lost cause or declare the Iraqi populace wants the United States out. Either way he will withdraw the United States troops. If the Iraq government instead chooses to lose the United States troops rather than pay for them, Obama will claim he is simply bowing to the will of the United States Iraqi government and withdraw the troops. Once the United States military is gone, Iraq will devolve into chaos until another strongman ruler arises from the conflict.

Despite his current claims that Afghanistan is the real center of the war on terror, Obama will be unwilling to mount a major military endeavor there and will pull all United States troops out of Afghanistan. The country will return to Taliban control. Pakistan will be left to deal with the Taliban as best it can. Odds are Taliban control will spread into much of Pakistan and perhaps take over the central government there as well.

Iran will achieve nuclear weapons. This might happen under a McCain Presidency as well but the consequences under an Obama Presidency will be more devastating. Israel will credibly fear a nuclear strike by Iran and request that the United States commit to full-scale retaliation against Iran if that happens. Obama instead turns to the United Nations. Realizing the futility of depending on the United Nations for protection, Israel immediately launches a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Iran retaliates and at that point the best the United States can hope for is that the war does not engulf the entire Middle East thereby making its oil unrecoverable. (In the extremely unlikely event that Israel does not actually have nuclear weapons, Iran will launch a nuclear strike against Israel as soon as Obama turns to the United Nations. Israel will be annihilated.)

With the urging of the United Nations, the United States will commit troops to areas in Africa facing genocide. The United Nations will cheer lead but will provide virtually no support. Fighting alone, the United States will be bled dry of troops and money.

Meanwhile, suffering in the rest of Africa will increase. Obama will shut down George Bush’s disease-fighting initiatives and funnel all American help for Africa through the Global Poverty Act. Whether provided to governments of poor nations or funneled through the United Nations, most of the money appropriated under this act ends up sticking to the fingers of bureaucrats before it ever gets to those who need it most.

With defense spending cut by 25%, all new defense projects cancelled, and troops and money gobbled up by unwinnable wars, the United States is increasingly perceived as less and less powerful internationally. The less committed the United States is to its own best interests in the global arena, the stronger this perception grows. Seeing no advantage to a close association with a weak and self-destructive United States, allies drift away. The United States receives more favorable press internationally but becomes more and more isolated.

Domestic prophecies

The Employee Free Choice Act becomes law. Secret ballots for unionization become a thing of the past.

A new Fairness Doctrine becomes law. Much First Amendment litigation ensues.

As part of his drive for renewable energy, Obama turns to the Pickens Plan. Millions of people in the wind corridor from the Texas Panhandle to the Canadian border lose their homes to eminent domain. Bats die in large numbers, felled by pulmonary barotrauma. Pollination suffers while insect populations explode. Food production nosedives and food prices at home and abroad, already driven up by Obama’s ethanol subsidies, rise still higher. Obama blames global warming for agriculture's woes and increases the amount of land given over to wind power.

It’s a bad time to live in Alaska. Federal regulators and investigators flood the state while Federal money goes elsewhere. Alaska Democrats make it clear to the voters that if Palin is re-elected governor in 2010 this situation will continue. Palin wins overwhelmingly.

Confirmation bias

Let’s take a look at an article on ABC’s Political Radar blog, dated October 31, 2008, and headlined, “Palin Fears Media Threaten Her First Amendment Rights”. The article begins:

ABC News' Steven Portnoy reports: In a conservative radio interview that aired in Washington, D.C. Friday morning, Republican vice presidential nominee Gov. Sarah Palin said she fears her First Amendment rights may be threatened by "attacks" from reporters who suggest she is engaging in a negative campaign against Barack Obama.

Palin told WMAL-AM that her criticism of Obama's associations, like those with 1960s radical Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, should not be considered negative attacks. Rather, for reporters or columnists to suggest that it is going negative may constitute an attack that threatens a candidate's free speech rights under the Constitution, Palin said.

"If [the media] convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations," Palin told host Chris Plante, "then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media."

The article is referring to this interview. Palin’s one-sentence quote is taken from a longer exchange that can be found at the beginning of “Chris Plante Interviews Sarah Palin Part 2”:

Host: And of course Rashid Khalidi is not the only radical that Barack Obama’s associated himself with over the years and you also have been kind of out there on the pointy end of the spear talking about William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn to a lesser extent perhaps but William Ayers and once again the role of the news media in this campaign when it comes to Barack Obama’s relationships over the years with Rashid Khalidi and William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn and Father Pfleger and all of these other people. Is, is the news media doing its job, are you getting a fair shake, the Republicans getting a fair shake this year?

Palin: I don’t that that they’re doing their job when they suggest that calling a candidate out on their record, their plans for this country, and their associations is mean-spirited or negative campaigning. If they convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media. Look at Joe the Plumber, good old Joe the Plumber in Toledo, Ohio. He just asked a simple, straightforward question and the media started investigating and attacking him. So there is some fear there and in those terms, no, I don’t think that they’ve been doing their job in that kind of context.

Is Political Radar’s description of what Palin said accurate? Certainly the first sentence in the second paragraph is way off base:

Palin told WMAL-AM that her criticism of Obama's associations, like those with 1960s radical Bill Ayers and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, should not be considered negative attacks.

Palin most certainly did not say “that her criticism of Obama's associations ... should not be considered negative attacks.” (Is there such a thing as a positive attack?) What she said was that it is not the media’s job to declare her criticisms of Obama “mean-spirited or negative campaigning”. In other words, the media does not get to decide what is and is not a valid criticism of her political opponent. (I believe that would be the job of the voters.)

There is nothing new about what Palin is saying in this regard: many who oppose Obama have expressed frustration that much of the media seems to consider virtually any criticism of Obama an irrelevant distraction at best and downright racist at worst. Palin is simply arguing that Obama has succeeded in getting the media to enthusiastically support his rules for the general election:

[Obama] can’t be called a “liberal” (“the same names and labels they pin on everyone,” as Obama puts it); his toughness on the war on terror can’t be questioned (“attempts to play on our fears”); his extreme positions on social issues can’t be exposed (“the same efforts to distract us from the issues that affect our lives” and “turn us against each other”); and his Chicago background too is off-limits (“pouncing on every gaffe and association and fake controversy”).

After eliminating that sentence, what remains of Political Radar’s description is:

Gov. Sarah Palin said she fears her First Amendment rights may be threatened by "attacks" from reporters who suggest she is engaging in a negative campaign against Barack Obama. [snip] for reporters or columnists to suggest that it is going negative may constitute an attack that threatens a candidate's free speech rights under the Constitution, Palin said.

The article has elected to confound two different points Palin made: her concerns about the First Amendment and her concerns about “our” being able to ask questions without fear of “attacks” by the media. Let’s separate these out.

The First Amendment concerns are the hook on which most of the commentary criticizing Palin for this interview has hung its hat. You can take a look at HuffPo (channeling Jeff Greenwald); ThinkProgress (which apparently feels no commentary is necessary - other than that picture - but does get full credit for providing audio - although not text - of the whole exchange); Daily Kos (channeling Alex Koppelman); Keith Olbermann (nope, not linking); The Young Turks; and a slew of other sources. The thrust of this commentary is that Palin is so stupid she thinks the First Amendment does (or should) protect her from the press when in fact the First Amendment protects both free speech by individuals and a free press from interference by the government. The Young Turks video provides the best summary:

She’s saying that the media is challenging her First Amendment rights when they say that she is lying or running a negative campaign. But the whole point of the First Amendment is freedom of the press. I mean, it’s in there. Freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Both things are in there. And second of all, it doesn’t negate your freedom of speech if someone else speaks. Third of all, you’re a politician. The whole point of the First Amendment was to keep our politicians in check.

(I’m not going to rant and rave about The Young Turks’ decisions to translate “mean-spirited” as “lying”. The whole discussion of what constitutes lying in a political campaign is a huge one that I suspect will become extremely germane if we end up with an Obama administration.)

Is Palin saying “that the media is challenging her First Amendment rights when they say that she is lying or running a negative campaign”? Maybe. It’s certainly one interpretation of what she said. However, I think that interpretation is most likely to occur to people who are already convinced Palin is stupid and doesn’t understand the Constitution. The very people, for example, who are (wrongly) convinced Biden wiped the floor with Palin when they discussed the Constitution during the Vice-Presidential debate.

There’s an alternative explanation that I find more likely. Oddly enough, I believe Governor Palin was agreeing with The Young Turks: “The whole point of the First Amendment was to keep our politicians in check.” You see, Barack Obama is a politician also. If the majority of the media goes along with his campaign’s desire to define his opponent’s criticisms of him as invalid then what keeps him in check? In Palin’s formulation, the press has not only refused to criticize Obama themselves, they have also delegitimized her attempts to do so. Palin is arguing - admittedly very sloppily - that when so much of the press is so supportive of one politician over another then the press is not doing the job envisioned for it by those who wrote the First Amendment.

Is she advocating somehow making the press do her bidding? I really can’t see that. So far as I know, Palin has not suggested anything like banning further interviews with a Florida station for raising unpleasant issues; ejecting non-endorsing papers from her campaign plane; or mobilizing supporters to flood WGN with phone calls for inviting a guest critical of McCain. In fact, despite her claims of mainstream media bias she hasn’t even proposed enacting a new Fairness Doctrine.

Rather Palin is using the power of the bully pulpit. She is stating that the press is not doing its job and expressing her concern about what the consequences will be if the voters do not realize that.

What about Palin’s second point, her concerns about asking questions without fear of the “attacks” by the media? Here Palin is talking about the chilling effect non-governmental actions - specifically media attacks - can have on ordinary people questioning politicians. Again I don’t think she’s advocating muzzling the press but is stating her belief that the press’ job does not include attacking citizens who challenge Obama.

The criticisms of Palin’s remarks have both sprung from and reinforced previously held beliefs about her: she is too stupid to understand the Constitution and committed to the “standard” Republican agenda of leashing the free press. Those beliefs have made it easy for the media - and those they inform - to focus on her reference to the First Amendment and ignore the full meaning of her remarks: the media are attempting to delegitimize not only her criticism of Obama but also any negative remarks leveled at Obama from any source. And should the full meaning of her remarks slip through, well, the “fact” that she is both stupid and thuggish renders her points invalid. After all, how could someone like her possibly have anything legitimate to say about anything?

I sincerely hope I’m alive twenty years from now when objective observers are able to take a long, hard look at the Sarah Palin phenomenon. The political analysis will be fascinating, of course, but even more interesting will be the sociological analysis of the class-based nature of Palin’s treatment by the media and the psychological analysis of how people so clearly saw exactly what they expected to see when they looked at Palin.