Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Albright's lament

I had meant to bring this to your attention earlier, but the article fell to the bottom of the briefcase for a while. In the wake of the Burmese government's lamentable (non) response to the cyclone a couple of months ago, Madeleine Albright (or Halfbright, as we used to call her when she was SecState) did an oped for the NYT lamenting what the headline writer rather apocalyptically, or at least exaggeratedly, titled "The End of Intervention." She argued that the inability of outside governments to do much to prod the Burmese junta to be compassionate (or at least minimally responsible) suggested that the era of "humanitarian" intervention, or perhaps any kind of overseas intervention, is over, at least for a while. Writing in sorrow, and perhaps a little anger, she writes that "many of the world's necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion [of Iraq] -- in places like Haiti and Bosnia and the Balkans -- would seem impossible in today's climate." She blames Bush's Iraq misadventure.

"At the heart of the debate," Ms. Albright writes, "is the question of what the international system is. Is it just a collection of legal nuts and bolts cobbled together by governments to protect governments? Or is it a living framework of rules intended to make the world a more humane place?" What she derides as "nuts and bolts" is what others might call the rule of law -- a set of predictable principles and rules that lay out what kinds of actions are permissible and what are discouraged. I think the nation-state system will fade away in time, hopefully replaced by simultaneously more localized and globalized (through trade) centers of authority (eventually to the level of the "sovereign individual"?). So long as it exists, however, respect for national sovereignty will ultimately yield more humane results than promiscuous intervention, even in good causes as determined by politicians with more ambition than judgment.

What Ms. Albright laments is worth celebrating. If one of the results of the Iraq war is a marked distaste among Americans for interventionism for at least a considerable time, I might be forced to admit that one good thing came of Bush's Folly after all.

Quite an earthquake

It's not that I had forgotten yesterday; news media of all kinds wouldn't let one forget. That 5.4 earthquake yesterday, centered in Chino Hills, about 20 miles away, made the Register building rock'n'roll more extensively than anything in recent memory -- maybe 15 years. Our building has rollers way down deep precisely to help it survive an earthquake, which it did nicely -- a few things fell off desks, but nothing broken -- but one result is that the building rolled back and forth for some time after the initial shock, which was a sharp up-and-down jolt. Other places didn't fare so well, with any number of stores having merchandise strewn all over the floor, and some minor damage. But fortunately no injuries or major damage.

Anyway, here's the Register editorial, urging people to put together earthquake/disaster kits to be ready if and when the Big One hits. If you're interested in absurdly comprehensive coverage, here's the Register's news section. Haven't heard the final numbers, but based on traffic during the hour or so after the quake our people who track such things said they expected a million hits on the earthquake section that day. Perhaps it's an example of what a newspaper Web site can do to serve the community and itself also -- perhaps not; we'll know more after more detailed assessment.

Unfortunately, we can't count on a disaster every day to drive traffic, and word is that while Web traffic is up and the zoning strategy, which we've just begun to roll out (two of an eventual dozen or so zones) is bringing in revenue. But overall revenue is still down from last year. I think the Register is at least being proactive in responding to the readership crisis that afflicts the whole industry and is doing some smart things. But there are certainly more rough times ahead.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Obama's Grand Tour

Here's the Register's editorial on Barack Obama's world tour last week. It notes that he ran it well and didn't make any serious gaffes -- the stuff about the Landstuhl hospital is desperate reaching by the McCain campaign -- but there's still a disturbing lack of substance in what he says. If his followers think he is really saying important things, that may be disturbing. But at least he isn't McCain.

Some interesting comments too.

Zora Neale Hurston (partly) explained

Over at the Liberty and Power blog (part of the History News Network, which usually has something interesting up), Roderick Long has an interesting essay on Zora Neale Hurston, the Harlem Renaissance writer who was somewhat rediscovered in the 1970s, but sometimes baffles the womens studies and black studies academics who study her because her politics seem to lurch right and left. Rod notes that she can most accurately be described as a quirky libertarian, but that persuasion is terra incognita to most academics, so she remains puzzling.

He concludes with excerpts from a powerful Hurston essay on imperialism and how it sometimes substitutes for slavery now that supposedly civilized people have decided to eschew slavery (this sounds as if it was written in the late 1930s or early 1940s). It doesn't look so bad if you enslave people who are decidedly "the other" halfway around the world, so long as you don't enslave your own kind. Thus people were horrified that Hitler might rule Belgium and enslave its people, but not quite so horrified at -- indeed, preferred to remain invincibly ignorant of -- the slavery and exploitation Belgium had practiced in Africa for decades and decades. And so on. Thought-provoking.

The wingers within us?

Jonathan Schwarz over at A Tiny Revolution has a theory that one of the reasons every society seems to have a right wing and a left wing in its political make-up is that each of us has a bit of right wing (keep things the same, don't change) and left wing (shake things up) within us, contending for our priorities and perhaps keeping us balanced. Intriguing. Interesting comments too.

I would note that these definitions don't always correspond to those we call left and right within our society, which is just one reason the terms "left" and "right" are somewhat short of satisfactory. Those we choose to call the left are utterly reactionary when it comes to the welfare state, Social Security or (lately) trade policy. Those we call the left used to think of themselves as revolutionaries who wanted to shake up the welfare state assumptions and big government (though they became more than comfortable with big government once they controlled it) and may come to think of themselves that way again when (all right, if) the voters put them into exile.

Maybe it's not right-left, maybe it's authoritarian-individualist or conformist-freethinker or self-directed/other-directed. More likely, it's much more complicated than any of that for each individual. And the idea of equating society with an individual organism is a little creepy to me.

Sound Sticks! Wow!!

My wife just gave me my anniversary present, which is a set of Harman Kardon SoundSticks II for my computer. I've put a lot of my CDs (not all by any means yet) onto iTunes on the computer so I can listen to music when I write, which I've always done. I've been reasonably content with the speakers installed in the screen, which give pretty good sound for being so tiny. (Funny, when I was younger we always went for gigantic speakers to get full, room-filling sound, but they way the technologies have developed, you can get amazing sound out of really small speakers these days.)

A few months ago our son Steve gave Jen a set of the SoundSticks for her computer, and I was duly impressed. So when they came today for me, we wasted little time installing them and trying them out. The first test was Beethoven's Fifth, then the Saint-Saens Organ Symphony, then the Barber Adagio for Strings, then Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod. I'll go for baroque later, which is actually my favorite music to write to, but I wanted stuff with full-on symphony orchestra with lots of fortissimos and tuttis. Very impressive! And attractive in a shiny high-tech kind of way. The key to the really full sound, I think, is the near-spherical subwoofer that goes under the desk and has a cool blue light. I haven't done a side-by-side, but the sound may be better than the home theater set-up we have for the TV and the CD carousels in the living room. I recommend them highly if you haven't tried them or heard them.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Is al-Qaida on the ropes?

Here's a link to the piece I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section yesterday on the possibility that al-Qaida is losing support among the kinds of jihadist-oriented Muslims who should be ripe for recruiting. The possibility is fairly strong, but not all terrorism experts agree and evidence is pretty scant, especially since there's no evidence that any westernm intelligence agencies have penetrated al-Qaida. But the chief mufti of Saudia Arabia has issued a fatwa against Saudis joining "foreign fighters" and Saudi cleric who was bin Laden's intellectual hero has condemned al-Qaida, along with a raft of other former sympathizers. Although some former jihadists have come around to believing that violence in the name of jihad is un-Islamic, the criticism seems to have been precipitated by the fact that since 9/11 al-Qaida has killed mostly Muslims. I'm not about to write an obituary, but some straws in the wind include the fact that al-Qaida hasn't mounted a serious attack recently -- the London and Madrid bombings seem to have been locals "inspired" by al-Qaida but not operational arms of the core -- and even Bruce Hoffman (of Georgetown and Rand), who still thinks al-Qaida is dangerous, says it's markedly less capable than it was before 9/11. wrote in January that al-Qaida was on its last legs.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

MPP has new blog

The Marijuana Policy Project has a new blog onlinefocusing (surprise! surprise!) on marijuana policy issues. The most recent documents outright lies from the drug czar's office, but that's hardly novel. I've followed it for a few days and it's really worth checking in on.

Friday, July 25, 2008

California restricts salvia

California has passed a law restricting access to the herb salvia divinorum, a mild euphoric about which the drug warriors are trying to create a sense of panic, which is how they increase their power. Restricting access by minors might or might not be the first step to a more general prohibition, which would be really stupid. For drug warriors, there are only benefits to prohibition, since they get the jobs and the self-righteous feeling that they are doing something to --there it is again, see Obama, the religious right, all the tinkerers with poor imperfect humanity -- straighten out poor, benighted human beings who just wouldn't be able to cope without their betters telling them what they can and can't ingest or experiment with.

Trip good for Obama

I know the poll numbers haven't moved yet -- if anything they show McCain closing the gap -- but I can't help but think the Grand Tour was a good thing for Obama. Sure, there's a percentage of Americans who will view drawing large crowds in Germany as a sign a candidate isn't American enough, but few of them were planning to vote for Obama anyway, or even thinking about it. The purpose of the trip, from Obama's perspective, was to demonstrate that he could cope abroad with other leaders. Since the U.S. is still the 800-pound gorilla and there's a better than even chance this guy is going to be president, of course folks like Merkel, Sarkozy, Brown, et. al., are going to treat him with respect. They might have to deal with him for the next 4 years, so meeting and greeting and showing respect -- kissing the ring of the Godfather-to-be? -- would be expected.

My wife listens in on Rush Limbaugh while she works, and she says he's been focused on Obama's verbal glitches -- umms, aaah's, inarticulate mumbling during a press conference, etc. To me, that shows recognition of the danger of Obama's trip for the McCain forces. McCain seems unable to do much except look ineffectual and whiny, so Rush will have to take on the mode of the attacker and debunker.

To be sure, the speech in Germany was pretty thin stuff, and what there was of substance was the typically utopian attitudinizing that's the fashion on the left. We're going to tear d0wn racism and bigotry and religious intolerance. Sure. But not by depoliticizing it, which would be the most effective way to marginalize it? Oh, no. These politicians just seem to be unhappy with human beings as they are in their natural state (which is liberty) and keep wanting to tinker with us, to improve our unfortunate shortcomings. Even when put so vaguely, these promises to "remake" the world make me uncomfortable. When will these snake-oil merchants just leave us alone if we don't want to buy their elixirs?

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Minor book progress

I don't know whether or not I will blog very much about the book I'm writing, and which has been slow to get into digital form even though I have a pretty good picture in my mind of what should be in it. The tentative title is "Beyond Empire," and it will advocate a strategy of what I described in a Register article as "strategic disengagement" from the world outside North America. That wouldn't mean disengagement on the economic, cultural, tourist, and even friend-of-human-rights-level, just on the political and military levels.

I'm happy to say I am rereading parts of Eric Nordlinger's 1994 book, "Isolationism Reconfigured," and thinking what a shame it is that Nordlinger, who taught at Brown, died shortly after he completed the book. I have no idea how effective he would have been on TV, the only medium that seems to matter, but if he had lived I am sure he would have engaged critics and sympathizers alike in ways that would have given his thesis more widespread currency than it has yet attained.

Although passionate in places, Nordlinger's is the book of a polit9ical scientist. Having been a political science major, I have no trouble understanding it, but it's quite academic in tone. My book will be the book of a journalist, which I hope means it will be scrupulous about facts while speaking to newspaper and Internet readers who might be unfamiliar with academic jargon or special academic definitions. Anyway, rereading parts of Nordlinger's book caused me to tinker with the outline a bit, and do some revisions on the introduction. I may offer more fairly frequently, or you may hear little for months.

Harry Homeowner

On the evidence of the past few days, I'm good for one semi-major home improvement project a day on days when I'm at home on vacation and Jen is cooped up in her office doing apps. Today I put together the outdoor swing we bought a month or so ago, whose box had been taking up floorspace in the quasi-outdoor back room. I'm slow but thorough at assembling things, and it's both sturdy and comfortable, if I say so myself. So we have floating pool chairs, a refinished outdoor table, and a swing. There are almost endless future projects, plus endless leaves to rake up and dispose of. Then maybe we can sit back relax, drink some of the wine we've been buying lately, and enjoy our new outdoor life enhancers.

Zimbabwe in less troubled times

Here's a remarkably evocative piece about Zimbabwe by WaPo writer Neely Tucker, who was one of the few Western reporters there from 1997 to 2000, leaving befvore he was expelled from the crime of talking to opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangarai. But he remembers the smell of millet beer, the grasses waving in the breeze, the sudden driving rainstorms, farms stretching for miles -- and people dying "suddenly" at 42.

Now he knows that life expectancy is 36, inflation runs at several million percent (and there's now a shortage of banknote paper), store shelves are empty, there are roadblocks everywhere manned by thugs who'll steal your money and your food if you have any -- and the miserable Mugabe is apparently going to be president for life and keep trying to kill the country until he dies. Very sad.

The indefatigable Steve Hanke at Cato,who seems to have a monetary scheme for every country in trouble, has some comments on how to cure Zimbabwe's hyperinflation -- get rid of the central bank, duh -- while Marian Tupy has some reflections as well.

Accounting for myself

It occurs to me that I haven't. If anybody cares -- well I guess Frank does if he's still checking in, and maybe John). I'm taking a vacation week, and Jen and I had planned to go to Las Vegas (I just misspelled it Las Vegan, which is about as likely as bureaucrat displaying a sense of humor) to visit Steve and Tom and celebrate Steve's birthday and our anniversary. But not only is Jen not feeling well, she's snowed under with work. So we're at home, she's coughing and typing, and I'm doing jobs around the house, some reading and -- eventually, I hope, though I haven't gotten to it yet -- some work on my book.

I've found I can get one major job done in a day. Monday we went to the doctor for regular check-ups (and an antibiotic for Jen) and today we went early to get out blood drawn as part of that process. Tuesday I took apart and resealed our favorite floating pool chairs, which had begun to take on water when we used them. Yesterday I sanded our outdoor teak coffee table, which had begun to be a bit weatherbeaten, down to bare wood (mostly) and put water sealer on it. Not sure if I'll put another finish on it later or not. Anyway, both tasks were time-consuming and painstaking, but also mildly relaxing. However they left little time for reading or blogging.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Iran: A dangerous dance

This most recent piece of mine for was written before Condi Rice denounced the Iranian show at Saturday's multilateral-but-face-to-face meeting with the nuclear negotiator for Iran. It posits that there were two possible explanations for agreeing to meet face-to-face before Iran actually gave up uranium enrichment, which had been the U.S. precondition: either we're in the first stages of a mild thaw with Iran or the decision has been made to do some kind of military action and the diplomatic move was undertaken just so the U.S. would be able to say it had tried everything, sweetened the deal immeasurably, and Iran was simply unreasonable and intransigent and there's no choice left but to whack them with some super bunker busters. It might still be true that no decision has been made, but the powers-that-be think the initial meeting leaves either course open and the decider can decide later. It might even be that Condi's denunciation is intended to let the Iranians know that if there's to be a diplomatic path we have to see at least some token gesture of wanting to cooperate (even though Iran holds more cards than we do). I still think Condi has an interest in seeing a diplomatic path open -- and she may agree, though I can't be sure. Israel may yet be the wild card. It strikes me as a dangerous time.

So now it's a "time horizon"

Apparently President Bush couldn't get the word "timetable" out of his mouth, having equated timetables with defeat for so long, but with a good deal prodding from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, he managed a phrase with the word "time" in it. Here's the Register's editorial on the subject, written a bit ago and updated to include the Bush mention. Bottom line? Conditions seem ripe to begin an orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The Iraqi government is acting more and more like a sovereign government, with Maliki even coming close to endorsing Obama (or at least his plan), and while a good bit of the apparent reconciliation may be a facade, it's the facade the U.S. always claimed it was looking for. So give Iraq back to the Iraqis and let them make their own mess of it, if that's what happens. At least it will be their own mess.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Dave Boaz's "Politics of Freedom"

Here's a link to my review for the Register's Sunday Commentary section of Dave Boaz's recent book, "The Politics of Freedom." It's a collection of columns, magazine articles and pieces done for Cato, where he's vice president, some dating from the 1980s. I've always found Dave Boaz's writing to be clear and civil. His earlier book, "Libertarianism: A Primer," is well worth the trouble to read (not that I ever view reading as trouble myself) also. I'm especially impressed with how he deals with cultural issues, which many libertarians don't discuss at all or deal with rather clumsily.

Fannie and Freddie get a lifeline

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the decision to give Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two giant "government-sponsored enterprises" that dominate the secondary mortgage market and are in trouble because of the increasing number of defaults during the housing downturn/ bubble-burst/whatever, the key to the Fed's discount window. I know the hope was that simply making it available would halt the stock price downturn and it wouldn't have to be used, but . . . As Peter Wallison of AEI, who was recommended to me by several people as one of the more knowledgeable people who keeps an eye on this part of the economy, the two are neither private fish nor government fowl. It's never been explicit but always implicit that the government wouldn't let them fail. Now that it's fairly explicit, the taxpayers could be on the hook big-time. The $150 billion to make depositors whole during the 1980s S&L crisis might start to look like chump change.

Tony Snow sadly gone

Here's a link to the Register's editorial marking the death of Tony Snow, the former White Press Secretary and Fox newsie. Of course it always touches the heart when somebody with some promise dies at 53, but even allowing for that, it was almost impossible to find anybody in the political class who would say anything resembling a harsh word about Tony Snow. He apparently had the gift of detachment, that is, he didn't make political disagreements personal, not a bad attribute in life as well as in politics.

As I noted on the Register's blog, taking Tony's death with that of Tim Russert, maybe the message is that there are good guys in the Washington media establishment, but they tend to die young?

Market discipline better than regulation

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on the Fed's decision to keep the discount window open to investment banks, which could presage a move to regulate them directly. As Bill Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, told me, this could create yet another industry with the moral hazard of knowing the government is likely bail them out if they make bad moves, because they're "too big to fail," like Bear Sterns. In retrospect, it might have been better to let Bear-Sterns fail rather than bail it out earlier this year. The reason market discipline is more efficient than regulation is mainly due to the knowledge that a business could fail, which tends to concentrate the attention mightily. Sending the message that investment banks won't be allowed to fail is an incentive for riskier behavior -- probably not immediately, but a few years down the road, when lessons (like the 1980s S&L failures) tend to be forgotten.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

This Bud's for Belgium

I'm pretty sure I'd have the same opinion even if I liked Budweiser. But the minor furor around the takeover bid by InBev of Belgium (Stella Artois, Becks) to buy Anheuser Busch, including a couple of local politicians suggesting they might find some legal way to block this furrin takeover of an "American icon" is just ridiculous. Properties should be free to be bought and sold without government interference.

D.C. gun ban lifted -- sort of

In response to the Supreme Court's D.C. v. Heller decision, which declared correctly that gun ownership is an individual right that doesn't have to be connected to a militia and D.C.'s outright ban on handgun ownership was therefore unconstitutional, the D.C. City Council has eliminated the outright ban -- but kept in place a series of restrictions likely to draw future legal challenges. The D.C. law that had required long guns to be unloaded, disassembled or trigger-locked was applied to handguns also. They must remain inside homes. Eye and written exams are required to register one. Officials gave out 58 applications the first day but registered only one gun.

I haven't talked to Bob Levy, who financed and masterminded the case that resulted in the Heller decision, but while the court's decision explicitly left some leeway for restrictions on handgun ownership, Scalia most prominently mentioned not allowing felons or the mentally ill to have guns legally, as well as perhaps proficency requirements. I suspect that the disassembled requirement will be challenged and won't stand up. But then predicting Supreme Court decisions is something of a fool's game. In any event it will take a long time and quite a few court cases to determine the real extent of the Second Amendment right.

How to lower the price of oil

Here's an interesting piece by Harvard's Martin Feldstein, who was Council of Economic Advisers head during the Reagan administration and is a pretty good economist. He argues that because the expected future price of oil causes those with supplies to keep it in the ground rather than sell it -- because they expect the price to be even higher in the future -- anything done now to reduce the expected future price of oil will have an immediate impact on the current price of oil. He notes that steps to reduce demand -- higher CAFE standards, for example --would help, as would steps expected to increase supply, even if the expected new supply wouldn't actually come online for a while. Thus, I infer (he doesn't say it directly) that just announcing that we're going to start drilling offshore or in ANWR should have a downward impact on the price of oil now.

I find the argument quite persuasive. The same argument applies to food. Announcing that the ethanol program would be ended or suspended for a few years should place immediate downward pressure on the price of corn. It might well end up higher than a year or so ago -- increased demand due to increased affluence in China, India and the Gulf states would still be a factor, as would the drought in Australia that to my knowledge hasn't ended yet -- but it still should go down noticeably. The greatest impact would be on those on the edge of dire poverty in underdeveloped countries.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Brazil countering Venezuela nicely, thank you

There's little question that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez is an enormous pain in the ass, with all his talk of establishing socialism, his attempts to create an anti-American coalition, and his nasty talk about the U.S., all facilitated by high oil prices, which keep filling his coffers despite the state oil company losing efficiency since he filled it with his cronies. A few neocons have even advocated military action or some CIA-style subversion.

As this story explains, however, Brazil is doing a pretty good job of neutralizing Venezuela, a game played with a certain amount of skill by Brazilian president Luiz Inacio da Silva. Da Silva ran as a leftist but governs like a moderate, and oil reserves dwarfing Venezuela's have been discovered offshore (though it will be expensive and take a while for the oil to start flowing). Lula is always lavish in his praise of Chavez, but he is making Venezuela more dependent on Brazil than vice-versa. Brazil's effort to establish a continental trade alliance is succeeding, while Venezuela's is sputtering. And on and on.

When countries (or their leaders) get rambunctious, it's usually their neighbors who are in the best position to counter them. The U.S. would be smart to stay out of it.

(I must confess to a certain identification with Brazil's da Silva because he looks like my doppelganger. The resemblance is so striking that when his picture appears in our paper my colleagues joke with me, wondering where I was over the weekend and why you never see a picture of me and da Silva together.)

Behind the IndyMac Failure

There have been events since this Register editorial on IndyMac was written (it's a local story in Southern California, with irresistible visuals of people waiting in line and angry depositors eager to be on camera). Much of it involves shenanigans like people pressured into approving loans for clearly unqualified buyers and likely to default -- but by then the bank would have collected fees, loan officers would have gotten commissions, and the mortgage would have been repackaged as a security.

It is still too little appreciated how much the government -- and "community organizing" outfits like the one Barack Obama worked for at the beginning of his career -- contributed to the subprime crisis. The reason? Constant pressure to give more mortgages to minorities and "underserved" (poor) populations, including many who really couldn't afford them. Combine that with the Fed's loose money the past several years and human greed, and you have the makings of a crisis.

It's also the case the deposit insurance creates a "moral hazard," in that bank officials can rationalize risky behavior when they know the government will make good for their depositors up to $100,000. We learned for a while after the S&L crisis of the '80s, which cost taxpayers about $150 billion, in which deposit insurance played an important role, but people forget after 20 years. It would be one thing if it were run like real insurance -- with premiums rising if the clients engaged in risky behavior and the fact being publicized -- but banks and other thrifts just pay flat fees and ultimately the taxpayers are on the hook.

Quote of the Day

"The Olympics for me ... have always been daunting because it's the most controlled new event where you have the least amount of access open to journalists. I think it's going to be a really difficult challenge for journalists to cover the stories outside of the events in addition to the events."
--John Walsh, exec vp and exec. editor, ESPN, July 5 at the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival

Olympics come at a price

And I'm not talking about what McDonald's and Coke and other companies have to pay to be sponsors (about $74 million, by the way). I'm not quite as hopeless a sports nut as my wife sometimes thinks I am, but I have a greater than average interest in athletic endeavors, even though my own accomplishments in the various sports I've tried were modest at best. So I suspect I will get caught up in the Beijing Olympics and watch more than is really good for me.

It's worth remembering, however, that the games this year will come at a price paid by Chinese beggars and street people (shipped out in droves to the provinces) and dissidents (jailed). The International Olympics Committee claimed in 2001 that giving the games to Beijing would lead to political and human-rights improvements, but whatever influence the IOC had (probably not much) was used hardly at all. China sees the games as the country's international coming-out party, and to be sure its economic growth in the last couple of decades has been remarkable. But it is still a one-party totalitarian state, and uses the totalitarian ways pretty brutally to try to improve what it sees as its image. If that means shipping thousands of beggars out of Beijing, so be it.

Here's the Register's editorial on the subject. And here's a fascinating article in the current issue of Foreign Policy that makes the argument that the Olympics do more harm than good. I don't share the author's horror at the growing commercialism of the games, but a lot of the political points he makes are quite accurate. Certainly when the IOC gives the Olympics to repressive regimes it almost always harms rather than helps the putative aspirations of serving justice and peace.

Good All-Star game

That was quite a game last night, coming pretty close to displaying athletes playing for the sake of the game, each team genuinely wanting to win and working hard. I'm glad it didn't end in the 10th (or whenever that was) because of Uggla's errors. I know there was a called error in the 15th, but I thought it was a bad call, and in any event it didn't affect the outcome of the game; whether it was an error or a base hit, the runner was on first. It lasted so long, and I just had to go into the pool afterward to stir it up a bit (don't ask), so I didn't have the energy to blog last night. Anyway, I enjoyed the game.

It strikes me that baseball is a game where a bunch of all-stars can form a semblance of a team more easily than with basketball or baseball. Basketball and football rely on plays that assume players playing together for a while for them to be most effective, which is why basketball all-star games tend to be more like playground games (at a much higher level) with the stars mostly freelancing individually (with a few exceptions). But hitting the cutoff man, pulling the infield in or adjusting the outfield for different hitters are common to all baseball teams. With the exception of double plays and the like, baseball is still inherently more individualistic.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Rich world creates the food crisis

This piece by Adam Lerrick, who's visiting at AEI, expresses about as concisely as I've seen how the rich world's governmenta essentially created the food crisis. In brief:

"Politicians legislate price supports to enrich farm voters. Lobbies extort tariffs to block cheap food imports and subsidies to underwrite food exports at prices that destroy competitors in poor countries. Conservationists have agitated to set aside productive land a pay farmers not to grow. And now green energy advocates push ethanol quotas and tax credits that divert food into fuel."

Quote of the Day

"The writer who aims at producing the platitudes which are 'not for an age, but for all time,' has his reward in being unreadable in all ages; whilst Plato and Aristophanes trying to knock some sense into the Athens of their day, Shakespeare peopling that same Athens with Elizabethan mechanics and Warwickshire hunts, Ibsen photographing the local doctors and vestrymen of a Norwegian parish, Carpaccio painting the life of St. Ursula exactly as if she were a lady living in the next street to him are still alive and at home everywhere among the dust and ashes of many thousands of academic, punctilious, most archaeologically correct men of letters and art who spent their lives haughtily avoiding the journalist's vulgar obsession with the ephemeral."
George Bernard Shaw -- The Sanity of Art, 1908

McCain's true colors

Some readers have asked what it is that conservatives and libertarians find so objectionable about John McCain on domestic policy. Considering that during the election season he has sounded almost like Phil Gramm, who was advising until he stuck his foot in his mouth, it's a not unreasonable request. He almost sounds like free-market conservative.

Of course Matt Welch's book "McCain: The Myth of a Maverick" is a pretty good source, especially on McCain's veneration of Teddy Roosevelt, the original big-government Republican (though until Bryan that wasn't that big a deal: post-civil war the Republicans were the party of big government and the Democrats advocates of limited government). But there's a more concise piece run in the New Republic in February by Jonathan Chait, who describes McCain's turnaround after the 2000 election. It's been fairly common knowledge that McCain was considering switching parties then, and perhaps it's no wonder. Chait argues that "It is no exaggeration to say that, during this crucial period McCain was the most effective advocate of the Democratic agenda in Washington."

Sound overheated? "In health care McCain co-sponsored, with John Edwards and Ted Kennedy, a patients' bill of rights. He joined Chuck Schumer to sponsor one bill allowing the re-importation of prescription drugs and another permitting wider sale of generic alternatives. . . . On the environment, he sponsored with Kerry a bill raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards and another bill with Joe Lieberman imposing a cap-and-trade regime on carbon emissions. He was also one of six Republicans to vote against drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge."

Need more? He teamed with Carl Levin on bills regarding tax shelters, accounting and use of stock options that were fiercely opposed by business lobbies, almost all Republicans and even many moderate Democrats. The fact that he voted against the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts is well known. He sponsored bills to close the gun show "loophole," expand Americorps, and federalize airport security.

The key is a Teddy Roosevelt-style progressivism that is deeply suspicious of business (especially "big business") and wedded to ever-increasing federal regulation. He's toned it down, but you see this occasionally emerge when he talks about the importance of being dedicated to something larger than self or to mere profit, or when he rails about the evils of selfishness. The cause greater is always a government project, preferably a war.

Iraq getting independent

Here's a link to my most recent column for, on the inconvenient (for the administration and a few warhawks) but growing apparent sense of independence of the Iraqi government. Maliki said last week, of course, that a status of forces agreement or relationship agreement to replace the UN resolution authorizing the presence of "coalition" troops should include a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. It's a popular position in Iraq. The White House gulped and said this is what we wanted all along, sorta, but it was hard not to detect a sense of panic. Talk about mixed feelings! McCain isn't the only one in the U.S. establishment who sees troops in Iraq as a more-or-less-permanent phenomenon.

What I missed getting in was this piece from Juan Cole's blog suggesting that what's driving the Iraqis is the desire to get rid of Blackwater and other private contractors. Remember the massacre last September, and the Iraqi demand that Blackwater be kicked out of the country? They're still there. I suspect Blackwater is an important part of Iraq's demand, but I think there's a great deal more to it.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Election update

It's not that I'm uninterested in the election. I have a love-hate relationship with politics that includes a lifelong fascination with the electoral process -- although I'm convinced "democracy" is this era's version of the "divine right ot kings:" al slogan to dupe the peasants into granting some shred of legitimacy to the brutes who rule over us. I think that perspective gives me a certain detachment when analyzing the machinations of the contending brutes.

Right now the election is in a bit of a doldrum period, but I'm blogging about it pretty steadily at the Register's Horserace'08 election blog, so if you're interested you might want to check into it. At this point it's not part of the Register's coverage plan for me to attend either convention; Steve Greenhut and Mark Landsbaum are slated to divide the two while I stay in the home office. I've always found conventions fascinating, but I'll get along just fine.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Iraqi government wants a timetable now

Well, I doubt this was what they had in mind when all those administration officials said things like we want to Iraqi government to be independent and sovereign, to reflect the wishes of the Iraqi people, and especially, when the Iraqis stand up we will stand down.

Now Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has said it would be a good idea to have a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. He didn't offer a specific timetable, just said it would be a good idea. The foreign minister followed up, more forcefully. Of course the Bush administration has gone apoplectic whenever any U.S. war critic has uttered the forbidden word, "timetable," claiming it would play right into al-Qaida's hands. Of course, al-Qaida never was much of a factor in the insurgency, but never mind; it's the preferred enemy. Now that al-Maliki has said it would be a good idea, it puts the Bushies in a bit of a box. Do they acknowledge, as they have been claiming has been happening, that Iraq is really independent of us, which is what we claimed to want?

McCain's virtual dismissal of the remarks as "political" is more revealing of McCain than he might have wanted. If they were "merely" political it suggests that al-Maliki knows that most Iraqis want the U.S. out sooner rather than later and he has to say so or risk domestic political repercussions. But if most Iraqis want us out, isn't it time to congratulate them on achieving a measure of independence, wish them luck, and start to leave? Does McCain think his opinion is more important than that of the majority of Iraqis, or that he is so wise that he has a right to override the majority in a foreign country? A bit paternalistic and colonial are we?

Jesse's mouth

Here's a link to the blog post I did for the Register this afternoon about Jesse Jackson mouthing off about Barack Obama. When I wrote it I hadn't seen the actual video but relied on another blog for an approximation of what was said. When I watched it on TV tonight, it was more like "I'd like to cut his nuts off." And the apparent context had to do with reliance on "faith-based" rather than being a direct reference to Obama's Cosbyesque Father Day speech -- although O'Reilly said they hadn't shown the entire exchange, so maybe there was some reference.

As I noted, I would hardly be amazed if Jesse harbors some deep resentment against Obama. Jesse has spent his life race-mongering and trying to be a pioneer (at least in his own estimation), and now the first black with a real shot at being president turns out to be a vague let's-get-beyond-race kind of guy.

Having seen the footage, I'm a little concerned about ethics at Fox News. Jesse was obviously whispering to his fellow guest, making what seemed to be an effort not to be overheard. Yet Fox put what he had tried to make a private moment on national television. Do they routinely have hidden cameras in the green room, or was one installed especially for Jesse? Do they warn guests there's a camera there? I understand that when you're anywhere in a TV studio you don't expect perfect privacy, but this looks a bit like an ambush. It revealed a fascinating side of the good reverend, but I wonder how ethical that was.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Attack on Iran . . . really possible?

Here's a link to my most recent column for, which tries to make some kind of sense of all the feints and rumors suggesting that an attack on Iran -- whether by Israel or Iran -- is possible before this administration leaves office. I think the Israeli exercise with planes and helicopters was a feint -- if they were serious about an attack they would have gone out of their way to make it a surprise attack, not telegraph it. I think. Still, with this administration's capacity for self-delusion and willful blindness to the possible consequences of rash actions, it's hard to feel utterly confident that the Bushlet won't do it. Chuck Pena, for whom I have a lot of respect -- his book, "Winning the Un-War," is still eminently worth reading -- thinks it is still a live possibility.

The farcical G-8 summit

Consider the collection of inflated egos assembled on Hokkaido Island in Japan for the fabled G-8 summit. They'll babble about global warming and Mugabe, about which they plan to do nothing -- setting a goal for 2050 indeed! -- and do nothing about something they could alleviate not by taking action but by ceasing to do damaging things, the global food crisis. Here's an indignant Register editorial. Better that people should starve than that a farm lobby or ethanol bandit should be offended. Speaking of which, here's a Reason blog item on the opening banquet -- eight courses featuring 19 dishes when starvation is at least peripherally on the agenda.

Surveillance outrage

Some time tomorrow, unless some unlikely civil-liberties miracle occurs, the Senate will pass the FISA-update-surveillance bill, another victory for an administration that still believes, however many times it gets its hand slapped, the president has virtually unlimited power to do whatever he likes when it comes to surveillance, regardless of what the law might say. Passage will mean no accountability for the wholesale lawbreaking the NSA surveillance program, begun shortly after 9/11, lied about, and continued until exposed, represented. It represents a notable retreat by the Democrats, led by their nominee presumptive Barack Obama.

As I've noted previously, if you view him as an unusually ambitious and skillful politician rather than as a messiah who will change the very character of politics, of course Obama would support this bill. He intends to be president, and as president he will want to have the power to do extensive surveillance, whether he ends up using it as promiscuously as Bush has or not. That's one of the insidious aspects of accretions of power by any president; the power-grabs may inspire outrage at the time or a bit later, but the next president almost never scales back the power, instead somehow finding it is not only justified but needed. It's all explained nicely in Gene Healey's book, "The Cult of the Presidency."

I wonder whether disillusionment with Obama -- already justifiably being expressed by people who supported him early and enthusiastically, will do anything to weaken support for the cult, which most Americans believe in more strongly than whatever religion they profess (since virtually all religions warn against placing too much faith in and giving too much power to mere mortals). One would like to hope so, but the hold of the cult is strong.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Obama's faith-based raise

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on Obama saying that if is elected he will expand President Bush's "faith-based" initiative. Bad for the government, worse for people of faith.

Where the U.S. learned to torture

Here is the Register's editorial on how the U.S. developed various torture techniques after 9/11. As I had mentioned previously, those who follow such issues had thought they had been adapted from the training U.S. military and CIA people in resisting torture, or at least being aware of what might be coming. The techniques tended to be what could be expected to be encountered in the Cold War with communism, and informed by the torture ("brainwashing," we preferred to call it back then) U.S. servicepeople encountered when captured by the North Koreans. So we were essentially copying the communists. Now the NYT has tracked down an old article describing Korean communist torture techniques, published in 1957, with a chart describing the techniques and their effects. The precise chart-- with the title removed -- was used to train interrogators at Guantanamo. So the communization of the U.S. military and intelligence services accelerated under a Republican president. Cheered on by people who in the old days called themselves anti-communists. Ah, the joys of Empire!

Thursday, July 03, 2008

In praise of speculation

Then sometimes you don't race to the computer because the evening has been so pleasant and rich. There's the anticipation of a three-day weekend -- and an honest one in that the fourth falls on a Friday rather than the ersatz ones our government gives us by tweaking historical dates and divorcing us ever so slightly from an appreciation of our history. And when I came home tonight, Jen asked if I would like salmon for dinner. She does it simply but deliciously, pan-frying with onions, lemons, lots of dill a little olive oil and other seasonings I'm not sure about. Of course I said yes, and we enjoyed it with spinach and a glass of nice Pinot Grigio, which has become pretty close to my favorite white wine. We had a leisurely talk, planned some of the weekend, and caught up on a few things we hadn't had much time to tell each other over the last few days.

Anyway, there's been talk of the evil role dastardly speculators might have played in the dramatic run-up in oil prices. In this column John Stossel rather nicely debunks that old populist canard (and wonders why the Republican presidential nominee has such an anti-capitalistic mentality -- nice reference to von Mises). In fact speculators tend to level out potential volatility in the market, performing a valuable function.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

McCain's battery prize idea

I neglected to link last week to this Register editorial on John McCain's big idea of giving a $300 million prize for coming up with a better battery. It's not an inherently terrible idea; prizes have prodded innovation before, quite recently with the Ansari X-Prize that may have jump-started the space tourism business. But it's likely that the reward from the marketplacewould be even bigger, so McCain's idea might be superfluous.

Reverse-engineering a torture program

Those who have paid much attention have for some time held the general opinion that the U.S. came up with its torture regimen -- "enhanced interrogation" is a euphemism, developed because the perpetrators knew it was really torture but knew the term wouldn't fly -- by studying old military manuals and programs designed to help U.S. servicemen and spooks resist communist torture, or at least have an idea of what was coming. Now the NYT has found something of a smoking gun. An old article (1957) on communist torture techniques used by the North Koreans during the Korean war contained charts. One of the manuals sent to train interrogators at Guantanamo contained exactly the same chart, showing sleep deprivation, stress positions and other techniques, with the title removed. So the U.S. essentially copied communist techniques of torture. I can't wait to hear the wave of apologies from conservative and neoconservative bloggers and writers who have defended U.S. policies or claimed it wasn't really torture. They must be chagrined to be defending communist practices all this time.

Maybe I better turn my hearing aid up.

One cheer for North Korea deal

North Korea blew up the cooling tower at its Yongbyon nuclear facility over the weekend, which made for a fine visual. Unfortunately, the declaration of activity it presented last week was months late and incomplete. I'm not sure I disagree with Bush's decision to take North Korea off the officially political list of terrorism sponsoring states -- the list is pretty phony anyway. But we don't know whether the "hermit kingdom" has another nuclear facility hidden somewhere else, and we do know they've welched on every other recent nuclear agreement. On the other hand, there are pretty clear signs that the regimes wants to emerge at least somewhat from its international isolation, and this could be a step. Anyway, here's the Register's editorial on the event, which covers some other aspects as well.

Mark Steyn wins ... for now

Had a field trip for a story on private schools last night and got back too late and too tired to blog. Sorry. Anyway, here's a link to the Register's editorial today on the Canadian Human Rights Commission's decision to dismiss a complaint against writer Mark Steyn and the Canadian magazine Macleans for committing a "hate crime" against Muslims. So far as I know the Register was the only U.S. "mainstream" paper to take note of this development, though it was a pretty big deal in Canada. A few US bloggers paid attention.

The cause for complaint was Macleans printing an excerpt from Mark's book, "America Alone" back in 2006. The excerpt argued that because of their higher birth rates, and the lower birth rates of "native" Europeans, Muslims are likely to turn Europe into "Eurabia" within a few generations. Now Mark is a warmonger and a bit of an alarmist about the Islamist threat, but he's a terrific, clever writer. However, this excerpt didn't even have his trademark sarcastic humor; it was quite sober (though I question some of the premises). But the Human Rights Commissions in Canada have become enforcers of political correctness by defining deviation as "hate." Because it's Macleans, the case has aroused a fair amount of concern among other media in Canada that they could be targets too.

It's not quite the end of the story. Each province has a commission, and the British Columbian one actually held five days of hearings and has yet to announce a decision. Mark has said he almost hopes it goes against him so he can appeal it into a real court.