Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Incoherence in Afghanistan

I suspect it's probably too late to do much about it, but I would feel remiss not warning again and again that escalating U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan is almost the epitome of a stupid, sure-to-fail policy. I called it incoherent in my column this week for Antiwar.com, but perhaps didn't pinpoint what is most egregious about Obama's policy. Instead of developing a coherent policy based on a real analysis of the situation on the ground, he compromised between possible policies -- all-out aggressive counter-terrorism and a counterinsurgency strategy involving security and lots of nation-building-confidence-building and chose a bit of both. The most egrgeious aspect is that he was compromising not between two approaches favored by different sections of the public, but by different factions within the government. It's bureaucrats (military and civilian) he feels he has to appease. Americans and Afghans will die because U.S. government bureaucrats can't admit they might have been wrong so we have to "finish what we started." Utterly immoral!

Barack as new auto industry CEO

I am just fascinated by the number of people, in blog comments and elsewhere, who see nothing especially remarkable about the president of the United States deciding who gets to be CEO of a major corporation. I know, I know . . . he who pays the piper, and all; a private lender likely would have exerted the same pressure, etc. etc. But this is the government and POTUS, with the power to imprison or execute. To me it just seems shocking, and the Register's editorial reflected that.

The WaPo's sketch writer, Dana Milbank, had a hilarious take on the situation, casting Barack as the car-salesman-in-chief. I suggested in the Register's Orange Punch blog that the system we're veering toward and on thing we really are doing in a bipartisan manner -- is not so much socialism as fascism. As the great Old Right journalist John Flynn pointed out long ago in his book "As We Go Marching," (one of my seminal influences some 40 years ago) at an economic level fascism leaves nominal business ownership in private hands but government has the power to commandeer companies and make sure they operate for the State's benefit -- the Corporate State as they called it. Fascism also sees individualism and selfishness as the worst of all possible thoughtcrimes. We got a fairly lively discussion going among commenters.

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Singing Revolution

I'm pleased to note that the documentary film, "The Singing Revolution," about the importance of the Estonian tradition of choral singing in undermining Soviet rule, is scheduled to be shown on KOCE, Orange County's PBS station, April 9 at 7:00 p.m., as part of the station's pledge drive. I saw parts of the film some years ago at a conference when the producers will still putting together the final version, and I found it well-done and remarkably moving. And the singing is excellent. There are many ways to resist tyranny, and the Estonians chose a non-violent method that was eventually successful (helped along by the internal collapse of the Soviet system, of course).

This may be as good a place as any to acknowledge the sad fact that Estonia and most of the other Eastern European countries that were freed from Soviet rule and were doing so well economically, are suffering from the global downturn, perhaps more so than Western European countries. I remember numerous triumphal articles about how instituting a "flat tax" regimen had created remarkable proisperity. Well, a flat tax wasn't a bad idea, but it turns out that credit from German, Swedish and other Western European banks was a huge underpinning of the proeperity (extended probably in part because of the flat tax). With the global downturn that credit has been cut off and ther Baltic countries are suffering, flat tax, devotion to capitalism or no. It's sad, but honesty dictat5es this acknowledgment.

Quote of the Day

"Life, faculties, production -- in other words, individuality, liberty, property -- this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place." -- Frederic Bastiat, "The Law"

The Foundation for Economic Education has distributed countless copies of Bastiat's works. I'm pleased to note, however, that it was R.C. Hoiles, who bought the Register in 1935 and was published until he died at 90 in 1970, who first paid to have Bastiat's works translated into English, way back in the 1940s. I do try to be mindful that we at the Register, however troubled the company, along with almost all other newspapers, may be at this point, are the keepers of a precious legacy of advocacy for liberty.

Obama's Afghan plan incoherent and dangerous

There has been a certain amount of criticism, but I'm mostly fascinated at just how supinely most Americans are responding to President Obama's "strategy" for Afghanistan. I suspect a certain degree of resignation is involved. We've become all too accustomed to the idea that the president can do whatever he damn well pleases, so few Americans bother complaining. I think very few people -- maybe a David Brooks, but he has an almost unblemished track record of being wrong, especially on foreign affairs -- actually believe this or any other likely strategy will "win" in Afghanistan or even have any notion of what "winning" would mean.

We probably won't see widespread protest until there's widespread coverage of U.S. futility, butAfghanistan is much larger and more mountainous than Iraq, therefore more difficult to cover (I'm re-reading Robert Kaplan's "Soldiers of God," about the mujahidin driving out the Soviets, which makes poignant poiints about how difficult it was then to do journalism.)

Well, the Register's editorial makes the appropriate points and suggests immediate demilitarization and a focus on al-Qaida rather than the Taliban. Will anybody pay ettentio?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Dangerous dynasties

Years ago, when I read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's great novel, "First Circle", which I still think was his finest work, however impressive the Gulag Archipelago is as sustained research, I was struck by the portrait of Stalin Solzhenitsyn drew. Here was the all-powerful dictator, confined to an apartment in the Kremlin, living as a paranoid, unable to trust anybody, suspicious, bitter and generally miserable. It offered a stunning insight into the price of power, and almost made you wonder why anyone with a shred of sense would want it -- or want more than just a tiny piece of it.

I got a similar feeling reading Noemie Emery's recent book, "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families," which I reviewed this week for the Register. Most of us who have paid attention know that the recent generation of Kennedys has been pretty full of ne'er-do-wells, but apparently the pattern is pretty common. Emery describes the Adamses, the Roosevelts, the Kennedys, the Bushes, with a bit of the Gores. In each case patrimonial ambitions for the family spawn to go into politics led to drunks, suicides, and generally miserable lives, even among those who had a certain amountof political success (I suspect AlGore was miserable until he got out of politics. It didn't make him any smarter to get out, but I think he's a good deal happier).

It's enough to make you wonder. Is political leadership inherently toxic, not only to those unfortunate enough to be subjects of especially ambitious leaders, but to the would-be leaders themselves? So would charm, amorality and a facility for obfuscation that sounds almost sensible rate as toxic assets?

Baracketology update redux

Of course Barack Obama is hardly the only person to get three of the Final Four wrong, and his pick to win it all, North Carolina, is still in the chase and won over Oklahoma (whom the sportscasters were lauding a few days ago). I was pleased to see Villanova win, as you might expect, but I was also pleased to see Michigan State take down Louisville (the highest overall seed, they say) almost without breaking a sweat.

He who pays the piper . . .

Of course I don't know why General Motors grossly overpaid CEO Rich Wagoner didn't step down long ago, about the time the company went hat-in-hand to the government for a bailout. But the news as of tonight is that the White House -- which has infinite experience running an auto manufacturer -- will pretty much force Wagoner to step down as part of a government- mandated restructuring of the company. We may learn more in the next several days, but at this point it looks as if a condition of getting another tranche of your money and mine -- along with Chrysler they requested $21.6 billion on top of the original $14-some billion already given to the two companies -- was dumping Wagoner.

I don't know why they didn't just allow the two companies to declare bankruptcy. One justification is that some have said nobody would buy cars from a company in bankruptcy. If current sales figures are any indication, people won't buy cars from a company on the government teat either -- although I think the current situation has a lot to do with the recession. When times are tough and you're not sure whether you'll have a job in the next few months, you postpone discretionary purchases. Since most Americans already have a car that more-or-less functions, it's not that tough a decision to put off buying a new one.

I doubt very much if the government plan to save the auto companies will be better than a private-sector plan or better than bankruptcy -- indeed, it's most likely to be worse. But when you're paying the freight you can micromanage, and that seems to be what the Obamaites want to do.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Hugo Chavez: doomed caudillo

The New Republic had a rather long but very interesting piece on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez this week. The argument is that however much Chavez may consider himself a man of the laft, a socialist or even a MArxit, he more closely resembles a rightist adherent to the "great man " theory of history promoted by Thomas Carlyle. The good news for the rest of the hemisphere (and eventually for Venezuela's residents) is that this is the kind of power that usually crumbles under pressure, and Chavez is facing a lot of pressure just now, with the decline in oil prices, the mismanagement of the Venezuelan oil business that usually follows outright nationalization, and the fact that so many opponents of his regime are students.

Go 'Nova!

Of course I'm glad that Villanova won today over Pittsburgh and made it into the Final Four, given that Villanova beat (well, pretty much destroyed) UCLA last week. So it's nice to see tham beat otheres, especially a No. 1 seed like Pitt.

In fact, the game was an exemplar, an illustration of why it's sometimes fun to watch sports even when you don't have a rooting interest. Both teams played hard and well, and it came down, literally to the last half-second. Good fun to watch. Ready for baseball.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Obama's Afghan policy a muddle

Obama speaks better than Bush, so he may have convinced a few people that his people have really thought about it and come up with a viable strategy in Afghanistan. However it is unquestionably a muddle, different only in tone and the superficial impression of apparent thoughtfulness from the Bush policy. He claims the focus is narrowed to neutralizing/destroying al-Qaida or at least making sure al-Qaida doesn't become a more serious threat the the U.S. and the west. In fact he's apparently resolved disagreement within his administration about whether to go counter-terrorist (balls-out against al-Qaida) or counterinsurgent (neutralize the Taliban by winning over the people with roads, electricity, safety, etc.) by doing both, but with nowhere near the resources needed to do either. If the goal is really to neutralize al-Qaida, there's not only no need to beef up military forces in Afghanistan (where al-Qaida isn't), it will almost certainly be counterproductive.

Quite a few people with some modicum of expertise seem to agree. The "plan" (really more a formula for muddling through and hoping for the best) doesn't address Afghan corruption. What support there is from Beltway types is lukewarm at best, butt-kissing at worst.

Hillary on Mexico -- so near and yet so far from right

As this Register editorial points out, Hillary is to be commended for a bit of honesty in noting that the U.S. bears some responsibility for the violence in Mexico these days. But half-right seems to be as close as she can get. The notion that we can quell the violence by sending more money to the Mexican government, inspecting more vehicles crossing the border, and raiding some gun shops in the Southwest is beyond ludicrous. What conspicuous enforcement most often does is to weed out the weak sisters in the drug trade, further entrenching or bringing to the fore those most adept at violence, ruthlessness, concealment.

Here's another expression of a similar point of view, and a piece written a few weeks ago by my Register colleague Steve Greenhut and one by me (note that we were several weeks ahead of the mainstream media in calling attention to this situation, and almost unique in offering a solution that might work rather than doubling-down on failed policies). And here's a link to the piece in Foreign Policy magazine alluded to in the editorial.

Obama strikes out on marijuana

Here's a blog item I posted on the Register's Orange Punch blog on how disappointing it was to see Barack Obama acknowledge the great interest people who submitted questions online for his vaunted online "town hall" meeting and then dismiss it with a couple of lame laugh lines. I can understand that he has a lot onhis plate and this might not be his first priority, but the issue deserves serious consideration rather than reaching for a guffaw or two. More than 7,000 people have died in Mexico in the last 15 months or so, largely because of our counterproductive drug war. How many more will have to die before more than a handful of politicians and the so-called "mainstream" media catch up with the public on this issue?

I long ago gave up being upset at people reflexively dismissing the idea of marijuana legalization with cheap jokes, even though over the years I have spent a fair amount of time, energy and study on the subject and understand a fair amount about just how expensive, socially corrosive, counter-productive and downright cruel prohibition is. There’s something about pot that seems to demand cheap jokes. But I still reserve the right to be mildly exasperated.

In his online “town hall” meeting President Obama, who might be expected to know better, did what most conventional politicians do, noting the intense interest in the issue of marijuana legalization among those who submitted questions online and dismissing it with a couple of weak laugh lines. I suppose he thought it made him look properly middle-America, but it’s an example of serious unseriousness. The sad thing is that anyone who has given the issue more than a few moments’ thought knows legalzation would help the economy, not only by saving the money wasted on enforcement and imprisonment, but opening up huge markets that could be taxed, not only in marijuana but hemp.

I’m not quite alone in my assessment. Freddie DeBoer growls thoughtfully. Andrew Sullivan calls it pathetic. Radley Balko defends him from criticism. Pete Guither at DrugWarRant rounds up a host of responses. Steven Taylor at PoliBlog is also exasperated. And not surprisingly, the good folks at the Marijuana Policy Project are not pleased. I don’t know what it will take for the “mainstream” media to begin to take this issue seriously.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Newspaper troubles continue

With the announcement that newsroom salaries will be cut 5% and about 100 people laid off at the New York Times, the crisis in the newspaper biz got a little deeper. This site, however, has a lit of 10 newspapers that will survive the coming shakeout and might even be worth it for an investor to buy (somebody just bought the SD Union-Tribune at a fire-sale price. The Register wasn't on the list, but I don't think it's likely it will be for sale -- and I do think it will survive. But times are plenty tough. We've just had to cut departmental budgets again, layoffs are possible, and everybody company-wide will have to take a week of unpaid furlough this quarter. I hope that's enough to prevent further layoffs. We're making progress with hyper-local sections bringing in advertisers who can't use or afford the entire run of the paper, as well as a "create your own ad" online feature. But I don't think anybody really knows for sure what's going to work.

Reaching for more arbitrary power

The Obama administration has announced, with TreasSec little Timmy Geithner confirming it on Capitol Hill that they're reaching seriously, that it wants to give the government the same authority to seize and run all kinds of financial institutions the same way the FDIC now has the power to seize banks, try to work off the bad paper and either close them or sell them. The FDIC does this ona fairly regular basis now, though it's almost always small banks that it seizes. When there was a widespread problem with S&Ls in the 1980s (a problem set up by the government when it increased the amount of deposits the FDIC insured, thereby putting all the risk on the taxpayers and inviting S&Ls to behave more riskily than they otherwise would have), the government set up a special temporary agency. the Resolution Trust Corp., to handle the problem and then go out of business. But the keepers of Obama Nation want this power to be permanent.

As this Register editorial argues, not only would the move expand the power of the Federal Reserve, which was the main cause of the financial crisis in the first place (but in government nothing succeeds like failure), it would keep any number of businesses that would do better to go bankrupt or out of business sputtering along on the taxpayers' dime, diverting cap[ital and other resources from more productive uses. Expect stagnation if this stinker passes.

DEA raids another medical cannabis dispensary

I suppose we shouldn't expect the drug warriors, whose salaries depend on keeping the thing going, to go away. But it's especially appalling to note that the DEA raided another medical marijuana dispensary Wednesday night -- a week after Attorney Gen. Eric Holder confirmed that Obama administration policy would be not to go after patients and providers in states with medical marijuana laws. The DEA thug in charge of the raid of Emmalyn's California Cannabis Clinic in San Francisco claimed they have evidence the clinic was violating state law as well as federal law, which would put it out of Holder's halo of protection. But of course the info is sealed and they can't discuss any of it in detail. The fact that it has a provisional license from the city govt. makes that claim unlikely, but it's possible I suppose. The fact that no local or state police agency participated in the raid makes it even less likely, however.

This emphasizes that the request from the judge in the Charles Lynch case for written clarification of the new policy from the Justice Dept. is very important. Until there's a written directive, there's the danger of rogue DEA agents continuing to try to undermine state medical marijuana law on the pretext that dispensaries are just fronts for recreational sales are are operating in violation of state law. After all, these guys are confirmed rug warriors, nd a lot of them sincerely believe that hard-nosed enforcement is the only thing saving the country from dire peril. I've noted previously that there have been far fewer prosecutions than there have been raids, which suggests strongly that the raids are more like domestic terrorism than legitimate law enforcement (not that the federal laws prohibiting (some) drugs are constitutionally legitimate, but that's another story.).

Quote of the Day

"The beautiful thing about learning is nobody can take it away from you." -- B.B. King

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Not only Charles Lynch's problem

The Register editorial on the request by the judge in medical marijuana dispensary proprietor Charles Lynch's trial for clarification from the US Justice Dept. points out some aspects few others have noted as of yet. At least a couple of dozen dispensary proprietors are under investigation. Presumably those cases will be dropped (the feds have actually not prosecuted that many, but have terrorized quite a few). Some have been indicted and are awaiting trial. Will those cases be dropped? And of course about two dozen are now serving time. Will their sentences be commuted?

Obama's wily words

Here's a link to the Register's editorial on President Obama's news conference the other evening. We had limited space so had to get to basics right away -- namely that he keeps calling spending "investment" and seems to see the country as USA Inc. with him (a person with zero business experience) as CEO. And he still sees more spending and looser credit as a cure for a problem created by overleveraging and too-loose credit. Huh???

Drug law reform in the air

The pace of drug law reform is beginning to be almost breathtaking. New York legislators, after years of effort and a number of false starts, have voted to repeal the worst aspects of the notorious "Rockefeller" drug laws passed in the 1970s, which featured some of the harshest mandatory minimum sentences for mere possession of small amounts of drugs. Alternative sentencing, to treatment instead of prison, will be increased. Some details remain to be worked out, but this is big news.

Meanwhile, in Minnesota a medical marijuana bill cleared the House Public Safety Committee and appears to be on its way toward legislative approval. Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper has been doing yeoman work supporting it. In Maine, which has had a medical marijuana law on the books, there's a move to create state-licensed stores.

In Maryand a state legislator is pushing a bill to require the creation of a state task force to study medical marijuana. In New Hampshire, where legislatoirs have tried and failed to pass a medical marijuana bill several times recently, another effort is underway and supporters think it has a better chance this time. In New Jersey a medical marijuana bill has bassed the state senate but faces an uncertain fate in the assembly, though Gov. Jon Corzine says he would sign it. Michigan's medical marijuana law officially goes into effect April 4.

And so it goes.

Who's socialist now?

This news is fascinating. In Sweden, long touted as a soft-socialist model that the U.S. really should emulate, the auto company Saab is in trouble and looking to the government for some possible help. But the country's enterprise minister, Maud Olofsson has said, "The Swedish state is not prepared to own car factories. Meanwhile, the U.S. government, under a putatively Republican administration, could hardly wait to bail out Detroit automakers. So who's closer to being a socialist state?

To be sure after decades under Social Democrats, Sweden now has a right-leaning government that, if not determined to roll back socialism, at least resists further state intervention and ownership. And when I posted an item on this phenomenon on the Register's Orange Punch blog, a commenter pointed out that Saab is owned by GM, so it's not quite the patriotic icon it once was. Still, there are plenty of workers in Trollhatten, where the plant is located, eager to complain to reporters about how hard-hearted the Swedish government is.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Charles Lynch in limbo

It's almost exhausting but certainly pleasing to have more developments in the drug law reform area going on than I can keep up with. It will be fascinating to see how Charles Lynch's case turns out. He's the Morro Bay CA medical marijuana dispensary operator who was scheduled to be sentenced Monday after being convicted on five counts that could carry a sentence up to 100 years -- but the judge postponed sentencing and requested written clarification of the new policy announced by AG Eric Holder to the effect that the feds will stop going after patients and providers in states with medical marijuana laws. This will force the Justice Dept. to put some flesh on those bones. Some of the best coverage of the case has been done by Reason.TV, especially this short documentary featuring Drew Carey, and this, this and this. Register editorial will run tomorrow.

Obama wearing out his welcome already?

I had to stay late to listen and write tomorrow's editorial on President Obama's news conference this evening. The questions were pretty pedestrian and all too respectful, and the answers were pretty pedestrian as well. I'm beginning to wonder. Various biographical pieces have suggested that the U. of Chicago Law School made a strong effort to have him become a full-time faculty member, but I wouldn't be surprised if he wasn't much of a lecturer. He's undoubtedly smart but he goes on and on, almost trying to show off that he grasps complexities and nuances, but not really offering all that much meat, and with a tendency toward condescension. And of course the more we get to know him the more we understand what a thorough statist he is, eager to use the power of the state to manipulate the world and lead the economy. If he really believes that pap he can't be all that smart. Here's the blog item I did for the Register's Orange Punch.

Tolstoy's Waltz features multi-talented Russians

Until I ran across this fascinating CD titled Tolstoy's Waltz, I didn't know that Leo Tolstoy ("War and Peace," et. al.) had written music, but the waltz here is quite charming. Three pieces by Boris Pasternak ("Dr. Zhivago" and great poetry) are also featured, a bit more adventurous and modern, probably the most interesting of all the pieces. though he wrote music only in his youth. All of the Russians were famous for something other than writing music, though one might expect Sergei Diaghilev and George Balanchine to have dabbled in a little music in their possibly misspent youths. The other three, Vladimir Odoyevsky, a writer/philosopher, and Vasily Polenov and Pavel Fedotov, both painters, I had never heard of, but thanks to Google ... they wrote charming little salon-style pieces or songs.

Lera Auerbach (also a composer) plays the piano in a demonstration that having one talent doesn't preclude having another. I'm not sure I would want any of the music I wrote as a teenager, when one plan was to become a diplomat and write memorable tone poems describing each of the countries in which I served, but there's no danger of that. It's safely gone.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Drug policy action

The Drug Policy Action Network branch of the Drug Policy Alliance has two action items underway that I recommend very highly. One involves sending a message to Kellogg's asking for a meeting with drug policy reformers. As I've noted, Kellogg's public image actually took a hit when it suspended its endorsement contract with Michael Phelps after the latter was photographed with what appeared to be a marijuana bong. It might behoove Kellogg's (which was founded as a health-promoting company, believe it or not) to meet with reformers and learn a little bit about why it is less popular after doing the "right thing" in terms of conventional wisdom.

The other is to send a message to Congress urging it to eliminate federal marijuana laws and let the states -- which have traditionally regulated health issues, a tradition that is far from entirely dead -- decide what kind of marijuana policies they want. This is the kind of bold suggestion I like to see drug reformers take. I've advocated taking marijuana off Schedule I numerous times, but this is a much better idea. It would be wonderful to see Congress get a lot of e-mails on this.

No talk with Loretta Sanchez

The Obama event last week did not offer the opportunity to talk with Rep. Loretta Sanchez, as I had hoped it might. I'll try to call her office this week and see if we can't set up a meeting to talk seriously about her comment on CNN that it might be time for California to give marijuana legalization a try.

Saving the banks?

I posted the following on the Register's Orange Punch blog:

Just in case you want more information than anyone could possibly want about Tim Geithner’s latest plan to save the banks from themselves, here is the Treasury Department’s official news release on the plan and Geithner’s op-ed in the WSJ. Paul Krugman at the NYT is spitting mad because it isn’t socialist enouogh, while Brad DeLong is a little more optimistic. I talked with Alan Reynolds at Cato, who said it is a bit less-worse than most of the previous efforts, which tanked the stock market. Peter Wallison at AEI, who had sounded the alarm about Fannie and Freddie for years, thinks he has a plan for pricing the er, “legacy” assets, while Alex Pollack recommends a genuinely independent quasi-corporation along the lines of the Depression-era Reconstruction Finance Corp.

Seems to me that taxpayers assume a lot of risk, especially if they’re guaranteeing the private-sector investors Geithner hopes to lure into this scheme. But short of letting a few bad banks fail, which would have been the way to handle it if the Bushies hadn’t panicked back in September, this might work, at least for a while. Of course we’ll have to see how many private investors want a piece of the action considering Congress’s proclivity, as shown in the bonus-tax legislation in the House last week, for changing the rules midway through the game.

Oil and Afghanistan

Obama is expected to announce an Afghan strategy soon, perhaps as soon as this week, and it looks as if it's going to involve "nation-building" over the next 3 to 5 years. Sheer foolishness. So I wrote about it for Antiwar.com again this week. I've already gotten several nasty responses from Antiwar readers suggesting I'm just incredibly naive for questioning whether Afghan and other American wars are really "all about oil," or chiding me for being unaware that we've already passed the "peak oil" tipping point -- I'm aware of the theory but not entirely convinced. I have no doubt that lust for oil plays a role, but I argue that going to war is perhaps the worst possible way to acquire "cheap oil." Oil may come along with it, but it ain't cheap if you factor in the cost of the military adventures (not to mention the lives lost). The best way to get access to oil is not to send occupation forces but to buy it. Quaint concept.

Scotch whiskey producers going green

This summary is from PERC, the Property and Environment Research Center, the font of free-market environmentalism, market-based approaches to environmental conundrums and all kinds of good things. I haven't been to one of their seminars since 1984, but I cherish the memory -- challenging concepts, good fellowship, good food, and marvelous scenery and recreational opportunities at a Montana dude ranch.

How could anyone resist a story of good Scotch and good stewardship? The worldwide downturn may affect this initiative negatively before long, but it turns out that rich Asians, especially in China, love good Scotch, and consumption worldwide has increased 15 percent in the last 10 years, leading to expanding the industry. So in Speyside, Scotland, a consortium of distillers plans a biomass-powered heating and electricity plant. It will be powered by wood chips and something called draff, a solid grain product that is removed from the mash before fermentation, and is expected to produce enough electricity to power the plants and 9,000 homes. They're also adding a plant to turn pot ale, another by-product that had previously been discarded, into a concentrated organic fertilizer.

For more first-hand information, go here. For more on Scotch, my favorite whisky, in general, try here and here.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Our love for leaders

The Obama appearance in Costa Mesa this week impelled me to write this piece for the Register's Sunday Commentary section on the abiding love for leaders, maybe even mings abnd queens, which may be imprinted in the human DNA but is not necessarily good for us. If I do say so, I think this is one of my better recent efforts. The two bo0oks mentioned are Gene Healy's "The Cult of the Presidency" and Josiah Ober's "Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens."

Bonus mess reflects poorly on all involved

It wasn't supposed to turn out that way, but the AIG bonus situation is turning out to taint everybody who even sticks his hand into the jar. Obama jumped in with pandering, but several observers are now saying that part of the fallout will include making things even more difficult than expected when it comes either to gettingn his budget passed or getting further stimulus packages approved. This Register editorial mentions a few who came off stinking like week-old fish, and how they deserved opprobrium.

It's still a bit mysterious to me why this particular set of bonuses, admittedly hardly typical corporate practice, set off such a firestorm. I suspect there's something kinda cumulative going on. People have been having second thoughts about the whole magilla -- bailouts, pork spending called stimulus, baigger spending yet, failure to get serious about the bank crisis -- and were just ready to explode in disapproval. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Wait 'til next year!

Actually it's much too early to tell about next year yet. We don't even know whether Jrue Holliday will stay, although it would almost certaino6y be in his interest to spend at least another year in college, both because of what he will learn and gain in experience, and therefor in terms of his draft position and starting salary. Assuming he stays and gets better , the othger freshmen develop and Dragovich becomes a leader, it should be a solid team, though maybe not a deep-into-the-tournament team. Or it might just be a top ten team. How's that for brave prognostication?

What is clear is that Villanova admninistered an old-fashioned ass-whupping on the Bruins yesterday. I believe in respecting opponents and being able to admire what they do well, but this was painful to watch. At least the Bruins weren't acting as if they had given up toward the end, but for whatever reason they never had close to Villanova's energy. And I have to admit that while Villanova played hard and physical, they didn't really play dirty.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Down by 13 at the half -- but I'm not giving up

Of course I have to admit that Villanova has played with more intensity and perhaps even smarter so far. Also, what the commentators call the typical "physical" play of the Big East can look more like thuggishness: they don't just foul you to keep you from the basket, they put you on the floor. UCLA will have to give as good as they get in the second half, which I think they can do though it might surprise some. Still, the lead was bigger at various times, UCLA went through a period of almost total ineffectiveness that they seem to have snapped out of. Not guaranteeing anything, but it shold be at least competitive in the second half.

Troubles at the Philadelphia Orchestra

It is sad to read that the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra, which appeared in and played Disney's "Fantasia" film and developed a justly famous lush string sound under the legendary Eugene Ormandy, seems to be in some trouble just now. It doesn't have a permanent board chairman, chief executive officer or music director -- the lack of a music director being the biggest problem. It had to cancel a planned European tour for this summer, reduce salaries and cut some administrative staff.

The Philadelphia is hardly the only classical music institution hit by the recession. Opera Pacific in Orange County had to close not long ago. But many of its troubles seem to be unique to it. I think Christoph Eschenbach, who served as conductor five years until last year, had a good deal to do with it. I was never impressed by his musicianship and apparently he was unable to establish much chemistry with the players. Charles Dutoit, a fine conductor, is filling in temporarily. Don't know if he would be considered for the job permanently or not.

I hope they get their act together and reestablish the orchestra's preeminence. The first classical LP I ever bought, longer ago than I care to remember, was the famous Serenade for Strings with Ormandy conducting album, with Tchaikovsky, Mozart, and, of course, Samuel Barber's magnificent and moving Adagio.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dispensary raids likely to end

Attorney Gen. Eric Holder has announced that the feds will quit raiding dispensaries and medical grows in states with medical marijuana laws. Naturally, the Register noted that he hedged it just a bit, and called for taking marijuana off Schedule I so doctors can prescribe it countrywide -- a step or two ahead of just about everybody else, of course. If I had my druthers, marijuana would have the same legal status as, say, parsley, but I wouldn't be too displeased if they decided to regulate it similarly to alcohol, which of course is much riskier, as Tom Ammiano has suggested in California. But I'll take what we can get. I still think Holder might have an inner drug warrior, so it's worth keeping an eye on him.

I note that Cato emphasized that this decision respects federalism. That's an aspect many still misunderstand. One news story said federal law "supersedes" state law, which just isn't so. I was at the Supreme Court when they argued the Oakland case, and Justice Ginsburg asked the government attorney why the doctrine of federal supremacy was not being invoked. She replied that this was simply one of many cases where state laws and federal laws are different, and law enforcement at each level is bound to enforce the laws of the jurisdictions to which they are sworn. (I would contend that if they took the oath to the constitution federal agents wouldn't enforce federal laws, which are unconstitutional, but I wouldn't depend on any current court -- well, maybe certain panels on the 9th Circuit -- to go along with me on that.)

Obama's Baracketology as good as his stimulus program

On the eve of his trip to Southern California, Barack Obama took some time out to go on ESPN and pick winners in the NCAA tournament (for which he took some criticism I thought was unwarranted) -- and picked both USC and UCLA to lose in the first round and the Pac-10, widely considered a relatively weak conference this year, to go 1-5 in the first round. So much for the First Fan's powers of prognostication. USC and UCLA both won (if a little close for comfort in the Bruins' case) and the Pac-10 went 5-1 -- and Cal really should have won too; don't know why they were so listless. He also picked Ohio State to beat Siena, which didn't pan out either. UCLA plays Villanova tomorrow morning, in Philadelphia, in a building where Nova plays at leasst three games a year. I'm hoping the Bruins recover from an inconsistent performance Thursday and really show something.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

AIG bonuses -- another view

Daniel Drezner, of Tufts and Foreign Policy magazine, has a nice little post (that agrees with my views expressed earlier) that the AIG bonus issue involves much more distraction than substance. Of course it reflected a certain cluelessness on the part of AIG as to how it would play out -- though in truth it is always difficult to predict what will catch public attention and resonate, even for people who have been at the game a long time -- and of course there's a certain outrageousness to giving the bonuses to people who made huge mistakes. But the real outrage is the bailout itself, compared to which the bonus money is minuscule.

Small-scale trade war beginning?

I have been warning for some time, in various venues, about the possibility of a trade war developing from this global economic downturn. It's sad to report that it just might be coming true, although various trade agreements might moderate its intensity short of the kind of disaster created by Smoot-Hawley that lengthened and deepened the Great Depression. And it's even sadder to report that the United States has initiated one through its utterly unjustifiable and short-sighted decision to stop the pilot program of allowing Mexican long-haul trucks to operate in the U.S. rather than requiring them to change loads twice before U.S. truck finish the run. I think this Register editorial explains the situation reasonably well.

Whew!! 65-64 heartstopper -- but take that, Barack!

Well, you sure hope this was the kind of perhaps unnecessarily tough first round game that steels the Bruins for the next one -- and the one after that. But that inconsistency after being up by as much as 11 is hardly reassuring. And on Saturday it's almost Villanova's home floor, and they were tough enough to come back from down and win it tonight. I must admit that Eric Maynor of Virginia Commonwealth is a helluva player, and I was deathly afraid he was going to make that last shot. But Collison played solid defense without fouling, and we barely squeaked through. Holliday seems to having his shooting confidence back, Aboya was tough, but Shipp was the indispensable man tonight. I don't know what to think about the rest of the tournament -- the news that Freshman Drew Gordon, who has played well sometimes, has a concussion, is hardly encouraging. but a W is a W.

The shout-out, of course, is due to the fact that President Obama in his televised tournament picks, had UCLA losing in the first round -- though with a question mark. And on the eve of visiting SoCal! He also had USC losing, and it would be sweet if he were proven wrong on that one as well.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Sad days for newspapers: a little insight

Yesterday the Seattle Post-Intelligencer converted to an Internet-only news source -- but with a 20-person newsroom rather than 156. Who knows, that just might be the future of news gathering. Newspaper newsrooms are probably still somewhat padded even after all the layoffs, but 156 people can cover more news than 20 people can. Here's a Register editorial memorializing the sad event, with comments on the SF Chronicle and what I hope is a little bit of insight into why newspapers find themselves in trouble just now -- though it doesn't mention just how arrogant we were when our business model was working and providing profit margins of 20% and more. We're a lot less arrogant now.

Obama: impressive but incoherent

The event with Barack Obama today was quite interesting, although people who watched it on TV probably got a better sense of the man than those of us relegated to the print (and blog) portion of the media mob. We got to sit at long tables with plugs for power cords -- behind the risers set up for the TV and still cameras. It's obvious at most political events and has been for years that TV is more important to politicians than the near-obsolete print media, but it was really obvious at this event. From our spot we could see exactly nothing except the rear ends of some cameramen (they're still almost always men) and they didn't even provide a TV monitor. We could hear, however. And the amateur guards were officious.

Word is that the OC Fair folks got the word Friday that Obama wanted to do an event on Wednesday, so it was obviously set up rather hastily. The building was far from suitable, essentially a big barn-like structure usually used for trade shows and the like, with terrible acoustics (if any).

Must say Obama handled the event very well, and the audience was utterly gaga for him. If one expected intellectual coherence, however, one had come to the wrong place. I wonder if he actually believes this stuff. The financial crisis was caused by the banks being mysteriously loose with credit (the government played no role in this explanation) and the cure is to get credit markets going again with $1 trillion from the govt. and subsidize refinancing. I thought law professors were supposed to value at least a modicum of logic.

Here are the blogs Steve Greenhut and I produced on the event. Editorial here, with a little more detailed critique of the event.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A post-imperial America?

Fareed Zakaria, of all people, in Newsweek of all places, suggests strongly that the time has come to wind down the American empire -- not as strongly as I would, of course, but nonetheless . . . . I guess I'd better get my book done quickly to stay ahead of the polict discussion.

Hoping to talk to Loretta Sanchez

Santa Ana Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez will, of course, be in the arena for President Obama's visit to Costa Mesa tomorrow, and I hope to get a chance to talk with her about her recent CNN appearance where she suggested that California might do well to take the lead on legalizing marijuana. How did she arrive at this position? Has she trolled for support for the idea? Does she think it would help to reduce the current violence in Mexico that is spilling over into the U.S.? What kind of response has she gotten? Has she talked to key legislators in California (Ammiano for one)?
I hope to be able get answers to those and more questions if possible.

President Obama comes to town

Well, tomorrow is shaping up to be an interesting day. It's not every day that the President of the United States (yes, I still would like to see the office and institution diminished in power and celebrity, but it is what it is) comes to an area in which you are the dominant media outlet, and the Register looks to be positioned to make something of it. So far as we know Steve Greenhut and I will be in the room for Obama's town hall in Costa Mesa tomorrow at 4:00 PST (though confirmation of our media credentials hasn't been officially confirmed as of when I left the office tonight). Given that it's supposed to be a "citizen" town hall we still don't know if they'll let the media ask questions, and we also don't know if we'll be able to bring in laptops to blog in real time. But we will be there, prepared to do an editorial for Thursday and columns for Sunday, and some blogging along the way on Orange Punch, the Register's opinion blog. I also don't know how many newsroom people will be in the room. But we'll cover it like a blanket. So please check Orange Punch and the Register's main news page. Of course print will still be second fiddle to TV, but we hope to be able to offer the kind insight and commentary TV simply can't offer.

A fair amount has been made of the supposed boldness of Barack Obama in venturing into Orange County, which has the reputation of being one of the most Republican places on earth. That's much less true than it has been in the past -- I think Obama pulled 48% in November and the demographics have been changing for at least 20 years; we may even be a "majority minority" place now. And judging by people willing to wait overnight last night for tickets, there are a lot of Obama fans in the county.

I'll probably be home later than usual tomorrow night, but should be able to record some thoughts and impressions here in the evening.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Still ambivalent about the drug czar

I must confess to going back and forth about the prospects for real reform of the unjust and counterproductive drug prohibition laws under President Obama -- and perhaps a little less optimistic even than a couple of weeks ago, when the name of Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske was floated to be "drug czar." On the one hand, he has cooperated with the voter-mandated policy of making marijuana enforcement the lowest priority of the police department, he has kept the police at a distance during the city's annual Hempfest celebration, standing on the outskirts to watch for possible signs of disruption but not making a move to arrest or bother the hordes of people lighting up, and he has cooperated in the city's needle-exchange program for heroin addicts. Washington has a medical marijuana law and Kerlikowske doesn't seem to have worked to undermine it. He has said, and observers have said that under him the emphasis of the "czar's" office will focus more on prevention and demand reduction than incarceration and even interdiction. And he's made some of the right enemies.

On the other hand, he has hardly been a crusader for drug law reform, as his predecessor as Seattle chief, Norm Stamper, has become. (It does seem to be the case that police and people in law enforcement tend to see the unwisdom of drug prohibitiuon after they have retiured -- their careers done and their pensions secure. All the more reason I have so much respect for my friend Judge James P. Gray, who began questioning prohibition in the early 1990s, when he was still a sitting judge; he only retired last year. I know his decision hurt his career.) And the word is that Joe Biden, an unreflective drug warrior who sponsored the bill to create the "drug czar" position, will play an active role in drug policies. Furthermore, they're talking about focusing on problems emerging from the bloody drug-police-cartel war in Mexico without a hint that they understand that U.S. encouragement has increased the violence and the least dangerous course would be to legalize drugs and reduce the monstrous profits.

But then there's Loretta Sanchez, not someone I ever expected to be a leader on an important issue, taking what is potentially a leadership position. Maybe she's found her issue? I hope so.

Then again, I happened to be at a Drug Policy Alliance function shortly after Bill Clinton was elected, and most everybody there was anticipating a new and more sensible day dawning. As we know, however, he set new records for federal marijuana arrests and prosecutions.

Keep your powder dry, pitchforks at the ready.

AIG bonuses: a side issue and a distraction

I couldn't believe (almost) that President Obama got so worked up over the AIG bonuses and promised to try to reverse them. Pardon me if it looks like pure populist pandering to me, and far beneath him -- as if any pandering is below any politician.

Of course I was opposed to "rescuing" AIG with taxpayer money in the first place, and it seems pretty apparent that it hasn't worked. And on the general "he who pays the piper calls the tune" principle, the government, having funneled billions, might seem to have a legitimate interest in telling AIG how to run its business. Specifically, however, as I understand it not all of AIG is unprofitable; some branches of the company are still quite profitable. And some of their executives had contractual arrangements prior to the bailout to the effect that if they performed to certain standards they would get bonuses. Even Tim Geithner and Larry Summers acknowledged that there were valid contractual arrangements that the government didn't have the power to void -- especially since that kind of micromanagement wasn't written into the TARP bill that was used to bail out AIG (differently from the way TARP was sold, if you want to talk about at least implied contractual arrangements). So the government doesn't seem to have any legal leverage here.

All that said, it would have been far preferable if at least a few AIG executives had said that considering the bailout and the predictable public perception, that they weren't going to take the bonuses. But we seem to live in a culture in which adhering to the letter of the law is considered the same as being moral, which is hardly the case -- indeed, a case can be made that the opposite is true. So Obama had his populist moment delivered to him on a silver platter.

Veering off-course in Afghanistan

I think I said previously that I would probably be returning to the subject of Afghanistan and the likelihood of escalating U.S. involvement in the war there, and sure enough, it seems appropriate to do so again. Although the Obamaites say they're sending that additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan just to try to improved stability a tad while they rethink the issue, as I explained in my most recent column for Antiwar.com, it doesn't look as if they are rethinking it deeply enough to suit me (as if that matters to them).

As I and a few others have suggested, the important thing to remember is that al-Qaida and the Taliban are not one and the same, that the Taliban is an indigenous Afghan outfit while al-Qaida has international ambitions. Our core interest in Afghanistan, therefore, whoever nominally rules there, is that al-Qaida not be able to use the country as a base from which to plan attacks on the U.S. (and Western Europe). They're not able to do so now, so the best course would be to remove our military forces, which have about as much chance of prevailing as the Russians in the 1980s and the British in the 19th century, and inform whoever reigns in Kabul that if we detect al-Qaida activity we'll take it out by whatever means promises to work, and might, if we feel like it, give the nominal government maybe five minutes' notice. But it looks as if the Obama administration is preparing for a long-term commitment

Avoiding jury duty -- again

I just got back home from another day of being called but not having to serve on jury duty. It took longer than it sometimes has, in that I was among a pool asked to report to a second location where they apparently hold civil trials, after lunch. Although they didn't tell us why we were dismissed for another year, it was probably because the attorneys in the case decided to settle -- or not to go to trial the next day.

It was nowhere near so dramatic as the last time I was called. I got very close to going on a trial in which, from what I could tell, I would probably have voted to convict. But when they asked the key question -- will you follow and abide by the law as explained by the judge scrupulously and without exception? -- I said I probably would but I couldn't guarantee it. That's because I believe as a juror and a free American I have the right to interpret the law myself, and if I think applying it in a specified way will lead to an injustice, I have the right to vote according to my conscience rather than according to the law and the judge's instructions.

The prosecuting attorney and I then had about a five-minute colloquy, in which I explained that as a newspaperman I was especially attached to this right of jurors because of my belief that the jurors who voted not to convict John Peter Zenger (I won an award named after him a few years ago) of libeling the government in colonial America led to our freedom of the press. However juries are instructed now, this is a proud tradition that also resulted in many slaves not being returned to their masters when slavery was still the law in part of the country. This all took place in front of a large courtroom filled with prospective jurors. He asked if I had ever heard of "jury nullification," and I said had, of course, though I preferred the term "jury rights." He then asked the judge to dismiss me for cause but the judge, who seemed quite amused by the whole proceeding, declined to do so, and he had to use one of his peremptories to dismiss me as I was walking toward the jury box. I don't know if saying similar things would have gotten me dismissed in a civil case.

I don't recommend doing this yourself unless you really believe in it and know a little more about it. A good source of information is the Fully Informed Jury Association (FIJA) and Cato's book titled "Jury Nullification."

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Further confusing First Amendment jurisprudence

It was a couple of weeks ago, but it seems to me that in the case of City of Pleasant Grove, v. Summum, the Supreme Court acted very politically -- coming out with a decision that everybody wanted and that most people might say comports with common sense, or at least with what most cities would probably prefer, at the expense of anything resembling a coherent principle, further muddling First Amendment jurisprudence. The small city in Utah has all kinds of memorials in its city park -- historic and such -- including a Ten Commandments monument donated atround 1959 by a private group. A "new age" religion called Summum requested permission to erect a monument with its Seven Principles and the city turned them down.

The Supreme Court rejected Summum's argument that it was a matter of free speech to which it had a right in the "public forum" that was the city park. The court said it was the government's park and the government had the right to decide what could be put there permanently. But that seems to make the Ten Commandments monument "government speech." Could it then be removed on establishment grounds. I think the issue is far from settled, and the Supreme Court, which is supposed to provide guidance on confusing matters, has muddied the waters again.

Earmarks: hypocrisy all around

You've got to love that Barack Obama gave a speech denouncing earmarks the very same day he sighed (away from the cameras) a spending bill containing over 8,500 earmarks. Here's the Register's editorial on the occasion, which I think actually bent over backwards to be fair to the earmarkers. But of course it's way out of hand. And of course even now, although the Republicans claim to have gotten fiscal religion after eight years of backsliding under Bush, they received 40% of the earmarks, and most of the most vigorous seekers of earmarks were Republicans.

To be sure, earmarks are a tiny part of the massive federal budget -- 1-3% of discretionary spending -- but are still indicative of a spending system out of control.

Freedom of choice to be undermined?

Here's a piece I did for the Register on the Employee Free Choice Act, or "card check," which seems to be unionized labor's major legislative priority for this year. Under the bill, if a majorioty of emplyees sign a card saying they're interested in having a union, then it's in -- not option for a secret-ballot election. A huge irony. Both unions and management say they're interested in preventing intimidation. But a secret ballot is certainly a better preventive against intimidation than a situation where union organizers can come to your home with a card and say "how 'bout it?".

Well, maybe if the unions get this one they'll be less intense about seeking protectionism during a global downturn, which just might tip it into a global depression.

At a tipping point on marijuana?

I've seen wild anticipation in the drug reform community before, but maybe, just maybe, it's getting close to the time when the tide will turn. Loretta Sanchez, Congresswoman from Santa Ana, last week came right out and said it's time to experiment and California is probably the place to test the legalization of marijuana in some form or another. Of course as a federal legislator she has no control over California law. But she is chair of a subcommittee on border security of the Homeland Security Committee. Perhaps she has looked at all the violence in Mexico, spilling over into the United States, and determined, as Steve Greenhut, I and at least a few others have, that the best way to neutralize and defuse the violent cartels there is to legalize and reduce the profit margins exponentially.

Some months ago Kathy Smith and a few others of us (I think Judge Jim Gray was along) visited Loretta's district office and urged her administrative assistant to urge her to get out front on marijuana reform. We were mainly talking about halting federal raids on California medical marijuana dispensaries, but the conversation was pretty wide-ranging. I have no idea whether this visit played a role in her decision to go out front on this issue, but one can hope. At least we made the effort.

Family business

It's been a family business weekend, though hardly one full of unpleasant chores. We went to San Diego yesterday to joine Jen's brother Joe and his wife Alane, who had taken their RV to Campland on Mission Bay. Spent a pleasant day there (though it was mostly overcast and not especially warm) and ate corned beef and cabbage with green beer in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day. Campland really is a pleasant -place to vacation -- lots of activities and nice people.

Then today we had chores and shopping to do and didn't get back until fairly late. Perhaps it was just as well. I might have been inclined to be in a funk about UCLA losing on Friday. Can't do anything about it except to congratulate the Trojans and hope for a better-than-seeded run in the NCAA Tournament.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Down by 5 at the half -- maybe not bad

I have to give USC a lot of credit. They came out with more intensity and dominated the first part of the half pretty decisively, going up by as much as 11. And when we pulled to within 3 they went on another run. Considering how hard (and skillfully) they were playing, I'm modestly encouraged to be down by "only" 5 at the half. But it will take the kind of lock-down defense the Bruins showed at times last night to win this thing.

Of course USC has nothing to lose and (maybe) everything to gain by winning tonight. It just might give them a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament, whereas the Bruins are already in, though hardly guaranteed a good seed.

Arizona State, which has beaten UCLA twice this year, was impressive in beating Washington, the champion after league play, in the first game. This is shaping up to be a terrific tournament.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Of course there's no Israeli lobby

This post, which I put up earlier today at the Register's Orange Punch blog, says pretty much what I wanted to say about the decision of Charles "Chas" Freeman (got to like that name!) withdrawing from consideration for a top Intelligence position, so I'm cross-posting it here:

The withdrawal of former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and China Charles W. “Chas” Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council, which prepares those sometimes controversial, often-politicized National Intelligence Estimates, has raised anew questions about the possible power in Washington of what we might call the Israeli Lobby. I don’t know Freeman, but by most accounts he is very bright and rather opinionated. He’s one of the unusual denizens of Washington willing to criticize Israeli policy in public, as in a 2005 speech to the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations, referring to Israel’s “high-handed and self-defeating policies” its “occupation and settlement of Arab lands” which he called “inherently violent.”

More commentary from various sides later, but two things are especially interesting here. The first is that almost the entire controversy over Freeman took place in the blogosphere rather than in the newspapers or on TV. Neither the NYT nor the WaPo ran a story about the controversy, which was bubbling rather actively, until it was over. The second is that Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair (holder of the position created when the Bushies streamlined the “intelligence community” by adding another layer of bureaucracy) said he wanted Freeman precisely because he was outspoken and opinionated; he said he wanted a mix of independent thinkers working on intelligence. I would question whether you would want someone with such a long paper trail in charge of preparing intelligence estimates, as compared to contributing information and ideas, to be compiled by people with less skin in the game. But Blair isn’t stupid, and right up until Freeman withdrew his name he defended the choice.

It does seem that Freeman had other baggage. He served on the board of the China National Offshore Oil Corp., a past position his critics said could lead to conflicts of interest in the proposed new job. Critics also unearthed old e-mails that might seem to justify China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown, though Freeman said they were taken out of context, that he was describing the prevailing view in China, not expressing his own opinion.

As to where various players stood: The Zionist Organization of America jumped into the fray early and publicly. AIPAC, the American Israel Political Action Committee was more circumspect. Its former top official Steve Rosen (who resigned after being indicted for violating the Espionage Act for allegedly passing secrets to Israel, no trial yet), campaigned against Freeman on his own blog beginning three weeks ago. But AIPAC itself officially took no position, though spokesman Josh Block said he had given information to bloggers and reporters on background, which concealed his involvement.

Cranky semi-conservative blogger Andrew Sullivan was outraged at the campaign against Freeman, though he later recognized that Freeman would probably have been under attack after taking the job, which would have undermined his effectiveness. He also hypothesized that it was a clever ploy by the Obama people who wanted cover because they plan to change the pro-Israeli tilt of U.S. foreign policy, but if a critic like Freeman was proposed and then gone it couldn’t be hung on him. Seems unlikely.

Jonathan Chait at the New Republic fulminated against Freeman. At the WaPo venerable columnist David Broder regretted that he felt pushed to resign, but the paper’s editorial page said good riddance. Joe Klein at Time was dismayed.

As a not-uncritical fan of Israel, I’m not quite sure what to think of all this. I don’t know if Freeman is really the paragon his friends and supporters make him out to be (though it’s interesting that those who know him well seem most impressed). I also don’t think the U.S. has tied its foreign policy slavishly to Israel over the years (though Dubya did seem to) so it seems aparent that while the Israel Lobby is powerful, it is not all-powerful. So I don’t know whether the incident is tragic or not. But it sure is interesting.

Not pretty, but solid, 64-53

I'm not counting USC tomorrow, given that they beat Cal and the team is fully healthy for the first time this season. But the way the Bruins ground this one out gives me a certain amount of confidence. Holding WSU to 30% shooting (even though some of it was just off-target shooting on their part) was impressive. If they keep playing defense that well -- it's been shaky more often than one would like or expect from a Ben Howland team -- they'll go deep into March. I think.

Up by 11 at the half -- but I'm not counting a W yet

It's Pac-10 tournament time. For some stretches during the first half the Bruins looked virtually unbeatable -- up by 20 at one point -- but I suppose I have to give Washington State credit for staying after it even after some stretches when their shots weren't falling. This a pesky team that beat UCLA three weeks ago. The best sign is that for stretches the defense was downright lock-down, but WSU did get some easy shots toward the end, and UCLA committed some silly fouls. Keep up the defensive intensity for another half (without fouling much) and it should be a win, but I'll stay on thre edge of my seat.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

US Attorney in L.A. ending medical marijuana prosecutions? Or not?

Alex Coolman over at the Drug Law Blog has an interesting item based on an L.A. Times story. Apparently the U.S. Attorney in L.A. sent a memo to federal prosecutors on Feb. 27 telling them to cease prosecutions of medicalk marijuana dispensaries, then later sent an order rescinding the ban. What's up.

It's just possible that the original e-mail represented compliance with the apparent new Obama administration policy against trying to subvert state medical marijuana laws. Or it could have been a recognition of the obvious: that they just don't have the personnel to go after all the dispensaries in L.A. But what about rescinding the order? A reversion to primal drug warriorism? Embarrassment that the first order became public?

Just don't know, but I'll try to look into it.

Unleashing the lawyers

I'm actually mildly conflicted by the Supreme Court's decision in Wyeth v. Levine, where the court held Wyeth liable even though the fact that a patient got gangrene and lost her arm was because a medical assistant failed to follow several clear warnings on the drug's packaging. On the one hand, as this Register editorial points out) it's not unhealthy to note that the FDA (which makes plenty of mistakes) is not necessarily the final adjudicator, that juries can have a say. On the other hand, I'm not sure if I agree with this jury's verdict; the warnings were pretty clear and it's not necessarily Wyet's fault that the medical assistant ignored them or didn't know how to pay attention. This decision will no doubt unleash all kinds of lawyers with clients looking for deep pockets even though their cases may be marginal.

I'm a little surprised that MPP and other drug-law reform groups haven't taken note of the fact I noted: that the FDA-approved drug in question whose side effect for improper application was gangrene(!), while there's another effective anti-nauseant available, cannabis, whose only side effects might be a scratchy thorat and a cheerful disposition.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Stem-cell funding a symbolic gesture to those whose sacrament is abortion

Obama's grand announcement that he was lifting the restrictions on federal funding of research on (possibly) newly available lines of embryonic stem cells was a gesture to those who believe in abortion in a manner that approaches the way evangelicals and what Andrew Sullivan calls "Christianists" believe in their version of religion. As this Register editorial notes, the issue was made moot from a scientific perspective around November 2007, when scientists at UCLA and in Hawaii discovered a way through genetic manipulation to give adult skin (!) cells almost all the pluripotent (able to be transaformed into almost any other kind of cell) qualities of embryonic stem cells. Since than an even simpler method has been discovered.

The idea that Bush's "ban" on federal funding for research on embryonic stem cells deterred progress toward a cure for Parkinsons and Alzheimers by eight years is wrong on several counts. He didn't ban all federal funding, but limited it to existing lines of stem cells. He didn't ban state or private research, which he (still) didn't have the power to do. California famously passed a law allowing state government-funded stem cell research, but the program has mainly been tied up in bureaucratic wrangling and turf battles. That brings us to the most egregious fallacy: that government funding is the key to progress in scientific endeavors. More often it is a deterrent to progress.

Years ago (late 1970s) when I was an aide to Bob Bauman in the House, some of us came up with a proposal to have a congressional veto on National Science Foundation, and it actually passed the House so I had to do a lot of research in preparation for Senate testimony. The short version is that the government is most likely to fund "safe" projects that promise measurable, minor, integral results, and it ties these in miles of red tape. The real innovators are almost always despised and on their own until they make a breakthrough that is widely recognized, whereupon they tend to become respectable and tamed (neutered?). Grant masters tend to be the least innovative scientists. The whole process is poison for real scientific innovation.

On the Separation of Powers

"The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted . . . not to promote efficiency but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power. The purpose was, not to avoid friction, but, by means of the inevitable friction incident to the distribution of the governmental powers among three departments, to save the people from autocracy." -- Louis D. Brandeis

Brandeis, by my lights, was not consistent in his concern for liberty, but this is a wondrously enlightened remark. I suppose it seemed appropriate today because I attended a luncheon where the speaker was John Yoo, author of the notorious "torture" memos and noted advocate of "plenary" or "unitary" power in the executive, especially in time of war or national security crisis (defined much more broadly than I would). The speech was not on the record so I'm not at liberty to say much beyond that it was about Lincoln's use of extraordinary powers during the civil war -- one reason why, in contrast to establishment historians, Lincoln vies in my mind with Wilson and FDR for worst president in our history rather than best, where a recent C-SPAN-sponsored poll of historians put him. Yoo didn't find his conduct shocking or especially reprehensible, not surprisingly.

I hate it when people whose political views I find dubious or even reprehensible turn out to be pleasant and likeable, and that is the case with John Yoo. He is soft-spoken, pleasant and unfailingly civil, and I liked him personally. Maybe that's an advantage, however. He agreed to spend a couple of hours with me in the near future in an on-the-record interview. He says he's almost libertarian on domestic issues but thinks the constitution gives the president extraordinary latitude when war or near-war is the issue. I'll see if I can't prod him to be a bit more libertarian on foreign policy.

Monday, March 09, 2009

One more argument for medical marijuana

I don't think anybody else has noticed a possible side effect of the Supreme Court decision last week in Wyeth v. Levine. The issue involved an anti-nauseant drug that had genuinely nasty side effects when injected intravenously, and carried half a dozen warnings approved by the FDA to that effect. Unfortunately, a medical assistant was careless and injected Diana Levine in the arm with the drug. She developed gangrene and lost the arm. She not only sued the assistant but the drug manufacturer, which thought that including all the warnings in capital letters, duly approved by the FDA, protected it from liability. The Supreme Court -- differently than in a case last year involving medical devices, ruled 6-3 that it didn't.

Regardless of what one thinks of the outcome of this case, notice that the drug with the potnetially horrendous side effects was an anti-nauseant. It happenes that cancer patients and oncologists have discovered that cannabis has anti-nauseant qualities when used by patients undergoing chemotherapy, which often leads to patients throwing up uncontrollably (and miserably) for hours and even for days. Yet it has virtually no unpleasant side effects, and certainly none remotely approaching causing gangrene if improperly ingested. It should be removed from Schedule I immediately so doctors can at least prescribe it as an alternative to genuinely dangerous anti-nauseants.

Trade wars: are they here?

The World Bank announced that global trade levels are likely to decline this year for the first year in almost forever. The recession is really shaping up as a serious global problem. In that light, this piece for the Register's Sunday Commentary section discussing the possibility of emerging protectionism that could develop into trade wars, seems rather timely. The bottom line is that I don't expect protectionist overkill on the order of what followed the Smoot-Hawley tariffs of 1930 and most certainly contributed to deepening and prolonging the Great Depression. But there are opportunities for plenty of protectionist beggar-thy-neighbor (and thyself) mischief. Even within the confines of the WTO, which I regard as managed trade with a bias toward free trade rather than really free trade, opportunities for essentially protectionist activities.

I have mentioned previously how much I enjoyed talking with Jagdish Bhagwati and how much I got out of his great wisdom and knowledge regarding these issues. I hope you'll agree that I used the information he gave me fairly deftly. Tell me if I'm wrong.