Saturday, February 28, 2009

Obama's big-government ambition

The budget outline President Obama released on Thursday eliminates the likelihood that the president really intends to govern "from the center," at least on domestic issues. He sees a large-scale and active government as the key to societal success, obviously, and he means to have one. The budget puts the lie, of course, to the pretense that he can extend government responsibility for health care to millions while reducing the cost. As this Register editorial explains, there's a $600-billion-plus "down payment" on universal health care. The reductions in Medicare reimbursements, advertised as savings designed to cut costs for taxpayers, are likely to lead to more lapses in coverage, which will become the justification for yet more expensive expansion of government health coverage -- and likely were designed to do just that, though I haven't found anybody who admits to it yet.

He is a big-government liberal, and he thinks, perhaps like LBJ, that he can expand domestic programs and fight a nasty war overseas at the same time. I don't think his chances for success are high, but in the process he's likely to build precedents for further government growth. We'll have a lot to complain about for the next four years, those of us who cling to the idea that limited government better serves the long-term interests of the people. Obama will have setbacks -- even popular presidents do eventually, and he's already getting pushback from Dems, both those concerned about more bank bailouts and many unsatisfied with a too-long timetable and too many troops left in Iraq. There will be blood.

A fine victory

It was another one of those games that a disinterested fan, without a particular favorite, could enjoy, one of those games one watches sports to see. Both teams made mistakes and had lapses, but both played with intensity and desire -- and skill. It wasn't the game I might have preferred, but I'll take the outcome.

I know there's a statistical chance now that the Bruins could end in a tie with Washington for the league championship. I'll be just as happy if the Bruins simply win out and so does Washington. Lorenzo Romar is a fine coach and he has put together a team that has exceeded all expectations. If the Huskies finally get their first outright championship in 50 years or so, would that be so bad? There will still be the tournament in which to improve seeding. The Bruins aren't the dominant team of years past, but they're showing some toughness and resiliency. Collison and Shipp are working hard to make the senior season memorable.

Another test for the Bruins

On paper, the Bruins should be able to handle the Cal Bears in the game I am about to suspend my computer activity to watch. The Bears had trouble with USC, having to take it into overtime. But the Bruins had trouble Thursday, having to come from behind, against Stanford, a team which on paper they should have beaten handily. And the game is played at Cal. I'm just hoping they learned enough through experience about toughness and determination to serve them well tonight. We'll see.

Quote of the Day

"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood." -- Marie Curie

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Bruins pull it out

I still don't expect a Final Four four-peat this year, but it was gratifying to get a win tonight over a Stanford team that played very well and jumped out to an early lead that looked pretty commanding for a while. At this stage I would just as soon not see the kinds of games that would be exciting to watch if you didn't have a particular favorite, which this game was, but I'll take a win of any kind. I'm afraid the Cal game Saturday (they beat USC tonight) will be another nail-biter. (I don't know why I use that cliche; I have never bitten my nails.)

I think Marcia Smith, a Register sportswriter whom I don't know, had a pretty good assessment of this year's UCLA team in today's paper. The short story: they still haven't quite gelled as a team (I'm still hoping), perhaps because it's built on three seniors (and Dragovich) and a bunch of freshmen who, not surprisingly, have shown talent but haven't been consistent, having more defensive lapses than you'd like to see. Doesn't seem to be dissension or anything, just not quite the cohesion you'd like to see.

Quote of the Day

"Of all enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debt and taxes. And armies, and debts, and taxes are known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few." -- James Madison

Emotionally, Jefferson is my favorite founder, with his eloquence and his zeal for liberty, but over the years I have come to believe that perhaps Madison was the wisest of the founders, the one who gave the most sustained thought to the kinds of institutions, given the imperfect nature of human beings, most conducive to liberty. The constitution he fathered was not perfect, and he had a weakness for embargoes, but it facilitated and preserved liberty for a good long time and still has some residual power to do so even today, despite having been shredded and twisted in so many ways by all three branches of government. Durk and Sandy, my old friends since college days (I really should call them; it's been a while) have admired Madison for a long time, and I believe they are right to do so.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Obama: Impressive man, less impressive ideas

I see that Mike Tipping got tomorrow's editorial posted tonight. We are starting to get better at Web-first publishing, which everybody in the business (at this stage anyway, check back in a few months when the approach may have changed) is the key to newspaper survival. Here's the conclusion:

"We wonder, however, whether he truly grasps that the genius of America lies not just in the spirit of its people but in their freedom to find their own way, independent of the vision of those who have the temporary mantle of political leadership."

Live-blogging Obama's speech

Stayed at work late tonight so I could write the editorial bouncing off Obama's speech for tomorrow's paper. Steve Greenhut live-blogged the speech, as well as Bobby Jindal's (with whom who was genuinely impressed ( response). Go here for reactions in real time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Quote of the Day

"All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else." -- H.L. Mencken

Of course he qualified it with the word "successful," but would that it were true of more newspapers today. We would still be facing the revenue problems brought on by the Internet and our own complacency, but we would be doing it with a feistier spirit.

New drug czar possibly not an idiot

Obama has signaled that he will appoint Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowske to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) -- the "drug czar" (amazing how a putatively democratic society is so fond of having "czars" -- absolute, unaccountable rulers -- in charge of so many aspects of our lives). As we noted in this Register editorial, there's just a chance that he will bring a modicum of common sense rather than a strictly prohibitionist attitude complete with an eagerness to lie to defend that attitude. This is based less on what he has said than on what he has cooperated with -- a number of initiatives in Seattle, including a state medical marijuana law, a needle-exchange program, and a mandate from voters to make marijuana enforcement the police department's very lowest priority. He hasn't been an advocate but he has gone along.

We'll have a hint that he's open to a policy based more on science than superstition when he recommends that we take marijuana off Schedule I so it can be prescribed. (Full decriminalization would be better, of course, but I'll take things one miracle at a time.)

How government supplies the military

Here's a piece by the great Walter Pincus of the WaPo, for my money one of the great reporters of our era, an old-fashioned digger who assumes as a default position that the official story is not the whole story and does what all too few reporters do -- dig to get at the real story. We all think we do that, but Walter has been doing it for decades. I was first impressed with him when I was living in Washington in the 1970s and from the content of the few stories he did revolving around Watergate and its aftermath concluded he was a better reporter than either Woodward or Bernstein. He's now digging into obscure documents and programs on a regular basis, uncovering wondrous waste.

This one is about a jeeplike vehicle called the Growler, which the the Marines decided they wanted (to go with the V-22 Osprey, which may or may not be a smart thing to acquire but that's another story) back in 1999. It took 10 years to come up with two different vehicles when the Marines wanted one to perform two functions (supporting assault operations and towing a 120 mm mortar) -- and the price has doubled. The original contract was for a cost of $94,000 but now it's $209,000, and the one to haul a mortar has grown from $579,000 to $1,078,000. And the resulting vehicle isn't really appropriate for a theater like Iraq!

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of the story is that "cost increases and delays are so normal in defense contracting, particularly in contracts involving hundreds of millions of dollars, that they don'ty raise great concerns." I learned this many years ago when my father, a chemist, worked for a defense contractor (which financed a National Merit Scholarship for me, so it had good points) and had horror stories galore to tell. And we're going to let this institution run increasing aspects of our lives after it's screwed up the economy royally?

The last time I was in Washington I made it a point to call Walter Pincus and ask him if I could buy him lunch and pick his brain. He wouldn't let me buy, but we did have lunch and it's one of my most cherished memories.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Celebrating Washington

Since today is George Washington's real birthday -- not the hateful "Presidents Day" -- a few observations on our first president. Harvey Wasserman did a provocative piece recently, wondering if he was a gay pot smoker. Probably to the second, unknowable to the first. Like most of the founding fathers who had land he grew hemp, which was and is one of the most versatile and useful plants known to humankind, useful as fiber and much more (the gruel most peasants ate in times past was probably hemp). But did he smoke the flowers? Here's Wasserman's observation:

"But in one of his meticulous agricultural journals, dated 1765, Washington regrets being late to separate his male hemp plants from his females. For a master farmer like George, there would be little reason to do this except to make the females ripe for smoking."

I would still place Washington way ahead of Lincoln in a "best presidents" poll (actually I would place Lincoln the centralizer and advocate of enhanced central power among the worst) for the simple reason that he declined to run for a third term, establishing a precedent that lasted until FDR, and saw his office as a modest one, establishing yet another valuable precedent that no president would think of emulating today. And if he smoked pot, all the better.

Nice night at the Oscars

I have seen none of the movies nominated so have no basis for an opinion on any of the winners, though everybody I've talked to who has seen "Slumdog Millionaire" was quite taken with it. For reasons I don't quite fathom, however, I usually watch the Oscars, and I thought this show was a cut or three above usual. Hugh Jackman singing and dancing was terrific. I liked that they had several musical numbers, and even the collages were pretty good. Do they have to work on making the Oscars more glamorous during hard economic times. There's evidence that beer sales are down, which may be a sign that the recessions will be harder and deeper than anybody had hoped. So will we have to compensate with the pseudo-glamor of the movies, as so many Americans did in the 1930s?

"A cel;ebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know." -- H.L. Mencken

Buy American foolishness

Canadians are known for being polite, sometimes to a fault -- and Canadians know that their economy is joined at the hip with the U.S. economy so nasty defiance is seldom prudent. But Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper managed to get the point across, during Obama's visit to Ottawa (not Iowa) that the Buy American provisions in the "stimulus" bill are not exactly welcome among our closest friends and allies. But the congresscritters were playing to the yahoos who think that the less we trade the more prosperous we become.

A bonanza of bad ideas

So not only are those who were prudent about how much house they could afford and kept their mortgage payments current going to have their taxes go to subsidize those who got into trouble and are facing foreclosure,Obama wants bankruptcy judges to be able to alter unilaterally the terms of mortgages. At least that change would require an act of Congress; it's not something our imperial president can do by decree. This Register editorial offers a brief explanation of why that is likely to lead to increased interest rates and higher down payments,which will disproportionately have a negative effect on first-time homebuyers, especially those with moderate or low incomes. For a more detailed explanation, check here. Ah, the joys of unintended (probably, economic ignorance runs rampant on Capitol Hill) consequences.

Not stimulus at all

Perhaps I was a little late coming to the understanding, but others haven't even come close. Even by classic Keynesian logic, that $787 billion monstrosity wasn't a stimulus bill. There was little in it that would pump money into the economy in anything remotely resembling a timely manner. As this Register editorial explains, it repeals the Clinton-era welfare reform and puts in place numerous heavy-spending programs that won't be implemented for years. A wish list granted. But if the economy recovers, it's more likely to be due to natural forces, as Esmael Adibi explains, than through this spendathon.

Stand by me

Here's a simple but creative way to do a song, See if you aren't enchanted.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

One point short!

Nobody wants to take solace in a moral victory, which is how one might describe getting within a point after trailing by 7 with about 2 minutes left and actually having a slim chance at the end. One can only hope it is a learning experience having to do with not waiting too long to mount your comeback or something. Or making more easy shots.

WSU always a worry

I don't know why Washington State always gives the Bruins trouble when on paper it should be an easy win, but it's the case. It's 19-17 Cougs late in the first half. I think Howland will be able to settle them down and show them a path to a win, but it's a nailbiter just now.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rachmaninov at his most characteristically Russian

As I write I'm listening to a nice recording of Rachamninov's Vespers, Op. 37, done by the Academy of Choral Art in Moscow with Victor Popov conducting. For my money, it's his most characteristically Russian-sounding music. Of course my idea of what is characteristically Russian was influenced early -- I was probably 17 when I got the record -- by an album of Russian liturgical music, sung, I believe, by a Russian exile choir in Germany. I fell in love with that music, with its impossibly low basses helping to create the impression that the music was growing right out of the ground -- the Russian soil -- and enveloping you in sanctity of a very earthy, perhaps primitive kind (gosh, it's hard to describe music in mere words!). I loved Tchaikovsky early too, but in retrospect I think he was more in tune with western European influences than composers like Moussorgsky, Glinka, Borodin, even Ippolitov-Ivanov, who sounded more "really Russian" to me. I see Prokofiev as very Russian too, but in a different more modern way.

Rachmaninov loved that music too, and the Vespers is a conscious attempt to put its spirit in a slightly more formal, perhaps arty form. His better-known music -- the piano concertos mainly but also the symphonies -- seem a bit more elaborately classical and a bit westernized, which may have turned out to be his true voice.

The Temecula Vintage Singers did the piece the year before I joined them, so I've never had a chance to sing it. It sounds as if it would be fun -- challenging, but fun.

That was a good game!

It's difficult to get someone like me to imagine the mind-set, but I think this would have been a terrific game for somebody with no skin in the game to watch. The Huskies kept it close almost to the end, tying it at 55 and coming within 2 later (if I remember correctly). Each time it looked as if Washington had a chance to take the lead, however, UCLA put together a little run, eventually winning by 9, 85-76. All the starters in double figures, and Alfred Aboya knocking down a 17-footer at a crucial point late in the game. Wow! I think the fact that it was a physical game where the refs let them play through some ticky-tack contact that in some games might have been called should be good experience, especially in the tournament -- about which I'm feeling significantly more confident after tonight.

Thay'll have a target on them again, and can't afford to lose intensity and focus against Washington State Saturday. They should win, but I hope the losses last week taught them not to take anyone for granted.

Acid test time for the Bruins

I'm ready to watch, with my UCLA T-shirt on (isn't that silly for a supposedly mature gentlemen like me?) and about to get my hat out of the hat cupboard. I think this is the game that's likely to tell the tale for the Bruins' season. Against Washington, which beat us in Seattle and is in first place now and eager to win its first league championship in 50 years. And maybe with Alfred Aboya out due to illness (I don't know yet). Go Bruins!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blast from the past -- into the present

Some days are more interesting than others, and yesterday was definitely one of the more interesting ones.

I talk from time to time with Mike Burnaugh, a fraternity brother from UCLA days, and see him when we visit my brother-in-law in the Atlanta area. He called last week to double-check on my address so he could send me a CD of a chorus he's in singing the Mozart Requiem -- one of the works I have never sung but would like to, so I was mildly jealous. Anyway, we got to talking about other old friends and he mentioned that Lee Gunn was one of the few people he had known who had done just what he wanted to do. He always wanted to be a Naval officer, so he enlisted right after college and had recently retired, Mike told me, as a two-star Admiral.

My curiosity aroused, I Googled him and discovered he is still quite active, in the DC area, as a board member of several organizations (American Security Project) and as president of the Institute for Public Research at a non-profit called CNA, which mostly does work for the military. The other thing I discovered was that he is one of the retired military people actively campaigning against the use of torture.What a gratifying thing to discover! (Of course I also found a blog referring to such folks as an example of the "wussification" of the military. Hmmmpph! Meet me in a dark alley.)

So I decided to call him and yesterday we had a brief (he had a meeting, of course) but very pleasant conversation. He told me there were about 45 former generals and flag officers going around to college campuses and other places emphasizing the importance to the country and the military of abdandoning the use of torture or anything like it, under the aegis of Human Rights First, of which he spoke most highly. Those who have actually served and held military responsibility (Lee was in charge of the fleet evacuating Americans from Somalia after the Black Hawk Down incident) seem to understand this much better than the neocon sofa samurai whose idea of reality seems to be formed by "24."

Lee was in the Oval Office when Barack Obama signed the executive order de-authorizing the use of torture and setting a timetable to close Guantanamo. He said it's vital to close the prison camp there, although it will be complicated in part because opening it was improvised and most of the obvious candidates have already been released. I'll probably use him as a source on such issues.

Anyway, it's nice to know somebody you liked and admired as a rather young man turned out to have such success and to be thinking soundly now.

Even Obama's stumbles seem lucky

It occurred to me as I was talking to Robert Rector from the Heritage Foundation about the fact that Obama's "stimulus" bill essentially eliminates the Clinton-era welfare reform that not only reduced the number on welfare but actually reduced poverty levels, that Barack Obama may actually have been fortunate to have had some procedural and personnel stumbles. Here's why.

The MSM covered Bill Richardson, Geithner's, Daschle's and others' tax problems, and then Judd Gregg, treating them as setbacks for Obama and in some cases as evidence that he was unlikely to be the transformative leader able to transcend politics and leap tall buildings in a single bound. That gave them the ability to say, in essence, "see, we're critical, we're not in the tank, we're able to report on his shortcomings." At least they convince themselves that they're tough and hardheaded. One consequence, however, is an almost complete lack of analytical interest in the "stimulus" bill and the fact that it isn't stimulative at all. Giving people who didn't pay taxes another immediate "credit" might have actually been stimulative in the classic Keynesian sense and would have routed it through low-income people, but they didn't do it, instead expanding government and stretching out the spending. To call this a "stimulus" bill is to perpetrate a falsehood. Most of the media repeat the untruth several times a day.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

It's a war recession too

In most of the discussion regarding the financial crisis/recession, very little attention (at least in what I've seen) has been paid to the contribution the war in Iraq and the general overcommitment of the U.S. military have played in bringing on a recession. I think I make the case fairly responsibly in my most recent piece for Most of the financial crisis was made in Washington, a good deal of it was made on Wall Street, but some of it was made in Iraq -- at least $600 billion and counting, with final estimates ranging above $3 trillion!

Maybe a "car czar" would be less silly

Obama says he's not going to have a single "car czar," but that Tim Geithner and Larry Summers will take the lead and he'll make the final decisions -- and bureaucrats from other departments will be involved. Great! In today's Register editorial I quoted Don Boudreaux, chairman of the econ department at George Mason U. in Virginia, who put it rather succinctly:

"All are very smart men, but Mr. Geithner is a lobbyist-turned-international-finance-expert-turned-central-banker, Dr. Summers is an academic economist, and Mr. Obama is a lawyer-turned-politician. None of them, as far as the public record shows, has any experience running private, for-profit firms; none has worked in the auto industry; and none (unless you count a lobbying firm as a private enterprise) seems ever to have worked in the private, for-profit sector. The rule of experts would be troubling enough, but here we have the rule of non-experts."

I highly recommend Cafe Hayek, where Don, Russell Roberts, Tyler Cowen and other mostly GMU economists blog regularly. Very lively.

Monday, February 16, 2009

End the Afghanistan campaign!

Here is the piece I did for yesterday's Register Sunday Commentary section on the problems with Obama's promise to beef up the "real central front in the war on terror" in Afghanistan. Citing people like George Friedman at, with whom I had a nice conversation (he's much more mild-mannered and soft-spoken than you might think from his writing which can be brutally blunt) I think I focused on the realpolitik problems with beefing up the U.S. military. The problem is that the Taliban is indigenous to Afghanistan and the U.S. isn't. Friedman thinks we should pull U.S. military forces out of Afghanistan as quickly as is gracefully possible and use intelligence (and maybe special forces) to keep al-Qaida bottled up and ineffective in the Pakistani tribal areas where the writ of the government does not run. I'm certainly inclined to agree.

By way of comparison, here's the piece I did a few weeks ago for I'll keep harping. As I said in my interview for Antiwar Radio, there's a cottage industry of fairly respectable establishment types warning Obama that Afghanistan is a war he's unlikely to win. We need to keep the pressure on.

South Carolina thug goes after Phelps -- maybe

The news is that the DA in South Carolina, where Michael Phelps had his picture taken apparently taking a hit off a marijuana bong, is trying to make a case that might eventually get Phelps arrested. So in addition to boycotting Kellogg's, which says it's ending Phelps' endorsement deal, I guess I'll have to boycott Richland County, South Carolina. Not exactly a hardship.

The news triggered this open letter from Cor24 Leone, who says he she or it is a follower of this blog, which shows remarkably excellent taste. If the Smoking Gun Website is right, however, the recent arrests in that benighted county may have little or no relation to the party Michael Phelps attended in November. The search warrant the cops got is apparently for the same house where Phelps is said to have partied, but makes no mention of Phelps or the November party, relying on more recent evidence that pot "was consumed on a regular basis at the residence." The publicity just seems to have stirred these thugs to get more aggressive. Here are mug shots of the poor kids victimized. Oh, for the day when currently illicit drugs are legal and these pansy cops will have to go after actual criminals.

Israel: rightward ho!

Here's the Register's analysis of the election in Israel. As so often happens in a parliamentary system with multiple parties, no party has enough votes to form a government on its own, so they have to put together coalitions that usually carry the seeds of their own eventual instability within them. This time, with the war in Gaza and rockets still occasionally finding their way into Israel proper, it's not surprising that the electorate took a rightward turn. Despite twists and turns, I still suspect that Bibi Netanyahu will eventually form the government and be prime minister, but the process could take a while -- though not so long as the interminable U.S. transition period.

The most important thing to understand, I think, is that whatever chances existed for a "peace process" might have existed a couple of years ago, there's no chance now. Yet our diplomats keep talking about resurrecting the two-state solution and Obama has appointed poor old George Mitchell as special envoy. Although being a special envoy isn't such a bad gig. Of course appointing a special envoy is what presidents do when they suspect a situation is hopeless and don't plan to devote any of their own time or personal political capital to a situation.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The trouble with the stimulus

Besides the fact that it's unlikely to work, of course. If increasing government spending were the key to economic health, the economy would be in tip-top shape after 8 years of increasing big domestic discretionary spending by the Bushies. The stimulus is more hair of the dog that bit us.

As this Register editorial points out, however, there are some nasty surprises tucked in to it. Setting up agencies to do research on what kinds of health procedures work better than others is not necessarily a bad idea -- it might even be desirable in the abstract -- but it is likely to and is probably designed to lead to government dictating to doctors. (Not that Betsy McCaughey doesn't have critics.) And the "Buy American" provisions could well lead to a trade war, which would deter economic growth. Governments typically turn in a protectionist direction when economic troubles hit, and protectionism makes things worse. Will we ever learn?

Perhaps the most odious aspect of the bill was the fact that the programs mentioned above and dozens of others were just tossed in without anything resembling the usual procedures -- subcommittee hearings, witnesses offering objections and support, amendments, changes reflecting criticisms, same thing at full committee, then one house, then the other. All that stuff can seem tedious, but it's at least a modest safeguard against huge mistakes (not that they don't get made despite them). This bill makes drastic changes in a number of government programs without anything remotely resembling deliberation. Most everything negotiated behind closed doors. So much for change and transparency.

Bruins back to the drawing board

Maybe an earlier verdict of "overrated" by Dick Vitale was warranted. The Bruins at least won the second half, but of course not by enough to overcome a dreadful first half. I don't know what it is. A couple of weeks ago they were playing so well you would have given them a good shot against any team in the country, but they turn out to have vulnerabilities and inconsistencies. At least they kept trying in the second half, and Collison certainly showed a lot. But we knew at the outset that this was a team that was going to have to see several freshmen mature a lot to have asny shot to go all the way. Now they might not even win the Pac 10. If this leads to a renewed commitment, especially to getting the ball inside, there's a chance. But it's difficult to feel encouraged just now.

What about Octomom?

I've had several requests to discuss Octomom, the woman who had octuplets by in-vitro fertilization (IVF). I had not jumped on any particular bandwagon because it looked like a one-day-wonder story (then two- then three- etc., I know), and while the story seemed bizarre, I figured if she was just looking for publicity and hoping some publicity-seeking companies and organizations would come through with some money, it was no skin off my ass. If it bothered me I wouldn't have to buy that company's products and therefore indirectly contribute to something that looked grossly irresponsible.

As it's become apparent, however, that this husbandless woman is counting on taxpayers to pay for her babies and has been essentially living off the taxpayers and her parents for the six kids she already has, I've become increasingly angry. The idea of people taking responsibility for themselves seems to be dying out. (Here's a Slate piece with whose conclusion I disagree but which has some facts I hadn't known.) If Bill and Melinda Gates had 8 kids in a multiple birth, who would care? They have more than sufficient means to take care of them. But for somebody to do this and expect others, especially taxpayers, to cover them -- even beyond the fact that she's living with her parents in a three-bedroom house with six kids already and obviously doesn't have the ability by herself to care for 14 kids, especially since some of the six have special needs.

I think now that she's had her 15 minutes she should give them all up for adoption. What is especially aggravating, however, is that this illustrates just how many people have no sense of shame at all in wanting the taxpayers to subsidize their goofy plans.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Down by 18 at the half? A-a-a-r-r-g-g-h-h!

I didn't see the loss to Arizona State on Thursday, but it was demoralizing, based on what I read. It shows that despite the good play of the previous couple of weeks the Bruins are vulnerable. And give all credit to Arizona, which has regrouped and won six straight since getting blown out by UCLA and edged by USC. But there's something lacking -- not sure quite what. I had to turn my cap around backwards to be a rally cap about 2 minutes in, but it obviously hasn't worked. 13 turnovers in the first half?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Spending our way to prosperity -- not!

Much of the negative commentary about Obama's economic "stimulus" plan has focused on the obvious pork contained therein -- although Obama may be technically right when he said there were no earmarks -- not enough time to slip them in, and besides, practically everything from everybody's wish list had already been slopped in.

I think this Register editorial managed to get closer to fundamentals -- reminding readers that the Bush era had already been an era of big spending, and not only on the war(s), and that it was loose money, easy credit and moral hazard -- why be prudent if you know the gummint will cover your losses? -- that got us into this mess in the first place. We might get a temporary illusion of recovery from this massive spneding spree, but it will crowd out genuinely productive spending and entrepreneurial activities, foster inflation and possible create another bubble to be burst. I wouldn't mind being wrong, but I don't think I am.

Knowing when to start

Somewhere along the line I got hold of American composer Ned Rorem's autobiographical book, "Knowing When to Stop," which covers his life to age 28 (in 1951), and essentially chronicles a life that was the opposite of the title. He knew he was gay early on and apparently was quite a flamer, living it up to sometimes amusing, sometimes appalling excess in Paris, Morocco, and London, as well as going to Julliard and Tanglewood. I read parts of it and found him rather compelling as a writer of prose. Until recently, however, when I went through the bonanza of CDs made available to me by Tim Mangan, the Register's classical music critic, I hadn't listened to very much of his music. It was time to start.

Well, at least I can now recommend his Piano Concerto #2 and his Cello Concerto. He was/is familiar with most of the twists and turns of "serious" music through the 20th century -- atonal, 12-tone, neoclassical, minimalist -- and you can hear influences from time to time, but the music I've listened to has been tonal and harmonic. You wouldn't mistake it for 19th-century music -- too creative use of rhythms and percussion, occasional mildly jarring harmony, odd transitions and juxtapositions -- but he writes melodies recognizable as melodies you might want to hum on the way out of a concert, and uses mosty traditional harmonies. Not sure to whom I might compare him -- maybe Ravel in some moods, a touch of Prokofiev, a little Copland flavor now and then, but I find the music stimulating and enjoyable and not really quite like anybody else. The Cello Concerto is particularly imaginative -- not the traditional three movements but 7 or 8 shorter movements that evoke a wide variety of emotions.

He is noted as a writer of songs, but I haven't yet listened to the CD I have consisting solely of songs. More later.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Trade war coming?

It's gotten a little attention, but not enough focus, I think. One of the hidden gems in the $800-billion (or so, still subject to negotiation) "stimulus" package is a "Buy American" provision that could trigger -- or help to reinforce what some other benighted countries are doing or contemplating actively -- a trade war. The provision would require infrastucture projects to use American-made steel. It was amended slightly in the Senate so as to say explicitly that it wouldn't be interpreted in a way that would violate existing trade treaties. But it still got the trade ministers at Davos up in arms. And even with the amendment, it would seriously restrict imports from China, India, Russia, Ukraine anbd Turkey, which are not yet WTO members.

The U.S. passed the Smoot-Hawley tariff in 1930, which seriously contributed to deepening the Depression. Some countries have already restricted exports of food in response to last year's food crisis, which is partly attributable to ethanol subsidies and mandates in the U.S. and some Western European countries. Countries are always tempted by protectionism in an economic downturn, and when they succum it always makes the downturn worse. Oh, what tangled webs we weave when we restrict and try to micromanage!

Gabriela Montero: Worth a listen

In an earlier post I mentioned that I wasn't familiar with the pianist and clarinetist who played with Yo Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman at the inauguration. I missed pianist Gabriela Montero, to whom I am listening as I write this. I got a couple of her CDs in the bonanza I scored when Register classical music critic Tim Mangan had to move to a new desk and decided to offload some of the CD review copies he's gotten over the last several years. And I had listened and enjoyed before the inauguration, but her name hadn't registered strongly enough for me to remember it.

The CD playing now is "Bach and Beyond," on which she takes Bach pieces and uses them as the basis for improvisations. Bach is especially adapted to being played in different styles, as demonstrated by the Swingle Singers' conversion of seemingly staid pieces into swing/jazz, or the early Moog synthesizer albums by Walter (later Wendy) Carlos in "Switched-on Bach." In the liner notes Gabriela writes that she had improvised from early on, but didn't let on to many in classical world. But she was encouraged later on, by Martha Argerich, and I'm pleased. She does surprising wonders with "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Many think improvisation is unique to jazz, but it's pretty certain that players in the Baroque period improvised fairly regularly, and expected to do so, especially in cadenzas in concertos. Gabriela occasionally sounds jazzy, and she employs harmonies a Baroque player probably wouldn't have, but it's mostly classical-sounding. I think Bach would have been pleased.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Like a stern college professor

Just a few quick observations; I haven't reviewed the entire press conference and I may have more to say later. But in the opening Obama reminded me of the kind of stern-faced college professor from whom you knew you could expect a D-minus if you didn't parrot his lectures back at him precisely on exams. The notion that we were ruled by an ideology of government inaction during the Bush era is laughable; he increased domestic discretionary spending faster than anybody since LBJ in addition to squandering billions on the war. Obama's giving us more of the hair of the dog that bit us.

Immigration enforcement and low-hanging fruit

Remember back in 2005 or so when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (two "duties" the government would do better not to bother with) announced a targeted program to go after dangerous immigrant fugitives, potential terrorists and known criminals who had slipped through the faultless U.S. justice system? The ICE men knew they couldn't get all the illegal aliens, so they would focus on the truly dangerous ones.

Didn't last long, as newly available documents show. It turned out that going after criminals clever enough to have eluded the justice system by jumping bail or whatever, aren't that easy to catch, and sometimes they can be dangerous. So, as they have done with the misbegotten drug war (another foolish and in my view unconstitutional program), the enforcers started going after easier targets. In the drug war the tendency is to go after pot smokers, low-level "mules" and the occasional meth lab in a low-rent neighborhood -- or a cannabis dispensary in a state that has authorized medical marijuana. The big traffickers are sometimes too clever to be caught or better armed. In the immigrant war, by 2006 they simply started raiding homes where mostly peaceful but undocumented immigrants were believed to be. So they arrested mostly people with no criminal records or even deportation orders against them. By 2007 only 9 percent of those picked up had a criminal record.

When government bans something it has no business banning, it not only creates a new and usually violence-prone criminal underground, it creates a situation where the authorities increasingly go after generally peaceful people whose non-harmful activities or pursuits the government has arbitrarily outlawed. They always say it's to protect us from dangerous people, but it turns out the authorities have little taste for confronting the dangerous ones. So we get less safe as well as less free.

Bolivia's nationalization to hold back green revolution?

Interesting NYT piece I haven't gotten around to noting yet. If we're to wean ourselves off foreign oil, one of the vehicles is likely to be hybrid or electric cars. A key component of the batteries for such cars is lithium, and it turns out that about half the world's known lithium supply is in Bolivia, run by Evo Morales, a sometime ally of Venezuela's self-professed socialist Hugo Chavez, who wants to control that supply very closely. He's already nationalized oil and natural gas, though the decisions are meeting some resistance. Bolivia doesn't have the financial resources to exploit the lithium supply efficiently and resists having foreign companies come in (though with the world financial crisis that may be a moot point for a while).

So you can't get away from resources, sometimes in the control of regimes either hostile to the U.S. (at least rhetorically; Chavez has done nothing to interrupt the flow of Venezuelan oil to the U.S. except to centralize control of the industry, which has made it less efficient). If we wean ourselves from foreign oil we may become beholden to foreign lithium. Some choice.

Iraq's elections: time to start pulling out

Iraq held provincial elections a little over a week ago, and while final results are not published yet, many of the signs and portents seem hopeful. The Iraqis mostly ran the elections and they were not marred by violence. The results suggest something of a turning-away from the kinds of extreme and sometimes violent Shia dispensation that marked, for example, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army, and (perhaps) toward an almost-secular nationalism (though Dawa, the party of current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, who did better than expected, is certainly rooted in Shia religiosity.

The major lesson, as this Register editorial explains, is that there is no solid reason to delay the beginning of serious U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. There's certainly no guarantee that Iraq will become a model democracy, as some have fantasized, and sectarian violence is certainly a real possibility for the future (e.g., the Kurdish regions didn't vote this time around but Sunni Arab/Kurdish relations in Mosul, which did vote, are hardly warm and fuzzy). But Iraqis are increasingly taking hold of their own destiny, though they are more likely to muff important aspects than to effect a peaceful transition to a unified Iraqi state. But it's their country, not ours. The U.S. occupation was not an election issue precisely because all parties expect the U.S. to leave, so they're jostling for power in the post-occupation Iraq. It's about as normal as politics is likely to be in Iraq for a while. But the U.S. presence is likely to be more destabilizing than stabilizing. Bring them home!

Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who is generally a reaslitic and informed observer, thinks the U.S. and some western European countries will have to continue giving aid and civil society-building assistance for a good while yet. Cordesman is worth reading, but I disagree. Iraq will never look like a model Western European state (even if that were the highest possible aspiration for excellence, which is dubious). It's always hard for parents (sometimes agonizing as a father of three might know) to let go and let their children become responsible adults, in part by being able to make mistakes and taking responsibility for the consequences. But for a child to become an adult it has to happen. Same for nations that fancy themselves in loco parentis to other countries.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Bruins looking really strong!

I had to be out yesterday so we recorded the UCLA-Notre Dame basketball game and I watched it today. It's difficult to overstate just how encouraged I feel. They're driving the lane and being aggressive offensively rather than settling for threes and long jump shots, and they're beginning to dominate opponents. I think (well, hope) they're turned a corner and this is the way they'll be playing for the rest of the season. I'm especially glad to see some of the freshmen besides Jrue Holiday getting decent minutes and starting to perform well. That kind of depth should portend a deep run into the tournamemt -- and maybe a four-four? And Alfred Aboya is becoming a force.

Incidentally, the Lakers are performing remarkably well without Andrew Bynum. Lamar Odom was incredible today.

Boycott Kellogg's!

So Kellog's has decided to end its relationship with Olympic phenomenon and (apparent) pot smoker Michael Phelps, endorsing its great health food, Sugar Frosted Flakes. A drubnken driving arrest -- far more serious and potentially harmful to others -- didn't shake Kellogg's confidence in Phelps but a photo with a bong did? Not that they will notice my minuscule efforts, but I'm boycotting Kellogg's. How about you? Maybe contacting Kellogg's with a polite complaint is in order also. As Bruce Mirken at MPP points out, boycotts are notoriously difficult to pull off, but we'll feel better.

Here's some relevant info:

Mark Baynes
Chief Marketing Officer


Kellogg Company
1 Kellogg Sq
Battle Creek, MI 49016-3599

DEA still persecuting patients

As I and many others have pointed out, when he was a candidate Barack Obama repeatedly promised that he would respect federalism and order the DEA not to conduct raids on patients and providers in states that have authorized the medical use of marijuana. Since his inauguration, however, at least a half-down raids have been conducted -- a dispensary in Lake Tahoe, a couple of medical grows in Colorado, and just last week four dispensaries in Los Angeles and environs. These are obviously Bushies who are still running the place, and they have conducted their raids in an unusually in-your-face fashion -- the day after the inauguration and then the day Eric Holder was sworn in as attorney general.

To be sure, administration spokespeople say they'll get around to doing the right thing. The Register today editorialized to the effect that Eric Holder has full authority to end the raids tomorrow and fire the people responsible for them, notably acting administrator Michele Leonhart. The DEA is also on the verge of denying a UMass researcher as a final decision the authority to grow his own research-grade marijuana, continuing its course of throwing roadblocks in front of scientific research at every opportunity. Not surprising, I guess, since the DEA attitude is rooted in ignorance of recent research and contempt for scientific endeavor in general.

Quote of the Day

"Beginning with the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, the occupant of the White House has become a combination of demigod, father figure, and, inevitably, the betrayer of inflated hopes. Pope, pop star, scold, scapegoat, crisis manager, commander in chief, agenda setter, moral philosopher, interpreter of the nation's charisma, object of veneration, and the butt of jokes -- regrdless of personal attributes and qualifications, the president is perforce all these rolled into one."
-- Andrew Bacevich, in his new book, "The Limits of Power: The End of American Ecceptionalism," which averages a memorable quote or particularly well expressed insight every other page or so. Just in case you thought it started with The One.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Interviewed for Antiwar radio

Wednesday evening I went to Scott Horton's house to do an interview for Antiwar radio, which is available on the Website and broadcast on a few mostly college radio stations. As soon as it's available I'll provide a link. Oh, it's up already, so here it is.

Nat Hentoff joins Cato Institute

Nat Hentoff, for 50 years a columnist for the Village Voice and in addition to being perhaps our best writer on jazz a persistent and tireless advocate of civil liberties, has joined the Cato Institute as a Senior Fellow. Years ago I had the privilege of introducing him at a Free Press Association conference, and I found him delightful. Good for him and good for Cato. I said most of what I wanted to say in this post over at the Register's Orange Punch blog.

Setting executive pay

There's a certain "he who pays the piper calls the tune" aspect to Obama's announcement that firms that take bailout money in the future will not be allowed to pay their top executives more than $500,000 a year. If you lie down with dogs and all that. And despite my acceptance in principle that firms should be able to pay what they want and concern that this could be a camel's nose leading to more government dictation of corporate behavior, I'm convinced that some firms went overboard with executive compensation (in part because of government loose-money policies, to be sure) and became clueless and insular. And of course, giving CEOs big bonuses when their companies are in the tank is absurd and pretty much the opposite of what a truly free market would produce, at least most of the time.

Here's the Register's editorial on the matter. We should be concerned about further efforts to dictate corporate policies -- and some are already in Team Obama's plans. But the simple solution for companies that don't want government micromanaging them is not to take bailout money.

Showdown coming on medical marijuana?

During the presidential campaign Barack Obama was asked on several occasions, and each time he said he would end federal DEA raids on medical marijuana patients and providers in states that have medical marijuana laws (Hillary did too, as did Ron Paul). However, at this point the DEA is still polluted with Bush holdovers, and whether it's a last dying gasp, an in-your-face kind of giving the finger, or perhaps a hope that they'll set a precedent Obama might not have the gumption to overturn, they have already several times done what Obama promised he would end. The day after the inauguration, a dispensary in Lake Tahoe and a couple of medical grows in Colorado were raided by DEA thugs. Then last Tuesday, the day Eric Holder was sworn in as attorney general, they raided four dispensaries in the Los Angeles area.

At least a White House spokesman, Nick Shapiro, has said that it will be the Obama administration's policy not to try to undermine state medical laws, and that as people are appointed they will be asked to keep this in mind as they are reviewing policies, or something equally wishy-washy. Garbage! The DEA is part of the Justice Dept. and Eric Holder has full authority to order the raids to stop and to fire those who ordered them. Immediately.

Of course, as I and a few others have pointed out, Eric Holder's record on drug-war issues is less than sterling from a reformer's perspective, and of course nobody asked about his retrograde views during confirmation hearings.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Iraq still unsettled

I spent most of today at work reading and calling people to try to get a read on the significance of the Iraqi provincial elections held over the weekend. Of course the results are still preliminary (and leaked for full spin effect), but they seem to indicate that Maliki's Dawa Party did better than expected. Marina Ottaway at the Carnegie Endowment thinks that's a tribute to the power of incumbency, the oldest story in the Arab world. News stories saying it's an endorsement of a strong central government are decidedly premature and likely inaccurate. The sects still voted as sects (though sects with divisions), and there may be trouble brewing in Anbar province if the Anbar Awakening people who made the "surge" look good find themselves locked out of political power through the ballot box. Mosul could be trouble too, and they didn't hold elections in Kirkuk, in contention between Sunni Arabs and Kurds, or the Kurdish north.

It was peaceful and run by the Iraqis, which is encouraging, but stability seems still a long way off. Still, there's no reason to delay U.S. withdrawal. Regiuster editorial day after tomorrow.

Afghanistan: graveyard of empires

Here's my most recent piece for, harping yet again, as I will probably do repeatedly for a while, on the foolishness of getting too closely drawn in to a war in Afghanistan. As even SecDef Gates has acknowledged, the core interest of the U.S. in Afghanistan is to make sure that it isn't a base camp or staging ground for al-Qaida or other terrorist groups that could launch an attack on the U.S. It isn't, and it isn't likely to be. The Taliban and al-Qaida are separate organizations. The Taliban is Afghan in origin and composition, and it isn't going away. Al-Qaida is in Pakistan and is seriously weakened compared to pre-9/11. The U.S. should leave Afghanistan to the Afghans, after putting them on notice that serious al-Qaida activity is likely to bring a swift U.S. attack, with maybe five minutes' notice to Kabul. The Afghan regime that emerges might not even feature a central government. So what? Focus traditional intelligence and maybe a special forces strike if appropriate on the places we think al-Qaida is hiding in Pakistan. The Obama team has let it be known that it is doing a thorough reevaluation of the Afghan strategy. I hope so.

Afghanistan could very well be Obama's Vietnam if he doesn't withdraw soon.

Daschle gets dashed

Well wonder of wonders, whether it was Tom Daschle himself or Obama who let it be known that this nomination was thoroughly dashed on the rocks of unpaid taxes and something less than a frank and open acknowledgment of the problem, Tom Daschle withdrew from consideration as HHS Secretary. To me the crux of the problem was that Daschle acknowledged that he learned (if that was really when he learned) he would owe taxes on the limousine and driver provided for him by a Democratic fatcat with an investment fund in June, but didn't bother to pay the back taxes until Jan. 2 of this year, or to inform Team Obama about it until (if I remember correctly) a couple of days later. Here's the Register editorial that ran today, which I'm sure was the straw (though the chat shows foolishly attributed it to the NYT editorial that also called on Daschle to withdraw). I'm especially proud of the suggestion that Obama throw Daschle back into the velvet briar patch of influence-peddling (though many people might not get it since Disney's "Song of the South" is too politically incorrect to be shown anywhere these days).

I was especially amused at all the Democratic senaotrs yesterday who were proclaiming that Daschle -- "in Washington there are whores and there are whores and there are whores -- and then there's Tom Daschle," according to Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi -- was the very paragon of integrity and righteousness. Get blindsided much?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Daschle: incomparably sleazy

It's not just "forgetting" that he had to report the use of a limousine and driver as income, or even finding out about his "obligation" in June and not doing anything about until he had the HHS nomination. Tom Daschle, as this post from the invaluable Glenn Greenwald points out, is a first-class money-grubbing opportunist and sleazebag -- one of many who went to Washington to "do good" and ended up doing very well indeed, for himself. Since being defeated for his senate seat in 2004 he has been working in the lobbying and "legal" vineyards and raking in the bucks. It's not clear just how much money he has made -- $5 million over five years, $4 million last year alone; the stories aren't specific. But he's been paid plenty by the healthcare industry he's supposed to "reform." Now that he's got the bucks he wants power again.

Furthermore, while he was in the senate his wife worked as a lobbyist for the airline industry. Somehow people who had business or issues before the senate were eager to hire her (and help paty his mortgage. You won't hear much about it because plenty of "power couples" in Washington, from both parties, play the same sleazy games.

The Michael Phelps hypocrisy

I was planning to wax indignant about the flaming hypocrisy involved in tut-tutting about Olympian swimmer Michael Phelps having a picture showing him puffing away on a marijuana bong (and he does look as if he knows what he's doing with it; probably not his first time). So he has to go through the ritual of apologizing about a youthful mistake in judgment and promise he'll never do it again. Fortunately marijuana isn't considered a "performance-enhancing" drug (though any number of athletes use it in a somewhat medicinal way to get relief from various aches and pains). But the morons in government have made it illegal and keep it illegal, at the federal level even for medicinal uses that are thoroughly documented (check out my book), and most of the media have to treat it as a serious problem.

What the incident really shows is that top-level athletes can smoke marijuana without doing themselves serious harm. Our last three presidents somehow managed to make their way in life despite having indulged -- but so far all three want others to go to jail for what didn't hurt them (though I still have some hope Obama might be different eventually). Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners have smoked it. It has killed exactly zero people. The most harmful thing about it is the fact that you can be punished for using it. When it this country going to grow up and tell the politicians to make it legal?

Fortunately Radley Balko, who was one of my tablemates at the Reason 40th anniversary dinner in November and has done yeoman work on police abuses under the color of the drug laws, has written the comment I had partially formed in my mind, in the form of the letter he wishes Michael Phelps had written. Enjoy. A few excerpts:

"Here’s a crazy thought: If I can smoke a little dope and go on to win 14 Olympic gold medals, maybe pot smokers aren’t doomed to lives of couch surfing and video games, as our moronic government would have us believe. In fact, the list of successful pot smokers includes not just world class athletes like me, Howard, Williams, and others, it includes Nobel Prize winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, the last three U.S. presidents, several Supreme Court justices, and luminaries and success stories from all sectors of business and the arts, sciences, and humanities.

"Tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. I’ll apologize for smoking pot when every politician who ever did drugs and then voted to uphold or strengthen the drug laws marches his ass off to the nearest federal prison to serve out the sentence he wants to impose on everyone else for committing the same crimes he committed. I’ll apologize when the sons, daughters, and nephews of powerful politicians who get caught possessing or dealing drugs in the frat house or prep school get the same treatment as the no-name, probably black kid caught on the corner or the front stoop doing the same thing."

Circular stimulus logic

Here's a piece from Prof. Richard McKenzie of UC Irvine that nails a good deal of the circular logic involved in the "stimulus" plan that I suppose will be passed in one form or another. The housing market experienced a bubble and got out of whack? Pump in more money so it doesn't have to decline to more-or-less affordable levels, and try to make sure that those who overextended themselves never have to pay a price. People spending more than they can afford contributed to the problem so we'll bail them out too. Bankers and heads of financial institutions made huge mistakes, but if they're "too big to fail" we'll bail them out and send the signal that there's no price to pay for stupidity and cupidity. Works for me.

Philly Inquirer seeking bailout?

Perhaps it had to happen, but it's dispiriting nevertheless. It turns out that the Philadelphia Inquirer, which is facing pretty much the same economic troubles as the rest of the newspaper industry, has talked with PA Gov. Ed Rendell about a possible $10 million bailout. It doesn't seem to have gotten beyond preliminary discussion stage and now that iot's been made public it probably won't happen. It's troubling nonetheless. As this Register editorial tries to remind us, the founders put the First Amendment in the constitution -- it was downright revolutionary at the time and to some extent still is; the British still have official press censorship -- in part to have a free and independent press to serve as a watchdog on government. How much of a watchdog are you going to be if government is paying your bills?

I realize that the BBC and NPR both are capable of good journalism, but there are places they don't go, and NPR in particular is almost always a reliable apostle for bigger government -- not that it takes government funding for journalists to promote such positions.