Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Register likes Ricci -- mostly

Further reading and talking to law profs today made it clear that while the Ricci case was, as the Register pointed out, correctly decided, by remanding the case to lower courts to work out the details -- without much guidance, the Supremes left all kinds of questions unanswered. Do the white and Hispanic firefighters have the right to jobs posted in 2003, or have things changed enough in the intervening time that they have to start all over. The principle -- give your best shot at a race-neutral test (perhaps it could include demonstrating practicalk skills as well as memorizing stuff -- and live with the results. But there are plenty of details remaining, and a similar case might come to the Supremes again in a few years -- which might be what the Roberts wing of the court, devoted to gradualism, wants.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Obama and Bush not that different

Here's a link to my column this week for Antiwar.com. I argue that Obama is proving to be not all that different from Bush when it comes to foreign policy. Obama may have opposed the Iraq war early on, for which he deserves credit, but once in power he sees himself as something akin to emperor of the world -- or at least international ombudsman, empowered to straighten out recalxcitrant countries with military force. He's taking bids on a Bush inititiated program to provide $20 million to elements of the Iranian opposition, and subsidizing the mostly mythical government of Somalia. And I could have mentioned indefinte detention, military commissions, unwarranted surveillance. Presidents seldom give up dubious powers seized by their predecessors, and Obama is no exception. We would have to adopt a policy of strategic non-engagement, as I have argued for a long time, to save this country from endless expensive and generally counterproductive meddling in the affairs of other countries.

Supremes going too slow on DNA testing

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a couple of weeks ago in an Alaska case that it was not a constitutional right to have the most sophisticated DNA applied to crime-scene material after a defendant had already been convicted in what was stipulated to as a fair trial. While the court majority acknowledged the value of DNA, it said the states were evolving standards for its use and it was unnecessary and/or premature for the high court to intervene and dictate standards.

I think I can understand the court's reluctance here, but the argument on the other side is that now that we know how valuable DNA testing can be, it's time to consider such testing part of "due process," which has never been an evolving concept as technology has increased, and the constitution guarantees due process. It wouldn't have been that much of a stretch. The government is rushing to collect DNA from as many people as possible, including in some states people arrested but never charged. It's virtually a standard part of the criminal justice process already. Yet the court shrinks from letting a convict (OK, he was already out on the rape and murder charge and had committed another crime, so he wasn't too sympathetic a character, but the court is supposed abjure sympathy) order and pay for his own test and mandate that the state provide the material with DNA.

This Register editorial, I think, deals with the issue fairly but comes down on the side of as wide a use of DNA as practical in the criminal justice system.

WW II didn't end the depression

As I note in this book review, few people any more believe that the New Deal ended the Depression, but lots of people believe that the depression was ended by World War II. Robert Higgs, author of the classic "Crisis and Leviathan," in his new book, "Depression, War, and Cold War," knocks that one out of the water. Not only was unemployment reduced mainly by the military draft, production and spending on non-military items was flat or falling throughout the war. We only got significant economic growth beginning in 1946, when most of the wartime controls and restrictions were lifted.

How little we know about how much time we have left

I wasn't convinced the Register had to comment on the death of Michael Jackson, but after some discussion we had a meeting of minds (i.s., we met Cathy's mind), and here is the result. I think there's something worth pondering in the lives of three people who seemed to have everything and yet ran into unexpected troubles -- including death. So please be true to yourself.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Check out prehistoric flute

So they've found parts of and reassembled a flute made of bird bone, believed to be about 35,000 years ago. Another flute found previously was estimated to be about 19,000 years old, so this pushes manmade musical instruments further back. It suggests to me that there's something very basic about music and that human beings from early on have had a powerful impulse to make music. It beats some of our other powerful impulses.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Arvo Part perfect for writing -- for me

I just finished my column for Antiwar.com, while listening to an album of shorter sacred pieces by the Estonian composer Arvo Part (the "a" should have an umlaut but I don't know if this program will do one -- Da Pacem, by Paul Hillier and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir. The CD includes a Da Pacem Domine from 2004, a Salve Regina and Nunc Dimittis from 2001, a Magnificat from 1989, and several other pieces. Part's music is deceptively simple, almost chant-like in places, generally quite calm, but with a cumulative power that at least for me really elevates the spirit. And since I understand the words only intermittently, it doesn't interfere with my thinking and writing. Not exactly just background music, but still quite soothing.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Many police still don't get it

Here's a report (h/t Brett) on a talk given by LA Dep. Police Chief Michel Moore, whose bailiwick is the San Fernando Valley. In response to questions he offered answers that suggest a real basic ignorance about medical marijuana and the law. He got the number of the Prop. wrong (it's 215, not 209) and pretty much everything else. He claims most of the medical marijuana dispensaries are "shams" that really sell to the general public. He totally misunderstands the reason the law says "recommendation," not "prescription." It never said "prescription" because prescriptions are governed by the feds so you can't use that term without their approval. So there's been no "loosening" of standards.

If the police charged with enforcing the law misunderstand it so profoundly, we've got a lot of educating to do. I'll work a bit on my book tonight too. Thought the one I already wrote dealt with all these issues years ago.

Beethoven and Murray Perahia

As music tonight -- I've been reading and I'll work on my Antiwar.com column a little later, I have on an interesting CD with Murray Perahia, the pianist, conducting an arrangement for full string orchestra of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 12 (E-flat major, Op. 127). It is remarkably effective. What makes it sound "symphonic," I think (besides the fact that Beethoven's string quartets in general have as many interesting tunes and ideas, and as elaborate sections of development as most symphonies) is the fact that in arranging it Mr. Perahia used double basses, tastefully, to double the cello line (and once in a while the viola), which adds depth and richness to the sound.

I suspect I still have, in a cupboard somewhere, the version of this piece I had on vinyl, acquired probably in the mid-60s, with the Budapest String Quartet, but I haven't listened to it in years. (Besides, my favorite was the 9th.) But I did recognize parts of the original in this version. Four instruments make for a much lighter sound (although Beethoven worked the lower register of the cello profitably to enhance sonority in the quartet). This richer version might not be for everybody who knows the original, but I like it. Perahia also plays the Piano Sonata No. 28 (A Major, Op. 101) in a new revision he did. The man knows how to tickle the ivories soulfully!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Sending out a nestling

Well, she's hardly a naif and she's certainly intellectually tough. Alyssia Finley got through four years at Stanford as a libertarian not only willing but eager to speak up, and to write articles for the paper deploring the politically correct climate on campus. She interned with us at the Register editorial page for a couple of summers and has submitted columns from campus during the school year. She's a fine, pungent writer and a clear thinker unlikely to back down from anybody. We've come to like her very much.

Anyway, yesterday we had a little party to wish her well in her next adventure in life. She's been hired by the Wall Street Journal editorial page to be (I'm pretty sure this is right) an assistant OpinionJournal.com editor. So it's off to New York City Sunday for her. We had cake from Zov's and wished her well. I hope she has a great time and takes the place by storm.

Cap and trade a total ripoff

Speaking of cap and trade, here's the Register's editorial deploring it. There weren't near enough votes for a pure cap-n-trade, so they've been buying votes by giving away carbon emission permission credits instead of selling them. But they'll have a market price if this abomination passes, so in fact they're giving away money, even as they're imposing an indirect tax on anybody that uses energy. All kinds of pigs, from farmers to algae biofuel producers to energy companies are crowding around the trough. As I said, they may not yet have the votes, so they're madly trading and buying votes-- about 40% of the credits are giveaways now. It's an orgy of what economists call rent-seeking -- using the political process to get favors and money.

Given our new connection to the WSJ (see next post) I compared and thought our editorial did a much better job than theirs did of explaining the hideousness of the bill. You decide.

Obama Honeymoon ending

Of course I hope it ends before he gets anything else very significant passed. The cap-n-trade is scheduled for tomorrow in the House, but I'm told it's not a sure thing. The health care mess, despite being handled very differently from Hillarycare, is starting to provoke real opposition. Here's the Register's editorial following his press c0nference Tuesday, noting that the newsies seemd a little more pointed in their questioning and Obama sometimes defensive. Obama himself is still popular but his policies -- not so much. May he face frustration getting his agenda passed, which is likely since he seems determined to "cure" the financial crisis with more hair of the dog.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Iran interventionist morons

Here's a link to my most recent column for Antiwar.com. I deplore the self-satisfied but heedless jerks who keep calling on Obama to declare himself firmly on the side of the protestors in Iran. Few things could be more damaging to them -- and they just might not win this time. As for dealing with the regime, it might be fruitless. But people forget that Reagan dealt extensively with the Societ Union after calling them the Evil Ampire and saying "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Political discussion, especially on the conservative side of thibngs, is at an unusually lowbrow and juvenile level just now.

Garden Grove loses on medical marijuana

I really shouldn't feel Schadenfreude because it's city taxpayers who are suffering, not the arrogant officials responsible for frittering away as much as $250,000 trying to evade the state's medical marijuana law. In 2005 they found medical marijuana on one Felix Kha (I've met him and talked fairly extensively) during a routine traffic stop. The cop said he couldn't verify Felix's recommendation, so he confiscated the medicine and issued a citation. The DA did verify the marijuana recommendation was valid and declined to prosecute. As this Register editorial explains, even when a court ordered the police to return his medicine they refused, and the city filed an appeal that they took all the way to both Calif. and national supreme courts after losing. Both declined the case. So the city had to pay $139,000 in attorney fees to Americans for Safe Access. Too bad it doesn't come directly from the pockets of the police chief and city council.

Monday, June 22, 2009

State workers' sense of entitlement

Just watched a segment on local LA news (ABC7 I think) featuring a demonstration in LA against any cuts in the state budget, with the usual "children will die" slogans. The newscast noted that almost all the demonstrators were state employees and some other union members. Didn't seem to note the sheer effrontery of workers demanding no cuts when the state faces a $24 billion budget deficit and gridlock in Sacramento. I think we may well be in something close to a terminal phase for the Empire. Government on the current scale is simply not sustainable, but the privileged classes (government employees are that these days) want no changes at all.

Chapman thinks the upturn is coming

Chapman University's economic forecast was one of the first if not the first to call the current recession. Now it's saying we're pretty close to the bottom and the upturn may already be underway -- though we'll still see unemployment rise at least through the summer of 2010.

The Southern California Seven

For this week I might be the most popular journalist in Southern California (and perhaps beyond) among Iranian-Americans. In Sunday's Commentary section of the Register we ran my piece on a group I've called the Southern California Seven ( a little 60s appellation). These people raised money for the Mujajedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian resistance organization of long standing (started to oppose the Shah) that in 1997 was declared a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. The designation was a political move to curry favor with the Iranian regime then headed by Khatami, whom the Clintonited hoped would be a "moderate" with whom they could do business. That hope died but the designation stayed.

These seven were charged with aiding a terrorist organization in 2001 and the government stayed after them despite twists and turns until now they face the possibility of 20 years in the pen -- they hope to win on appeal. Anyway, my phone message system was full of effusive thanks from people with Iranian names caling me an avatar of truth and integrity, a rare beacon of light in a dim journalistic landscape and so on. A few more called during the day today. That love might last a week.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Injustice to Iranian-Americans by US government

Here's the piece I did for this Sunday's Register Commentary section. It involves 7 Southern California Iranian-Americans who supported a resistance movement that had, in a political gesture in 1997, been declared a terrorist organization as a sop to Khatami when people thought he was the Great Moderate Hope.. These 7 face up to 20 years in prison unless their verdict can be overturned on appeal.

More marijuana progress

New Jersey is making progress on a medical marijuana bill, and it appears this one would be signed without delay by the governor. In North Carolina -- North Carolina! -- the legislature is just beginning to consider a medical marijuana bill -- it seems unlikely this year, but it hasn't been put to death, and there is media support. And some stirrings are beginning in Georgia.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Barney Frank and medical marijuana

In various previous posts I've referred to Mass. Dem. Barney Frank as introducing a bill to legalize possession of up to 3.5 ounces of marijuana for "recreational" use. As of today I haven't been able to confirm it -- it was too late to call his office by the time I started working on it.

What he has introduced is a Medical Marijuana Patients Protection Act, which would change federal law to make it clear that patients in states with medical marijuana laws were also not violating federal law --and move to marijuana to Schedule II, which might be de facto national medicalization. A good proposal but not legalization. I'll pass on what else I learn Monday.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Legalization option getting serious

Any number of recent developments, beyond the increased interest reform advocates are getting, which I wrote about some time ago, suggest that marijuana legalization is beginning to get serious attention as an option. Anderson Cooper is doing a whole week of segments, and in this one Sanjay Gupta shows evidence of actually having learned something since since previous on-air discussion on the topic. And now Barney Frank has introduced a bill to legalize possession of 3.5 ounces or less -- less market-friendly than I might like, but a huge advance over prohibition. The Rhode Island legislature has overridden a gubernatorial veto to allow medical marijuana dispensaries or "compassion centers." 67-0 in the House and 35-3 in the Senate.

Know hope.

Some pushback against giving the Fed more power

It's interesting to see that Obama is getting some pushback from Congress on the proposal, as part of the massive financial reregulation proposal, to give the Federal Reserve more power and authority by making it the guardian against "systemic" risk. The WaPo subhead says congresscritters are irked that the Fed didn't do enough to avert the crisis. Didn't do enough to avert? The Fed was a huge cause of the crisis with its loose-money policy after 9/11 and afterward. John Taylor even makes the case that Fed policy was the prime cause, and Tom Woods assigns it a huge share of the blame -- along with other government policies and practices, like pushing banks into giving mortgages to people who were obviously unqualified.

But the Obama proposal is fairly typical of government, where nothing succeeds like failure. Has a government agency with a mission made a little progress toward fulfilling it? Give it more money and power as a reward and incentive to finish the job (sometime in the next milennium). Has it failed utterly? Obviously it needs more money and power (see war on drugs). Of the two rationales, failure is the more effective and the more often used.

In a sane world the Fed would be seen as an inherently destabilizing institution with a buiilt-in bias for creating inflation (when I was in high school a candy bar that costs 75 cents now was a nickel) and abolished forthwith. In Washingtonworld is creates a crisis and is rewarded with more power, the true currency in the Imperial City.

They should be blushing

In what is described as a victory for traditionalists and a blow to the globalization trend, the European Union has reversed itself "and decreed that the cut-rate technique of mixing red wine with white does not make an authentic rose and thus cannot be used by Europe's winemakers."

Why does this have to decided by the EU and made a decree, the defiance of which becomes a crime?

I love wine and I think I understand the traditionalists. Proper Rose is made by allowing the grape skins to be in the juice for just a precise, brief moment or two of time, then letting the fermentation process proceed. Blending an acceptable whjite with an acceptable red is cheaper, but it doesn't produce the same clarity, the same delicate color. The EU agricultural poohbahs had been ready to permit it so the cheaper product could be marketed so as to compete with down-market roses from Australia and South Africa.

Since the Europeans have such long traditions about how wines can be named, what would have been wrong with creating a category labeled honestly as something like "blended Rose." But mainly, why does the EU have to make the decision for all of Europe. Couldn't cooperatives or associations have handled the problem. Or is the French disease so advanced that the folks think you can only settle things by having the State, or a Megastate, decide?

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

More White House secrecy

The WaPo is on it, but I've seen little elsewhere about the White House not releasing the names of visitors to the White House, the same kind obsessive instinct for secrecy the Bush administration -- and most administrations, but not always so early and so contrarily to promises of utmost transparency. Wonder if this will become an issue? Its should.

Preoccupied by Iran

Like a lot of people I've been rather preoccupied by events in Iran, perhaps more than many people in that I've had to write about it as well as observe and think about it. Here is today's Register editorial, which confesses to being inspired by the massive expressions of readiness for change yet cautious about how things might turn out, even with regime change. I also blogged about Iran several times on the Register's Orange Punch blog, here, here, and here.

There are links to helpful sites with constant updates, reflections on Twitter, and an acknowledgment that we know less about the situation than we probably think we do, with links to various interpretations.

I also worked on my Sunday Commentary cover piece, which laments the plight of seven Iranian-Americans facing prison terms for donating to the Mujahedin-e Khalq Iranian resistance movement, which has absurdly been designated a terroriast organization by the U.S. State Dept.

I would like to hope that this is a pre-revolutionary moment, but it's worth remembering that more often than not revolutions bring in regimes that are in some ways worse than those they replaced.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Illegal immigratioon: victim of recession

As I have previously noted, in response to figures from the Mexican government, illegal immigration is down drastically -- mainly since the recession hit. In the old days I used to argue that the only way the government could control illegal immigration would be to plunge the country into recession and tank the economy, thereby eliminating the presence of more jobs than were allowed for in the arbitrary quotas set in Washington. I didn't mean for them to take the advice, though a glancing acquaintance with Austrian economics business cycle theory has suggested for years that a bubble-bursting recession was coming.

Now we have figures released by the U.S. Customs and Border Control reporting that nabbing of illegals, generally an indicator of the larger phenomenon of illegal immigration, was down 17% in 2008, to the lowest level in 36 years. The attribute it to better technology and more people (hmm, wouldn't that lead to more arrests?), but grudgingly acknowledge the recession as a contributory factor. Trust me,. it's the biggest factor. I'm sure the figure for 2009 will be lower yet.

Is it a revolution yet?

A physical revolution, of course, has to be preceded by a mental/psychological revolution, a growing and widespread conviction that the status quo is simply unbearable, that it's worth a degree of chaos and uncertainty -- likely accompanied by some violence -- to get rid of it. Then there has to be a certain amount of organization and coordination, which the regime is trying to prevent by shutting down Internet sites, etc. -- though apparently Twitter (guess I need to get on that too) is beyond the regime's reach just now.

Too many imponderables and unknowns for me, but what is happening now has the feel of a sustained pre-revolutionary period, with the people testing out their strength. Here's a post from the Register's Orange Punch blog suggesting Obama's approach isn't bad, with some updates and links to analysis. They haven't brought the Revolutionary Guards out yet and they're probably hoping they won't have to. But the ability of the protesters to sustain the movement -- though with 17% admitted unemployment and realistically probably higher -- plenty of people have time on their hands -- is genuinely impressive. A lot of pent-up resentment there.

More care for more people for less money? Sure!

It seems as if even many in the "mainstream" media (you know, the ones that are losing customers and bleeding money but still employing the likes of me) are writing stories pointing out that Obama's projections on semi-universal health care just don't pencil out. The CBO has released studies showing that while using more IT in medicine might be a good idea (though not all doctors even agree on that) it wouldn't save money, and neither would a federal board to assess treatment efficacy or cost-effectiveness -- though it might lead to rationing. And he's going to cut Medicare by $300billion-plus while increasing doctor fees, with AARP and the unions standing athwart the proposal.

Here's the Register's response to Obama's speech to the AMA on Monday. It points out that the rising cost of health care in the U.S. has proceeded in lockstep with increasing government involvement, beginning with Medicare in the 1960s (when health care accounted for 5% of GDP, not 16-18%).

Politically I don't think it's exactly a slam-dunk for Obama either.

Rethinking Iran

Of course things will be quite different if there's something like regime change in Iran -- I'm unaware of anything like as substantial a movement as Khomeini had put together after the Shah exiled him but things might move more quickly in the Twitter age. Khomeini used cassettes (remember tape recording?) of his sermons to inspire and organize. Whether there is or not, as I argue in my Antiwar.com column this month, it would behoove the United States to move from the no-contact-you're-a-pariah approach to treating Iran more like a "normal" nation -- in this sad world most regimes are pretty beastly, though it must be admitted the Islamic Republic is more beastly than most. Still, don't demonize, analyze.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Presaging Iranian unrest

Almost forgot. The Register's editorial on the day of the Iranian election, if I do say so much, foreshadowed just how deep the discontent with the Iranian regime is -- though we can't claim to have predicted riots if Ahmadinejad won.

Iranian regime shaken

Whether it will fall or not I simply can't tell just yet. Gwynne Dyer, one of the sharper analysts around, notes that in a Shia country martyrdom is valued, and if the regime creates too many martyrs, that's when it will be in serious trouble. It's unclear yet whether just a few people have been killed in the protests or whether the number is approaching a dozen.

As I noted in this post over at the Register's Orange Juice blog, the MSM (at least broadcast) were mostly terrible in their coverage over the weekend. The regime in Iran, a country of reasonably serious interest to the U.S., is undergoing what may be an existential crisis and Carrie Prejean gets more airtime. The blogosphere (see links in the post) did a much better job, with special kudos to Andrew Sullivan.

Executive pay and stagnation

In contrast to some libertarians and conservatives, I think people who complain about executive pay may be onto something. Compensation for some of these top guys is really out of line, especially those who don't add to the value of their companies but rather subtract it. Nardelli almost ruined Home Depot so they hire him at Chrysler? What were they thinking?

I do think these things run in cycles, however, and the market (or people in companies making decisions through a market process) is even now correcting some of the excesses. As this Register editorial notes, average CEO compensation fell 25% between 2007 and 2008. It's probably the only comment on the current situation that notes the Adolf Berle pegged part of the problem in the 1930s, noting that managers at publicly-held companies have incentives to operate in their own interests rather than the interests of shareholders. The former chairman of Avis, Robert Townsend, Mr. "We Try Harder," author of "Up the Organization," nailed it about 40 years ago.

None of this means I'm remotely sympathetic to government efforts to control executive compensation. The government certainly has the power at companies that have taken bailouts. Otherwise, the only thing worse than boards stacked with CEO cronies setting CEO pay would be having the government set it.

I don't think Obama is a socialist; he's not a systematic enough thinker for that. He's more like a European-style social democrat with a deep distrust of ecopnomic freedom (people might misuse it!) and inordinate faith in government to get it right.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Looking like election fraud

There's more than a little evidence that the election in Iran was stolen for Ahmadinejad, although rather clumsily. The percentage difference stayed the same as each new tranche of votes was announced. Some view it as a coup d'etat engineered by the military. There are riots and Mousavi is apparently under house arrest. The best source of onbgoing news has been Andrew Sullivan's blog and Juan Cole.

Iranian election troubles

The Iranian state media are claiming President Ahmadinejad has a 69-28 lead over former prime minister Hossain Mousavi, generally considered a modest reformer, or at least someone the U.S. might be able to talk to (though whether anything would come of it is an open question). But Mousavi is claiming he won, that there was massive vote fraud. And the numbers are inconsistent (does that represent 6% of votes counted or 49%, at the same time, etc.). It may be, as Steve Clemons has suggested, that the Iranians are just clumsy at vote-rigging. After all, they haven't had to do it in the past -- though Ahmadinejad was reportedly not the mullahs' first choice they decided they could live with him.

Mousavi has suggested his battle for an honest election might include taking to the streets. Stratfor.com is concerned enough that it has put out a Red Alert suggesting that serious civil unrest is possible. I have no inside information -- didn't even have a chance to call Iran experts Friday -- but I'll be checking the news pretty often this weekend.

Friday, June 12, 2009

LA dealing with dispensary hardship cases

Brett Stone brought this to my attention. LA has put an0other moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries, but some are appealing to stay open. Cahuenga Caregivers was one of the original authorized dispenaries but had to move after its landlord was issued an eviction threat from the DEA (I don't think the DEA ever followed up on any of those, it was just a harassment/intimidation technique by an agency that knew it didn't have the resources to begin to close all the dispensaries. Anyway, the city has told the outfit it has to close because it moved to its new location after the November 2007 moratorium and the appeal will be heard June 17. About 50 other clubs are in a similar situation.

Have a Facebook user name now

The prompts tell me that you can access my Facebook page by typing in www.facebook.com/alanbock. Try it and let me know if there are any problems.

Things that aren't in the Constitution

My wife Jen brought this list to my attention, and it's pretty interesting, correcting some misconceptions some people have about the constitution. Some are pretty obvious (impeachment doesn't mean removal from office, it's the equivalent of indictment), some are a bit nit-picky, and some could stand even longer explanations. But they're all rather interesting.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Medical marijuana news: mostly heartening

The worst news is that Charlie Lynch is scheduled (again) to be sentenced in federal court for running a medical marijuana dispensary that was perfectly legal under state law, possibly the last martyr to a federal policy the Obama administration claims to be abandoning. It's unclear whether the DOJ gave the judge in the case the clarification he requested. Other bad news. The LA City Council closed a "loophole" (which it created) in its previous law creating a moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries, after which the number more than doubled. An example of government getting the opposite of its ostensible design when it passes a law.

Good news. San Francisco state Sen. Mark Leno, who's been pretty good on marijuana issues, introduced a resolution asking the federal government formally to end marijuana dispensary raids. Eric Holder has said there won't be more, but he hasn't issued a formal guideline yet. And in Michigan, the owner of a hydroponics store who is offering free instruction in medical marijuana growing says with the demise of the auto industry Michigan needs a new identity and medical marijuana would be a good choice. It would sure beat those lame commercials the state runs now with that washed-up actor (is it Jeff Daniels?) lying about what a friendly business environment Michigan has.

Obama on Israel-Palestine: mysterious

In my column this week for Antiwar.com I expressed fascination and more than a little puzzlement that Obama is pressing so hard on the Israel-Palestine issue. The smart thing, I would have thought, would have been to let George Mitchell diddle around for a while and not invest Obama's personal capital in a two-state outcome that is among the least likely developments I can imagine, a trap that has lured every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter and left all with egg on their faces.

Stratfor.com also tries to puzzle through what it views as a major change in U.S. policy -- actually pushing Israel on West Bank settlements rather then the empty formal criticisms previous administrations have made. It thinks it will somehow enhance Obama's ability to deal with Muslim countries no matter how it turns out, but I find myself still puzzled about just what sort of concrete gains Obama thinks he will reap. I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a little hubris of the sort that develops when people have an inflated sense of their own capacities and very little knowledge of the situation they're getting themselves into in operation there

Don't show off

Here's a video that's just fun to watch. I won't say more. Enjoy.


The crazies coming out?

The killing of a security guard at the Holocaust Museum by a guy in his 80s with a history as a virulent anti-Semitic white supremacist with a history -- I choose not to put his name in a venue even as few people as those who follow this blog will see -- is outrageous and unconscionable, of course. I saw an entry on a lefty blog today, however, that suggested that maybe conservatives owe Janet Napolitano an apology for criticizing a Homeland Security memo suggesting that right-wing nuts might be a danger in the near future. After all, in the last couple of weeks we've had a shooting in a church by a guy who said he hated gays, the murder (in church again) of George Tiller, the late-term abortion doctor. Maybe the crazies are coming out of the fever swamps in force?

I put a post on the Register's blog the other day suggesting that Cheney et. al. should be calling for the torture of the abortion doc killer since he had made some sort of a comment about how people were going to rise up, and maybe this was an imminent-danger situation in which we ought to torture him to find out if he has co-conspirators out there with nasty plans. It was mostly tongue-in-cheek, though it sought to make a point about torture advocate hypocrites. But there's another point to be made about possible conspiracy.

I wouldn't be surprised to see more right-wing violence with Obama in office. After all, a number of ostensibly respectable (or at least in-the-public-eye) commentators have been making a living playing to the lowest common denominator of populist ignorance and resentment, painting him as the devil incarnate leading us down tha path to socialism, and there are plenty of haters in this country. I wouldn't indict them or censor them, but I do sort of wish they would shut up. Though there are haters who don't need stirring up.

Political violence in this media-saturated age is often spread more by contagion than by outright conspiracy -- and the media are oftenb unwitting (or not) accomplices by publicizing the crazies so extensively. It's a Catch-22. You can't avoid covering a shooting or murder story, but what is the point at which overcoverage leads to imitation.

When I wrote "Ambush at Ruby Ridge" I had some fairly extensive contact with the militia movement in the Northwest in the mid-1990s. Some were just patriots (though a bit twisted) concerned about the country but some were pretty scary. Notice that the movement pretty much disappeared after the Oklahoma City bombing, as the bulk of people figured, in essence, sure it's fun to talk tough about the Zionist Occupation Government and being prepared to resist, but that's not really what we had in mind. With a Democrat in the White House (though the Weaver situation happened under Bush I) we'll see more right-wing crazies. Wish I had an answer. Suggestions welcome

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Health care? Expect more taxes

As Matt Bai's article in the NYT Magazine explains in perhaps too much detail, the Obama administration has moved shrewdly in pursuit of getting something that can be called health care reform through Congress, nurturing relationships in Congress to an extent Bush and Clinton never approached. But the sticking point just might be new taxes. As this Register editorial points out, Obama is actively flirting with two notions: making health benefits taxable to employees and putting a cap in deductions the "wealthy" can claim, to raise at least some of the money that will be needed.

The notion that deepening government involvement will lead to saving money, as the administration and its lackeys keep trying to make us believe (and maybe to convince themselves) is chimerical. But they seem determined and savvy, and resistanbce is less at this point than in 1993. I think Mike Cannon at Cato is doing some of the best work being done on health care issues, including this paper just released delineating the failures of the Massachusettsmodel, and a steady rain of articles and blog posts. If reasoned argument cold do it more nationalized health care would be dead in the water. I suspect if the administration falters, however, it will be due to divisions in the Democratic party rather than reasoned argument.

How Asians love classical music

This WaPo story about the National Symphony Orchestra starting on an Asian tour to celebrate the 30th year of diplomatic relations with China reinforces the point I made in an earlier post about Asians possibly being the future of classical music. It reminds us that the first American orchestra played in China only in 1973. Now there are 30-50 million Chinese people studying piano (o fcourse the NBA broadcast tonight claimed 300 million Chinese play basketball). New concert halls and opera houses are being built throughout the country. A single factory near Beijing turns out between a fifth and a third of the violins made in the world each year.

Here's a review of the NSO's first concert on the tour, in Macau.

Of course classical music in both countries is a symbol of wealth. If the current recession gets worse -- and considering the hair-of-the-dog approach the administration has taken that seems likely-- it will be interesting to see if classical music suffers seriously or has the resiliency to make it through hard times.

So near and yet . . .

Kobe missing free throws and turning the ball over in crunch time? Give Orlando all the credit for an amazing shooting night (62.5%!!) and just maybe for being a little more desperate and focused at the end. But after trailing pretty much the entire game, with Orlando looking as if it might pull away several times, the Lakers stayed gritty and determined and made it a one-possession game. The fact that they really didn't let up at all this game -- maybe the defense was a little less tight than in the first two games, but it really came down to Orlando making shots they were missing in the first two games -- leads me to believe it won't go much past five games. Maybe six. But unless the Lakers have the kind of stinker game they had in the early series, they should win the rest. WEell. maybe Orlando will take one more but . . .

Monday, June 08, 2009

The economics of piracy

For the Register's Sunday Commentary section yesterday I reviewed Peter Leeson's fascinating new book, "The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates." The George Mason econ prof uses economic analysis to explain why most pirate crews were democratically run, with the crew able to install a new captain at any time (except in the middle of a fight, of course), why the loot was divided evenly among the crew, why pirates flew the skull and crossbones, and other aspects of pirate life. A worthwhile read that will sneak a little economics lesson in almost painlessly.

Since reviewing books is a small part of the writing I do, I seldom review books in order to pan them. I enjoy reading reviews that are pans and have decided on the basis of some that I'd just as soon no spend my time on that particular book, so they serve a purpose (though I have decided the same thing on the basis of raves too). If I did a book review every day or even every week I would probably slip in a few I hated to warn readers away from them, and to have a little fun. But since I do fewer -- maybe 15-20 reviews a year -- I prefer to use that opportunity to introduce readers to books I think are genuinely worthwhile. So it's not that I'm uncritical, or that I don't read books that don't especially impress me. I just usually don't write about them.

Obama's Cairo speech redux

Obama's speech in Cairo was nowhere near so remarkable as many commentators want to insist, nor was it the dreary exercise in defeatism that many Americans who somehow get their kicks from cultivating enemies and talking tough about them considered it. Here's the Register's editorial. We suggested that the speech might have an impact on elections in Lebanon and Iran this month, and sure enough, the coalition the U.S. preferred in Lebanon got a majority, handing Hezbollah a defeat (though hardly knocking them out of the political picture). It will be interesting to watch Iran's election next week.

I'm in Facebook now

Friday we got our work done early so I finally did what various people, including newspaper consultants, have been urging me (and other scribblers) to do for some time. I joined Facebook. I know from e-mail messages that I picked up a bunch of "friends" over the weekend but I'm such a novice that I'm not sure how to get to it from this computer, nor do I know what link to put in if you're interested in seeing the page and checking on various friends. I'll know tomorrow.

Will Asians save classical music?

The results from the 13th Van Cliburn piano competition may just validate an intuition I have had for some time now. If classical music (I know the term is imprecise, but most people still have a rough idea of what it means when you use it) is to survive another generation or two, it may be Asians that save it. The top finishers in this year's Van Cliburn competition were Noboyuki Tsujii, 20, of Japan, and Haochen Jhang, 19, of China, who shared first prize, while Yeol Eum Son, 23, of South Korea won the silver medal. Finishing well in the Cliburn competition usually leads to an international career.

This is an interesting irony. Although I would make a case that what we call classical music is universal in appeal, it is (despite some signal contributions from elsewhere) quintessentially a Western European art form. But it went global long ago, and it sometimes seems as if Asians respond to it with more skill and artistry than almost anybody else (especially if you include Asian-Americans). Apparently Asian parents are more inclined to pressure children into learning to play traditional classical instruments. Among prominent virtuosi, think of Yo Yo Ma, Midori, Sarah Chang, Lang Lang, Young-Dae Park and others. I have CDs played by symphony orchestras from Shanghai, Taipei, Seoul and Singapore, and all are excellent technically and artistically.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sotomayor more "ethnic" than advertised

I posted this at the Register's Orange Punch blog today, and thought it might be of interest here as well:

The White House has attempted to finesse Sonia Sotormayor’s 32 words about a “wise Latina woman” etc. etc. by saying she would probably have chosen different words if she had a chance at a redo. But the release by the White House of a collection of her speeches and opinions (and her 173-page completed questionnaire) suggests that this wasn’t a case of careless use of words one time, but part of a fairly standard stump speech that she used a number of times between 1994 and 2001 and beyond. John Dickinson at Slate, hardly a right-wing crazy, thinks the White House may have misfired by suggesting that Republicans didn’t complain about a similar phrase (without the “Latina”) in a 1994 speech when she was up for the 2nd Circuit job, so why are they whining now? But the fact that she seems to have had that opinion for many years and expressed it in public may be a bigger problem in the confirmation hearings.

Looking at the speeches also suggests a keen awareness on Judge Sotormayor’s part of her ethnic background and how it sometimes made her feel like a “stranger in a strange land” (beginning at Princeton in the 1980s, which wouldn’t be a surprise) even as she was rising to the top of her profession. “The Latina in me is an ember that will burn forever,” she told Hofstra students in 1996. Her awareness seems coupled with a determination to be a good role model and urge other Hispanics to apply themselves seriously to advancement.

In my view, none of this makes her a “racist” as Rush Limbaugh wants to insist, nor does it disqualify her for confirmation. Her record in discrimination cases also suggests that she wasn’t automatically sympathetic to claims of discrimination. Still, I regret (though I think I understand) the gender/ethnic tribalism in which she chose to participate.

I still think the talk-radio mob — recognizing that the medium thrives on controversy and outrage even if it has to be self-manufactured — made a big mistake by attacking her so relentlessly. She’s going to be confirmed anyway and she won’t affect the balance on the court (she might even be more conservative than Souter on some criminal-justice issues, arising from her experience as a prosecutor). While acquiescing in her inevitability, Senate Republicans could have presented themselves as thoughtful critics of her approach to judging without emphasizing her gender or ethnic background. But it’s probably too late for that now.

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Obamaglow starting to fade

The Republicans are still mostly hopeless, and considering how venal and devoid of principle most of them proved to be during the Bush regnancy, it's hard to feel the least bit of sadness. But the bllom is coming off the Obama rose, not so much because of anything the Republicans are doing but because of doubts from some Democrats. Cap-and-trade, which would be utterly disastrous, imposing huge costs for close to zero benefit even if you're a full-on true believer in anthropogenic global warming, looks as if it's going to die. Although there is still almost no organized opposition, I wouldn't give a thoroughgoing health-care plan much of a chance. The failure to have a plan for Guantanamo has seriously damaged the Obama mystique. And as this Register editorial notes, the "Employee Free Choice Act," or "card check, which would make it inordinately easier to form unions, is likely to go down in flames as well.

To be sure, Obama has taken over entire industries, in ways that do not bode well for a successful return to the private sector, and put in place an immense amount of deficit spending. But I suspect he will prove to be more disappointing thasn advertised to the hard left and less utterly disastrous than feared to the right.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Obama impressive but . . .

This Register editorial was written in advance of President Obama's speech in Cairo and I think it holds up fairly well. I don't think anybody else emphasized the importance of reducing the U.S. footprint in the Middle East anywhere near as much. I'm still processing Obama's speech in Cairo and will write tomorrow for Sunday. These blog posts, here, and here for Orange Punch have links to reactions from various people across the spectrum. My first impressions are generally positive -- he could have announced a swifter withdrawal from Iraq, but I didn't really expect anything of the sort. It partook a bit of the liberal semi-delusion that if we can just get the parties together to talk something good is bound to come of it, but not that drastically. I'm thinking we'll see whether it has an impact in the Muslim world in elections next week in Lebanon and in Iran two weeks hence.

That was almost too easy!

I know it wasn't really. Orlando missed quite a few shots on pretty open looks and can't be expected to shoot so poorly throughout the series. Dwight Howard will likely have some big games. But you have to give the Lakers' defense some credit for that. Howard is not necessarily accustomed to having two 7-footers swarming him, and that seemed to throw his rhythm off.

I was impressed from the beginning with the businesslike sense of mission the Lakers showed from the outset. Kobe was the key, of course, and took the game into his own hands in a sterling 3rd quarter. But everybody came to play and to win. I have been impressed with Stan Van Gundy during these playoffs and I think he'll be able to make some adjustments and have his team ready to be competitive Sunday. But tonight it was all Lakers.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Let's get these finals started

I'm pretty sure that a few days away from games is probably good for the Lakers, who are a bit banged up, especially Lamar Odom. But I can't wait to get these games going. Tomorrow seems like a long time from now in that respect.

I think the key will be how well Andrew Bynum can defend Dwight Howard. If he can keep him farther from the paint, make him change shots and the like, I( think the Lakers will come through pretty handily. In six. I think.

Abortion wars returning

You can generally count on the issue of abortion to bring out the worst in people. The murder of abortion doctor George Tiller certainly validated this truism. Since I had to write about it I had to learn that Tiller was something of a specialist in late-term abortions and a special target of Bill O'Reilly and some other abortion foes. So naturally some people wanted to use the crime as a way to criticize O'Reilly and others for incitement. Not that I'm any fan of O'Reilly, but lighten up, people.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Empire of adolescent fear

My column for Antiwar.com this week discusses how the Empire uses and encourages fear to make us docile and ready to accept the bogus protection the State offers. "Empire of Dread," Matt headlined it.

All hail Government Motors

As this Register editorial notes, they don't have to change the logo. GM can stand for "Government Motors" quite nicely, thank you. We also mentioned briefly what has been since teased out in more detail by others -- that the agreement will present a major trade problem, in that forcing GM to build more cars in the U.S. and preventing it from importing European models it already makes is a protectionist measure and probably in violation of WTO treaty obligations.

The administration says it just wants to nurture GM back to profitability, but as I also pointed out yesterday, decisions will inevitably be politicized in ways that undermine much hope of profitability. Ah, what wonders there are in this Brave New World.

Medical marijuana: Two steps forward . . .

One step back. Or so. I still think we are close to a tipping-point on legal marijuana, although it's likely to take years for the implications to be worked out and the modalities agreed upon. It's not surprising in such a time of flux that there would be progress and setbacks. A setback occurred this week in Iowa, where the state pharmacy board, which had been ordered by a judge to consider permitting medicinal marijuana, dispatched of the idea with scorn and ignorance in a couple of hours. Well, what did you expect. A state pharmacy board represents the interests of pharmacists and at least by indirect extension the pharmaceutical-industrial complex. Medicinal marijuana is not only a threat to that whole shady industry but represents a paradigm the people steeped in pharmacology -- which views only single-molecule doses of standardized doses as "real" medicine and herbal medicine as primitive and maybe barbaric -- can't get their minds around. Of course a pharmacy board would dismiss "the very idea" with contempt.

The court action had asked Iowa to legalize medicinal marijuana because 13 other states had done so. One board member even recalled the old chestnut everybody claims to remember about their teenage years, claiming she asked her father as a teenager about staying out late because all the other kids were allowed to and being asked, "If your friends jumped off a bridge would that mean you had to jump off a bridge?" I'll leave it to you to suss out the kind of mind that would come up with such an inapt analogy, starting with the idea that these bureaucrats view free American adults as adolescents who can be allowed to do only what our in loco parentis types (loco parents?) -- them -- allow us to do.

But the news wasn't all negative. A proposal to legalize medical marijuana squeaked through the Illinois state senate; it gos to the House next. The state senate in New Jersey has passed a medical marijuana bill and it goes before an Assembly committee Thursday, after which presumably the full Assembly can vote on it. It may seem slow but progress is being made.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Torture: not only immoral but ineffective

Here's a link to the piece I did for yesterday's Register Commentary section on torture. I relied to a great extent on a lengthy phone interview with retired Adm. Lee F. Gunn (my old fraternity brother from college whom I hadn't talked to in decades until recently), who is among the retired flag-level officers actively explaining (college appearances, etc.) why they oppose the use of torture by the U.S. He is quite articulate and passionate in his understated way. I also read the four "torture memos" the administration released recently and did a good deal of reading.

It is difficult to believe that the use of torture got anything very useful or saved lives. As this Stratfor piece explains, the only real rationale for torture (except perhaps for purposes of humiliation or punishment or sadism) is the ticking-time-bomb hypothesis everybody invokes but has never happened in real life. What the U.S. needed after 9/11 was basic information about al-Qaida, which it was sorely lacking (and the Bushies ignored the people like Michael Shcheuer who did know something), not operational stuff (which changes almost immediately in a reasonably competent organization once they know somebody with certain info has been captured). They got some with conventional interrogation techniques and would undoubtedly have gotten more if they hadn't turned to torture. Not only a moral outrage but a strategic mistake.

The bird is still hanging around

After I got home from work tonight it was still light and pleasant out, so Jen and I had a glass of wine, talked and enjoyed the evening. We discovered that the baby bird we have been watching still hangs around the nest, though we haven't seen the parents. Tonight he chirped assertively for about 10 minutes at dusk before crawling into the next and (we presume) going to sleep. We took that as a signal to come inside.

So now it's Government Motors

It's hard for me to see how the bankruptcy/government takeover of General Motors does anything but make the company progressively less viable economically. I know Obama with our-but-really-his 60% stake in the new entity says he doesn't want to micromanage GM or even run a car company. He doesn't have to; he has aides to do it on the government's behalf. Will they move toward profitability or toward what the political class thinks we ought to want in the way of cars? I'm figuring the latter.

It isn't just the big three, but the parts-makers that supply them that are hurting, and many are in the Midwest where Obama and other Democrats will want to keep noisy interest groups happy. Some in Congress will see government ownership of GM as a jobs program; others will see it as an opportunity to make sure GM makes the cutest little fuel-sipping (switchgrass of course), green and eco-friendly cars imaginable, imagining it will have an impact on climate change. Neither is the path to profitability unless gas price go through the roof again soon.

Sorry, GM. You brought it on yourself, but it's still sad. Check my prophecy in a couple of years.

Quote of the Day

"The financial crisis is not the crisis of capitalism. It is the crisis of a system that has distanced itself from the most fundamental values of capitalism, which betrayed the spirit of capitalism." -- French president Nicolas Sarkozy.