Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Health care ideology wins Pyrhhic victory

It seems likely now that congressional Democrats will eventually pass some kind of bill they can call health care reform, although while Senate passage seems greased, there are still some barriers to House-Senate reconciliation -- different methods of financing, the abortion issue still unresolved, lefties upset there's no public option, burgeoning costs and higher taxes, etc. Getting it this far is a triumph of ideology over reality and perhaps even smart politics. Public opinion polls still show substantial majorities against ObamaCare, and while some of those may be Dem "base" voters upset at it being "watered down," I suspect that's a sliver. Supporting health care deform will send substantial numbers of elected Dems into retirement next year, and they know it.

But those who describe themselves as "liberal" or"progressive" ion America have long coveted nationalized health care for ideological rather than practical reasons, and Obama is much more iedological than advertised or widely recognized yet. They see jamming more government control of health care down our throats as an obviously desirable and historic achievement that will eventually be recognized as beneficent and important.

Just what does it mean to "give back"?

Saw another one of those commercials that get so annoying this time of year about how good it feels to "give back." The term is incoherent. If those who have had some success were to "give back" to those responsible in some measure for their success, they would be giving back to parents, decent teachers, customers, fans, mentors, good bosses, etc. But that is of course not what is meant. They're talking about giving to help those less fortunate or talented. Giving to people in need is commendable, and we always do some of it, but it isn't "giving back" but simply giving, unless you treat the entire community/nation/world as responsible for you having something above and beyond bare necessities to use to help others. But while it might make sense, to urge, as has been done, black pro athletes to "give back" to the communities they grew up in, even that seldom really makes sense. Few successful athletes have been nurtured by entire communities; indeed, many achieved success by being careful not to be shaped by their communities. It might be commendable for them to give to help disadvantaged kids in those communities, but this is still hardly ever really giving back.

Can we retire this tired term?

Christmas is coming

Jen's cousin Frank came today to spend Christmas with us, so I'm finally believing that Christmas is really almost here. Looking forward to it very much this year for some reason. Hope you and yours have the best one yet, and if you can give a thought to the idea that if we lived in the spirit of the Jesus who appears in the Gospels we would have a lot more peace and a lot less demand for coercion and protection from bogus threats. Merry Christmas.

Bruin basketball: not too discouraging

Most of the sportswriters seemed to think that the Bruins' performance against Notre Dame last Saturday showed that this year's UCLA basketball team is in serious trouble. While I've certainly beeen disappointed by their performance so far, I watched the game and I'm not sure I agree. Of course it was disappointing that they couldn't hold their early lead, and they made a lot of mistakes and turnovers and took some ill-considered shots. But while early in the second quarter I had pretty much abandoned a realistic hope they they might win, even though I put my hat on in several different rally configurations (though my ugly old baby-blue corduroy UCLA cap, which I didn't wear, might have done the trick.

Still, they never gave up, and they kept whittling the lead down to single digits (eventually losing by 11). Notre Dame was obviously the better and more experienced team, but the Bruins didn't let them make it a complete blowout. I still think they have the potential to be a decent team this year. The proof will be in the playing and in the W-L stats, of course. But I'm holding onto hope.

I'm thinking tonight's game (not on TV so I didn't see it) helps to make my case. They came back after a sloppy performance for most of the game and beat Colorado State

Monday, December 21, 2009

Iranian regime in more trouble

In Iran the death of Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, known as perhaps the most erudite of Iran's Islamic scholars and a recent critic of the current regime, has sparked another round of massive protests by regime opponents, followed by another vicious crackdown by the forces of phony but brutal authority. The fact that almost any event can set off anti-regime protests suggests that the regime is at least a bit more vulnerable than it might seem, although the mullahs who rule in the name of religion are clever and pragmatic wielders of power who have so far managed t0 keep the oppositioon under control with fairly carefully calibrated violence.

Next Sunday is Ashura, the emotionally charged last day of Muharram, the commemoration of themmarftyrdom of Muhammad's grandson, whom Shia consider the rightful successor, the main thing that differentiates Shia from Sunni. It will fall 0n the seventh day after Montazeri's death and will not doubt be marked by more protests from Inran's Green M0vement, whose slogans (Montazeri is not dead, the government is dead) have become bolder.

Whether this latest protest is a precursor of eventual regime change is difficult to tell, but some of the conditions that might lead to such cvhange are clearly present. About half of Iran's population was born after the mullah's took over 30 years ago and many view the theocracy as the ancien regime, the old guard clinging to power and suppressing their various aspirations. Iran's population has long been well-educated with a tendency toward cosmopolitanism.

One hopes this article by Abbas Milani, director of Iranian Studies at Stanford and co-director of the Iran Democracy Project, wiull get some play inside Iran. It questions one of the founding myths of the labeling of the U.S. as the Great Satan. Most people believe now that the CIA was the key to the coup that toppled Mohammed Mossadegh from power in 1953. Milaniu argues that the CIA was a late entry in the game and probably had little or nothing to do with the success of the coup, which was already underway -- but Kermit Roosevelt, Teddy's grandson later wrote a self-serving memoir claiming full credit, but its claims are dubious. Interestingly, my friend former British parliamentarian with extensive personal experience in Iran and the region, Sir Eldon Griffiths, in his book, "Turbulent Iran," also raises serious doubts as to whether the U.S. was the key to the coup's success or was even a serious player. If the U.S. didn't engineer the coup, the regime's labelinmg of the U.S. as the Great Satan is suspect by Iranian and Shia lights. Yet another regime vulnerability.

This may be just the beginning. And it's been precipitated internally, not by the U.S.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The inevitability of rationing

Well, it looks as if passing some kind of health bill is closer to reality than a few days ago. Hardly anybody, however, noticed this story about kidney treatment, let alone its implications. There are apparently new post-transplant kidney drugs available and people are lobbying to get Medicare to pay for them. However, the dialysis industry, guardians of a much more costly procedure, aren't sure they want their method of reimbursement change. So the various kinds of kidney treatments will be rationed by politics, with the best lobbyists winning. Not exactly optimal if quality care is the goal.

Roy Disney's death a bittersweet milestone

The NYT obit said that with Roy Disney, Walt's nephew, dead, there is nobody named Disney working at the Disney Co. In the Register's editorial we fudged that a tiny bit to say nobody in a leadership position, which is definitely true. That strikes me as something of a shame. There was a time when the company very much reflected Walt's personality, and while it has a personality now (if a corporate entity can be said to have a personality) I don't think it's Walt's.

Over the years the Register ed board has met with most of the Disney top leadership, but we never met with Roy. While it seems he was fairly easy to underestimate, he turned out to be quite formidable, leading a couple of shareholder revolts that got CEOs booted, and heading the animation division during its rebirth ("Little Mermaid, "Lion King," Aladdin," etc.).

I know Disney can do corny stuff and "Disneyfy" or dumb down somne classice stories. But you know, they've done educational stuff they didn't have to ("Living Desert" et. al.) and have had a nice American middlebrow impulse to want to improve the world with more high-toned stuff -- classical music and all. And Disneyland is still one of the best places ever to spend a day and a night, especially with kinds, but pretty nice without kids as well.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Health care deform stalled but . . .

Well, the public option and Medicare expansion now seem to be off the table, but as I suggested a couple of days ago, getting some kind of bill passed by the senate is still not a done deal. It's hard to imagine the Obama administration, which has plenty riding on being able to sign something, will allow the bill to die completely. Too bad.

As this Register editorial explains, what's left in the bills being considered now is still plenty bad. The major reason is the individual mandate, which Obama claimed to be against during the campaign, but force is the only thing government knows (indeed, the use of force pretty much defines government), so . . . With an individual mandate, however, as the editorial explains:

An individual mandate allows the government to control what kind of insurance you can buy, how much you will pay, how insurers pay doctors, how doctors work, how doctors practice medicine, and ultimately what kind of medical care you receive. It is a giant step toward complete government control over medical care.

Could it fail ignominiously? As time passes the polls turn more and more against it, which may explain some of the trouble in Congress, and the closer Democrats in normally Republican-leaning districts get to November the more reluctant they will be to back Obama on something that is becoming increasingly controversial. Abortion continues to be a sticky issue.

Still if I were a betting man I wouldn't bet against something getting passed.

Bruin basketball righting itself?

Well that was more like it! In the game against New Mexico State the Bruins looked much more like a Ben Howland team, playing pretty good team defense and -- wonder of wonders! -- making open shots when they had them.

I know NM State might not be much of a test, but the Bruins looked like a different team than the one that was blown out by Mississippi State. And they played somewhat competitively against Kansas, now the #1 team in the country. So there's a chance that by the time the real Pac 10 season rolls around, the Bruins will competitive, especially since it's supposed to be a down year for the league. We'll have a better idea after Saturday, when they play Notre Dame at South Bend. It's still a young team full of frosh and sophs, with Michael Roll, who had been a substitute the last couple of years, expected to be the stabilizer. Having James Keefe out for a few weeks with a shoulder separaion also won't help. More mistakes and probably a few more bad games are virtually inevitable, but I have a modicum of hope now.

Banks getting out from under the federal thumb

All 9 of the major banks that took money from the federal government under the initial TARP under Bush and Paulsen -- have now either paid the money back or announced plans to do so over the next couple of months. The media have focused on the issue of CEO pay, which the government has vowed to reduce, as a main reason, but that's far from the only reason the banks (some of which never wanted to take the money but were pressured into it by Paulsen) wanted to get out from under direct federal investment and part-ownership. (It's probably unconstitutional as well, but who pays attento to that old scrap opf paper these days?) There was pesky micromanagement and the attitude on the part of government overseers that they could dictate policy in all kinds of areas.

This makes it all the more absurd -- or grandstanding -- that Obama summoned the heads of major financial intitutions Monday and urged them to get busy lending more money. Since the payback the government has little or no leverage over the banks, and bankers are by and large a fairly arrogant bunch. Besides, lending money, especiallynmortgages, to people who were'nt really qualified (under pressure from govt., of course) was one of the major causes of the financial fiasco. Government never learsn, and almost always has a short-range vision, wanting to fix every problem -- or pretend to have taken steps, however unlikely to work -- right now.

Getting all Christmas-y

I had to see the dentist yesterday -- routine cleaning, nothing unusual or especially painful -- so I had a day off work -- a day when somehow I assiduously avoided paying attention to the news (until my 11 pm fix) or commenting on the great issues of the day. Instead, I put up some Christmas lights on the front of the garage that faces the street. It is fewer than I have put up in some years past, partly because I also installed sensor/controllers on the front two lights (from one of which I pirated electricity for the strings of lights) so they would automatically go on at dusk and off at dawn.

It's not all that much -- though we do have a small artificial Christmas tree all lighted up on the front porch as well, which is new -- but it somehow makes it feel like almost Christmas. If I hadn't done it we wouldn't have been the only house in the neighborhood without lights, but one of the few. Couldn't have that!

We used the LED lights Costco has in stock -- fortunately already on sale -- which use so little electricity you could almost use them all year. Maybe we will put some in the apple tree along the front walk.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Health bill still not a done deal

Events of the past few days have made it seem as if passage of the bulk of some version (no doubt hammered out in a conference committee) of ObamaCare will be passed by early next year at the latest. Joe Lieberman's concerns about a "public option" and expansion of Medicare to certain 55-year-olds has been handled -- they're out of the Senate version.

However, I talked to Mike Cannon at Cato today, and he emphasized that it is still not quite a done deal. News stories have mentioned that Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson still has concerns about abortion. If he gets what he wants abortion activists will believe they have lost -- they went apoplectic over the Stupak amendment in the House, and if there's anything ideologues are more passionate about than health care, it's abortion. In addition, there are a number of hidden potential deal-breakers lurking, and stuff senators haven't heard about yet, in part because the dealing is still going on.

Tomorrow's Register editorial details a good deal of what's wrong with what's left in the bill(s). Short version: an individual mandate essentially gives government control over almost every aspect of health care delivery.

The debt limit about to soar

As this Register editorial notes (I hadn't known this before I researched it), the practice of setting a limit on the national debt began in World War I, when the government took on serious debt with war bonds. I'm sure that if they thought they could do it without consequence the present Congress would prefer to do away with the debt limit altogether. It always gets raised enough to accommodate the latest borrowing binge, but it serves as a reminder of just how profligate the government is being. It was raised seven times during Bush's 8 years, and again when they passed the "stimulus" in January. But Obama's (and Congress's) spending binge requires that it be done again, and this time it's the Democrats who want to make sure it's done as far away from the November election as possible. So they're attaching it to a defense appropriations bill in the hope of spinning any opposition as reluctance to "support the troops," that sacred mantra in America's degraded political discourse.

Anyway, it will soon be around $14 trillion. Hope your grandchildren aren't planning to grow up to be slackers. They're on the hook for their forebears' profligacy.

How museum-going has changed

Why do I keep old newspapers and printouts around for so long that OSHA wants to declare my cubicle a disaster area? Because sometimes I refind something that sparked an interest and didn't gel for a while. Here's an NYT piece based on a writer's morning at the Louvre and some reflection on how people experience museums these days. The headline says much: "At Louvre, Many Stop to Snap but Few Stay to Focus." He goes way back, noting that before cameras people used to sketch to preserve their trips and experiences, and therefore went through museums more slowly. These days it's more like an effort to get an entire art appreciation course into a couple of hours, and most people zip right through, perhaps pausing a little longer at certain recognized masterpieces, but basically wanting to see as many things as possible in the time allotted instead of looking at anything intensely. After all, you can always buy a postcard in the museum shop if you want to study something. There's probably something to the observation, based on my recent experiences in museums.

It reminds me of an experience many years ago -- in 1967 -- the first summer I spent in Washington, DC. One day I spent quite a bit of time in the big art museum on the mall. As I passed him, one of the uniformed guards said to me "You never took an art appreciation class, did you?" He was right, I hadn't. He explained to me that to maintain interest in the job (he was retired army and had spent some time as an ROTC instructor at UCLA) he looked at the patterns people dispayed in looking at the pictures. He said that certain pictures were generally featured in art appreciation classes, and those who had taken them would spend time on those paintings, sometimes obviously looking at something in the corner or checking for little-seen patterns as they had been taught. He claimed he could tell from the way people looked at paintings and the features of certain paintings they focused on, whether they had taken art apprciation at Vassar, Yale, Harvard, or several other schools. And he could tell by the somewhat random things that caught my attention and made me stop a while, that I hadn't taken a formal class.

The experience struck me as an example of how an active mind could find interest and some semblance of meaning in even the most mundane and boring activities -- I suspect for most of them being a museum guard is supremely boring. But there's something to observe, something to learn, something to discover, wherever you are in life or wherever you look. You just have to be alert to it.

Obama in denial

Do you suppose Obama has the slightest idea how absurd he looks calling the CEOs into the White House woodshed and administering a verbal spanking? Yeah, that'll get them to lend more money.

Even beyond the fact that what Obama says he wants --more lending -- was just what led to the financial fiasco, the idea of any president of the United Snakes trying to place sole blame on the bankers and such -- sort of like a dimestore FDR, suggesting that to American "progressives" (do you suppose they'll let us have "liberal" back, or have they besmirched that brand so badly that nobody would want it anymore?) it is always the 1930s.

Sure, a lot of bankers made some bad loans, but they were responding to an environment created by the government, with the Fed's loose-money policies, the Community Reinvestment Act and all the regulators threatening to make lenders' lives miserable if they didn't give more mortgages to people who were obviously not qualified for them. Everybody knows this -- especially those who have read or read about Tom Woods' "Meltdown" or Tom Sowell's "The Housing Boom and Bust" (incidentally, he's coming out with a revised and updated version) -- except, apparently, the president and most of the MSM. Being in government means never taking responsibility but instead shoving it off on someone you're in the mood to demonize.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Bruins going bowling

Well, it's not exactly the top bowl in the world, but the UCLA football team is going bowling, to the EagleBank Bowl in Wash, DC on Dec. 29, against 9-3 Temple. Guess that means we'll have Bill Cosby rooting against us. It's a definite improvement on last year's 4-8 record, but still hardly what I (and Neuheisel) had hoped for. It looks as if tthey're pumped, so perhaps they'lkl play close to their potential. They lost a couple of games they really might have won this year.

Meantime, the basketball team is really struggling, losing to Mississippi State for its fifth straight loss. I can understand a lot of it -- losing sterling players to the NBA (I guess I support the right of underclassmen to go pro but most of the time I don't like to see it happen), having almost all freshmen and sophomores, losing Drew Gordon after he butted heads with Coach Howland. I think Howland can get them respectable in time for Pac-10 play, but I just don't know.

Sole source for the Sowell authority

Because of our visit to the Hoover Institution at Stanford U., the Register opinion page is the first place with fairly complete information on Thomas Sowell's new book, "Intellectuals and Society." He argues that those we think of as intellectuals -- people who deal in ideas, with ideas the end product of their work (rather than, say, an engineering design, a piece of surgery or a bridge) -- have by and large not been a good influence. Here's my column on the book and on our hour-plus interview, and here is Mark Landsbaum's column. Here is a gallery of photos, and here are some video excerpts of the interview.

Although he certainly values freedom, I've come to think that Tom Sowell is more conservative than libertarian in his orientation. Ah, well. Though I might disagree with him on certaion issues -- minly to do with war and foreign policy -- I have to acknowledge he is one of the foremost intellects of our time. And he's better in person than in print.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Peace Prize to a warmaker

I'll give Obama some credit for trying to square the circle of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize a few days after ordering a heavy-duty escalation of the useless and strategically indefensible Afghan war of choice (not necessity). As this Register editorial notes, the Nobel Committee would do well to stop giving it to heads of state, leaders of institutions grounded in the use of force.

Quote of the Day

"The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth -- that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first." -- H.L. Mencken

It seems somewhat likely that the global warming hysteria is at something close to a peak and perhaps already on the decline. What silliness will follow it? Unfortunately, probably not something closer to truth. As Mencken also noted, truth is almost never welcome among the supposedly wise.

Happy Hanukkah or Cheerful Chanukah

Yesterday was Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights. As this Register editorial notes, it is largely a festival of religious freedom, commemorating the victory of the Maccabees over the Syrian Seleucid empire, which tried to stamp out traditional Jewish religious expression -- replacing it with Greek customs and gods the conquerors no doubt believed were more sophisticated and enlightened. Funny how conquerors, who generally conquer by the most primitive, basic and brutal of means -- the use of force -- almost always consider themselves more enlightened than those they have conquered. To the victor goes the hubris.

Small progress on the Fed

It is appropriate, as this Register editorial does, to take note of the fact that Ron Paul's bill to audit the Federal Reserve system, which he has introduced since the 1980s, finally got House approval this week. I have often thought that when the founders contemplated the Congress they were establishing that they hoped for a Congress full of people like Ron Paul --devoted to the Constitution and thinking first and foremost of making sure the government abides by its strictures. Instead, we have Congress with one Ron Paul and a few others with something 9of a passing knowledge of the Constitution. Ah, well.

Of course it would be nice if this were a serious preparatory step toward abolishing the Fed instead of something of a symbolic gesture fueled mostly by uncomprehending populist anger at a powerful and mysterious institution. But I'm afraid Jefferson was right when he said the natural order of things is for government to grow and liberty to retreat. We get a little pushback now and then -- this vote, a growing sense of unease with Obama and his kneejerk efforts to expand government in every sphere of life -- and sometimes a little advance for liberty. But even hanging on to the oiberty we have, I'm afraid, is the work of a lifetime.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Talking with Thomas Sowell

Yesterday was a red-letter one. Almost our whole editorial board went up to the Hoover Institution at Stanford to talk with Thomas Sowell. He has a new book coming out in January, "Intellectuals and Society," so the normally fairly reclusive one has agreed to do some publicity work, and he agreed to have us be the first group to interview him. I figure he must have enjoyed the editorial board meeting he had with us at our office seven or eight years ago -- he acted as if he did -- and he acted as if he enjoyed this session too.

There will be video on the Register opinion page around midnight Saturday, for Sunday, along with pieces Mark Landsbaum and I wrote, which will also be in the Sunday Commentary print edition. So I'll leave details for later.

We also had a substantial talk with Martin Anderson, who with his wife Anneliese has just put out "Reagan's Secret War." Fascinating. And more on that later.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Obama the cold one

For the most part I can take Maureen Dowd or leave her alone (in fact, it's remarkable that almost all of the regular NYT regular opinion columnists are such mediocrities -- they chose pretentious duds for their token conservatives as well). But she can be clever when she's biting -- she took Clinton's measure pretty well but was sometimes so angry at the Bushlet that she sputtered, which doesn't usually make for good writing. Still she's capable of seeing presidents fairly plainly, and I suspect she's starting to take Barack Obama's measure.

This column notes just how coldly Obama dealt with Gregory Craig, the frozen-out White House Counsel. Maureen would remember better than I just how much of a Clinton loyalist -- he honchoed the impeachment defense and had been friends since Yale Law -- Craig had been before he came out for Obama last year. Once on Obama's team, however, he savaged Hillary's claim to have significant foreign policy experience as a former Clinton insider. Put himself on the line for Barack. When he ran into trouble handling the Guantanamo situation, however, Obama simply froze him out further. Cold as could be. Maureen also notes that he did nothing to help Caroline Kennedy, who also put herself out for him during the campaign, when she was floundering around wondering whether or not to run for the senate.

Most politicians are loyal only to themselves, of course, but they usually try to be somewhat graceful. (My old UCLA prof Charles Titus defined politics as the art of getting what you want and making people like it). Obama has no grace.

No make-work government jobs

President Obama did his obligatory speech on jobs-jobs-jobs today and offered mostly the predictable: converting some of the TARP money to spending on public works, some tax breaks for small businesses, rebates to people who weatherize their homes ("cash for caulkers"), and even suspending capital gains taxation for small businesses for a year. In this piece Tyler Cowen (part of a larger NYT "room for debate" feature) makes a strong case that emphasizing infrastructure projects is a lousy way to increase the number of jobs. He doesn't emphasize, as I might, that public-sector jobs all have a parasitic relationship to the real economy, but notes that in our current legalistic climate, projects will take a long time to be approved and will end up employing relatively fewer people at higher wages. Back in the 1930s FDR could hire lots and lots of people quickly at low wages for WPA projects, a few worthy but mostly make-work. Can't happen now. I think he's right.

I am pleased to see Tyler, whom I've known since he started teaching at UCI years ago, included in these debates. Plenty of people think the MSM is so hopeless that it should be boycotted and never taken seriously. There's truth there, but I think the view is shortsighted. For all its many faults the NYT still, for the most part, does the best reporting in the country (perhaps not a high compliment), and it's much better to worm one's way into the paper than to disdain it. Tyler may not be as strong a libertarian as I am -- he doesn't mention the inconvenient and sometimes too harsh to be uttered truth that extending unemployment benefits subsidizes unemployment and reduces the incentive to search hard for another job. It might be that the government has so screwed up the economy that there just won't be jobs to be had for another year or so, however, so subsidizing unemployment may be the lesser of evils.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Republicans defending socialism

I understand (I think) most of the series of political calculations that got them there, but this is just too rich anyway. The only way the Obama/Reid/Pelosi/Baucus approach to health care doesn't bust the budget dramatically is by including some $4-5 hundred billion in cutbacks in Medicare over the next 10 years (they won't make those cuts anyway, but that's a tale for another day). So the Republicans are now defending every penny spent on Medicare as if it were sacred. Medicare is as close as anything in our current system to a pure socialist approach to medicine. So that's what Republicans defend if they think it leads to blowing up plans for the next phase ogf government takeover. I sympathiz3, and it just might work. But the irony/hypocrisy deserves a mention.

Coping with China and India

Here's the review I did for Sunday's Register Commentary section on Martin Sieff's new book, Shifting Superpowers, on the rise of China and India to the status of economic superpowers with the capacity to become at least increasingly important regional powers -- which they are now -- if not necessarily global powers. Martin reminds us that far from being Gandhi-style pacifistic, India has had and still has one of the world's more effective militaries. By going into history of the last 100 years ago, he demonstrates that the Bush administration's idea of cozying up to India as a counterbalance to China was a pipedream; India had been suspicious of/antagonistic to China earlier on, but it's now in a phase of getting along, even cooperation.

I remember sitting with Martin Sieff in a bar in Korea, drinking many scotches into the wee hours and trading stories. We were at the same conference. Of course he had more stories to tell than I, having lived a more adventurous life, and he was only too happy to tell them; he's a delightful raconteur. He also wrote a darn good book.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Dump the spy powers

Not that I think it will happen really, but I thought it was important for the Register to be on record saying it wouldn't be a bad thing if the Senate got so obsessed or bogged down on health care this month that it just didn't get around to renewing three spying powers of the lamentable Patriot Act that are set to expire at the end of the year. As a senator and candidate Obama criticized the PA, but now that the power is in his hands he doesn't want to give it up, as he announced last summer. Funny how those civil libertarian pretensions melt when it's a matter of the "right people" having the legal ability to, respectively, get a "roving wiretap" without identifying the suspected "terrorist," snoop into business records including library activity or medical records, or follow a suspected "lone wolf," which they say they haven't done but they still want the power. Jim Carrey in "Bruce Almighty" comes to mind.

Those are not the worst provisions of the Patriot Act, which were already renewed last year (with Obama's vote).

Puncturing journalistic pretensions

For my money the best media critic -- fascinating concept -- holding forth these days is Jack Shafer, who has written for a Washington alternative newspaper in the past and is now writing at Slate.com. I don't think it's necessary to have committed daily journalism to be able to criticize media effectively -- I certainly did it in print before I worked for a daily newspaper -- but I think it helps to have spent time in a newsroom of some sort just to soak up attitudes and mores. I love daily journalism, whose challenges seem to fit my proclivities pretty well, but I think it's important to be able to maintain a certain psychic distance from the trade to be able to view it as an objective lover. I like much of what Howie Kurtz does at the WashPost, but he is still more reportorial. Jack is analytical and fair enough to do representative excerpts of writers he is criticizing; he is especially good at identifying cliches in selection of stories and their presentation.

This time he's having a good time with the NYT's James Traub, who wrote the predictable "most powerful veep in history" story about -- ta dah! -- Joe Biden. Here's a taste:

The Nov. 29 New York Times Magazine bestows the "most powerful vice president in history" accolade on Joe Biden with the qualifier that he's the most powerful vice president in history after that Cheney guy. Written by James Traub, who scampers around the globe and down the White House's halls with the logorrheic 47th vice president, the piece conforms to all the clich├ęs of most-powerful-veep genre. It catalogs the size of his staff, the number of meetings he has with the president, the number of important presidential briefings he attends, the number of private lunches he has with the president, the breadth of his policy portfolio, the air miles he's flown on diplomatic missions as "Obama's fire chief and ambassador without portfolio," and the frequency of his impromptu sessions with the president ("Very seldom a week goes by that he doesn't call me down to his office, or wander in here and close the door and say, 'Wait a minute, what about this?' " Biden tells Traub).

Jack documents that pretty much every vice president in recent history -- including Dan Quayle! -- has had this story written about him. For good measure, here's his take on Tiger. Enjoy.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The UCLA-USC travesty

The trouble with the kind of stunt Pete Carroll pulled at the end of the UCLA-USC game -- a Hail Mary pass that succeeded after taking a knee at 55 second and Neuheisel calling a timeout -- is that nothing can be done to counter it for a full year, and while it will probably provide motivation next year, next year is a long way off.

I don't condemn Carroll. Both coaches, who don't seem to0 like one another at all, kind of made the game about their egos rather than their teams. I didn't think Neiheisel's timeout call was all that outrageous; he had three left, his team had just finally marched down the field and scored a touchdown, and while at 21-7 they weren't going to win it, if they got the ball back and scored again -- or even mounted a respectable drive -- it would have ended the season on a high note. But there was ego involved, and definitely in-your-face-sucker ego on Carroll's part.

I wonder if Pete Carroll's ego hasn't begun to get in the way of his judgment. The Hail Mary was defensible but still bad judgment. Competitors, especially athletic competitors, tend to be impulsive, and the call was just that. I think he also fell in love with Matt Barkley, his Freshman QB, which led him not to give others a shot when Barkley, after a first few really nice games, started playing like a Freshman. He used to make good half-time adjustments but lately (except against UCLA) USC has fallen apart in second halfs. He may be reluctant or too proud to change things when change might have been called for. This season -- especially if Arizona beats the Trojans Saturday, which is possible -- should have been a blow to Pete's ego. We'll see how he responds next year. If they return to dominance I may reconsider.

Obama's sorry speech

I'll know it's almost time to retire when a situation like last night doesn't get the adrenaline flowing and stir the creative juices. Obama gave his speech at 5:00 PST, and the last train leaves at 6:50, so I had to listen to the speech, check my notes, and write this editorial by about 6:20 to have time for Cathy to read it, ask a few questions, change a few things and get it ready for the next day's paper. It went on the Web site right away, and also onto the FreedomPolitics.com site.

It wasn't that hard to write. We have been urging military disengagement in Afghanistan for at least a year, for reasons we think are sound and that haven't changed much. There is no significant al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan, so the main thing we're accomplishing by keeping troops there is fueling the Taliban insurgency and acting as a crutch for the corrupt and ineffectual Karzai regime. Obama's "surge" (greater in percentage terms than Bush's 2007 Iraq surge) is unlikely to achieve much of anything for reasons the editorial explains.

In a later posting on the Register's Orange Punch blog, I played with the idea that this might have been as shrewd a course as Obama could have charted given the bad options facing him and assuming he wasn't going to begin an Afghan pull-out or even a military de-emphasis. He's letting the military throw a Hail Mary, giving it 18 months (ior 12 after the build-up is completed) to do serious damage to the Taliban. Then he'lkl be able to say he gave it his best shot (and maybve even cite some signs of progress) and it's time to begin the pull-out. Don't know if that's his game, but if it is it just might be the least-worst of what was feasible.

Of course there's some gross cynicism involved; he's sending X number of Americans to their deaths -- surely the death toll will rise with more troops and m,ore active engagement, unless the Taliban just plays possum, and those people will have died for nothing.