Friday, January 29, 2010

Maybe Obama owes the Court an apology

Actually, I admit I'm a bit torn. The founders set up three co-equal branches of government with the idea that they would check and balance each other, each preventing the others from accumulating too much power. It hasn't necessarily worked out that way; most often the three branches connive with one another against the populace, and the chief executive, envisioned as an administrator without much power of his own beyond commanding the military on the rare occasions when its use was necessary, has become, as Andrew Bacevich put it, the American Idol. But insofar as they are checking one another, there are bound to be disagreements that sometimes break out in open criticism. Such criticism might just mean that to some small degree the founders' scheme is still working, so perhaps it should be welcomed and encouraged.

That said, the more I've looked into this -- I wrote a critical piece on the speech for the Register's Sunday Commentary section -- will link once it's up -- the clearer it seems that while Alito's probably spontaneous pantomiming was probably ill-advised, it was Obama who was the clear breaker of precedent and the aggressor -- and something of a cowardly one at that, with the pointed criticism directed at people who by protocol are expected to sit motionless and expressionless during a rather pointed and highly inaccurate tongue-lashing, of the kind that any con law professor with a speck of integrity would give a failing grade to. Presidents hardly ever have referred to the Supremes in SOTU speeches, and never before in such a pointed way right to their faces. Attendance at SOTU is optional for Supremes, and it might not be surprising if none showed up next year. Maybe not so bad. Catfights between the branches just might be a good sign for freedom.

Bringing in the lobbyists

I was glad to see that the AP, the NYT and the WaPo all did some fact-checking on the State of the Onion message. Especially rich, however, was Obama bashing lobbyists when despite his promises he hired a bunch of them and the day after the SOTU the White House was calling bunches of them for "special consultations" and of course they were being dunned for money by Dems on the Hill. I think Obama is losing credibility by the moment. We all knew it was inevitable, but the SOTU crystallized a number of memes, especially denial of reality. He couldn't get anything significant through with a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a big majority in the House and it's not because of any problem with policy but a failure to communicate?

Back to inconsistency -- or were the Ducks better?

I knew it would be tough to win in Oregon, but the Bruins came so close to pulling it out that it was frustrating to watch. Even wearing my cap backwards as a rally cap didn't seem to help. I'
ll give them that they kept battling and never conceded the game, but for stretches in the second half it seemed as it there was a lid on the basket. Don McLean said the Bruins were playing good offense in the first half, but I'm not sure I agreed. They hardly ever penetrated and were content to take three-pointers. Roll hit a key one to send it into overtime, but as so often happens in overtime, when one team got more than a one-possession lead it was able to pull away; trying to come back makes for desperate plays.

Still, Nelson and Honeycutt are going to be good players and the Pac-10 is tangled, with no one quite pulling away yet. Let's hope for better on Saturday.

First Amendment means nothing?

I'm fascinated at how little the First Amendment means to so many people in the United States (check some of the comments on this Orange Punch blog post). Obama specifically criticized the Supremes for their Citizens United decision with a wildly inaccurate characterization of it and Sam Alito gets criticized for being seen to silently mouth the words "not true." All right, it was a minor breach of protocol. Obama's characterization was a major breach of SOTU precedent -- no president has used it to make such a direct criticism -- and a major breach of the truth. In the fuss, we forget about the First Amendment.

The McCain-Feingold law included a novel restriction on advocacy organizations, a rule that they couldn't air any ads or other kinds of modes of persuasion in a way that the FEC could interpret as electioneering just before -- 60 days before -- an election, when election-related speech should be at its most robust and political speech most carefully protected. The campaign restrictionist crowd didn't like it, and the Supremes could have issued a narrower decision, but the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law," remember?) was clearly violated. It was correct to strike the clearly unconstitutional law down. That's the Supreme Court's job, arguably its only important job. But the restrictionists reverse the logic of democracy. Elections are supposed to be how the people control the government, but if the government controls the electoral process, declaring who can participate and how, the permanent government cannot be really held accountable. That's what campaign finance "reform" is really all about, giving government more control over the process that is supposed to control it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Obama's ode to big government

Political reality and defeats in VA, NJ and MA didn't phase him. He just decided to double-down and attribute the unpopularity of his programns and presidency to a failure to communicate rather than any valid objections to the policies. Very shortsightd.

Here's the editorial the Register will run tomorrow:

President Obama’s first State of the Union address last night answered the big question pundits were asking resoundingly. In the face of setbacks and growing opposition, in the face of the cap-and-trade energy bill being considered effectively dead, in the face of the loss of a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, in the face of increasing opposition to the health-insurance reform proposal that has yet to take final shape, would he modulate his agenda to take account of a political climate that has changed radically since he took office a year ago, or would he double-down on the program of increasing the size, scope and responsibility of government?

He chose to double-down, to insist that the growing opposition to his programs is due not to serious concerns about the policies embodied in them, but in his failure to communicate effectively their constructiveness and loveliness. One might view this as admirable determination to stick by a program, or one might view it as stubbornness, defiance, even, dare we say it, a touch of arrogance.

Listening to this overlong speech that was remarkably flat in tone and pedestrian in delivery, one sensed a certain overarching sense of unreality. Almost all observers have considered cap-and-trade effectively dead, especially in the light of revelations about the likelihood that some of the data supporting the theory of climate change has been deliberately skewed, yet he proclaimed utter fealty to it.

The health-insurance reforms his party has proposed were in trouble even before a Republican was elected to the Senate from Massachusetts, yet he spent a good deal of time trying to make the case that if we really understood how beneficial it would be our doubts would melt away like yesterday’s clouds.

An emphasis on trying to rejuvenate a flat economy and create more jobs was understandable given polling data that shows these are uppermost in the minds of most Americans. Yet the president, aside from one rhetorical flourish, showed little or no understanding of the notion that the only jobs that are sustainable over the long haul are those created in the private sector as a result of businesses that flourish and make profits.

All of the jobs he claimed last year’s stimulus bill saved were public-sector jobs – police, firefighters, teachers, construction workers on government-financed infrastructure projects. But all those jobs depend on the government extracting money and resources from the private sector. If the private sector languishes or is flat, none of them can be sustained over the long haul. Is there any evidence that President Obama understands this?

His proposal on students repaying loans for college was especially telling. He proposed that loans be forgiven after 20 years for people in the private sector but only 10 years for those who go to work for some government agency. An Obama economy looks like one in which government and those who work for it receive special treatment and favors, whereas those who create the wealth that government must seize to increase the public sector are to be looked upon with suspicion and punished with more taxes and increased regulation.

Such a vision may be inspiring to some, but it is profoundly unsustainable.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Will the Bruins have a real team yet this year?

The UCLA basketball team has shown me a bit over the last week with wins over Washington and Washington State. But the Pac-10 is profoundly unpredictable this year. Everyone says it's a down year for the league -- some sportswriters have speculated it may get only one invitation to the dance -- and it seems to be. But almost every school is at a similar level, which means that unless somebody busts through and wins 4 or 5 in a row, it could be close until the end, with nobody having an especially impressive record. It makes for interesting, competitive games from top to bottom. Cal is probably the class of the league at this point, but it's not beyond imagining, despite inconsistency thus far, that the Bruins could be that team. A handicapper would probably make them favorites at Oregon and Oregon State this year -- except that they've been terrible on the road and both Oregon schools have arenas thast are especially unfriendly to visitors. Looking forward to Thursday.

Are the Supremes ready to rock'n'roll?

What a number of observers have noted about the Citizens United or Hillary the Movie case is true. The Supremes went out of their way to make it a constitutional case when they clearly had other options. They could have ruled narrowly without getting to the constitutional issue that e.g., the McCain-Feingold law didn't really cover movies distributed through On Demand. But they wanted to invalidate the law that prohibited corporations (profit and non-profit, including advocacy groups like NRA and ACLU) from saying anything that even smelled like electioneering 30 (primary) or 60 (general) days before an election. It was a healthy impulse. If the First Amendment means anything, it's protection of the freedom of political speech, no matter who says it or (considering technology) how, especially in the time around an election. McCain-Feingold is profoundly subversive of basic liberties. Theoretically elections are how we control the government, but if the government controls elections with minute rules, they (the permanent government) end up with zero accountability -- not that it has much in the best of circumstances, but as long as there's a shred of a constitution there's a ghost of a chance..

The fact that the Supremes stretched to reach this result -- generally uncharacteristic, they usually try to avoid constitutional issues unless absolutely necessary -- raises the question of whether they're moving into a more aggressive mode. As a barely conservative court with a clearly liberal administration, it's possible. As this Register editorial notes, the McDonald v. Chicago case, which tests whether the Second Amendment applies to state and local governments, will give us a pretty good hint.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Guantanamo "suicide" story sickening

I had seen a reference, probably on Andrew Sullivan's blog, but didn't get a chance to read Scott Horton's Harper's magazine piece until last night. It should be universally shocking but has gotten little attention that there's strong circumstantial evidence that the three 2006 "suicides" at Guantanamo (described then as insidious asymetric warfare) were probably killed while being tortured. Not proven yet, but the official story looks thoroughly discredited. Hard to process it. This post has many of the important links.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Vindicating free speech

The U.S. Supreme Court's decision today in Citizens United v. FEC, which reversed two previous decisions and invalidated part of the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Deform act, was especially pleasing to me. I was in Washington when the original campaign finance restrictions were passed post-Watergate, and I thought and wrote at the time that the real purpose -- and certainly the effect -- of limits on donations and campaign spending was incumbent protection. If you "level" the playing field, the tilt goes to the incumbent, who has incumbency, name recognition, the ability to dispense favors (or seem to; agencies let Congresscritters announce new federal projects in the district first even if they had nothing to do with getting them), and a taxpayer-paid staff devoted mostly to inflating the reputation of the Member and often (however technically illegal) working directly on reelection campaigns.

In addition, of course, rules like the McCain-Feingold prohibition of anything that could be remotely be called electioneering by issue-oriented organizations within 30 or 60 days of an election is a limitation on free speech -- outright censorship, as Justice Kennedy recognized -- at precisely the time when freedom of speech should be most robust, as this Register editorial explains and argues.

Ilyas Shapiro (with whom I talked today) and John Samples of Cato make some similar points more elaborately in this op-ed.

And the rains keep on a'comin'

I haven't seen the news yet tonight so I'm not sure how folks in La Canada-Flintridge coped, but my impression for the most part is that despite some unusually serious weather day-after-day-after-day this week, that Southern California has had remarkably little really catastrophic damage in a place unaccustomed to dealing with severe weather. I think we've had at least an inch or more each day, and up to 3-4" in some places, and it's been accompanied by strong winds, trees being uprooted, and even a tornado.

Compared to an earthquake in Haiti it's pretty much nothing, I know, and rain is welcome after a couple of years of near-drought. But it creates situations and there has been damage. Jen called and I left early today because the power was out and wasn't expected back on until 9:00. We had dinner out and by the time we were done we got home at 7 :30 and the juice was on. So I watched the Lakers lose to Cleveland, then UCLA beat Washington in a thriller. A luxurious way to weather the storm, which is still bringing rain and some thunder as I type.

Nice game for the Bruins

I must confess that after the USC blowout I was about ready to give up on this year's version of UCLA basketball and write this off as a rebuilding year. But I decided, since the electricity had come back on, to watch tonight's game. Well, the Bruins came out with energy and played Washington pretty evenly throughout the game -- 13 lead changes, neither team able to pull ahead by more than about 6. Made for an exciting game. The Bruins were able to cut down on turnovers and played tight defense in the second half. And it came down to 3 lead changes in the last 8 seconds, with walk-on Mustafa Abdul-Hamid (boy have the names of athletes gotten more diverse since I was in college, which says something nice about America, I think) sinking the final shot with 0.2 seconds left to win it for the Bruins.

Marques Johnson on tonight's broadcast jokingly suggested the Pac-10 might end with all the teams at 9-9. A super longshot, of course, but the league does seem to be balanced and unpredictable -- no dominant team has emerged yet -- and a lot of the games are cvlose, which makes for good watching, especially if you don't have a favorite in your mind.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Earthquake in Massachusetts

It will no doubt take weeks at least for even some of the implications of a Republican victory in a Senate race in Massachusetts to play out, but as this Register editorial explicates, the implications could be profound. Will there be a serious effort now to pass something that can be labeled ObamaCare? What's left of the Obama agenda? Will he triangulate like Clinton, or is he (as I suspect) much more ideologically driven than he let on during the campaign? We do live in interesting times.

Taliban attack and a hollow U.S. strategy

I think it has been insufficiently appreciated just how thoroughly the Taliban attack in downtown Kabul earlier this week exposes the hollowness of what passes for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. (I suspect I'll make that the subject of a columns for The McChrystal counterinsurgency strategy outlined in the memo Woodward acquired last September was to focus on keeping the civilian population safe and gradually expand the area of safety while training more Afghan security forces, who would eventually take over the security assignment, as this Register editorial explains. The attack in Kabul makes a mockery -- almost certainly intentionally, as it was reasonably sophisticated and well-planned -- of the strategy, so it was successful from a terrorist or guerrilla perspective. It showed the civilian population in the capital city is vulnerable despite (because of?) the U.S. presence.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How the cables coped

It's been fascinating to channel-surf on the Mass. election. Fox brought pretty much their entire operation to Massachusetts, covering election night as if it were the Normandy invasion or thre signing of a major peace treaty. Most (besides Hannity, of course) have tried to avoid looking pleased and smug. Meanwhile on MSNBC Rachel Maddow pulled off the amazing trick of combining a furrowed brow with a smirk and focused on "dirty tricks" and allegations of irregularities, then brought on Howard Dean to opine gravely that much of the surge for Scott Brown could be attributed to Obama not bringing "real change" fast enough. The presumed implication would be that if Obama had introduced single-payer he'd be in great shape, basking in approval. Marvelous capacity for self-deception. And on CNN Larry King was busily interviewing PA Gov. Rendell about the 54 Haitian orphans brought to Pittsburgh, studiously ignoring all that folderol in Mass.

In a way it's comforting for all of these purveyors of news and opinion to be so transparent about where they're coming from.

Google takes on China

It will take a while for all the implications to play themselves out, but Google's decision, in effect, to defy the Chinese government's censorship rules last week strikes me as pretty consequential. It's become likely, as news has trickled out, that the immediate catalyst was the discovery not only that Gmail accounts of possible Chinese dissidents had been hacked, but that some 33 U.S. companies, including large defense contractors, had been hacked.

Google made the decision to lie down with the dog of the Chinese government, agreeing when it entered the Chinese market to censor certain things (like the 1989 unpleasantness at Tiananmen Square) from its search engine for Chinese customers. Its decision to defy that censorship order may or may not be the final outcome. Google might leave China, or China just might have to become more open and less censorious. I figure the latter has to happen sooner or later, but it could be quite a bit later.

A Massachusetts earthquake?

Guess we won't start to see returns for a while, but almost all the cable predictors suspect a Scott Brown -- Republican! -- victory in the Massachusetts Senate special election today. It would be an amazing political turnaround. Mass. last voted for a Republican senator (Ed Brooke) in 1972. This Register editorial explored some of the reasons and the possible implications, first for ObamaCare and for the rest of his agenda. It is becoming more and more clear that Obama (as Bush did in 2000; his ratings were starting to plummet before 9/11) overestimated his mandate and has alienated a larger proportion of the country than he ever imagined was possible. I suspect he still doesn't comprehend the breadth of his growing unpopularity.

Serious SoCal weather

I realize that people in other parts of the country often view Southern Californians as weather wusses, and perhaps rightly so. We consider it downright frigid if the high for the day is below 50. What we've experienced in the last day or so, strikes me as pretty serious weather. I worked from home today because the moment it started raining Sunday evening my nose started dripping incessantly. I'm pretty sure it was just allergies, with concentrated allergens released in the first burst of rain, but Cathy did suggest I stay home today -- I did do some writing and send it.

It was more than just a bit of rain today. The Weather Service has classified a cell that came ashore from the Pacific at around Huntington Beach as a probable tornado. The tornado seems to have died out after only overturning a few cars and messing with some mobile homes, but as it came inland it turned into severe thunderstorms with high winds. Topography sheltered Elsinore from the most turbulent weather, but we still got heavy rain, sporadic serious wind and some lightning. Heavier expected Thursday. Quite fascinating.

I"m glad in many ways that it's an El Nino year and we're slated to have more rain than in most years. We've had drought-like conditions for a couple of years and this should end it. But I didn't expect it to hit us quite so violently.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Reagan and nuclear weapons reduction

I believe I mentioned, in discussing the trip I and most of the rest of the Register's editorial board took to the Hoover Institution at Stanford in December to interview Thomas Sowell about his new book, "Intellectuals and Society," that we spent some time with Hoover senior fellow Martin Anderson, who was Reagan's chief domestic policy adviser during most of his first term. Martin and his wife Anneliese have just put together a book called "Reagan's Secret War," assembled from newly declassified minutes of the National Security Council and other documents. The thesis, which they document with cvonsiderable detail, is that one of Reagan's goals throughout his presidency (besides policies designed to weaken --or expose the weakness of -- the Soviet Union), was to take concrete steps toward banning all nuclear weapons from government possession.

I read the book and was mostly convinced. Of course Reagan didn't accomplish that goal, but he did sign START-I, under which both the US and the USSR seriously reduced their nuclear stockpiles. Here's the review I did for the Register's Sunday Commentary section today. And there's little question who was in charge of policy during the Reagan administration.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Why is Haiti so poor?

Almost 30 years in this newspaper racket and I can still be surprised about what gets readers riled up and engaged. I did this blog post on the Register's Orange Punch blog, quoting one of GMU econ prof Don Boudreaux's letter to the editor suggesting that a primary reason Haiti is so poor is that it has no economic freedom. It brought out the commenters like crazy, including one of our resident orthodox "liberals" devoted to defending the conventional wisdom against us libertarian ignoramuses and bearers of naivete. Nice to see that the exchanges mostly stayed civil. Feel free to chip in if you like.

Ambivalence about Prop. 8 trial

I am not quite sure whether I think the tactic of challenging California's Prop. 8, which barred same-sex marriage, in court on federal constitutional grounds was a good idea or not. It's not that I'm not for gay marriage; the Register opposed Prop. 8 and I thought it was going to fail until late election night. There's simply no case against it that has more intellectual heft than that feeling of ickiness most of us had about "queers" when we were 14 or so. But I'm not sure every right I think is valid is a constitutional right, though you could make a case that the 10th amendment covers a lot of rights ground, and the right to marry just might be included. But the courts pay no attention to the 10th.

The case is being brought, however, on 14th-amendment grounds -- equal protection of the laws and due process. It's not a bad case, as Cato's Robert Levy, who is a constitutional lawyer, points out in this op-ed.

I would prefer that the State had nothing to do with marriage, but it does, and since it does it should treat same-sex couples equally. Politically, however, having gay marriage imposed by the courts is arguably less desirable than having it done legislatively or by referendum, which would reflect a pretty strong consensus. Court decisions to date have led to backlashes -- that's how Prop. 8 was filed -- and one worries that it could set the cause back.

On the other-other hand, if it's a right, and especially one that doesn't harm others when exercised (my definition of a real right), which gay marriage certainly wouldn't, despite ahistorical and ignorant claims to the contrary, a majority, no matter how large (and this one is shrinking) doesn't have the right (though it may have the power) to violate it. Justice delayed is justice denied, so maybe going to court is the best way to vindicate this right.

Things to know about Babylon-on-the-Potomac

Here's an amusing piece -- amusing because it's all too true; it certainly jibes with my experience living in and around the glorious nation's capital for 8 years and visiting it every few years since.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Devastation in Haiti

I think it will be days before we really comprehend the scope of the devastation in Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere with a congenitally terrible, corrupt government. It's been interesting and heartening to see the immediacy with which various relief organizations have ramped up (though for some it will be more a fundraising opportunity than an extensive exercise in providing relief). On the Register's Orange Punch blog I put up links to a few relief organizations that seem fairly reliable, and here's a HuffPost piece with even more links.

It's probably too early to think of such matters, but one can't help wondering whether this might turn out to be an opportunity for Haiti to start over with something of a clean slate. Unfortunately, the conditions that feed poverty -- mostly terrible government -- are likely to still be in place. Tyler Cowen had an interesting piece discussing some of the reasons Haiti is still so poor. If they are as deep-rooted as some seem to be (Napoleonic Code rather than English civil law tradition, less friendly to enterprise) it could be difficult if not impossible. Maybe if we shipped copies of P.T. Bauer's books to every school and library in Haiti as they are rebuiilt? But would anybody read them?

Putting the bite on the banks

I suspect it's a trial balloon, although given the Obama administration's lust for taxing and spending, something like it is likely to be proposed at least. What they want to impose is some kind of tax on financial institutions. The excuse is to recoup some of the TARP money that is likely not to be repaid to the government, estimated at $$120 billion of the $700 billion. Trouble is, as this Register editorial points out, most of the banks have repaid the "loans" (some of which were forced on them so it would be harder to identify which banks were in serious trouble and which really weren't -- another blow for transparency and honesty in government). Those who haven't repaid and are unlikely to are the car companies and AIG.

The proposed taxes are also calculated to take advantage of what administration geniuses think will be populist anger at upcoming executive bonuses at banks that have gotten back on their feet. And of course our glorious leader will do all he can to stir up and exacerbate whatever genuine popular anger exists. That Obama! Good thing he's a uniter, not a divider.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Pianist surprised with a prize

I love it when I discover an imaginative way to help others or to promote something you love. One Irving S. Gilmore, an heir to the Upjohn fortune and whose family owned a department store in Kalamazoo, MI, and was a pretty serious pianist, established a foundation whose main activity is putting on a music festival in Kalamazoo. But it also gives out the Gilmore Award every four years to "a superb pianist and a profound musician -- a $300,000 windfall.

The kicker is that the recipient is chosen in secret and surprised by the award. Membersof the evaluation committee attend concerts and recitals as anonymously as possible and listen to recordings, then make their choice. Nobody knows he or she is under consideration. This year's winner is Kirill Gerstein, an American of Russian origin who won the Artur Rubenstein contest in 2001, concertizes widely and teaches at the conservatory in Stuttgart.

What enchants me is the secrecy of the prize. What a cool thing to do!

Risking a trade war with China

China and the U.S. may be so economically co-dependent -- the U.S. gobblement needs China keep financing its deficit and China needs U.S. consumers to keep buying its exports -- to keep financing that they will back off before it gets too serious, but the decision last September to impose a 35% tariff on cheap Chinese auto tires has begun a series of tit-for-tat petty restrictions by both countries, as this Register editorial outlines. It's all so foolish and childish. But then that's almost the definition of government.

Exciting times for drug law reformers

It's nice when there's so much going on on the drug-law reform front that it's almost difficult to keep up with it. Last night I mentioned the vote in the New Jersey legislature to allow the medicinal use of marijuana, although on a more restrictive basis than I would like to see. The new law is based on a law-enforcement model rather than a medical model. Doctors, the ones with at least some claim to medical knowledge, generally have discretion to prescribe most prescription drugs (most much more dangerous than cannabis) for whatever condition they consider appropriate, including "off-label" uses for conditions the drug was originally not approved for. But in NJ the politicians -- people with no claim to medical knowledge, guided by law enforcement, people with even less knowledge -- will dictate what conditions marijuana can be recommended for. Control freaky still. But it's still an improvement over absolute prohibition of medical uses.

Meanwhile, in California, I talked to Steve Gutwillig , head of the Calif. Drug Policy Alliance, about the Assembly public safety committee passing SF Assemblyman Tom Ammiano's legalize/regulate/tax bill. Genuinely historic. Unfortunately, it would have to be passed by the health committee by Friday to get considered by the full Assembly this year, and for various reasons that's not going to happen. Tom will probably introduce a new bill for consideration next year -- or perhaps a bill that parallels Richard Lee's initiative measure, which will be on the ballot in November. I don't know how aggressive the opposition will be, but I do know it will be dishonest. The basic MO of the drug warriors is to lie about marijuana, and they're still getting away with it.

And meanwhile yet, Washington state's Assembly will consider a legalization bill, and activists have announced they have filed an initiative they hope to get on the November ballot. Going back and forth with Steve Kubby on Facebook this afternoon, he predicted California's initiative will pass in November. I hope so but I'm feeling a bit more cautious. Win or lose, however, having it on the ballot is definite progress.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Government, the technological late-adopter

The one thing I didn't get before doing this editorial on the Obama administration's efforts to give every single American access to broadband service, was an informed estimate of how long it has taken for broadband to spread to whatever percentage of Americans now have it, compared to the time it took for other technologies to spread. Since the computer age began, the fedgov has been scrambling to make this or that technology (Internet in schools, wireless service in cities) to more Americans, especially the "underserved," more quickly. In almost every case the government has been playing catch-up rather than hustling technology along. Every new computer technology has spread to the vast majority of Americans much faster than previous new technologies like the telephone or television -- almost entirely through private-sector efforts. By the time government decides this or that new technology is just the thing it ought to subsidize or hustle along, often enough a new technology has emerged, leaving government to subsidize something approaching obsolescence.

The swiftness of promulgation of new technologies might slow down if the recession lasts longer than most experts expect it will. Even if that happens, I suspect government will be congenitally behind. Government has wasted billions trying to get current on computer technology in its own operations and agencies, but its procurement processes almost assure that it is buying yesterday's technology, and not all that intelligently. It's probably beneficial that government doesn't understand IT very well. If it did, it would 0probably be surveilling all of us much more comprehensively and efficiently than it is now.

U.S. rejects North Korean peace treaty

One of the problems with international diplomacy is that pride and "face" sometimes get in the way of common sense. The U.S. has rejected a North Korean proposal to sign a peace treaty to end the Korean war that ended de facto 60 years ago, officially, arguing that it won't do that until the North gives up its nuclear program. Silly to make this a condition when the war is long over. Cghildish to worry that the North Koreans might get a dreaded propaganda talking point if it happens. Why not just do it? It won't change the character of the NK regime, and it probably won't get the six-party talks resumed. But what would be the harm?

New Jersey passes medical marijuana bill

Although it will be the most restrictive law in the country, it is still to be counted as progress that New Jersey's legislature passed a medical marijuana law today. Jon Corzine, NJ's outgoing governor says he will sign it before he leaves office next Tuesday. The Republican governor-elect, Chris Christie, had expressed reservations about it, but despite some misgivings it passed by wide margins in both houses.

It really is quite restrictive. It can only be recommended by a physician for a designated list of ailments, patients will not be allowed to grow their own, it would be tracked like a truly dangerous drug like morphine, and patients would be restricted to two ounces a month. Clearly, this is legislation still influenced by lingering "reffer madness" misconceptions. It also amounts to politicians playing doctor. Few other prescription drugs, many of them seriously dangerous, are so restricted.

Nonetheless, it's a step forward.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

A good game after all

I didn't get home until halftime, but I overheard a conversation on the train about Colt McCoy being hurt and out of the game. After a few minutes of the second half, with the score 24-6 Alabama, it looked to be thoroughly boring, but then young Texas Freshman quarterback, Garrett Gilbert, connected on a touchdown and he actually brought his team to within 3. Then he played like an inexperienced Freshman again and the score didn't reflect how close the game was up until the last few minutes. That's not to take anything away from Alabama, whose defense was mostly stifling and might have stymied McCoy too. And the offense finally moved when it was necessary. It's a real shame he wasn't able to play -- it could have been a really great game -- but Texas gave a decent account of itself. The Alabama QB, Greg McElroy, may not have been spectacular, but anyone who hasn't lost a game he started since 8th grade must be doing something right. And he has Southern California roots.

Years ago, annoyed that so many intellectual types had taken to describing baseball (wehich I also like, for different reasons) as the thinking man's game as opposed to the brute force nature of football, I did a piece for the Register making the case that football, with its emphasis on deception and the need for all 11 players to do what is specified in a play while gigantic guys on the other side are doing their utmost to disrupt you and prevent you from carrying out your assignment, and sometimes having to improvise when a play doesn't get started properly, is intellectually as well as physically challenging. It is certainly more challenging to the mind of a spectator who wants to understand more than the bare rudiments -- hell of a run, hell of a tackle, brutal hit -- than baseball or many other sports because of all the moving parts.

Why didn't Obama acknowledge citizen action?

I still think Obama adopted just about the right tone in his little talk about the undie bomber the other day. However, the word is that in the private meeting with his advisers he chewed them out and made it clear that the gummint had dodged a bullet largely because of citizens rather than the government. Too bad he didn't acknowledge this in his public talk. It almost seems as if he regrets spopntaneous action by ordinary citizens rather than celebrating it. If the government continues to act as if only the government can fix terrorism it will never be fixed -- well, maybe not never since terrorist activity almost always dies out after a while.

And of course, he's not close to taking the single most effec tive step toward safeguarding Americans, which would be to withdrawal military personnel from all Muslim countries as quickly as possible. But the commitment to "fixing" the world, which not only puts military people in harm's way but increases the danger to ordinary Americans, comes way ahead of what all presidents claim is their main duty, protecting the Amertican people from harm.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Nice win, but . . .

I haven't acknowledged here the Bruin football team's nice win over Temple (take that, Bill Cosby!) in the EagleBank Bowl Dec. 29. The defense was mostly solid and the offense finally woke up in the second half. Exciting and worth watching. However, I'm not all that happy that defensive lineman Brian Price (only the Pac 10 defensive player of the year), a huge contributor, has decided to forego his senior year and enter the NFL draft. I guess I can't blame him. He has little or nothing left to prove and he's a likely first-rounder and is almost sure to have a heckuva pro career. And he has a family situation -- two brothers killed by gang violence in South Central and the family stuck there. And he was not the onlydefensive standout. But he's a huge impact player and I wish we had him back for another year.

Well, maybe we have a team after all

The first half of the UCLA-Cal basketball game was a little dispiriting. I know it's a young team with Freshmen who could use some experience and seasoning, while the Cal team was mostly veterans -- they had a third player reach the 1,000 points in a career plateau, which means a lot of games. However, although there have been close games and losses in the past, frankly this veteran fan was not accustomed to seeing UCLA playing from behind with me trying to feel encouraged that they were "hanging around" by staying only 9 points or so behind. Too many turnovers, too many rushed shots or ill-advised shots.

But the second half was another matter entirely. The Bruins kept chipping away and finally pulled ahead. Cal drained one to force overtime. UCLA led through most of it, but Cal scored with 21 seconds left to go up by one. Then after a botched pass Michael Roll got a lucky bounce on the rebound and put it in for the game winner. Nikola Dragovic was hitting threes in the second half (as was Roll), and finally they all played together just well enough to win.

I have expected that Ben Howland would push and prod them into a team eventually, but this one tonight was sweet!

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Not too bad, Obama

As this blog post suggests (more in a Register editorial tomorrow), I didn't think President Obama did too badly in his little talk on the Christmas pantybomber today. There are plenty of people who want to use this as a casus belli, urging him to greater militancy and feats of rhetoric and military punishment. But terrorists win when we overreact, Bush-style, and declare them to be Public Enemy Number One, to which we must dedicate all our efforts, compare them to Hitler and the like. The CNN commentators thought he was unusually angry -- at the U.S. security apparatus for missing the signals more than at the boxerbomber, as well he should have been -- but I thought he was more businesslike, which was appropriate.

Of course the new pat-down security, the designated countries and the talk of full-body scan machines are simply window-dressing that do little or nothing to make us safer and a good deal to make flying less convenient and Americans more sheeplike. Obama acknowledged government failure but hardly noticed the absurdity of solving a government failure with more government.

I don't expect him to do the most useful thing if we really want to defang the jihadists, which would be to withdraw the U.S. military from all Muslim countries and stop trying to make them Just Like Us. I don't even expect him to understand that part of the problem is that there are too many overgrown security bureaucracies that can't coordinate because they are too lethargic and topheavy and cautious. He is POTUS, after all, and the inheritor of the Military Industrial Complex.

Bernanke defensive but not all wrong

When I heard on the news Monday that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke had given a speech in which he contended that the Fed played little role in the housing bubble that precipitated the financial crisis, I was appalled. I have been influenced by Stanford economist John Taylor's little book making the case that the Fed's departure from the "Taylor rule" on monetary policy was a big factor in the fiasco, flooding the economy with funny money from about 2002 through 2004, and I still think he has a strong case.

I found all the news stories fairly unsatisfactory, so I found a copy of Bernanke's speech (which included more than a dozen pages of charts and graphs) and read and pondered it. I finally decided he has made a case that the Fed's role was less important than is widely believed. It really was more Fannie and Freddie. Bernanke's most telling datum is a reminder that the bubble began expanding in 1999, well before the Fed's post-9/11 expansion, although the expansion accelerated in 2005 -- and Bernanke acknowledged that the Fed probably played a role in that.

I think this Register editorial, in combination with this blog post, summarizes my thoughts fairly accurately.Bernanke made a case, but still unduly downplayed the Fed's role. And his argument that better regulation would better prevent future crises is ludicrous.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Jack Herer in perilous condition

After paying fairly close attention for a while, I had lost track of hemp pioneer and author of "The Emperor Wears No Clothes" Jack Herer's medical condition. According to this story by Bonnie King in, the news is not especially encouraging.

Jack Herer, recall, had a stroke or heart attack at a hemp festival in Portland, OR and was rushed to the hospital in grave condition. He was released, later admitted again, with bronchitis. With renal failure his survival was touch-and-go, but he made it and was moved to a rehabilitative clinic, where he is now. His medical condition has varied -- sometimes he seems to be making real progress, though he isn't able to speak yet, and sometimes he seems to be regressing. Some would like to see him moved to the UCSF Hospital in San Francisco, where they have more cutting-edge treatments available, and which is closer to his Clear Lake home, but it hasn't happened yet.

More bizarre and perhaps tragic is the tussle over who assumes responsibility for his care. He apparently gave Power of Attorney to his assistant Chuck Jacobs and Joy Graves, who have apparently tussled with his wife, Jeannie (I met Jeannie once when visiting Jack in Van Nuys, but I haven't been in touch since he moved to Northern California and I don't know these other people). The word is that Jack was getting ready to divorce her. She apparently put in a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) under certain conditions order with the hospital. It was then revoked but a new one reinstated. Some doubt whether that reflects Jack's true wishes, but he can't communicate those just now.

There's apparenly also discord over a forthcoming book Jack has been working on tentatively titled "The Most High: Plant Secrets of the Gods and Explorations Revealing the End of the World as You Know It." Apparently Jeannie didn't want the book published but Jack did, as did Chuck and Joy, and it was over the book, not his medical condition, that Jack gave them Power of Attorney. With all the issues, there's something of a war going on over how Jack is to be treated. Here's another version.

Sad. Pray for Jack. I was rather close to him for a while -- he talked me into writing the first article in a major "mainstream" newspaper about hemp back in 1988 -- and he's a good man.

Why the Aughts sucked

It was easier to find things to complain about during the decade just passed. In my piece for the Register wrap-up I focused on 9/11 and America's disastrous response, from the Truly Superfluous Agency TSA to limitation of civil liberties to the ill-conceived Iraq war. Moving right along, there was also the financial crisis, almost entirely -- not quite entirely but almost -- caused by government, which most Americans still blame on "unfettered" capitalism and lack of regulation of the most heavily regulated industry in the country. Trouble is the regulators were pressing banks to write unsound mortgages in the name of affordable housing. Thanks for the help!

And then there's the likely government takeover of health care. This is a strictly ideological cause -- there are problems but no crisis -- but "progressives" have been luisting after socialized medicine since the time of Teddy Roosevelt. In TR's day there was an excuse -- no outright socialist regimes had been established and it sounded good in theory. How anybody can still see anything lovely in socialism and statism after the experience of the 20th century is beyond me. But obviously, lots of people can.

Globalization: a hard sell

For the Register's decade wrap-up, we three writers didn't have much trouble picking out negative trends, but Cathy wanted each of us to find something positive to write about. I picked globalization and free trade -- despised and blamed for all kinds of troubles and maladies -- see the comment that takes it on faith that free trade means jobs shipped overseas when every reasonably competent study shows the opposite, that trade increases the amount of jobs available. But despite the fact that most companies that do international business at all are now multinationals without a real national identity, most Americans still see trade as an "us vs. them" proposition. I don't know if it will ever change. Trade and furriners are just too easy targets to be blamed for troubles mostly caused by our own government.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Countervailing Iranian narratives

Earlier I referenced Abbas Milani's article on myths the Iranian regime promulgates and perhaps still believes in about the history of the "Great Satan," especially the supposedly crucial role the U.S. played in the 1953 that toppled the democratically elected Mossadegh and brought in the Shah. Milani contended that the role of the U.S. was minor. As I noted, former British parliamentarian and my friend Eldon Griffiths agrees.

Here, thanks to a commenter, is a point-by-point rebuttal of Milani's article, c0ontending the U.S. role was key in 1953. I'll need to read them both more carefully side-by-side to have a more considered opinion, but present both for your consideration.

I'm not sure how much that history impacts the current situation. At this point, as persistent as the protesters have been -- more so than most observers expected, I warrant -- the regime still seems to have the upper hand with fairly well calibrated violence. Is the regime nonethtless vulnerable? I think so, but don't have any special insight on timing.

Back at the old stand

I suppose I could have been communing during this time away from home, mostly in Las Vegas visiting son Steve and nephew Tom, but I just didn't. I monitored work e-mail for a couple of days, but didn't have a mouse to go with my laptop so had a hard time copying things so I didn't do much on the computer. I can't say that I missed opining on the Christmas Day terrorist attempt, and I still don't have much to say, except it will no doubt facilitate government increasing the paranoia level and thus grabbing more surveillance power. Sometimes it seems as if the terrorists are working hand-in-glove with the government to keep us all as fearful as possible.

Did get a chance yesterday to spend sopm time with my sidter Nancy, whom I haven't seen face-to-face since she move to Ridgefield, WA. She and Ricjhard have moved on from there to Eureka, of all places, where Richard has an engineering job. But she was in the OC Saturday visiting various friends, including one who is gravely ill, and we got to spend a few hours together catching up.. So glad we did.

Perhaps the worst part of a trip is unpacking the car, which always seems to have much more than it could possibly hold and take forever to get into the house. We still haven't put everything away yet, but are ready for work tomorrow.