Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Polling on the Republican Future

Yesterday I posted on The Daily Kos (I have a diary over there), with respect to David Broder's pre-election column, in which Mr. Broder said that the Republican's power would be exaggerated because of the size of their victory in the House. Aside from my comments, I posted a poll, asking readers this question:

Do you believe that the Republicans' gains in Congress mean that they will dominate our politics for the next five years?

I received 55 responses, as of 5:20 PM Mountain Standard Time today. The responses were:

Yes 8
No 42
Not Sure 5
I know that the Daily Kos is a liberal site, but I think it's interesting that such a large majority of the respondents to my question do not believe that the Republicans have put themselves in the catbird seat for as long as five years.

President Obama: Change Your Methods, Not Your Goals

In this November 4 column, David Broder asserts that the problem with the Obama administration hasn't been the goals the President set, but the way in which the Democrats in Congress went about pursuing them. The results turned a lot of Americans against the programs, not because they didn't want healthcare or a stimulus package, but because the programs enacted in Congress were overweight and ineffective.

So, now that he can't get it done without the Republicans, President Obama should do what he said he was going to do: reach out to Republicans, work on getting things done in a timely and efficient manner, and stop playing the partisan game. In Broder's opinion, and I find a lot of truth in this, the President made himself too dependent upon the operating styles of Speaker Pelosi and Majority Lead Reid. They led him down a garden path by playing to all the usual power bases and constituencies.

It's time for President Obama to set his own course and captain his own ship.

A Dead Blog

One of the links I carry on this page is to the blog Cafe Third Edition. Cafe Third Edition is a descendant of the Great Books Cafe formerly hosted by Ken Roberts (before the Canadian regulations governing political correctness forced him to shut it down). The concept was good, but the blog never reached the critical mass of discussants, which I might define as the number of participants necessary to ensure that a) something new will be posted at least once daily, and b) there is a fair chance that someone will respond to any new post.

The last person to post to Cafe Third Edition was me, back in May 2010. I'm going to leave the link up on the sidebar, but I think we may declare Cafe Third Edition completely and utterly dead.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Bad Penny Always Turns Up

I posted this morning on a David Broder column. It felt good to be back.

I hadn't posted since back in July, and I don't see any good reason to go into all the reasons, and/or excuses, for my absence. There was a death in the family. That necessitated two trips to Florida. Those, plus my week's vacation in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in September, provided me with a pretty good backlog of work both at the office and at home. Et cetera, et cetera.

But I have been reading. Scandinavian mystery novels have been prominent lately. I read Jo Nesbo's Nemesis and Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire. According to a reviewer I heard on NPR (yes, I listen to NPR sometimes), Larsson's novels are consciously descended from a series of detective stories by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. I read a bunch of those novels back in the '80s (we were living in Pennsylvania at the time, as I recall), and they were very good.

A Swedish friend of mine commented, apropos of Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers, that all the Swedish mystery writers were Maoists. I'm not sure about that, but it is true that the detective novel has been used by them as a means of social criticism. That's certainly true of Stieg Larsson, who died shortly after delivering the manuscript of his third novel The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.

Of course, there is a long tradition of using the mystery novel to shine a light on the seamy side of society. Dashiell Hammett, author of the classic The Glass Key, was a committed Communist (and one hell of a good writer).

I finished Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein, today. It's long - the text ends at page 748 - but it is a fascinating and detailed look at American politics from 1965, when we all thought we had entered into a liberal consensus, through 1972, by which time that consensus had been shown to have been an illusion. After Tuesday's election I have to agree with Perlstein that we still live in Nixonland.

An Election Pre-Mortem by David Broder

A lot of people were predicting the results of the general election on Tuesday, November 2, and most of them were right about the general results:

The Democrats lost big.
In particular, the more conservative Blue Dog Democrats lost dramatically.
The Republicans did well.
The effects of the Tea Party movement were ambiguous.

David Broder, in his column in the Washington Post, attempted not a prediction, but a pre-mortem. (Or a premature post-mortem - take your pick.)

Broder's key point is that any analysis which concludes that this election spelled "doom for the Democrats and a shift to the right in our politics" will be wrong. He thinks this for several reasons: the size of the shift to Republicans in the House will lead us to exaggerate the extent of their power; the voters are very skeptical about both parties; neither party has a compelling spokesman on economic issues (though Broder mentions that Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin "has assumed the role of analyst and provocateur); neither party has compelling spokesmen on the other leading issues of the day, either.

All of these are valid points, and all of them taken together mean that Tuesday's election wasn't nearly so dramatic break with the past as the talking heads, and many Republicans would have us believe. I think John Boehner had it right when he said that this wasn't so much a victory for the Republicans as the public giving them one last chance to get it right. And I think Mitch McConnell was dead wrong when he said that the most important task for the Republicans is to defeat President Obama. That's exactly the kind of thinking that could make the Republicans' gain in power very short-lived.

We live in interesting times, folks.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Change to Reading List: Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year

Horne, Alistair. Kissinger: 1973, The Crucial Year. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney: Simon & Schuster, 2009. xvi + 457 pages. Acknowledgments. Notes. Bibliography. Index. ISBN: 978-0-7432-7283-4. $30.00. Hardcover.

Read May 7-June 19, 2010.

Change to Reading List: The Wooden World

N. A. M. Rodger. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996. 445 pages. Index.

Read March 5-April 24, 2010.

Have you ever wondered where authors like Patrick O'Brian get all those details about life on board sailing ships? Well, N. A. M. Rodger provides an example of the kind of research that can be a great assistance to the author of such tales. The Wooden World is a fabulous book covering the lives and careers of sailors and officers, the organization of the navy, and that great concept: discipline, for which the word hardly existed in the 18th century. Yes, the 18th century naval vessel was a much more cooperative enterprise than you'll have gathered from Nordhoff and Hall or many other novelists.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Change to Reading List: Reporting World War II

Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938-1946. With a Preface by Stephen E. Ambrose and an Introduction by Samuel Hynes. New York: Library of America, 1995, 2001. xxiii + 874 pages. Chronology, 1933-1945. Maps. Biographical Notes. Note on the Texts. Acknowledgments. Notes. Glossary of Military Terms. Index. ISBN: 1-931082-05-7. $18.95. Paperback.

Read February 20-April 14, 2010.

I believe I've commented on this book before. This is a wonderful source of contemporary writing about World War II. The contemporaneity gives the writing a punch and liveliness that no historian, however well-intentioned, could match. Classic writing about important events.

Change to Reading List: Roadside Geology of Arizona

Chronic, Halka. Roadside Geology of Arizona. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1983. xiv + 321 pages. Glossary. Index. ISBN: 978-0-87842-147-3. $18.00. Paperback.

Read April 16-May 25, 2010.

If you're not familiar with the Roadside Geology series, the next time you're planning a road trip, either close to home or farther afield, pick up the book covering the appropriate state. I would suggest that you read over the chapters covering the route you plan to take before you leave, or, at least, read about each day's itinerary the previous evening. When you hit the road, you'll know what you're looking at. It makes travel more interesting to realize that you're crossing a gigantic lava flow, or that the little ridge you just crossed is a dike of igneous rock thrust up between layers of sediments.

Last fall we dipped into the northwest corner of Arizona, from Sleeping Ute Mountain up in the Four Corners, down to Chinle and Canyon de Chelly. Lots of rocks, mountains, canyons, outcrops, and formations to see. Roadside Geology of Arizona is an excellent source for understanding why the scenery looks the way it does.

Change to Reading List: Tales of Los Alamos

Brode, Bernice. Tales of Los Alamos: Life on the Mesa 1943-1945. Los Alamos, NM: Los Alamos Historical Society, 1997. 165 pages. Glossary. Glossary of Names. Index of Names. About the Author.

Read April 17-May 8, 2010.

This is a very good book, giving a personal view of one of the most important scientific and military developments in American, and world, history. It is well-written, and the photographs alone would make this a book worth reading.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy Independence Day, George Will!

I used to read George Will's columns all the time. That was when I subscribed to Newsweek, and Will's column was one of the many items that magazine picked up from its parent newspaper, The Washington Post. I'm not such a fan anymore, partly because George turned out to be a hypocrite on family values, like so many "conservatives," and partly because I now prefer The Economist to any of the American newsmagazines.

This column, from April 28th, is pretty good, however. I might note that one of the Senators on the Judiciary Committee actually asked Elena Kagin one of Will's suggested questions. (It was the one about Thurgood Marshall's statement that "You do what you think is right and let the law catch up." She dodged the question by pointing out that, if confirmed, she would be Justice Kagin, not Justice Marshall. That's trivially obvious; the point is: Would she make decisions on the basis of Justice Marshall's dictum?

Will supports Justice Scalia's notion that the Constitution doesn't change, and that, in fact, the purpose of constitutions is to prevent change. That's fair enough, but this whole original intent idea founders, it seems to me, on one fact. From the text of the Constitution, as ratified, it is clear that the intent of the framers and ratifiers was to count slaves as 3/5ths of free people. It is also clear that no one, no one, at the Constitutional Convention actually liked this provision. The Southerners wanted to count their slaves as full people, not out of regard for human rights, but because that would have given them a lock on the House of Representatives, as well as the Senate. Many Northerners didn't want to count the slaves at all, because the slaves were not allowed to vote and lacked the other rights of people included in the citizenry. In other words, the original intent was to make a compromise between incompatible positions, so that the Constitution could be completed. I don't see where a modern judge gets a lot of guidance from that, except for Abraham Lincoln's point: It's all about the Union.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Success Breeds Failure

Robert Samuelson finds a parallel between the BP disaster and the financial crisis: Our very success over a long period of time led to carelessness and complacency, which led to disaster. Every silver lining has its cloud!

One of the problems with human beings having the power to change the earth is that we really aren't very good, by and large, at calculating probabilities and acting appropriately. There seem to be built-in biases toward optimism or pessimism which have very little to do with any objective measure of risk. This is, in large part, why the mass of investors buy at the top of the market and sell at the bottom. They aren't ready to change their behavior until there has been a long trend in one direction, which is actually an indication that the forces driving the trend are nearing exhaustion.

Another problem lies in the phrase "a long period of time." Humans don't do well at evaluating processes with time dimensions outside the human lifetime. One of the underlying drivers in the global warming debate is our inability to deal with time. On the one hand, I think we have too little data, over too short a time period, to be as certain as some people are of the consequences for the climate. Climate operates in cycles of hundreds of thousands of years. On the other hand, some people give far too much weight to a record cold day in their town as indicating that global warming isn't happening. There is a lot of randomness in the weather system.

This is sometimes called, I believe, the local fallacy. That is, people give far too much weight to proximate events, occurrences close to them in time or space, and far too little weight to more distant phenomena.

Souter Rejects Originalism

This is one of my favorite arguments. I think I've referred before to Original Meanings by Jack N. Rakove (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). Now E. J. Dionne uses his column to bring to our attention a speech given by retired Associate Justice David Souter reaffirming the intellectual poverty of originalism.

Souter gave the commencement address at Harvard this year, and he used that occasion to give a rather important speech on the flaws in the orginalist (or as he called it, "fair reading") approach to constitutional interpretation. One of those flaws is historical. The Constitution is a political document, created over a period of time in a contentious political process, and is not a unified whole, developed in a single, philosophically consistent mind. Therefore, there are tensions among various principles enunciated in the Constitution.

These tensions were based upon the tensions among the fundamental principles whose fulfillment we desire. Dionne quotes Souter as saying that "the Constitution emodies the desire of the American people, like most people, to have things both ways. We want order and security, and we want liberty. And we want not only liberty but equality as well." When the French said they wanted "liberty, equality, and brotherhood," or when Jefferson asserted our right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," they failed to acknowledge that these aspirations may be incompatible, even conflicted, in practice.

Dionne offers another good essay, and I'm glad he has brought Justice Souter's speech to our attention.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Ignatius on European Finances

Daniel Gross laid out some of the opportunities and pitfalls for the U.S. in the European debt crisis. (See my previous post.) David Ignatius writes about the roots of the panic, and the key statement may be this: "Investors keep pounding Europe in part because they don't yet see the mechanisms that will enforce discipline."

Ignatius asserts, with the backing of Italian President Napolitano, that much of the problem is that Europe has a single currency, the Euro, in use by 16 countries with independent fiscal policies. The need to enforce consistent policies to support the Euro and make the market-wide economy work confronts the nationalist feelings of the people.

We saw this in the Greek riots, in the signs condemning the IMF and the EU. Well, Greece joined the Euro because they Greeks thought they'd get the advantages of a strong, well-managed currency, without having to change their lax fiscal policies. Now they get the pain of fiscal discipline, and the currency in question is hitting new lows against the dollar. Such is life!

The Silver Lining in the Greek Cloud

There is an old, old saying: "Every cloud has a silver lining."

Years ago I came up with my own variation, "Every silver lining has a cloud."

Daniel Gross is looking at the silver linings in the Greek debt crisis, and then at the clouds behind those silver linings. Because of the European reaction to the Greek (and Portuguese, and Spanish) debt problems, the price of oil is down. This could be why we did not see the usual Memorial Day hike in gasoline prices, at least, not here in Colorado. So that's good for the U.S. economy.

But a lot of our recovery has been based on exports, and a weakening Euro means that U.S. goods are more expensive in Europe. More Italian wine may be imported, and less California wine exported, than might have been the case without the Euro's recent problems.

Cloud, silver lining, cloud, silver lining - out of all this alternation and uncertainty, some sort of balance has to arise.

Is Western Conservativism Taking Over the GOP?

The attached is a very nice article about the differences between the Western and Southern brands of Republican conservatism. A shorthand expression would be that Western conservatives (among whom the author includes, a little confusingly, Rand Paul of Kentucky) descend from Barry Goldwater, while Southern conservatives descend from George Wallace. Actually, the inclusion of Rand Paul in the Western branch makes sense, in that his defense of his questioning of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is clearly based on property rights rather than any racial bias at all. In fact, one could argue that this is what has gotten Paul into trouble; his questioners, such as Rachel Maddow, take it for granted that opposition to "civil rights" is proof of racism. Paul, who is clearly no racist, is confused and baffled by this line of attack.

One of the problems with pushing limitations on the government's ability to intervene in private business decisions, in "property rights," is that it's hard to take into account the motivations of the actors, or the circumstances surrounding their actions. It's all very well to say that Lester Maddox had a right to refuse service to anyone he chose, and that, as a private property owner, he should have been shielded from government interference. But when Maddox's sole principle for exclusion was race, the result of allowing him to exercise his private property rights was that a black person couldn't get a meal or find a hotel room at all in some towns.

It was, in fact, a stretch to use the interstate commerce clause to apply the Civil Rights Act to local businesses that participated very little, if at all, in interstate commerce. But it actually makes more sense today, when so many restaurants are owned by large corporations with operations in many states, and use central suppliers who ship goods across state lines. And while the public face of this fight was about the ability of black people to be served in restaurants owned by white people, the arguably more important point was about the right of black people to be employed in restaurants, stores, and other businesses.

Which gets into a larger question. Suppose we take Rand Paul at his word. He deplores racism, and he wouldn't do business with any company with racially biased policies. But he thinks that private property rights trump civil rights, because the Federal government simply does not, under the Constitution, have the power to enforce racially unbiased policies. Would he then, as a US Senator, vote for against a bill that would deny Federal contracts to companies that did not adhere to equal employment opportunity standards?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Death Spiral of the Welfare State

Is death spiral an over-dramatic term? Robert J. Samuelson doesn't think so, and he explains why in this column.

How does the Greek crisis relate to us here in the United States? Well, we have an aging population. It isn't as bad as the situation in Greece or much of Europe, let alone China and Japan, but it's bad enough. One of the factors which has kept our population younger, and thus provided us with a broader base of working-age people to support the welfare state, has been our relatively high immigration rate. And a lot of people want to kill that particular golden goose.

One way to look at it is that we need to encourage lots of young people from other countries to move to the U.S., get jobs, and contribute to Social Security and Medicare, or those programs will go broke.

And at least we have that option.

The Greek Riots and the Markets

Daniel Gross provided a quick reaction to the response of the financial markets to the deadly riots in Greece. What I don't get is the extent to which the markets were apparently surprised by the reaction of the pampered Greek people to the idea that they were going to have to adjust to a new reality. Greece had a system under which people could retire on full pay at age 53, there were lots of cushy government jobs (the technical term is "sinecures"), and tax laws were only loosely enforced. Now the government is cutting jobs and subsidies, promising to enforce the tax laws, moving out retirement ages, and cutting pensions.

Say you're a 45-year-old Greek looking forward to retiring on full pay in only eight years. Now they tell you that you can't retire for several more years, and when you do retire you're not going to take home as much, and the government is going to take more out of your pay in taxes than they have in the past. This is supposed to be make you happy?

Better Late Than Never: Joe Ellis on Original Intent

Okay, it's May 23, and this article by Joseph Ellis, the well-known historian, appeared on May 7. So I'm a little slow sometimes.

But Ellis, whose speciality is the history of the era in which the Constitution was written and ratified, makes a very important point here. Rather, he makes two points:

First, the doctrine of original intent is just that, a doctrine, a teaching propounded by one side in an ideological debate. Original intent is not some privilege mode of understanding the Constitution.

Second, the key problem with original intent is that it is impossible to identify that intent. A few years ago I read a book by Jack N. Rakove, Original Meanings, in which the same point was made. The essential problem is that the Constitution was adopted in a process involving a number of parties, and it is difficult to decide which of these parties, if any, had a particular set of intentions to which we ought to defer.

A good column by Ellis, and something which we should all consider, especially in light of the weird, biassed, and sometimes baseless statements coming from the Tea Partiers and others on the extreme right.

Adjustments to the Reading List

I just added a new book to the Current Reading sidebar. This was a little tardy, as I started the book back on May 11, and I finished it yesterday.

The book is:

David Weber. Off Armageddon Reef. New York: Tor Books, 2007. 605 pages. Characters. Glossary. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-0-765-31500-7. $25.95.

I should note that this is the first of series of books by Weber set on the Earth colony world of Safehold, which has become the last refuge for humankind from an alien culture called the Gbaba. Also on the reading list is By Heresies Distressed, the third in the series, but the one I saw first at the library and, thus, read first.

More comments and, perhaps, a review to follow.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Global Warming - Again

There is a discussion thread at the Two Masters blog that those interested in global warming might find of interest.

There is, to state it briefly, a big space between the position that the magnitude and the effects of anthropogenic global warming are still uncertain, and the position that no real evidence exists for the phenomenon. My feeling is that many of the people who claim that there was a scandal at a lab in England, and that the evidence for global warming is faked, oppose the idea of anthropogenic global warming for a number of personal, political, and business reasons. Their desire to have the evidence go away doesn't mean that the phenomenon is not real.

If I owned a coal mine or a coal-fired power plant, I, too, might be reluctant to believe that my actions are leading to a disaster. But, if I owned a coal mine, I'd also be used to having my actions lead to disasters, and I'd be used to lying about it.

Time will tell. Do you have your liferaft?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

An In-Progress Problem

I was watching a video clip of Ken Schwaber talking about scrum software development, and he got into an interesting problem. (Well, interesting to some of us.) This is the "in-progress problem." It arises when you find that you have many tasks started, but few or none of them are being brought to a conclusion.

In my case, this applies to my reading habits. I tend to start a book because it seems interesting, or I've been thinking about something related to its subject, or just because it's handy or will soon be due at the library. But then I start another book, and another, and I sometimes find it hard to get back to the earlier book and finish it.

On the current reading list accompanying this blog you can see that I started The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, by Robert Asprey, back on St. Patrick's Day (March 17th, for you heathens in the audience). I started another book, The Vampire Archives, edited by Otto Penzler, on the same day. That in itself is probably a bad sign. Starting two books on the same day indicates that I was not of a very settled disposition. So far, I've read only through page 21 of the 580 pages in The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, or 3.62%.

I haven't done all that well in The Vampire Archives, either, as I am now at page 158, in a story called "Ligeia," by Edgar Allan Poe. That's about 15% of the 1034 pages in the book. But I do have the excuse the I received The Vampire Archives for Christmas 2009, along with a whole CARE package of books. The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte I bought in a small gift and bookstore in Pagosa Springs, Colorado, in 2003, so it's been cluttering up my bookshelves for nearly seven years.

What am I going to do about this situation? Well, if experience is any guide, someday, perhaps a rainy, gloomy day like today, unfit for other pursuits, I'll pick up Asprey's book and start reading it. At some point, I'll be so far into it, and it will have engaged my mind in such various ways, that the reading will acquire a momentum of its own. And then I'll finally finish the book.

Monday, April 26, 2010

What Did Goldman Sachs Do?

Some of these financial cases are very, very complicated. This one is pretty simple. Daniel Gross provides a good description of what the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs amount to. He uses one analogy, but I might try my hand at another.

Suppose I sell you a market basket of vegetables. We all know that the vegetables are going to rot sometime, but you're betting that most of the vegetables won't rot before you can sell them at a profit. What you don't know is that I have intentionally selected the vegetables that are most likely to rot quickly. So your market basket is loaded for failure. Why would I do that? Because another customer is paying me a large fee to take his bet that your vegetables will rot.

Nice, huh?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

An Addition to Current Reading

Slowly but surely I'm updating the Current Reading list here to show you what I'm actually reading. I just added Journey to the High Southwest to that list. This is a really good travel book, as may be evidenced by its having gone through eight editions. It covers the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah (not in that order), as well as Santa Fe. We traveled extensively in the Four Corners area last fall - see albums at my Facebook page - and we visited New Mexico again in late March, spending two nights in Albuquerque and a night in Santa Fe. We found this book helpful in Albuquerque, as it steered us to the old Plaza area, to La Hacienda restaurant, and to great birding at the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park.

More later.

You Can't Get from Here to There Via a Tea Party

As I said over on my Facebook profile, I mostly post articles by smart people, that is, by people who agree with me. This column by Douglas Schoen and Pat Caddell is an exception. I think there are a lot of things wrong with Schoen and Caddell's argument, but I'd really like to pick on one paragraph. I think the following indicates both their cynicism and their wrong-headedness.

"[Democrats] must adopt an agenda aimed at reducing the debt, with an emphasis on tax cuts, while implementing carefully crafted initiatives to stimulate and encourage job creation."

In other words, pander to the Tea Partiers by telling them the same lies that the Republicans are trying to sell. Let me repeat this so you'll know it is true:

You cannot reduce the deficit by lowering taxes.

You cannot reduce the deficit by lowering taxes.

You cannot reduce the deficit by lowering taxes.

The mechanics here are pretty clear: The additional economic activity stimulated by a tax cut may generate additonal tax revenue, but it won't generate enough revenue to make up the losses caused by the tax cut itself.

So what about the Laffer Curve? What about supply-side economics? What about the Kennedy tax cuts?

It has become a shibboleth on the right that cutting taxes raises revenue because of the increased economic activity. But this isn't true at all times and in all places. The law of diminishing returns applies to tax cuts, as well as to a lot of other human activities. When the marginal top rate of Federal income tax was 90%, as it was in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, cutting taxes released a lot of activity and it diminished the amount of tax evasion that had been going on. Cutting taxes from 90% to 71% made it less profitable to hide income, and it provide people with money that they were eager to spend. The postwar boom didn't ride on tax cuts alone, though. During the war demand had been suppressed by forced savings - all those war bond drives with Deanna Durbin and Betty Grable stored up a lot of money, and by rationing. After the war all that stored-up money was turned into cash and used to by newly-available houses, automobiles, and business opportunities.

Similarly, the Kennedy tax cut of 1962, when the top marginal rate dropped from 71% to around 52%, reinforced, but did not cause, a boom that was really led by the German economic miracle, and the recovery of the other countries devastated by World War II. This recovery would eventually turn around and bite the U.S., but in the early 60's we were busy selling stuff to satisfy the recovering demand around the world. And, again, lowering tax rates tends to diminish tax evasion and fraud. Moreover, the Kennedy tax cut was overridden by the stimulus package of the 1960s - Vietnam plus Great Society equaled overheated economy and booming inflation, which made it looks as if tax revenues rose enough to make up for the cuts.

We could go through a lot of economic history, some of it quite contentious. Here's the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Taxes are low enough now that we can't hope to release a store of pent-up demand and hidden income by lowering them a little more. Instead of a pile of forced savings on hand, people and companies are serious in debt. The demand isn't there to be released by lower taxes. So cutting taxes will simply reduce government revenue and increase the size of the deficit. Thus endeth the lesson.

(By the way, in the interest of full disclosure, Pat Caddell, who was President Clinton's favorite pollster, was a consultant to the TV show The West Wing. Helen and I watched every episode of The West Wing and loved it. On that basis, I hold a certain affection for Caddell. That doesn't mean I don't think he's serious wrong on the present topic.)

A Feel-Good Column on the Economy

Economics has been called "the dismal profession," and economists are prone to shed an atmosphere of gloom and doom. In this column, Daniel Gross is all sunshine and rosebuds. Spring is here, and so are some good signs for the economy. That is to say, for the real economy, if not for the epiphenomenal world of high finance.

I particularly liked the part about Big Belly Solar. This is a new company which makes solar trash compactors. This is great! Because it compacts the trash, each refuse can holds a lot more and doesn't have to be emptied as often. This saves the city on labor for trash pickups. And I suspect it diminishes the problem of the overflowing wastebasket surrounded by trash.

Spring is here, and it's time for some good news about America.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Another Book Completed

Today I finished reading N. A. M. Rodger's fine history, or, as he calls it, anatomy of the Georgian Navy, The Wooden World. One reason the Georgian Navy is of interest, is that this is the navy which fought the Seven Years War (or, as we call it in America, the French and Indian War). This is a thoroughly researched book - one of the appendices covers the number of men being treated for venereal diseases, and well-written. One couldn't call The Wooden World light reading, but it does move along.

Rodger's big point is that the Navy, like the rest of British society at that time, was governed by a combination of personal followings and mutual advantages. A British naval officer of the time didn't so much order his men about, as persuade them that an action was for the good of the ship. And the men, knowing full well that they had valuable and irreplaceable skills, stood up for themselves in a variety of ways.

One of the manifestations of this communitarian, rather than command, relationship, was the tendency for men to follow a good officer from ship to ship. In some cases, an entire ship's complement was transferred into a larger ship with the captain. There were even cases in which men deserted from one ship in order to serve with a familiar captain on another.

Such incidents raises another significant point. While there were 200 capital crimes on land at that period, there were only nine at sea, and most of them used infrequently, and pushed all the way to execution even more rarely. A deserter was likely to be executed only if that crime were aggravated by murder, say, or robbery, while away from his post.

Another strength of the book is Rodger's attention to the recruitment of officers and men and their motivations. Why did men choose such dangerous work, far from home and subject to violent death? Among other things, it was relatively well-paid (at the period in question), and it was far from home - which, when "home" was a pig farm in darkest Lancashire, was a positive advantage.

Good book, good read, and a means of gaining a deeper understanding of a period which has influenced history down to our own day.

Monster Change to the Reading List

I finished reading The Monster Book of Zombies on March 4, and it's now April 24, so it's about time to remove it from the Current Reading list. It was a very entertaining book, and it's a really good value. The most surprising story in the book was the last, "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks."

On the other hand, zombie stories are very much a matter of taste, so I'm not going to give this one an unqualified recommendation. If you like zombie stories, or if you think you're in the mood for some bedtime reading that might give you some odd dreams, The Monster Book of Zombies could be a good choice for you.

Globalization in Action - in South America

Years ago, when I was in graduate school at Duke, I studied Bihar state in India. Bihar is in northeastern India, next to West Bengal. One of the few shining lights in Bihar was Jamshedpur, named for Sir Jamshedji Tata. At that time, Tata was a big company by Indian standards, but had hardly been heard of elsewhere. Now, Daniel Gross is at the Colombian office of Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), talking about Tata's involvement in other "third-world" countries, and how this is sign of progress for Colombia, Uruguay, and Argentina, as well as for India.

My company has a branch in India - Verizon Data Services India, so I deal with people in the new high-tech world of the subcontinent often. One of the development directors whose people work on projects I manage just made a long trip to Chennai - I suppose he's back in Texas today, if the ash cloud hasn't interfered with his itinerary.

Once again, Gross shines a little light into a promising economic trend, and finds an example that connects to a lot of other developments around the world.

The other really interesting bit in this article is that Tata now owns Jaguar and Land Rover. It was bad enough when the essence of British automotive style was owned by Ford, but to think of Jaguar as being run from Jamshedpur ... the mind boggles.

Participation in America's Business

I started cleaning out my e-mail (Hotmail) today, and I found a number of notices from Charles Schwab about annual meetings of companies in which we own stock. I have never gone to an annual meeting, even though Forest Oil has its shareholder meetings up the road in Denver. But the annual meeting invitations also include an opportunity to vote my shares. Not that I have enough shares to swing an issue, but I do try to vote my shares every year. It's my way of helping to keep American business a little participatory.

I rarely vote against the nominees for the Board of Directors of any company. For a while, I was voting against board members who were over 70, on the ground that the companies needed to bring in some new blood once in a while. And I always voted against John Deutsch for the board of Citigroup; Deutsch was a former head of the CIA, and not a particularly distinguished one. Well, distinguished by incompetence.

This year I waited too long and missed my chance to vote my shares in Citigroup and Pfizer, but there's always next year.

Reading List Changes

Good morning! Of course, it may be evening where you are by the time you read this, but so it goes. In the virtual world, it's always morning somewhere.

I note that I have a couple of books sitting in the Current Reading list that I finished back in March, so they aren't all that current now. I'm going to be removing some books, and I'm going to be adding some books as I go today.

The first one to remove is Majestrum by Matthew Hughes. This one was a (2009) Christmas gift from a friend, and it was a good read. It's a science fiction novel set in the far future, with a couple of nice twists. For one thing, the powers of magic are rising, and this makes our ultrarationalist hero anxious. For another, he has another consciousness sharing his brain.

Hughes is a good writer with a wicked sense of humor. Both my wife, Helen, and I enjoyed reading Majestrum, and another Hughes book, The Spiral Labyrinth, is a prospect for future enjoyment.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Reporting World War II

Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938-1946. New York: The Library of America, 1995, 2001. xxiii + 874 pages. Preface by Stephen E. Ambrose. Introduction by Samuel Hynes. Chronology 1933-1945. Maps. Bibliographical Notes. Note on the Texts. Acknowledgments. Notes. Glossary of Military Terms. Index.

This is not a review of this book, because I haven't finished reading it yet. But it's been on my current reading list since February, and I wanted to assure you that I've been reading it. It's a big book. There are some 65 news articles, radio reports, and bulletins in here, from William L. Shirer's account of the cession of the Sudetenland to Germany in 1938, to John Hersey's account of Hiroshima after the bomb fell. There are some very famous journalists represented here: Edward R. Murrow, Ernie Pyle, Margaret Bourke-White. There are also some who have been almost forgotten.

And no wonder. World War II was a long time ago. I graduated from high school 19 years after World War II ended. This May we'll celebrate the 65th anniversary of V-E Day, though I doubt there will be much of a celebration; everyone's forgotten about it, most of the people who lived through it are dead, and they don't teach history in the schools anymore.

The thing about Reporting World War II is that this isn't history. These are stories written during the action by people who were witnesses to these events, or who spoke with actual witnesses when the grime of battle was fresh on their uniforms. It takes us back to when defeating the Germans and the Japs was not dead history but a matter of life and death.

I'm nearing the end of the book (as of this morning I had read just over 70% of it), so I can say that it's worth reading for anyone with an interest in World War II, in how America was sixty-odd years ago, or even in what your grandparents did when they were young.

By the way, this is the one-volume paperback edition issued in 2001. It was cut down from the two-volume hardcover edition published in 1995.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Catching Up with April Posting: Republicans

Is the Republican Party sticking its collective head in the gas oven? Are Republicans swallowing the tailpipe of an idling Lincoln Continental? Is the conservative movement so blinded by its hatred of the left and its own self-righteousness that it is failing to see clearly?

I would say "Yes!" to all of the above. David Frum, former Canadian, former Bush speechwriter, conservative policy wonk was apparently fired by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) for saying something like this. And Ron Radosh, in this reflection on l'affaire Frum, is singing to the same sheet music. Tactically speaking, American political parties must appeal to the broad squishy center of the political spectrum. Frum questioned Republican tactics in the healthcare debate, and he no longer works at AEI, because conservatives don't want to hear that they need to change. If they wanted to change, they wouldn't be conservatives, would they?

Next time you see a stegosaurus in the park, ask him how that refusal to change thing worked out.

(The title of this piece? It's April 4 and this is my fourth post in the month of April. Now I have to go do my daily Bible reading.)

Are We Nostalgic for 1934?

In general, people may not have a lot of fondness for 1934. It was smack in the middle of the Great Depression, and things were pretty bad. But, as Daniel Gross points out, it was better than in 1930 or 1932, and the economy was growing. So Mr. Roosevelt's party, the Democratic Party, the party of Woodrow Wilson, didn't lose seats in the House and Senate, as conventional wisdom says the president's party must in the off-year. No, the Democrats gained seats, increasing their majorities, and positioning themselves to carry out the "Second New Deal."

Can this happen again? A lot depends upon just exactly how much the numbers move between now and November, but the Republicans should beware of counting their chickens before they are hatched. Of course, it the Republicans are disappointed in the fall, think how unhappy the Tea Party patriots, Fox News, Sarah Palin, and members of various armed militias are going to be!

Saving the Opposite of Debt

Some of you might have found the title of my last post obscure, or even confusing. I hope not, but just in case, here's the deal. In economics, debt is negative savings (and savings are negative debt). This makes perfect sense is you think back to Mr. Micawber, who pointed out that if your income exceeds your outgo, you have a happy situation, but if your outgo exceeds your income, you will be in misery.

So, if you started out with neither debt nor savings, and you make $100 per week more than you spend, you will save $100 per week. If you make $100 per week less than you spend, you're going to have to borrow $100 from somewhere.

Where it gets a little tricky is if you already have some debt. Suppose you have a mortgage in the amount of $150,000. All other things being equal, if you reduce that mortage by $10,000 per year, this is the equivalent of saving $10,000 per year. So, when people pay down their credit cards, pay off their car loans, and accelerate their mortgage payments, they are increasing their saving just as if they were pouring that money into a savings account.

Remember: Saving Is the Opposite of Debt

Daniel Gross' column notes that corporate debt has declined to the level of 2006. Households are also relying less on credit, and more on cash. Gross mentions a family that has gone "all-cash." He doesn't mention Dave Ramsey, and, indeed, the envelope system wasn't invented by Ramsey. Back when I was working at Money Concepts, we would sometimes talk up the idea of paying all your bills in cash. Budget a certain amount each month for each category, put that amount in a labelled envelope, and don't spend more than is in the envelope. One of the "enforcers" is that, as the food envelope, say, gets emptier, you'll shy away from blowing it all on dinner out, and you'll eat rice and beans at home.

I haven't gone all cash, and I don't intend to. I do use my debit card for a lot of purchases. I generally use only one bank credit card (and one gasoline credit card), and I keep the others in folders in a file cabinet. And I pay the balance every month, so I'm not paying out any finance charges. The key here, if there is a key, is that one should never use credit to buy something one cannot afford. That is, one should use credit to buy things for which one could have paid cash (with the exception of a house or, I would say, an automobile), and then use the cash to settle the borrowing immediately. A credit card should be a convenient way to pay, not a means of supplementing one's income.

Now, if we could just get the federal and state governments to go all-cash!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Road to Socorro

Friday we left Colorado Springs and drove through a snow-covered landscape down to New Mexico. (The section south of Pueblo down to Raton Pass really was snow-covered.) We were aiming to stay in Socorro, so we could make an early start at birding at Bosque del Apache NWR. But south of Isleta Pueblo, and five miles north of Las Lunas, we were brought to a halt. A convention of law enforcers stopped southbound traffic on I-25 and turned us back to Albuquerque. We never did find out the cause or nature of the accident.

But we found a room at the Best Western Inn & Suites near the Albuquerque airport, and we wandered down to Central Avenue near the University of New Mexico for dinner that night. The Olympia Cafe, it turns out, has a very nice Greek combination plate. So, a very nice experience achieved through happenstance.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Don't Sell Obama Short

Those of you who aren't into the stock market (not that I am, really) may not be perfectly clear on the term "to short." This used to be expressed as "to sell short," and what it means is to bet that a stock, a bond, or another security or commodity will go down in price. The short seller makes money by promising to sell someone a stock at some point in the future at a specified price, hoping that the market price will be even lower when the time comes to deliver the stock.

In this article, Daniel Gross talks about people who have been "shorting" Obama, both literally and figuratively, and how that has not been a good bet. Enjoy!

Happy Birthday, Bobby

It's Robert Frost's birthday. The poet of New England was born on this date in 1876 in (Are you ready for this?) San Francisco. My source says that Frost didn't see a New England state until he was ten.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that, the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

There are two bits in this poems that I don't think I really picked up on in earlier readings. First, there's the "And be one traveler, ... " line. It never hit me before that Frost was writing about integrity. One can't be one person and take two divergent roads, not just in the physical sense, but in other, deeper, senses as well.

Second, the ambiguity introduced into the last stanza by the introductory "I shall be telling this ... " In other words, he isn't saying now that this choice has made all the difference. Rather, he's saying that he will, at some point in the future, attribute the way his life has turned out to this single choice.

I sometimes think that way about my life. For example, from time to time I look back to my decision to join the Foreign Service, and I might well say with a sigh, "And that has made all the difference." But has it really!

Happy 134th Robert Frost!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Illusion of Cost Control

Just as people are starting to notice that both the Republicans and the Democrats are off in never-never land about the fiscal deficit, so Robert Samuelson thinks that the Obama administration is dealing in illusions about cost savings in the health care reform package.

Here's the thing, and I've said this before (and I'll probably say it again), you can't reduce prices by increasing demand. According to the fundamental rules of economics, increasing demand (all other things being equal) causes increased prices. One of the reasons that health cares costs are as high as they are is that Medicare, Medicaid, and various employer-paid insurance plans have increased the demand for medical services. Providing another 30 million people with health insurance will increase demand that much more, and that means higher prices. Samuelson goes into this at a more detailed level.

In an article in the Atlantic I recently read (November 2009 issue, I believe), the author pointed out that the insured and the uninsured spent about the same amount of their own money on health care each year. The insured, however, spent about three times as much of other peoples' money than the uninsured. So, you can expect spending by those 30 million to quadruple once they have insurance, and that, together with the provisions disallowing "pre-existing conditions" clauses is going to push up costs.

AIG May Pay Back Much of What We Lent It

I've listened to a couple of radio interviews lately with the author of The Big Short. Michael Levin wrote Liar's Poker a few years ago about the peccadilloes of investment bankers. He has a real talent for breaking down arcane (and sometimes deliberately obscure) financial operations into language normal people can understand. In The Big Short he goes at the myth that no one saw the financial crises of 2007 and 2008 coming. There were people who saw that the emperor had no clothes, and they made a lot of money betting against the boom.

The bottom line was that banks and insurers radically underestimated the risk inherent in certain securitized mortgage instruments and their derivatives. The premiums paid by purchasers of credit default swaps were absurdly low; when they went bust, the insurers didn't have the cash to cover the claims. That's the AIG story in a nutshell. They didn't charge enough in premiums to make up for the risk of the financial instruments they were insuring.

One could note that, by charging more for premiums, AIG would have protected itself in two ways: 1) It would have taken in enough money to cover the likely claims, and 2) it would have diminished the number of claims it would have had to cover. The latter effect would have come about because either investors would have chosen not to buy the expensive insurance, or they would have had second thoughts about buying securities that were so obviously risky. Premiums are a signal to the market of the degree of risk.

In this column, Daniel Gross estimates that the government bailout of AIG may wind up costing us only $12 or $15 billion. If we get some effective financial regulation out of the deal, that may be a small price to pay.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

David Broder on Discipline in the States

I agree with David Broder that the states are showing more fiscal discipline than Washington. I even agree that it's crazy to extend the Bush tax cuts, for anyone, at any income level, in the face of this deficit.

But I do have a couple of quibbles with his column.

For one thing, he notes that all of the states, with the exception of Vermont, have constitutional requirements to balance their budgets. That's true, but it's not as important as you might think. These requirements only apply to the operating budget. The states are also allowed to borrow money for their capital budgets, and so they can run very substantial consolidated deficits. And they do. The way the requirements come together is that, in order to balance the operating budget, you have to keep your debt service to a manageable level. That, in turn, limits the total amount of debt a state can take on.

Second, while the states may be free to cut spending, fire state workers, and so on, the Federal government is responsible for trying to fire up the economy and get us back to full employment. So the Federal government needs to run deficits. Actually, in many cases, those balanced-budget clauses cause the states to impose unnecessary pain and suffering on their residents, cutting budget just when private spending is also lagging.

I get very tired of governors running for president with the slogan: "I balanced my budget." Well, so what? First, you were required by law to do so. Second, it's a lie.

Another Voice on Dealing with the Deficit

E. J. Dionne is a pretty good political analyst. He comes from the port side of the political spectrum, but he can be thoughtful and, sometimes, insightful. This column makes a couple of points.

First, we shouldn't be crying so much about this year's deficit, or even next year's deficit. In the time-honored tradition of Lord Keynes, we're supposed to run a deficit during bad times. I like to think of the Keynesian principles as similar to those found toward the end of the book of Genesis. Pharoah has a dream in which seven fat cows are gobbled up by seven gaunt and starving cows. The prophet Joseph interprets this as meaning that seven prosperous years will be followed by seven years of famine. Joseph's prescription: Save up as much as possible of the produce of the good years as a provision against starvation in the lean years.

Second, we need to face the fact that we have a "structural deficit." That is, if you take all the things we are committed to buy, as a government, and all the sources of revenue available to the government, we will run a deficit even in good years. Our taxes are simply not high enough to cover the cost of all the things we want (Dionne's word: "need") government to do. Either we need to chop some beloved and well-regarded programs, or we need to raise taxes substantially to bring these two dynamics into balance.

Third, Dionne wants the federal government to adopt a provision common among the states: a capital budget. The idea is that we should not be borrowing in order to pay the ordinary expenses of government. Tax revenues, fees and imposts should cover the day-to-day cost of government services. We should be borrowing, as states and municipalities do, for capital expenditures, such as roads, buildings, bridges, airports, and rapid-transit systems.

In other words, we should balance the operating budget, and run a deficit only on the capital side. That's a good idea, but there are several problems with it. First, based on the experience of California and other states, I'd say that it's pretty easy to reclassify routine expenditures as being somehow capital costs. The motivation to do so is always present; it's always easier to borrow to pay your bills than it is to raise taxes.

The second problem with the capital budget idea is that governments tend to commit to more projects than are financially sustainable. Suppose we have $1 billion to spend on highways, but we want $20 billion in highway construction. Okay, if we borrow $20 billion from investors by selling bonds, we only have to pay $1 billion per year in interest and administrative costs. Look, Ma, I just multiplied my money by 20 times! But, if you do this year after year, eventually the debt service costs (interest and administration) rise to equal the amount of your annual borrowing, and then, after 20 years, you have to pay back the principal of the loans. So, in year 21, you have to pay back the $20 billion you borrowed in year one, and you have $20 billion in charges for your borrowings from years 2-19.

Third, the interest charges on your debt have to take priority over all other spending. I know, there have been instances of defaults on sovereign debt in the past. Even respectable countries such as Russia and Argentina have defaulted on their debt. But I don't think the people of California would enjoy the consequences of default one bit. That's part of the problem with the Federal government now. The service on the existing debt is around half a trillion dollars a year. That's a lot of money, and it has first call on our revenues.

There is another column from Thursday's Washington Post on a similar topic, and I'll post it soon.

A Missed Opportunity?

The other evening our kitchen phone rang, and I, standing right by it, answered the call. I found myself, as so often these days, talking to a computer. In this case, the computer was programmed to have pre-recorded questions played for my enjoyment, and, depending upon my answers. This represents advances in voice recognition software we don't really appreciate because they are so often used in either intrusive or obstructive ways.

The first question the computer asked me was, "Are you a tea party patriot?"

I replied, "No."

The computer then asked me, "Do you support Sarah Palin?"

Again, I said, "No."

The computer then muttered some jargon and hung up.

Afterwards I realized that, had I responded affirmatively to either question, or to both, I would probably have been treated to additional questions. Those questions might very well have provided me some insight into matters of concern to the fringe of the Republican Party. I missed a great opportunity to learn something about the priorities and the thinking of Tea Party/Sarah Palin supporters!

I think I'll survive the disappointment.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Good Walk Spoiled in Anji County

This article leaves me scratching my head. Am I supposed to be indignant on behalf of the owners of a golf course whose fairways were bulldozed by the government for technical legal violations? Or should I be shocked, shocked!, at the behavior of local officials who have uprooted local farmers in order to create an attraction for tourists and wealthy folk from Shanghai?

I think I'm coming down to saying that China needs a real legal system. Right now, there may be laws on the books, but enforcement is arbitrary and corruption is rife. That means that when we see laws enforced against one of China's 600 or so illegal golf courses, it's about politics, and it doesn't create a legal regime in which companies and individuals know what's expected of them.

The wild west lives, in the old Far East.

The Vituperative Ms. Cheney

One of the first principles of American legal practice is that everyone deserves a defense. Therefore, lawyers step up to defend unpopular defendants, guilty defendants, really nasty defendants, and we do not generally conclude that the lawyers agree with, or even sympathize with, their clients. Some do, some don't. Bill Kunstler, before he played a judge on Law and Order, defended lefties because he was a lefty himself.

Those of you who saw the miniseries John Adams, or read the book by David McCullough, or stayed awake in 10th grade American history class, know that the second President of the United States made his reputation by defending the British soldiers accused of perpetrating the Boston Massacre. So, Gene Robinson is quite right that it is unprincipled, unserious, and just plain wrong to attack the Obama administration for employing lawyers who have, in the past, defended clients accused of terrorism.

Well, Liz is a Cheney. Did you really expect truth and moderation from her?

Privileges, Immunities, and Guns

I was going to say that I don't like George Will very much. But I'm going to modify that sentiment to say that I don't read George Will very often, so I don't really know if I like him or not these days. For many years I subscribed to Newsweek, and Will's column (recycled from the Washington Post) was a mainstay of that magazine. His column would show up occasionally in our local paper The Gazette, but I came to avoid everything but the sports and the comics in that rag.

Be that as it may, today I read George Will's column in the Washington Post online, on entitled "How the Constitution, Filtered by the High Court, Affects Guns." I was expecting the usual right-wing argument about everyone's right to carry a gun in order to kill federal officers if they ever come to force you to give up your coal-burning furnace. (In my view, by the way, inciting people to carry guns for the purpose of opposing the authority of the federal government is treason or damned close to it.) But no! Will's column discusses whether the Supreme Court should use the "equal protection" clause or the "privileges and immunities" clause of the 14th Amendment to dispose of the gun laws of Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois.

This is a much more interesting argument. The chain of the argument goes something like this:

The Bill of Rights didn't create a bunch of rights by fiat of the Federal Government, but codified a number of pre-existing privileges - the rights of Englishmen, if you will. Therefore, the Bill of Rights is a list (an incomplete list) of basic human rights.

The Fourteenth Amendment stated two things: We are all entitled to equal protection of the laws, and the states have to recognize the common "privileges and immunities" of Americans. Will says, and I think he's right in this, that the Bill of Rights is a good starting point if you need a catalog of privileges and immunities.

Therefore, all of the protections of the Bill of Rights, which acted to restrict the Federal Government, were extended to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment. And I agree with Will that this was the intent of the authors of that amendment, and that their intent was frustrated by the Supreme Court in the 1870s. The extension of the Bill of Rights to the states, a process known as incorporation, was, in fact, mostly carried out, decision by decision, by the Warren Court in the 1950s and 1960s.

Will wants the court to use the privileges and immunities clause because, taken together with the 10th Amendment, it provides a framework for asserting all sorts of individual rights against both the state and the Federal governments. I'm not sure I like that, but I do think that the equal protection clause doesn't provide a very good basis, logically speaking, for overruling an ordinance that prohibited everyone from having a handgun.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Treasure Trove of Books on the Fall of Communism

Philip Zelikow, one-time director of the 911 Commission, is an expert on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. So he's the perfect choice to write a review article on a spate of books that came out in 2009, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is a very good article, and gives one some good insight into what each of these books has to offer.

You can use the links provided here to read Zelikow's article, which appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Foreign Affairs, but I'm going to provide you with the names of the books he reviewed.

The Red Flag: A History of Communism. by David Priestland. Grove Press, 2009, 688 pp. $27.50.
The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989. Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel. Oxford University Press, 2009, 208 pp. $27.95.
There Is No Freedom Without Bread! 1989 and the Civil War That Brought Down Communism. By Constantine Pleshakov. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009, 304 pp. $26.00.
Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment. By Stephen Kotkin with a contribution by Jan T. Gross. Modern Library, 2009, 240 pp. $24.00.
The Rise and Fall of Communism. By Archie Brown. HarperCollins, 2009, 736 pp. $35.99.
Revolution 1989: The Fall of the Soviet Empire. By Victor Sebestyen. Pantheon Books, 2009, 480 pp. $30.00.
The Year That Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall. By Michael Meyer. Scribner, 2009, 272 pp. $26.00.
1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe. By Mary Elise Sarotte. Princeton University Press, 2009, 344 pp. $29.95.
Mitterrand, the End of the Cold War, and German Unification. By Frederic Bozo. Translated by Susan Emanuel. Berghahn Books, 2009, 417 pp. $110.00.

I might note that 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe is also reviewed by Andrew Moravscik in the "Western Europe" section of Recent Books on International Relations in the same issue of Foreign Affairs.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

It's Only Make-Believe

There are two popular songs I know of with the word "make-believe" in the title. There's Make Believe from Show Boat ("Can we find peace of mind in pretending?"). And there's an old Conway Twitty hit, It's Only Make-Believe. (That was when Twitty was in his rockabilly phase. I had a copy of the 45. The children are asking, "What's a 45?")

Now we have a column by Robert Samuelson entitled "Both Parties Fall Prey to Make-Believe Politics." At last, some good common sense! The Republicans want tax cuts. In the face of an estimated $12 trillion in deficits in the next ten years, the Republicans want tax cuts! And the Democrats would like to spend more on this and that. In the face of $12 trillion in deficits, the Democrats want to increase spending!

No one wants to cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, farm subsidies, business subsidies, military spending, transportation spending, or any of the other places where the big money gets spent. And no one, not even the Democrats, really wants to raise taxes. Even Mr. Obama wants to retain the Bush tax cuts for people making only $250,000 a year or less.

You know, I think the IRS, OMB, and CBO publish charts on where the money comes from and where it goes. I'm going to find one of those charts and bring it to this blog.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

How Economic Prediction Worked on the Olympics

This article is a follow-up to an earlier column in which Daniel Gross presented predictions by Daniel Johnson of Colorado College on how various countries would do in winning Olympic medals. So now we know the results. The US was predicted to take 26 medals (2nd) and finished with 37 (1st). Canada was predicted to take 27 and took 26, though they did better than predicting in gathering gold. Germany was supposed to fall from 29 in 2006 to 20, but the Germans took away 30. The model predicted Austria would take 25, but the actual result was 16, so reported Austrian unhappiness wasn't just subjective. Russia also underperformed, winning 15 medals (3 gold) instead of the projected 23. This could explain Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's hints of a purge of the country's Olympic program.

By the way, it appears that President Medvedev may be getting his wish.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Vail Goes Green

Yes, indeed, the symbol of indulgence, the giant Vail ski resort, has set a goal to cut energy use by 10%. Actually, some of these measures are to cut purchased energy use, as in putting solar panels on the roof of one of the restaurants. That might not cut the total energy consumption, but it will cut Vail's energy bills from local utilities. Still, there are some notes in this article that caution against assuming that energy reductions are easy to achieve.

Current Reading

There were several books on my "Current Reading" sidebar that I finished reading in January. I think that there has been plenty of time for anyone who's interested to check out the books concerned, and they were certainly no longer "current" in any meaningful sense. So I have begun removing them from the list. I started by deleting the entry for Michael Cox, The Meaning of Night, a weird novel that took me way to long to read.

I'll be deleting the other outdated entries in the near future.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Anniversary of the Stimulus: Is It a Success?

Daniel Gross is in no doubt, and neither are a lot of economists. The stimulus has been successful, at least in averting the worst consequences of the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

Why are the Republicans so determined to portray the stimulus, the Recovery Act, as a failure? First, this is the Obama administration's only major legislative accomplishment of 2009. If this was a failure, then the administration has had no successes at all.

Second, these people are trying to reject the judgment of Richard Nixon that "we are all Keynesians now." John Maynard Keynes had a couple of profound and very useful insights, but the main idea for which he is both praised and condemned is that the government can become the spender of last resort. Some of the voices on the right are trying to destroy the concept of government as a useful tool for dealing with human problems. If the stimulus worked, then Keynes is somewhat vindicated, and the government role in the economy is legitimized. That's what they mean by "socialism," these people who have no idea what socialism might be, a system in which government activity is a vital part of the economic life of the country.

John H. Makin had a pretty good article in the October 2009 issue of Commentary, in which he concedes that Keynes was right, while asserting that there was something to the doctrine of efficient markets. It's a far more reasonable presentation than one usually sees from the right side of the aisle.

Current Reading

As you can see, I have a few books working now, and I finished a few in January and earlier this month. The most recent start was on the Library of American paperback Reporting World War II. This book was originally published in two hardcover volumes in 1995, and the current version is excerpted from that material. Over 800 pages, with all sorts of scholarly impedimenta, and including pieces by Ernie Pyle, Edward R. Murrow, William L. Shirer, and so on. I bought this book in 2007 at the Borders remainder store in the outlet mall in Castle Rock. That store is gone now, and there are many vacant storefronts in the mall. We went up there on Friday to shop for sheets, but the Wamsutta outlet store is gone, too.

A few years ago, on one of my trips to North Carolina, Dave Drake gave me a copy of The World Turned Upside Down. This anthology of science fiction stories was edited by Dave, along with Eric Flint and the late Jim Baen. Anyone into science fiction will recognize such stories as "A Pail of Air," "The Menace from Earth," "St. Dragon and the George," "The Cold Equations," and "Who Goes There?" Great stuff, and there have been, so far, a few stories I'd never read before. I'm loving this stuff!

The Monster Book of Zombies: Tales of the Walking Dead (2009, originally published in 1993 as The Mammoth Book of Zombies) is edited by Stephen Jones, and it contains some fine old classic horror stories by Lovecraft, Lumley, Poe, Manly Wade Wellman, and Karl Edward Wagner, as well as more recent stories. The most intriguing title belongs, of course, to the last story in the collection, "On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert with Dead Folks," by Joe R. Lansdale. I read "A Warning to the Curious," by M. R. James, today, and it's interesting to contemplate how effective a story first published in 1925 can be.

Death and Taxes

Jackie Calmes has written a nice piece on the deficit situation. She discussed this matter on Washington Week last Friday, and she knows her stuff.

The key here is simple, in general outlines: There is a deficit because the government is spending more money than it is bringing in. This can be resolved by increasing the amount of revenue, by decreasing the amount being spent, or by a combination of the two. Those are the only options. There is no magical "third way."

Republicans refuse to countenance any tax increases. That's fine, under two conditions:

1) The Republicans are prepared to present a program of spending cuts that will bring total expenditures down to current revenues, and,
2) They are able to persuade enough Democrats to support these cuts to provide a majority in both the House and the Senate.

Even if I believed that the Republicans in Congress were finally ready to do away with farm subsidies, business subsidies, energy subsidies, and a big chunk of military spending, I don't see how even the most optimistic Republican could believe that a majority of Congress can possibly support program cuts sufficient to balance the budget. For one thing, I think you could only accomplish that result if you cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and probably cut benefits for veterans and both military and civilian retirees, as well.

So some taxes, somewhere along the line, will have to be raised. And that means that a lot of Republicans in Congress are going to have to go back to their constituents and tell them the truth. Tough job! It might even be politically fatal.

The Conservative Manifesto

I have, somewhere on my bookshelves, a copy of The Communist Manifesto, penned by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and published in 1848. Who can forget the opening lines?

"A specter is haunting Europe - the specter of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police spies.

"Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as communistic by its opponents in power? Where the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries."

They don't make manifestoes like that any more, and I don't think the Mount Vernon manifesto is likely to make the kind of impression on our national politics that its sponsors would like. It's pretty tame stuff, in this day and age, to accuse your opposition of ignoring the Constitution, particularly when the right, in the persons of George W. Bush and Antonin Scalia, have found it convenient to re-write that venerable document at need.

By all means, let us have constitutional government. As a first step, rather than trotting out the tired old myth that Congressional powers are limited to the list in Article I, Section 8, how about noting that nothing in Article II gives the President the power to act in the stead of Congress?

A manifesto? I don't think the conservative bloc in this country has the energy to create anything like a manifesto. After all, they keep falling back on the 162-year-old trick of calling upon the specter of communism as a focus for their fears.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

This is a very nice column from Richard Cohen. I don't think I've reprinted a Cohen piece before, and I think I used to read him in venues other than the Washington Post. (The Washington Monthly, maybe?)

The gist here is that Sarah Palin is neither the demon feared by the left, nor the savior awaited by the right. She's an empty suit, a vessel into which people pour their fears and longing, a distorting mirror in which one sees what one desires, expects, or most wishes not to see. (I think the tendency on the left to see these characters as threatening is due in large part to a desire for validation. "See, I told you there was a fascist in that closet!")

What do you think? Is Sarah Palin a political phenomenon, or just another gold-digger from Sandpoint?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

O! Canada!

It's Daniel Gross, again, and this time he's found another Daniel who makes predictions on Olympic medals based on economic factors. Daniel Johnson predicts that Canada will take home the most medals from this Winter Olympic Games, just ahead of the United States and Norway. We'll see how it turns out, but I think it's interesting that the predictive factors Johnson uses - population, GDP per capita, climate - are also predictive of success in other fields.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Good News or Schadenfreude?

It's another column by Daniel Gross. I really need to start adding more original content. For one thing, I'd like to take off on Agim Zabeli's comment on an earlier post and get into questions about taxes and deficits. But, for the moment, Gross has some good comments about how the Japanese superiority in quality manufacturing, and the European superiority in social solidarity may have been just as illusory as the American economy that could grow forever. I'm not sure this is so much good news for the United States as it is glorying in the misfortunes of others.

The thing is, the EU is doing to the profligate nations in its ambit what the U.S. probably ought to be doing to profligate institutions: cutting them off and forcing them to make hard choices. But the EU has the advantage of national boundaries. For all the work that's been done on unification, they can still force Greece into an austerity program and limit the damage to other countries in the union. If the U.S. gets too tough with California or General Motors, the effects will come around and bite the rest of us in the ass.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Tea Parties and Flat Taxes

E. J. Dionne spends this column talking about why the Tea Party movement has arisen, why these people insist on seeing the distinctly moderate President Obama as a "socialist," and what is the source of all this rage. I think he quite rightly puts his finger on the anti-government sentiment that goes all the way back to the Anti-Federalists. Some years ago, the Library of America published a two-volume set on The Debate on the Constitution. It can be a real eye-opener in terms of how many people were very suspicious of the power of centralized government.

This leads me to another, related, topic: the flat tax proposals of such conservatives as Steve Forbes. Let's not dismiss these proposals as impractical, fiscally ruinous, or the product of the lust of the rich to keep their ill-gotten gains. The flat tax idea is, at least in part, an aspect of the "starve the beast" concept. Ronald Reagan earned a lot of criticism for his assertions that he could increase defense spending, cut taxes, and reduce the deficit, all at once. Sure enough, that didn't happen, and he had to raise taxes again to keep the deficit under control. But the idea wasn't as ridiculous as it might have sounded, if, that is, you accept a couple of premises.

Premise One is that government spending is essentially non-productive, and that, because of this, it doesn't generate further economic activity. A dollar spent by the government is spent once; a dollar spent by private business is spent many times as it works its way through the economy. This is nonsense, of course. While government spending is, generally, non-productive - from an economic point of view, the military is a complete nullity, it isn't, on that account, tagged with a lower velocity than private spending. A billion dollars spent on a new government building has the same impact on the economy as a billion dollars spent on a new automobile factory.

But this premise leads one to suppose that cutting taxes always allows the money to be spent in some more productive way, thus boosting the economy, and, yes!, raising tax revenues.

Premise Two is that the government will limit its activities according to the amount of money it has, i.e., that there will be no deficit spending. Therefore, tax cuts serve to "starve the beast" by depriving it of its sustenance. This, too, is utter nonsense. Both Republicans and Democrats happily plunge into deficit spending rather than either raise taxes or cut programs that are dear to their constituents' hearts. And every program, no matter how useless, is dear to some constituent's heart.

The flat tax has to bring in less money than a graduated ("progressive") income tax, even if, as Forbes has suggested, we do away with such shibboleths as the home mortgage interest deduction. That's because people making $30,000 per year can only afford so much in taxes. You might get $4,500 (15%) from them, and that would then become the limit for everyone. At a flat 15%, the government would take in a lot less than it does now, and it would have to shrink. QED. Except that it won't shrink; it'll borrow instead.

The only way to shrink the government is to cancel expensive programs. Cancel all farm subsidies. Cancel all business subsidies. Cancel subsidies for energy programs. Cancel subsidies for home heating expenses. Cancel subsidies for small business loans. Cancel subsidies for student loans. Cancel the tax breaks on home mortgage interest, capital gains, and anything else that effectively subsidizes an activity. Cut the military in half and close two-thirds of the military bases in the country. Raise the co-pays on Medicare and Medicaid so that the insurance only covers serious medical conditions and treatments. Give all Federal employees, including the military 20% pay cuts. Give all Federal pensioners, including the military and Social Security recipients 10% pay cuts. Do all that, and you might balance the budget. Watch for that proposal in your local newspaper! Not!

Speaking of Ignorant Yahoos ...

In my previous post, I mentioned that a lot of liberals believe that conservatives are all ignorant yahoos. I think a lot of this goes back to the two Georges: George Wallace, who inveighed against "pointy-headed intellectuals," and George W. Bush, who concealed any intellectual curiosity he might have had behind that annoyed frat-boy smirk. Among those often nominated for yahoo status is Sarah Palin. But David S. Broder thinks we need to take the lady from Wasilla seriously. No, really.

It's very easy to underestimate someone like Sarah Palin. She's from North Idaho, the only part of the northern United States to regularly rank behind Arkansas in statistics on education, income, and healthcare. You always knew when you drove into Idaho from Washington; the broken pavement and potholes proliferated. So, Sarah Palin is just too North Idaho for my taste.

But there are late-bloomers. There are people whose misspent youths are no real indicator of their present talents and abilities. There are people who rise to the occasion. Read U.S. Grant's Personal Memoirs sometime. While overestimating your opposition may lead you to give up without a fight, underestimating them may leave you unprepared for the fight you face. Let us not allow Sarah Palin's weaknesses, real and apparent, to blind us to her very real strengths. This column is a good starting point.

Liberal Condescension

Gerard Alexander thinks that he's found a new weakness among liberals: condescension. The easy answer to why liberals think they know everything, are right about everything, and have no reason to change their ideas, is that liberals do know everything. We are always right. And the conservatives are just a bunch of ignorant yahoos. At least, that's Al Franken's point of view.

This is a long article, but it may be worth reading for some serious thoughts about why the two sides aren't listening to one another.

I think, from my own point of view, that most of the up-front policy ideas on both the liberal and the conservative side are based upon deep-down attachments to ideas that no one has examined very thoroughly, and which everybody finds rather frightening to question.

Whenever I see a reaction out of all proportion to the action which supposedly triggered it, I know that there is some underlying force that has built up on the reactor's side.

Here's an example. The Republicans are highly averse to tax increases. They are passionate about not allowing any tax increases. This is practically an article of religious faith with them, and the evil of higher taxes is so self-evident to them, that they find it difficult to articulate reasons for their position. In fact, a lot of the opposition to taxes is based on a still-deeper article of faith: You can reduce the size and influence of government by cutting taxes.

The problem is that the "starve the beast" theory has never worked. The government, whether under Democrats, Republicans or Martians (I refer to the late Bush administration), continues to spend, borrowing to make up the difference. The Republicans cannot admit that starving the beast is an ineffective strategy, however, because they don't have any other strategy for cutting the size of government, except by doing things that voters don't like.

Let's face the obvious problem: The people, in their majesty - vox populi, vox dei - want more services than they are willing to pay for. They want the government to do things that cost more than the amount of money they are willing to allow it. And they don't want their representatives to tell them that they can't have it both ways.

You can't cheat an honest man, as the saying goes, but what we have here is a dishonest electorate.

What Paulson Knew

Daniel Gross devotes his column to a review of Henry Paulson's memoir of the financial crisis. The review, as a review, is good and readable, and it makes me think that the memoir itself would be worth reading. Gross does chide Paulson for being unreflective and for failing to see the big picture. Paulson takes things as they come; he doesn't place them in a larger context, and he doesn't have a grand philosophy to bring to bear on them.

What Gross doesn't, perhaps, get is that a more reflective man, a man with an explicit philosophy about how the economy was supposed to work, might very well have been paralyzed in the face of the financial crisis. Paulson's very pedestrian, task-oriented approach enabled him to deal with one problem at a time.

Gross mentions that Paulson is a birder. Well, there are birders who worry about the ecosystem as a whole and how our winged friends fit into it. But there are also birders who get out to a location, binoculars, field guide and notebook in hand, and just look for the birds that are there. Paulson strikes me as one of the latter.

The book is On the Brink: Inside the Race to Stop the Collapse of the Global Financial System.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Are You Rich?

Are you rich? Am I rich?

One of the features of President Obama's fiscal policy has been that he would not impose new taxes on middle-class Americans. Of course, in America, we're all middle-class, so there has to be a cut-off point for such a determination. President Obama has set that point at $250,000 per year of income. A lot of people who make that much (or even more) contend that they aren't rich: They, too, are middle-class.

Daniel Gross provides a nice analysis here, showing that people making $250,000 annually are indeed rich. It's a nicely written piece, and Gross doesn't bother us with statistical analysis, but he does point out that $250,000 is about five times the national median income.

I, for one, think it would be good to allow the Bush tax cuts to expire in their entirety, and for the estate tax to come back in full force, but I'll settle for having those cuts taken away from the rich.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Conspiracy or Incompetence

In response to some of the material I circulated on Perry v Schwarzenegger, one of my friends stated that he was wondering if the bringing of this case were not a ruse designed to elicit a negative result from the Supreme Court, which potentially devastating consequences for gay rights. My reaction to that kind of thinking is that conspiracies of that sort are far less likely than a well-intentioned, if ill-fated, miscalculation. Margaret Talbot wrote an essay for the January 18 issue of The New Yorker in which she took up that theme.

A lot of people wonder if it is not premature to bring a gay marriage case to the Supreme Court. The Court is more conservative than it has been in many years. It is also loaded with Roman Catholics, who are reputedly more conservative on social issues than Protestants or Jews. For those who haven't been keeping track, Chief Justice Roberts and Associate Justices Alito, Kennedy, Scalia, Sotomayor, and Thomas are all Roman Catholics. The possibility that the Court would rule against the plaintiffs in Perry v Schwarzenegger, with lasting effect, is both real and worrisome.

On the other hand, it could be fifty years before we have a Supreme Court more liberal than the one we have now. Maybe now is the best time for a roll of the dice.

There is also a point to be made about gay rights, as opposed to an individual's right to marry. I'm certainly no advocate of collective rights, group rights, communal rights. Communities have no rights because they have no real existence. Only individuals can have rights. So no one should have a claim to some right because he is gay; and by the same token, no one should be deprived of any right to which he has a claim solely because he is gay.

I think this is the tack that Boies and Olson are taking in Perry v Schwarzenegger, the line that everyone has a right to marry. That the right to marry is not conditioned upon an intention to reproduce. That the right to marry is not conditioned upon adherence to some particular code of conduct. That the right to marry is not conditioned upon the approval of some religious group. Rather, the government should recognize the formation of unions between individuals, because individuals have the right to form such associations as they wish for any lawful purpose.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Current Reading at Knight's Castle

I've made some more changes to my Current Reading list on this blog, and I hope that some of you find the additions of sufficient interest to read and comment upon them.

I removed the books that I finished in the first half of December, making room for new stuff. So far in January I've only finished one book: The Malice of Unnatural Death by Michael Jecks. If you like medieval mysteries, Jecks is in your line. He is, however, not as good as either Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter), the late doyenne of that sub-genre, or Bernard Knight, to whose Crowner John mysteries Jecks's work bears a considerable resemblance.

I started reading two new novels on Friday. Henning Mankell's Faceless Killers was a Christmas gift to my wife a couple of years ago, and I'm finally getting around to it. So far, this Swedish murder tale is looking pretty good. A friend gave me Sean Williams's Cenotaxis for Christmas 2009. Williams says that "cenotaxis" means "empty order," but my Roadside Geology books seem to indicate that "ceno-" means "recent," as in the Cenozoic era. I haven't gotten far enough into Cenotaxis to arrive at any judgments, but Williams is supposed to be cutting-edge.

Let me know what you're reading, too. I would welcome comments, recommendations, and reviews.

Don't Bank On Bankers!

Am I trying to start a financial panic by undermining confidence in the geniuses who run our big financial institutions? Well, no, they already did that. In the Paul Krugman article I posted earlier today, Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, was quoted as telling the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission that a crash "happens every five to seven years. We shouldn't be surprised." Isn't that nice? Reminds me of the guys who say that anthropogenic global warming isn't possible because God created the world with the temperature He wanted, and we're not capable of undoing His work.

So, the follow-up to Krugman's piece in The New York Times is this David Gross essay from Gross's key statement is this:

"Rule No. 1: The banks have no idea what kind of regulation is good for them.
"Rule No. 2: If you ever think the banks have a point, remember Rule No. 1."

There's an old saying. "If you believe the doctors, no one is healthy. If you believe the police, no one is honest. If you believe the soldiers, no one is safe." (There's a nice double-edged quality to that line.) So, if you believe the bankers, no one is solvent.

Bankers and Economists - Who Is More Dismal?

David Gross says mean things about economists, but he also points out that the bankers and financiers have their faults. Their many, many faults. Now, Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman weighs in with the opinion that, after their testimony the other day to the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, we should ignore anything the bankers say about their industry. They are clueless.

Are they really clueless, or are they trying to conceal their foreknowledge? I think it's probably some of both; they suppressed their uneasiness about some of their own actions by always hitting the positive note. That left them in a position where the crash had to come as a surprise. Which is the harder question:

1) Why didn't you know a crisis was coming?


2) If you knew a crisis was coming, why didn't you do something about it?

We Need to See Beyond Al-Qaeda

David Ignatius is always good on the Middle East; he's obviously a man who spends time thinking about the issues there. He is quite right to say that military and intelligence operations against Al-Qaeda are not enough. No matter how many insurgents we shoot and training camps we blow up, there are always more. The Middle East seems to generate more violent malcontents as it there were a factory somewhere producing them.

But I don't think Ignatius quite gets how unimportant the Arab-Israeli issue is in most of the Middle East. It's important, all right, but most Yemenis have concerns closer to home than Gaza or Hebron. Yemen has a lousy government which has never really integrated North Yemen and South Yemen into a coherent administration. Yemen is poor, very poor, in a region of oil-rich countries. Yemen's educational system may be worse than others in the Arab countries. So there is a continual flow of the undereducated, the overeducated but unemployed, the poorly educated and rootless, and those educated in all the wrong things by madrassahs and imams.

So, in addition to George Mitchell and Hillary Clinton spending some time working the Middle East, and beyond the arm-twisting President Obama needs to administer to Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, we need to be undertaking a broader effort to improve education, governance, civil society, and economic conditions in the countries of the Arab Middle East.

For a really good starting place for a discussion of these issues, try Kenneth Pollack's A Path Out of the Desert: A Grand Strategy for America in the Middle East. I read it last year, and now I have my own copy ($18.00 in trade paperback from Random House). In particular, read Part Two: The Problems of the Modern Middle East.) It consist of two powerful chapters on what is wrong in the Middle East. These are the problems that underly the issues we in the U.S. have been trying to deal with. In Pollack's view, we need to dig deeper, stay longer, and take a broader view. Sounds like work, doesn't it?