Glenn A Knight

Glenn A Knight
In my study

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?

Another Subsidy

I, personally, think we ought to abolish all subsidies. Farm subsidies, business subsidies, housing subsidies, even student loan subsidies. The basic effect of a subsidy is to encourage people to stay in a business that cannot support that number of participants. Subsidies distort the market by steering resources to business that ought to be allowed to die. Here's an article on a subsidy that most of us had probably forgotten about. I don't think that anything about this particular case would lead one to doubt the general principle that subsidies are bad.

An Excess of Bile

Why, one might ask, is Victor Davis Hanson driven to sarcasm, the lowest form of humor, in this attack on President Obama and his policies? One of the things that I like about Hanson, and there aren't many, is that he usually expresses himself clearly. But this article is almost incoherent with Hanson's rage at all things left of Fresno. Why?

A great deal of the right's rage at Mr. Obama, the Democratic Congress, and everything on the left side of the aisle is driven by their fear that they may be shown to have been wrong. Hanson accuses President Obama and the Democrats of arrorgance and of hubris. Yet this is exactly what Hanson himself has been demonstrating for year. The right was so sure that their mantra of low taxes, small government, deregulation, and business domination of the economy would lead to a paradise on earth. Instead, the level-headed businessmen, always brought up in invidious comparisons to government employees and bureaucrats, screwed the pooch. The small businessmen, to whom Hanson attributes the means of economic recovery, let their greed get the better of their sense and sold mortgages to people who couldn't make the payments.

The entire worldview of the right, which is, in its way, a Jeffersonian view, has been shaken. But they can't give it up, and they do so want the next national catastrophe to be the fault of the left, so that people will forgive the right for the Great Depression. So they are actually hoping that the Obama administration will fail. They are hoping for more economic disaster, more foreclosures, more unemployment, more businesses going under. The fact that many of their fellow Americans would suffer greatly is a small price to pay for proving themselves right.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A House Is Not a Home

Daniel Gross entitles this article "Homeless." Actually, it's not about homelessness, or even the effects of the housing market crash on homelessness; it's about the economy recovering without the housing market making a big comeback. On the one hand, Gross cites figures to indicate that more houses were sold in November 2009 than in November 2008, so that's a good sign for the market. On the other hand, prices are still dropping, which is good for buyers but not so good for sellers or would-be sellers. From a couple of sources, Gross finds that prices of existing houses were down a little over 7 per cent in October 2009, compared to October 2008.

Key quote: "Mortgage rates are likely to head higher as the Federal Reserve seeks to pull some of its support from the economy. So those hoping that soaring Toll Bros. stock will replenish their 401(k)s are going to be waiting a long time. ... The thing that gets you into a bubble never gets you out."

For many years, we've been putting too much of our investment capital into building houses and apartment buildings. This is, to put it bluntly, as unproductive as military spending. While factories can be used to make furniture, cars, textiles, and so on, and power plants make electricity, houses don't make anything. They just sit there tying up capital and depreciating.

Now that the crash has helped cut the overspending on housing, maybe the government should make a move to encourage that trend. Abolishing the housing interest deduction would be a good start, and restoring the capital gains tax for personal dwellings would also be a big help. Why should we be subsidizing people for putting their money into nonproductive uses?

The Olson-Boies Gay Marriage Stunt

By using the word "stunt" in my title, I do not mean to imply that this is not a serious matter. Federal Courts are for serious matters, and gay marriage is no trivial affair. But this trial is a stunt in the sense that it has been designed by plaintiffs' counsel to gain the maximum in attention, both inside and outside the court system. In that regard, Perry v Schwarzenegger resembles the Scopes trial. The Economist article I earlier posted to facebook gives the essentials of the case.

For those who haven't heard, the nominal plaintiffs in Perry v Schwarzenegger are two gay couples who are arguing that they have been deprived of their right to marry, in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The real plaintiffs are the attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson. Olson is a former Solicitor General of the United States, appointed by George W. Bush, and has been on every conservative short list for the Supreme Court for years. To add to his impeccable conservative credentials, Mr. Olson has even suffered from foreign terrorism; his wife, Barbara, was aboard the airplane that was crashed into the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. David Boies is a well-known liberal attorney; he and Mr. Olson were on opposing sides in Bush v Gore, the 2000 election case from which Mr. Bush emerged as President of the United States.

So, a conservative and a liberal have joined forces, and they have identified the perfect plaintiffs - handsome well-spoken people who can talk sincerely about family values. (Ms. Perry and her partner are raising four children.) They have a good venue, San Francisco, they know legal strategy and tactics inside and out, and they are funded to take this all the way to the Supreme Court. (The Supreme Court has already intervened in this case, barring its broadcast on You Tube at the request of the defense, which feared it would appear idiotic.)

My personal take on gay marriage is that it is unnecessary, but it isn't a major issue in any case. Virtually all of the rights any two (or more) people gain from being married to one another can be established by a well-written contract. Ownership, inheritance, child custody, and disposition of property upon death or divorce can all be put into a civil contract. The only thing is that marriage is a civil contract which takes care of these issues in accordance with pre-existing state law. In other words, marriage is a short-cut for achieving the determination of rights which could be established by one or a series of individual contracts. And to the degree that marriage is a contract determining property rights, I don't have any problem with same-sex couples partaking of the institution.

Of course, marriage is also a sacrament. The religious 70% among us believe that God ordained marriage, and many of them believe that God said that marriage should involve one man and one woman. (I would advise them to read the book of Genesis for the record of Jacob's family history: two wives, two concubines (described as his wives' servants), resulting in twelve sons and one daughter with four mothers. Gen. 35:22-26.) Okay, but these are parallel institutions, neither of which is necessary for the other. That is, one can be married and have all the privileges of marriage without the blessing of a church, and a church can perform its marriage ceremony without the formality of a marriage license (as long as the bride and groom can tolerate a certain amount of legal uncertainty).

The government should not be in the business of telling people whom they can or can not marry. I think that a marriage license and ceremony should be available to any couple who are of legal age, of sound mind, and not already married. On the other hand, I do think that churches have a perfect right to set their own rules for the use of their buildings and personnel, and if they don't want to perform marriages for same-sex couples, they are within their rights.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

More Expensive is the New Cheap

Do you have cable TV? Of course you do! Everyone does!

Daniel Gross thinks that your rates are going to be going up this year. Read it and weep.

Early in the Morning

The sky to the southeast is just turning gray, and morning is on its way. I've been up for a while. Since we returned to Colorado Springs on Monday, I haven't had a lot of time for my personal e-mail and such. This morning I've been catching up, deleting lots of issues of online pubs from the Washington Post and Pajamas Media, answering the occasional e-mail from a real person, putting a few things on Facebook, and working the blog.

I have removed from the Current Reading list all of the books I finished in November 2009. The list isn't growing yet, as I'm still trying to finish Michael Cox's Victorian thriller The Meaning of Night. Years ago, a friend and I played a war game which nearly captured the mind-numbing boredom of siege warfare. Cox is trying for the feel of a Victorian novel, but he doesn't seem to know that most Victorian novels were really bad. Aside from Dickens and Wilkie Collins, and, of course, Kipling, the writing of the period is affected, verbose, and imprecise. The Meaning of Night has its points, and I intend to finish reading it, but I can't honestly recommend it to anyone.

I received quite a number of books for Christmas, so the reading list will inevitably begin to recover.

Like A Thief in the Night ...

Daniel Gross writes these nice columns for Newsweek and Slate, and he is often a pretty good corrective to what passes for economic analyis on the nightly news. Here, he follows one of the rules of economic reporting: Be contrarian!

This column does, for all its virtues, remind me of the weatherman's 30% chance. That's the CYA position taken when the weather pattern isn't clear. 30% is a low enough number that the weatherman can claim he didn't commit to snow, when no snow eventuates, but high enough that he can claim that he did, in fact, anticipate the snow, if it does fall.

Similarly, the statement that the economy may unexpectedly improve, is pretty much an act of hedging one's bets.