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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

About that CBO stimulus study
Posted by: Bryan Pick
As discussed in my post yesterday, there was a bit of a dust-up over a preliminary CBO report on the stimulus, with some questions in particular about how quickly the money would be spent. Bloggers on the Left insisted that the money would be spent quickly, and that the bill had changed a lot since the preliminary report.

Well, now we have the new CBO report breakdown via the CBO Director's blog, so let's take a look:
Assuming enactment in mid-February, CBO estimates that the bill would increase outlays by $92 billion during the remaining several months of fiscal year 2009, by $225 billion in fiscal year 2010 (which begins on October 1), by $159 billion in 2011, and by a total of $604 billion over the 2009-2019 period.
So, it will spend only 15% of its allocated funds over the next eight months, and another 37% over the next 12 months after that. So, only 52% of the spending comes in the next 20 months.

After that, $287 billion more in spending locked in for the next nine years.

Including tax cuts and the rest, a little less than two-thirds (64%) of the total package is spent out in the next 20 months, while Obama aimed to have "at least 75%" of the package spent in the first 18 months. Not as slow as the preliminary report had it, but not fast enough for Obama's own metrics, and not nearly as fast as the Left insisted either.

As Arnold Kling puts it,
Larry Summers famously argued for a timely, targeted, and temporary stimulus. This looks like something that is not timely, with only about 20 percent of it getting into the system in the next 8 months. It does not seem temporary, given that over one-third of it ($291 billion) will kick in at least 21 months from now.
Who wants to take bets on how well it's targeted?

Permalink | Comments ( 7 ) | TrackBacks ( 847 ) | Category: Economics

Monday, January 26, 2009

Krugman’s Bad Faith
Posted by: Bryan Pick
I promised earlier today to do a post on Paul Krugman's latest article defending the stimulus, but I see Jon already covered most of it at The Next Right.

I would add a few more points:
The true cost per job of the Obama plan will probably be closer to $100,000 than $275,000 - and the net cost will be as little as $60,000 once you take into account the fact that a stronger economy means higher tax receipts.
First, this may be a merely semantic point, but there's a lot of daylight between $100,000 and $275,000 for the figure to be "closer to". How much closer to $100k?

And the second figure sounds highly optimistic. Are businesses and employees really going to pay $40,000 in higher taxes back for the "closer to $100,000" paid for each job? The federal government collects roughly 18% of GDP in taxes. $40,000/.18=$222,222. So if Krugman is implying a $100,000 true cost per job, he would have to assume a 2.22 multiplier for government spending, which (again) sounds pretty optimistic... or he's assuming a much higher tax rate. (Is there some problem with my arithmetic there?)

Among the other assumptions that would have to hold for his figure to be correct, his figure will only apply to those who would have been unemployed if not for the the government job. I assume that assumption contributes a great deal to Krugman's use of the words, "as little as".

Next point... Jon already responded to this point, but I have something else to add:
Next, write off anyone who asserts that it's always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here's how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets - and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.
But, other than anarcho-capitalists, who says there is no worthwhile government spending? The stimulus debate is not even remotely about whether we should fund the air traffic control system, or anything else as vitally important - there is already a budget process in place for those projects - but about whether we should fund/speed up funding for thousands of wish-list projects and programs around the country. It should give you an idea of how thoughtful Krugman's objections are that he has to rely on a false dilemma (if some government spending is valuable, then complaints about completely different government spending must be spurious) to support his argument.
To Jon's comments, I would add:
Let's take Krugman's argument to its logical conclusion: why not have the government spend all our money? After all, if leaving the next $355 billion in the taxpayer's hands is tantamount to shutting down the most vital extant functions of government, surely it's true of the next $355 billion after that, and the next $355 billion, ad nauseam.

And does Krugman really think that airports and airlines would not run an air traffic control system if the government stopped paying for it, and just shrug when mid-air collisions happened? You don't have to be an anarcho-capitalist to call that into question—you just have to trust that airline companies and airports wouldn't want planes colliding and falling out of the sky. It's kinda bad for business.

But Jon's point is the primary objection here. To my ear, it sounds like this:
KRUGMAN: "I want to buy a long ton of butter."
RIGHT: "That sounds like an irresponsible expenditure."
KRUGMAN: "I suppose you want me to starve to death!"
Meanwhile, it's clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts - and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) - because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.
As I argued in my previous post, what if people do put a lot of the money into the bank? Isn't the administration trying to recapitalize the banks? Isn't the government trying to get them lending again?

I'll leave the question of what really gets the most "bang for the buck" to others.

Lastly, here's something we've seen a lot lately:
The most encouraging thing I've heard lately is Mr. Obama's reported response to Republican objections to a spending-oriented economic plan: "I won." Indeed he did - and he should disregard the huffing and puffing of those who lost.
Boy, the Left's attitude on listening to the minority sure has changed since November, hasn't it?

I'm sure Krugman (and, say, Pelosi) won't mind if Republicans take his advice next time they're in power.

Permalink | Comments ( 14 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Politics

Is this a stimulus plan?
Posted by: Bryan Pick
A New York Times piece about the Republican opposition to the stimulus bill notes that Larry Summers has been dispatched to defend the plan, saying,
President Obama has pledged that three-quarters of the fund will be spent out in the first 18 months
Here's a question: why are we passing a bill now that locks in a budget beyond the next 12 months? We could apparently cut hundreds of billions of dollars of spending from the plan simply by holding off on what won't be spent in the next 18 months.

Wouldn't it be more prudent to see how we're doing in the next 12 months, and if necessary, pass another stimulus package based on how effective our existing efforts have been? Or do we really need a three-year plan right now to get everything "shovel-ready" by then?

It gets better. The Wall Street Journal highlights a CBO estimate that's much less optimistic than Obama about the speed at which this stimulating money will be spent, which begs the question of whether there isn't an apparent problem with rushing to pass "stimulus" spending that doesn't really take effect any time soon:
According to Congressional Budget Office estimates, a mere $26 billion of the House stimulus bill's $355 billion in new spending would actually be spent in the current fiscal year, and just $110 billion would be spent by the end of 2010. This is highly embarrassing given that Congress's justification for passing this bill so urgently is to help the economy right now, if not sooner.
(Read the whole thing.)

Of course, the Democrats immediately got in a dander about the CBO estimate, and had it pulled down. Because after doing some quick arithmetic, that's much worse than Obama made it out to be—only 31 percent of spending arriving in the first 20 months. Why are we loading $245 billion of spending into 2011 (and beyond) at the beginning of 2009?

I mean, as long as we're larding up the deficit, shouldn't we just slash at taxes that will be paid in the short term, such as by cutting payroll taxes, which immediately incentivizes job creation/preservation and immediately results in more money being injected into the economy? So what if a big chunk of tax cuts goes into savings, as Paul Krugman and other Lefties complain? That means more good money continuously injected into the banks, who—as we're constantly reminded—desperately need it.

Later today, I'll have a response to Paul Krugman's latest article defending the stimulus package, which is just, uh, delightful.

Update: TAPPED says of the CBO report:
I've obtained the document that reporters were looking at and learned that it is a preliminary calculation of the spending schedule for one portion of the stimulus bill; it was performed for committee staffers before January 15. Since that time, the entire bill has changed a good deal and an actual CBO report outlining all of its costs will be forthcoming in the next week or so. The other thing to realize is that CBO cost estimates are based on historical projection of how departments spend money. Officials are confident that the executive branch can increase its rate of spending on shovel-ready projects given the urgency of the situation, so those historical projections apply less during an economic crisis like the one we currently face.
I'll await the new CBO report. To the extent that the money is spent more than 18-23 months out, though, all of my above commentary still applies, and what I've said about cutting taxes applies regardless.

Permalink | Comments ( 6 ) | TrackBacks ( 256 ) | Category: Economics

Sunday, January 25, 2009

This sounds familiar
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Over at Samizdata, Thaddeus Tremayne:
Since the late 1990's everybody outside of us hardy but microscopic band of ideologues (and I do mean 'everybody' including his brother, mother, plumber and household pets) has been tub-thumpingly convinced that we have endured "the most right-wing government in history". Oh my Lord, how right-wing it was! Uber-right-wing, ultra-rightist, extreme-uber-ultra-babyeatingly-sealcubbashingly-right-wing. Lord deliver us! Good people everywhere rolled their eyes heavenward and wondered just what was to become of us all in the new, ultra-neo-liberal, so-called-free-market, wild-west-uber-rampant-capitalist free-for-all.

Not us, of course. We could see the ugly truth that we were actually being sovietised. We told them all too. In fact, we shouted it from the blogtops. But was anybody listening? Were they hell. No, they were far too engaged in the generally agreed business of guffing on interminably about the rampant-wild-west-unregulated-greedy-so-called-laissez-faire-out-of-control-cowboy-shoot-'em-up-neo-liberal-free-for-all-unrestrained capitalist nightmare that was destined to reduce our once great nation to a dissipated radiation burst of lonely, atomised wage slaves chanting 'greed is good' as we are flung out to the frozen corners of an uncaring, Thatcherite universe.
He's talking about Britain, of course, but you could change one, maybe two words in those paragraphs, and you would have American libertarians' exasperation all wrapped up.

Years before this financial crisis got the whole Left crying that the fault lay in our dangerous levels of deregulation and free-market ideology, we had John Kerry saying dourly, "The Bush Administration agenda isn't conservative Republicanism, and it's not radical Republicanism-it's extreme libertarianism."

Extreme libertarianism.

I have trouble sometimes separating the truly confused from the cynically dishonest, but either way, it's frustrating to see people so massively misinformed about libertarianism and the Republican Party's record over the last eight years.

Did the government become less intrusive under Dubyah? More respectful of individual rights? Did spending drop when I wasn't looking, even counting out the War on Terror? How about the number of government projects, subsidies, bureaucrats?

Tax cuts without attendant spending cuts aren't terribly libertarian, since we just borrow and print money to pay for them. Deficit spending inherently means future taxation, and Bush had big, big deficits. Tax cuts are better than government spending the money itself, but that's a consolation prize.

Did we see some vast transition to private and locally-controlled schools under Bush?

And while the Bush administration took a few steps forward on free trade, it also took a couple steps back—see the steel tariffs in his first term. Free trade made far more progress under Clinton and JFK than under Bush.

I confess I don't know enough to make a final judgment on his environmental policy, but other than that, what was so radically libertarian/free-market about the Bush years?
  • Sarbanes-Oxley and the accounting/finance rules changes that made it harder to start or run a business in America?
  • Medicare Part D?
  • No Child Left Behind?
  • The continuation of the Drug War?
  • The mass transfer of power down to more local levels of government?
  • The end of agricultural subsidies?
  • The opening of the borders to allow the free flow of labor?
  • The Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005, or any of a host of actions by the FCC?
  • Kelo v. New London (though we can't pin the blame for that on Bush)? Raich?
And why is it that when libertarians and fiscal conservatives ask these questions, after having criticized these actions by the Bush administration and Congressional Republicans for years, we hear the Left mocking, "Oh, so conservativism can't fail, it can only be failed? How convenient."?

That would sting a little more if conservatism had been tried. As it stands, though, it just reflects poorly on those who do the mocking.

Government centralization, spending, regulations and powers grew under Bush, full stop. He may have signaled an intention to partially privatize pensions, health care and education, but his accomplishments on this front were very modest—we have health savings accounts now. He tried increasing regulation on Fannie and Freddie, but he was blocked by Democrats. And in the end, he (and many Republicans in Congress) cooperated in nationalizing massive amounts of capital right out from under the financial sector, and bailing out big industry (and, effectively, the unions who have helped choke the life out of said industry).

It's not even remotely difficult to make the case that George W. Bush was not a fiscal conservative nor a libertarian, if you have an elementary understanding of those terms. He talked like a Christian Democrat and governed with a heavier hand. And the libertarian/small-government part of the Republican coalition that tolerated him did so only because they feared even worse from the Left.

If anyone has a compelling argument that outweighs the points I've made above, I'd love to hear it.

Permalink | Comments ( 47 ) | TrackBacks ( 0 ) | Category: Economics

Monday, January 05, 2009

The Role of the RNC Chair
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Here's the extended comment I left at The Next Right in response to Mindy Finn's question of the appropriate role(s) of the RNC Chair:


Private fundraising, both directly from candidates and from third-party (not "Libertarian" third party, but "MoveOn" third-party) groups, should start to take precedence over centralized party funds for individual races.  If a critical race needs to be tipped one way or the other, the Right needs to have a separate infrastructure in place to get funds to that candidate.  The party should highlight these races, but not spend funds fighting fires close to election day.

The Republican Party, under the leadership of the chairman, should start to identify itself primarily as the facilitator of infrastructure, making sure that the Right has all the institutions it needs to:
  • build local membership,
  • recruit candidates as broadly as possible, so we can challenge the Dems everywhere,
  • pressure Democrats steadily on both policy and personnel,
  • identify winnable races,
  • pick up on new shifts in the political winds (memes that can catch on, new winning issues that can attract at least part-time allies into the coalition, and even demographic changes), and
  • develop new policy ideas (we already have formidable institutions in place for this).
The focus here should be on building from the bottom up, and can most efficiently be done by providing the tools rather than sending in late reinforcements for each campaign (money, manpower, etc.).

So in each and every locale, the local infrastructure's job during elections should be to:
  • alert non-local Republicans to unexpected vulnerabilities that can be exploited with wider attention and more resources,
  • score points against Democrat personnel whenever the opportunity arises (start building the rap sheets now in those blue states, because these victories are cumulative and mutually reinforcing),
  • win if possible, but
  • always be shifting the Overton window toward the Right's ideas and policies, staying somewhat to the Right of even the candidates themselves.  (Candidates, in turn, need to learn to tolerate this pressure, and take advantage of the blazed path when the opposition weakens on an issue.)
The top-down part of the chairman's job is secondary but necessary: rather than try to set a policy agenda himself, he should be trying to manage relationships, as you say, so that the factions can tolerate each other long enough for the movement's intellectuals to shape an agenda around the disparate parts of the coalition.  (It starts with unifying grievances, then familiarity develops between them, so that they know each others' tolerances, leading to stronger coordination.)  The party platform should reflect those developments rather than try to drive them.

Frank Meyer's fusionism gave a unifying rationale for a coalition that could last as long as the Cold War did, and created a framework that defined which internal conflicts could be avoided — i.e., promoting policies that furthered the ends of all factions, and suppressing policy fights in the areas of disagreement.

This avoids the tendency for one dominant faction in the party to grab hold of its favorite value and push it to the detriment (and disgust) of the other factions in the party that it needs to win.

From there, the party/chairman can gently steer candidates who take a few too many liberties with the Republican platform (more liberties than they need to take to win) by alerting the existing infrastructure in those locales to tug harder back in the direction of the party's overarching agenda.

Any fundraising the chairman/party does, whether the party's in power or not, should be directed toward those ends (infrastructure for bottom-up, shaping the coalition from the top-down).  If candidates want an infusion of funds, they need to do something that excites the movement — get within striking range, bring some fresh ideas to the table, etc.

Permalink | Comments ( 3 ) | TrackBacks ( 0 ) | Category: Politics

RNC Chair Debate - Best in Show
Posted by: Bryan Pick
just went to the RNC Chair Debate with Jon, and here are my impressions.

I wasn't terribly familiar with all of these guys ahead of time, although I sat with Saul Anuzis at an American Spectator breakfast recently. So with only a short briefing about each man's apparent flaws and viability as a candidate, I came with a pretty open mind.

As I see it, there are three bare necessities for reforming an organization: the perception to diagnose the problem, the brains to optimize solutions, and the courage to pursue the necessary means of those solutions.

So first, I wanted the candidates to show that they understood how the Republican Party got into this mess.

Second, I wanted to hear how they planned to rejuvenate the party. I believe the RNC's role is mostly seeding new membership from the bottom up, and secondarily enforcing some discipline to keep everyone moving in the right direction — tipping the balance of critical races should be an outgrowth of their primary role.

And third, I wanted to see evidence that they had a good understanding of the role of new media and new technology.

I gave bonus points to those who could approach these issues in a no-nonsense way that showed they were ready to break with the recent past of the GOP and that showed they were grounded enough in their opinions to discuss them openly and earnestly, no reservations.

Truth be told, I agree with Jon that there was more noise than signal, but from what I heard, I think Blackwell had the best showing, followed closely by Steele. Saltsman made it to third thanks to his comments about open technology, and if I absolutely had to order the rest, it would be a tie between Anuzis and Dawson, with Duncan coming last. I might have been docking points unconsciously for Duncan's failure to turn the party around for '06 and '08.

What did Blackwell and Steele do to earn such high marks? They were openly critical of the party as it has been recently run, and they articulated the reasons for their dissatisfaction with verve.

They also both explicitly recognized the necessity of going down to the local and state levels, all over the country, and pushing out the power and responsibility.

Saltsman seemed to understand these things about as well, but he was not as convincing all around. He made some good points about the proper pursuit of new technology.

Dawson was fairly earnest and a good sport, but he was also timid about calling out the GOP, and didn't do much to inspire me that he was going to aggressively bring much-needed change to the party. Anuzis was... I don't know. He didn't stand out. He was slightly handicapped by a faulty microphone — that problem should have been fixed immediately (always, always have a backup microphone at the ready).

Duncan did not inspire confidence that he would turn the RNC around after the last two cycles. I understand he was in a difficult position, but that made this the perfect time to take his lumps, explain where things really went wrong, admit where some things could be improved, and generally show a superior understanding of the inner workings of the RNC. He did not take that opportunity, so he never gave himself the chance to bounce back and show that he could bring some initiative to reforming the party.

I didn't get the sense that any of these men are perfect for the job. Even for Blackwell and Steele, doubts remain about their ability to execute and their deeper understanding of how to integrate new technology/media into the party strategy. And I don't think the party is such a massive ship to turn around that nobody can do it. This is an extremely important position for the next two to four years (hence the packed ballroom, with quite a few in the audience having to stand in the back), so may the most competent man win.


By the way, among such trivial matters as how many guns each candidate owned and who their favorite Republican president was, one question of negligible consequence was how many Twitter followers they had.

Well, I'm on Twitter, and as I linked above, so is Jon. Follow us!

Permalink | Comments ( 0 ) | TrackBacks ( 0 ) | Category: Elections

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Always Root for the Underdog?
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Ezra Klein on intentionality versus results:
Chait makes a common claim, which is that all analysis of the Israel/Palestinian conflict has to begin from a place of intentionality. "Hamas has a problem with Israel because Hamas believes Israel has no right to exist," he writes. "Israel has a problem with Hamas because Hamas believes Israel has no right to exist. If Hamas lay down all its weapons, Israel would lift its blockade. If Israel lay down all its weapons, Hamas would kill as many Israelis as it could."

There's truth to this. But it can also obscure more than it can reveal. One important disconnect in Israel/Palestine debate is that Israel's supporters tend to focus on what the Palestinians want while Palestine's supporters tend to focus on what the Israelis do. Israel's defenders, for instance, make a lot of Hamas's willingness to kill large numbers of civilians. Palestine's defenders make a lot of the fact that Israel actually kills large numbers of Palestinian civilians.
That's not a terribly good case for Hamas, though. "Support Hamas: More Malicious, but Less Efficient"?

By that logic, if we supported Palestinians and they became more effective, they would become less worthy of support.


Edit: I just remembered that McQ made a similar point several days ago, responding to another post by Klein. Mine's more succinct, though. ;-)

Permalink | Comments ( 11 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Foreign Affairs

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Israel-Palestine: Tell me how this ends
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Megan McArdle dispenses some wisdom today about the seemingly never-ending Israel-Palestine conflict.

After all the perceived wrongs of actions and reactions going back before living memory, nobody's going to convince enough people on either side to just give it up, to end this conflict.

When the justice of acts isn't quickly settled to everyone's satisfaction (or grudging acceptance), and parties that feel wronged begin acts of revenge, that creates even more complex questions of desert, proportionality and proper targeting. Then any civilizing system of justice has to deal with the revenge act to everyone's satisfaction, or there's a risk of yet another revenge act. Before long, you've created a Gordian knot that can't possibly be unraveled to everyone's satisfaction.

I should hasten to add that I'm not declaring that both sides are morally equivalent, and I'm not declaring which side I think is in the right.

In my humble opinion, at this point, everyone should be thinking about what outcomes they ultimately expect from given actions and reactions. The muddied distant past doesn't offer you a guide to an optimum end. Start coldly thinking about the end-game, and encourage your opponent to do the same.


So here we are again, at another outbreak of violence — which sounds more like an event than an action, I know, but bear with me. I start thinking, what should each party do?

On the one hand, I don't see how this action by Israel is going to leave them better off than they were before they started. I'm not ready to completely buy this argument, but I might be convinced.

On the other hand, what are Israel's better options? Every state's legitimacy rests fundamentally on the security of the populace.
  • Should they allow the enemy's attacks to bring them to the bargaining table, again, without any rational expectation that the attacks will stop permanently after concessions have been made?
  • Or should they not respond at all to the constant attacks?
  • Should Israel respond only with weapons that are so accurate that Palestinian combatants can't hide behind civilians, and make sure that every kill comes with video evidence that the target was not a civilian?
Who would accept those conditions for his own country?

But McArdle finishes with one statement that immediately sent my thoughts in another direction:
The saddest, truest thing that I've ever heard about the conflict is a friend who said that it seems to him like a stable equilibrium.
Looking back, so far that's been pretty true. But McArdle also mentioned that "a plurality-to-majority of Palestinians constantly and actively wish to kill large numbers of Israelis purely for revenge," and with the power to cause mass casualties diffusing down to ever-smaller groups, how long is that stable equilibrium going to last?

I believe that the price and difficulty of acquiring weapons of mass destruction is dropping, and—particularly in the case of biological weapons—will be dropping much more sharply in the next couple of decades. The A.Q. Khan network managed to commoditize even nuclear weapons, and the ingredients for biological weapons are much easier to obtain. Bioweapons are also much easier to smuggle and anonymously deliver to their targets.

And if the commoditization of such weapons happens before Israel and Palestine establish a working peace, with no "rogue elements" on either side, that creates some troubling scenarios:
  • What will happen when someone first decides to use that kind of weapon against Israelis?
  • Will it really be that hard to find a Palestinian who will use that kind of weapon?
  • What if Israel can't conclusively prove who delivered the weapon in the first place?
Then what are Israel's options?

It's a stable equilibrium until, by a plausible series of events, it's not. Tell me how that story ends.


Continue reading "Israel-Palestine: Tell me how this ends"

Permalink | Comments ( 25 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Foreign Affairs

Does the 21st Century begin January 20?
Posted by: Bryan Pick
E. J. Dionne Jr. at the WaPo thinks so. Or at least, that's supposed to be the subject of his article. He doesn't describe in any detail why Barack Obama will truly change things in a distinctively non-20th century way, but he does spend a lot of time trying to deny that the 21st century started on Bush's watch.

If I can salvage an argument from the article, it's this: Dionne believes Pres. Bush responded to new economic and international change with ineffective 20th-century thinking, and the country rightly elected Sen. Obama because he'll apply 21st-century thinking to these problems.

Well, for what it's worth, I agree that Pres. Bush often applied (and in some ways continues to apply) 20th-century solutions to new challenges during his time in office.

But everything else about Dionne's argument is a mess.


Continue reading "Does the 21st Century begin January 20?"

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

I’m not the only one... (Update x2: Trading Payroll for Gas Taxes is Popular)
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Apparently, as I spent the last few days crafting my posts about an alternative set of policies for the GOP to propose to America, I was not alone in proposing a tax shift toward consumption/carbon.

The New York Times has an editorial up about raising the gas tax considerably with offsetting "tax credits to protect vulnerable segments of the population," and Charles Krauthammer at the Weekly Standard has a new article saying we should pass a substantial gasoline tax with a revenue-neutral cut in the payroll tax.

I like my version better.

Update: Arnold Kling has another variation on the idea:
Instead, I would like to see an immediate and permanent cut in the payroll tax. In the short term, let the deficit go up. In the long term, finance the payroll tax cut by phased-in increases in fuel taxes and in the age of government dependency (known as the retirement age).

The cut in the payroll tax would quickly attack the short-term job creation problem on both the demand and the supply side. It also would be more reliably helpful to the broad middle class.
Update 2: I hadn't seen these before, but Michael Kinsley in Time Magazine made the case for trading payroll taxes for gas taxes too, as did Greg Mankiw:
How about an immediate and permanent reduction in the payroll tax, financed by a gradual, permanent, and substantial increase in the gasoline tax? Make the two tax changes equal in present value, so while the package results in a short-run budget deficit, there is no long-term budget impact. Call it the create-jobs, save-the-environment, reduce-traffic-congestion, budget-neutral tax shift.

Okay, I have to work on the marketing.

Permalink | Comments ( 30 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Energy

An Alternative Vision, Part IV: The Pivot
Posted by: Bryan Pick
This is the fourth in a series: see the introduction, the basics, and the specific policy proposals.

Now, coming back to the political situation of the party: the GOP has begun to lose the young, minorities (those it hadn't already lost), and the educated. The GOP is not a strong force in most major cities, and it doesn't perform well among the poor.

Instead, its base is in rural America, which becomes a smaller section of the American population every year. The GOP has tied electoral success in many places to a backwards agricultural policy, even knowing that agriculture isn't about to explode into a major new sector of the economy.

To whom would the policies of Part III be attractive?


Continue reading "An Alternative Vision, Part IV: The Pivot"

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An Alternative Vision, Part III: Specific Recommendations
Posted by: Bryan Pick
This is the third in a series: see the introduction and the basics

So, through what specific means can we execute the broad policies in Part II?


Continue reading "An Alternative Vision, Part III: Specific Recommendations"

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An Alternative Vision, Part II: The Basics
Posted by: Bryan Pick
This is the second in a series: the introduction is here.

First, let us take partial stock of the party's political situation:


Continue reading "An Alternative Vision, Part II: The Basics"

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An Alternative Vision
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Having power, and knowing what to do with it: two different things, as the Democrats are already learning. The voters who swept Republicans out of power and elected Democrats are finally starting to ask exactly what kind of Change the president-elect has in mind. Turns out, a lot of them had no idea what Obama and other Democrats really stand for; they were tired of Republican mismanagement and corruption, and they hung their Hope on the shiniest alternative.

Jon pointed out some time ago that Obama is a "Kumbaya Progressive" (and Hillary a Fighting Pragmatist) at a time when Progressives are looking for a Fighting Progressive. No doubt that yearning has only sharpened with a second electoral smashing of the GOP. Progressives who long ago tired of "incrementalist bulls**t" understandably believe they have a mandate, and that it's time for bold Progressive governance.

Their tolerance for even purely symbolic outreach to the center or Right, such as the Warren invocation, is thin. The Progressives, who get so much mileage out of bald identity politics, are irritated that their preferred quotas of black and female (and whomever) cabinet members have not been filled.

After all, they have a crisis to exploit. The concept of having to make trade-offs and compromises between different factions of the Left, like unions and Greens, is just starting to dawn on them. They're no doubt going to be frustrated with all of the following facts as the Democrats take office in January:
  • that they lack anything like a "Democrat budget" (just as Bill Clinton did in 1993 after the first Bush left office) with room for extra spending,
  • that Democrat politicians can't raise taxes in the middle of a sharp recession,
  • that much-vaunted infrastructure projects don't make a good economic stimulus, and
  • that the only remaining option (besides cutting taxes and spending) for financing Big Government, which is printing a bunch of money, will only make things worse.
I don't envy the Left their control of the federal government right now. There are no good Progressive options left.


Continue reading "An Alternative Vision"

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Posted by: Bryan Pick
The Right's proper response to Tuesday's thumping.

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Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Moment’s Pride and Joy
Posted by: Bryan Pick
I seem to be in a distinct minority right now. Obama's supporters, of course, are elated. Some of his detractors, while determined to oppose Obama and his allies, are willing to hold their fire for the moment, or the rest of the night anyway, out of respect to the powerful symbol of how far America has come. Some part of me thinks that's graceful.

I saw Obama's supporters with tears in their eyes. I heard that some are actually dancing in the streets. I saw many of my friends and family jubilant about the outcome of the election, proud of and in love with their country. And what was my response?

I asked everyone who's celebrating tonight to record their hopeful expectations for an all-Democrat federal government, and later, to compare with the real-world consequences.

What a wet towel, right? To put it charitably.

I think perspective, looking more to the future than the past, has killed the moment. I've been thinking so hard on the probable consequences of the various outcomes of the election that the moment hasn't captured me. And what's more, I don't think I want to be caught up in it.

Our president-elect knows the power of moments, and he invites us all to experience these moments through him: that once he has our approval, the world itself will be transformed. Remember the speech in St. Paul, in which he repeatedly promised radical turning points in our collective destiny: "This was the moment..."

What am I doing now, then, in lieu of respectfully joining the celebration? The same thing I've been doing for some time now: thinking.
  • I'm thinking about the war in which we are engaged.
  • I'm thinking about the financial crisis, and quite frankly I'm thinking about the men who caused a sharp recession to sink into the Great Depression.
  • I'm thinking about Supreme Court justices who I believe will, for the rest of their lives, do violence to my fellow Americans' liberties.
  • I'm thinking about taxes, and what they'll do to members of my family.
  • I'm thinking about all the Democrats who have insisted that the greater their advantage in power over Republicans, the more they will reach across the aisle, so to speak.
  • I'm thinking about how to perform a holding action against a Democrat-dominated government.
  • I'm thinking about entitlements (including refundable tax credits) that will create their own constituencies of dependents, and become stubbornly entrenched.
  • I'm thinking about the other legislative "positive feedback loops" that the Democrats may pass now, rubber-stamping one after the other, to shift the political landscape itself in their favor.
  • I'm thinking of the movement we must build to overcome those feedback loops, and to minimize and perhaps reverse this damage.
And I want everyone to remember what they're thinking right now, while they're in this moment, with all their hope for whatever change they believe Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are going to deliver now that they have a solid grip on both houses of Congress and the White House.

And later on, I want them to look back on the moment that they allowed themselves to be caught up in, when things seemed filled with promise, and remember the aspirations that they had wrapped up in those politicians.

And when they find that reality didn't live up to the high-flying rhetoric, I want them to think about that, too. Before the next professional promise-maker gets their hopes up.

Permalink | Comments ( 24 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Elections

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Are you howling yet?
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Warren Meyer at Coyote Blog makes two short, superb points for all of us to keep in mind. So as not to quote his entire post, I'll quote the second one and direct you to his blog to read the other one:
Four years ago, privatization of Social Security was scuttled in large part because Congress thought it unfair to toss the average taxpayer into the volatile marketplace with his/her retirement savings. Now, the government is forcing us all to participate in the financial markets, but only allowing us to invest in the worst assets. Just great.
Remember that, folks. Dwell on it.

Permalink | Comments ( 1 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Economics

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tennessee’s problem with price gouging
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Yesterday, as I was in my third and final day driving across the country, I drove through most of Tennessee. It's an absolute delight of a drive, except for one thing: I had foolishly neglected to fill up in Jackson, so as I drove into the Nashville area, I was running fairly low.

To determine the best stopping point, I was using a website on which locals update gas prices. There were two low-priced stations just outside Nashville, so I got off the freeway and pulled in. The BP station's price board was empty, which I thought was strange, and as I pulled in, I saw they had little bags over every nozzle. A little sheet of paper on the pump explained that "due to supply disruptions" as a result of the recent Gulf hurricanes, they were out of gas.

Out of gas. Fresh out of a commodity.

Supply disruptions, my foot. Commodities don't "run out" as a result of supply disruptions, short of a blockade of all remaining stocks of it. If it's a matter of supply, distributors can get more if they are willing to pay somebody to get it for them, and simply mark up the end price to reflect the increased difficulty. It doesn't take long for a truck to run halfway across the country: it can be done in less than 24 hours. And for a commodity like gasoline, there are plenty of suppliers. So there has to be an additional factor: somebody has to hold down the price while everyone buys up the remaining stock.

Let me explain something: I didn't have a lot of money for this road trip when I hit the road, but I gave myself some reasonable padding. And at that moment, I was begging to be "gouged." Because if nobody in Nashville was rationing gasoline, I was going to be parked in my Civic instead of making it to my final destination. I might even have to pony up $60+ a night for a hotel room. I wondered how Nashville, the whole city, could keep running if all the gas had gone first-come-first-served. I figured, give the city a week and a half, and if things don't turn around, a lot of people will be in serious trouble. People will stop showing up to work; they'll stop shopping; they'll stop doing things they want to do, and some people will even stop doing things they need to do. Not just poor people, people.

Lucky me, after I'd passed almost all the way through town and run into several more empty stations, I happened upon a Shell station that still had gas. It also had a line going around the corner; I asked my family on the phone, "What decade is this?" The price was noticeably higher than was reported in recent days, and they were rationing by quantity—nobody could buy more than $25 of gas—but they were my saviors: I was just barely over the "E" symbol on my gas gauge when I pulled in. I asked the operator of the station what was going on, and he said all he knew was that he was lucky to get the little bit of gas that he did. I happily paid my $4.09/gallon and left.

Strangely enough, by the time I reached Baxter (roughly 70 miles east), a Love's station was selling gas at $3.49 a gallon—with a 100 gallon limit. And this shortage was caused by a supply disruption? What, did the hurricanes knock out all the trucks headed for Nashville, but not the ones headed for Baxter? Or, for that matter, all the gas stations in New Mexico and Texas and Oklahoma and Arkansas and Virginia where I bought gas quite readily, albeit at a higher price than recently listed?

No, I had a pretty good idea right away about who the culprits were and, as far as I know, none of them are named Gustav or Ike. It's the Tennessee state government, which is trying to sniff out nefarious "price gougers." I can't tell you whether they're aware of the effects of price ceilings, so I don't know whether the reasons that they nearly screwed me were out of good intentions or cynical ones. But anyone acquainted with economic thinking should have warned them of the consequences of this:
"We are concerned with the spike in gasoline prices in the state and Knoxville, in particular, where gasoline prices are reported to be among the highest in the nation," Attorney General Bob Cooper said in a statement. "There is a difference between profits and profiteering."

Under Tennessee law, unreasonably raising the price of essential goods, commodities or services in direct response to a natural disaster here or in another state is price gouging. Under state law, price gougers can be subject to a $1,000 civil penalty for each violation. Price gouging is also a criminal offense in Tennessee.
What is reasonable? I had almost all of my possessions packed in that car, and I could not afford to get stuck in Nashville while they waited for supply prices to drop, not even for a couple of days, or I was going to have to find some quick means to borrow money to make it the rest of the way. I happen to think that nearly getting stuck in Nashville because of the Tennessee legislature is unreasonable.

And what is the difference between profits and profiteering, exactly? Simply being greedier than your competitors doesn't make you richer; if you raise your price higher than the demand will support, you start losing as soon as the guy down the street decides to sell for less to siphon customers away from you. Does the difference between profits and "profiteering" have anything to do with the kind of supply and demand calculation that a high school senior can make? And does it have anything to do with all the gas stations in Nashville that are suddenly unable to serve the customers who urgently need gasoline?

Explain this in simple terms to anyone you can: emergencies themselves almost never cause all supplies of a commodity to dry up. When emergencies happen, supply may drop and demand may rise, but this alone will not cause availability to drop to zero. No: with a few very rare exceptions (again, like a highly successful blockade), shortages only happen when businesses fail to raise the price to reflect the new reality.

The most common reaction is, "But if they raise the prices too much, only the rich will be able to afford it." But capping the price doesn't just mean that the poor will have an easier time relative to the affluent. "First come, first served," the default rationing method when prices are capped, also means that some of those who desperately need the commodity—as often happens around the time of an emergency—will be unable to get it even if they're willing to sacrifice a lot. If you raise the price so that your supplies will only be exhausted by those who are most willing (and, yes, able) to make those sacrifices, the first things to go are the most trivial or wasteful uses of the commodity. It might feel like highway robbery to have to pay twice as much for a needed commodity (whatever end is implied by "need"), but it's the most direct method of allocating things to those who need it. If you want to help the poor and needy in that situation, feel free to donate to them, but don't go down the path of price controls.


With that in mind, here's your optional homework assignment: spot all the errors in this "reasoning".

Permalink | Comments ( 19 ) | TrackBacks ( 2 ) | Category: Economics

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Running thoughts on the "Bush Doctrine" question
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Considering how much reading I do, I surprise even myself to see how often I return to one author for wisdom: Philip Bobbitt. As soon as Charlie Gibson posed the "Bush Doctrine" question to Gov. Palin, my mind immediately turned to Bobbitt's most recent book, Terror and Consent, in which Bobbitt lends some much-needed clarity to the subject. I wish I could excerpt all seven pages that discuss the Bush Doctrine specifically, but I'm going to have to get by just quoting four paragraphs.

First, what are the constituent elements of the Bush Doctrine? Bobbitt separates them into prescriptive and proscriptive elements:
Proscriptively, it claims that certain states, owing to their unlawful character, do not have the sovereign right to arm themselves (or their terrorist surrogates) with weapons of mass destruction or to support terrorists; that the U.S. has the lawful right to act preemptively to prevent such threatening proliferation and to destroy terrorists wherever they may be found; and that if international organizations do not act to prevent such threats from coming into being, the U.S. will do so unilaterally.
Prescriptively, the Bush Doctrine asserts the need to reform the political societies of the world by introducing democracy and the recognition of human rights where these are currently suppressed, especially in the Middle East. (p. 433)

And does this make for a presidential doctrine?
Doctrines like the Monroe Doctrine are supposed to establish neutral, general principles. By "doctrine" I mean a statement of official government policy in foreign affairs and military strategy. "Neutral" describes a proposition that will guide behavior in the future, regardless of who is president or what party is in power. "General" denotes a rule that applies to more than one situation and is conceived to govern a whole class of cases.
Because the Bush Doctrine—to be fair, it should be noted that President Bush has never called it such—fails to provide neutral, general principles for action, it is not a doctrine at all. (pp. 438-439)
Instead, what is often called the Bush Doctrine is a mix of often incompatible goals and tactics: pursuing one part of the so-called Bush Doctrine will often undermine another part, and the Doctrine offers no basis on which to decide whether to pursue one goal or the other. If I may use a pointed example, do we promote democracy even where the current nondemocratic government is more likely than a popularly elected government to support our counter-terrorism or counter-proliferation efforts?

So "Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine" is an incoherent question. There is no Bush Doctrine to be applied generally. It operates on no central principle, despite Bush's assertion that our sacred values and our strategic interests are now one, a claim that at best could be applied to a small number of specific cases. Charles Krauthammer sketches out the ad hoc manner in which the doctrine was created, although I think his original use of "Bush doctrine" was weak—transitioning to unilateralism, even rapidly, isn't a doctrine—and also that we should not accept the proposition that preemption requires a doctrine. As Bobbitt attests, law has long reflected that "any right of self-defense implies a right to act while action is still possible" (p. 435). We have sought to preempt the acquisition of WMD because we wish to prevent anticipated and possibly non-deterrable threats from materializing. (In that sense, my post a month ago was incorrect: in the case of Iraq, our goals were initially preventative with a preclusive follow-up in mind.)

That said, Sarah Palin was very obviously not prepared to answer Gibson's question. She wasn't caught off guard because the Bush Doctrine is ill-defined or even ambiguous, but rather because she wasn't familiar enough with the concepts involved to discuss them. In general, she allowed Gibson's little exam to put her on the defensive and her answers were often meandering and even off-topic. Several times, when she answered a question, I had (what I think was) a better and more succinct answer in mind. I say this as someone who has been optimistic about Palin: she must improve her performance and display greater poise in the coming weeks. The sharks are circling, and they smell blood. They are prepared to be rankly biased and unfair — to misquote her to her face and to draw patently ridiculous conclusions from her statements. She will be held to a standard no one can meet, so to prevent the press from making her a liability, she must be better than good; she must be great.

Permalink | Comments ( 8 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Foreign Affairs

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

About the "lipstick on a pig" comment
Posted by: Bryan Pick
In the comments section of the "Pigs and Bridges" post below, I made the following remarks, and then decided they would be appropriate for the front page:


First of all, right before the "lipstick on a pig" comment, he apparently plucked a whole paragraph from a political cartoon published on September 5, and didn't attribute it to the original author.

Then he makes the "lipstick on a pig" comment, about which I will grant that it is possible he wasn't referring to Palin. But since she so recently made her "lipstick" joke a national buzzline, he should have known in the moment he said it (either the moment it entered his head, or the moment the crowd started laughing and whooping) or he's not half as smart as we've been led to believe.

And after that, he immediately tacks on a line about an "old fish". If he wasn't intending those two comments, strung together, to be a reference to Palin and McCain, he could have fooled the crowd that was listening to him: they made the connections right away.

If McCain had made some offhand comment like, "Barack Obama is criticizing me for being more partisan than I want people to think I am. Well, that's kinda like the pot calling the kettle black," that would have sunk him immediately. Never mind that it's a common phrase. The standard in politics (and governance) is that you don't make comments that can very easily be taken the wrong way.

If he intended it as a reference to Palin, he's stupid and he's being punished for it right now. If he didn't intend it a reference to Palin, he's still stupid and he's still being punished for it right now.

Permalink | Comments ( 32 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Scandals

Saturday, September 06, 2008

That's a load off our minds
Posted by: Bryan Pick
And some of us were starting to get worried!
"If you've got a gun in your house, I'm not taking it," Obama said.
Interesting that he would use that qualifier. Nice signal to every current or prospective gun owner about what Obama wants to take away from you.
But the Illinois senator could still see skeptics in the crowd, particularly on the faces of several men at the back of the room.

So he tried again. "Even if I want to take them away, I don't have the votes in Congress," he said. "This can't be the reason not to vote for me. Can everyone hear me in the back? I see a couple of sportsmen back there. I'm not going to take away your guns."
Good grief. "Even if I want to take them away"? Translation: "I'm not a gun grabber, but assuming that I'm lying about that, I've put some thought into it and I've calculated that I can't currently succeed. So you're not going to hold this little matter against me, are you?"

And he says he doesn't have the votes in Congress. Whether he expects that to hold after this election, or for the next four to eight years... that's another matter, isn't it?

Permalink | Comments ( 15 ) | TrackBacks ( 4 ) | Category: Guns and Gun Rights

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Quick Hits
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Two thoughts this morning, before I head to work:

Joe Biden said Sarah Palin is qualified to be VP. Oh my gawd, what does that say about his judgment? Is he going to be ready to lead?


Why is it that the only major media outlet that managed to keep the same journalistic standards intact from the Edwards affair to Sarah Palin is the National Enquirer?

Permalink | Comments ( 12 ) | TrackBacks ( 4 ) | Category: Miscellaneous

Monday, September 01, 2008

Transcript for Observations, August 31, 2008
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Below the fold you can find a link-enhanced transcript to the latest Observations podcast, in which Dale, McQ, Michael Wade and I talked about the Sarah Palin pick and the effect of Gustav on the Republican National Convention. Use the widget below to listen to the show.

I had hoped to provide this transcript late last night, but the sound quality occasionally made it difficult to hear, I wanted to pay a lot of attention to detail in the links, and my transcription ran too late.

Without further ado, the transcript:


Continue reading "Transcript for Observations, August 31, 2008"

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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Red-Blooded Americans at the Republican Convention
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Mike Allen and Jonathan Martin have an article at Politico about how Gustav is affecting the Republican National Convention. Obviously the schedule looks like it's going to be affected, and it's possible that some speakers may not be present, including President Bush (who has more important duties to attend to). But something caught my eye in the article:
Republican officials here are preparing for radical changes to every element of the convention. If the storm is as bad as feared, they will dramatically alter the tone of the speeches, cut way back on the partisan red meat, eliminate the glitzy entertainment and, if they can do so legally, use the gathering for a massive fundraising drive that may even feature a passing of buckets on the convention floor to benefit the Red Cross, according to a top GOP source.
The atmosphere at the GOP Convention should definitely be different than that of the Democrats'. John McCain and Sarah Palin are not rock stars or celebrities. They are not going to out-Obama Barack Obama, and they should not try. They must strike a deep contrast with the Democrats' glamour and pomp, more appropriate to the Republican candidates' demeanor and message. In short, they must be serious and they must be real.

If Americans see a bucket being passed for money, that's all well and good — that kind of generous private giving is what many of us see every Sunday morning, and it's what we see at the local supermarket in the wake of a disaster. One might question just how deep someone in a nice suit is digging when he puts cash in the bucket, but I don't want to denigrate that kind of support and I hope they go through with it.

But if I may offer some advice to the "top GOP source," I think I have a better idea.

For every reason I can imagine, the throng of Republicans of all stripes who have shown up to support their candidates should be encouraged to take one step further when the Red Cross arrives: they should take the opportunity to give blood. That's right: one great, big blood drive aside the Convention, to benefit the victims of Gustav and (as far as the left-over blood is concerned) anyone else who can use it.

I wonder if our readers and our fellow bloggers would join me in supporting this idea. Anyone who has any contacts in the party or knows who to reach in the Red Cross, I'd like to assess the feasibility of this and I'd appreciate your input.

Permalink | Comments ( 23 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Miscellaneous

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Two things the Palin pick says about McCain, and four three things it doesn't
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Jim Vandehei and John Harris at Politico have another piece out in the same vein as "5 things Biden pick says about Obama", about McCain's selection of Sarah Palin.

The first two are saying the same thing:
1. He's desperate. [...] Politicians, even "mavericks" like McCain, play it safe when they think they are winning - or see an easy path to winning. They roll the dice only when they know that the risks of conventionality are greater than the risks of boldness.
2. He's willing to gamble - bigtime. Let's face it: This is not the pick of a self-confident candidate.
Okay, let's hear it: who would have been a better pick? Who would have really been a safer pick, given McCain's narrative and history? Who would have come without baggage, who would have reinforced McCain's message, who could have reached both to the base and the swing states at the same time?
3. He's worried about the political implications of his age. Like a driver overcorrecting out of a swerve, he chooses someone who is two years younger than the youthful Obama, and 28 years younger than he is. (He turned 72 Friday.) The father-daughter comparison was inevitable when they appeared next to each other.
If he was worried about the political implications of his age, why would he select an obvious contrast to stand by his side? This is like saying Obama is worried about the political implications of his skin color, since he selected Biden for VP.
4. He's not worried about the actuarial implications of the age issue. He thinks he's in fine fettle, and Palin wouldn't be performing the only constitutional duty of a vice president, which is standing by in case a president dies or becomes incapacitated.
Err, the vice president also serves as the President of the Senate these days. But this is otherwise a fair point.

At least, until Vandehei and Harris expand on their point to say:
McCain has made a mockery out of his campaign's longtime contention that Barack Obama is too dangerously inexperienced to be commander in chief.
McCain played a deeper game, is all - not much deeper, but one step ahead of Politico. With this pick, he invited the Democrats to make that argument because the only way to use that against McCain's VP pick is to open their own Presidential candidate up to the same criticism - which only reinforces McCain's existing narrative against Obama. If Palin, after ten years of elected office, two years of governing a state Obama wants to challenge, and shaking up the establishment, is dangerously inexperienced, Obama is definitely not ready to lead on Day One. After all, it's an open question whether Palin will be called to serve as President any time in the next four to eight years if McCain is elected. It's a certainty that Obama will have to be ready on January 20 if he is elected. And every American who isn't already invested in Obama can do that math.
5. He's worried about his conservative base. If he had room to maneuver, there were lots of people McCain could have selected who would have represented a break from Washington politics as usual. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman comes to mind (and it certainly came to McCain's throughout the process). He had no such room. GOP stalwarts were furious over trial balloons about the possibility of choosing a supporter of abortion rights, including the possibility that he would reach out to his friend.
Leaving aside for a minute that it's incongruous to argue that Palin has no national experience and then say that she doesn't represent a break from Washington as usual, this is in part a fair point. As I pointed out in my post yesterday, her background and bearing are definitely playing well with the base (which has increasingly needed shoring-up in the Mountain West and in some parts of the South), but they also bring something to the Rust Belt battleground.
6. At the end of the day, McCain is still McCain. People may find him a refreshing maverick, or an erratic egotist. In either event, he marches to his own beat.
That he does. But I repeat: this was audacity, not recklessness. It completely captured the news cycle and gave his campaign some much-needed initiative, to put Barack Obama on the defensive just as he was coming out of his rock-show convention with his fists up.

Five of the points (I'm being generous by not calling it six) the Politico tried to make were about McCain being "worried" in some fashion or another. But anyone looking at the scrambling response from the Democrats yesterday can see who was worried, who was on the defensive, who was struggling to put together a narrative.

Permalink | Comments ( 21 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Elections

Friday, August 29, 2008

Look at them, trying to put out the fire.
Posted by: Bryan Pick
It's hard not to notice the contrasts. Even before Obama picked Biden, Republicans were begging Obama to choose him. When Biden was selected, there were already several parallel narratives showing that he was, among other things, more exercised about a McCain candidacy than an Obama candidacy. And it was plain as day that his comparatively long experience in the Senate - extremely long, actually - would be unflattering beside Obama's. Biden has eight times as much experience as the man at the top of his ticket. Woof. And so Republicans simply derided the choice, chattered a bit about what it means about Obama - all conspicuously at odds with his carefully-built narrative - and moved on.

Then, on the day after Obama's self-consciously historic acceptance speech, John McCain announced that he had selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate.

Whoosh. The air went right out of the Democrats' lungs. When it started to come back, in little gasps, it was full of concern. They spent the rest of the day trying to wave their hands at what is readily apparent:

She's a woman. You know, on the ticket.
So? So? Women won't vote for her! Ignore all the women who are saying otherwise. Give them a little credit: they think like we do. This is just a crass attempt at playing identity politics.
Democrats wouldn't know anything about that, would they?

She's been a far more able agent of change in the last few years in Alaska than Obama has been from the United States Senate. It would be fair to say she's kicked some ass.
She's untested on the national level! Very little experience, you see.

She has more executive experience than the entire Democratic ticket combined. Which isn't that hard, admittedly...
But that's in Alaska!
Yes, Alaska, between Canada and Russia. Alaska, a third the size of the continental United States, lots of fossil fuels, tough guys on fishing boats. The state Obama's been spending money in, hoping for an upset. That Alaska.

You still don't understand. Somebody with that little experience, only a heartbeat away from the presidency?
Oh come on. (Hat tip to Xrlq:) "We can't have a woefully underqualified person one heartbeat away from the Presidency! We need a woefully underqualified person to be President right away!!"

Don't you see, she's more of the same from the Republicans!
You've been saying that repeatedly. But she sure tore into a lot of Republicans in her own state, and when they went down for corruption, the rank-and-file GOP sure were glad to have their maverick.
She's in cahoots with Big Oil!
You could have fooled them.

She's under investigation!
So she is. Just wait 'til you see the guy on the other side of that investigation. (Hat tip to commenter tom scott)

With her background and bearing, she combines the best of the South, the Mountain West and the Midwest. She'll secure the segments of the base that have been wary of McCain and still appeal to moderates in the crucial Rust Belt battleground. In a season in which conservatives have been openly talking about voting against Obama (and maybe not even doing that much) rather than for McCain, she's a breath of fresh air.

And this is an absolutely key point: when Biden was picked, millions of Democrats were either thinking or openly talking about who they would have rather had as the VP nominee. Today, you're seeing none of that from Republicans. With the kind of audacity McCain displayed, conservatives all over are applauding the fact that he neither went with the "safe picks" (like Pawlenty or Romney) nor gave away the farm with the Lieberman Option. She seems, in immediate retrospect, like an obvious choice, and that's reflecting very well on McCain himself. People on both sides of the partisan divide are seeing him in a new light: to opponents as perhaps more dangerous than they had expected, and to allies as a candidate to get energized about. He finally exists in the media independently of his opponent, which translates into initiative.

The McCain campaign just stole a lot of wind from Obama's sails, at a time when Obama's looking for a bump to crow about. Jon pointed out at The Next Right that the news cycle has been entirely captured by McCain-Palin. Purely anecdotally, I'm seeing a lot of increased interest in his campaign in itself, rather than only as it relates to Obama's, and yes, a lot of that is coming from women. This is a game-changer, and don't let anyone (never mind the transparently panicked Democrats) tell you otherwise.

Permalink | Comments ( 5 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Elections

Sunday, August 24, 2008

All Wet
Posted by: Bryan Pick
I just saw the trailer for a documentary on water use. It's called "Flow," and based simply on the trailer, it should be completely ignored. But it's loaded with common nonsense (hat tip to commenter "capt joe" for that term), and when someone on the internet is wrong... well.

Here are the two pillars on which the rest of the film rest:
"This notion that we'll have water forever is wrong. The world is running out of fresh water."
"Water is a common resource. Water is not a property!"
This is what happens when people are unfamiliar with economic thinking. They make these two statements and can't work out the implications. So forgive the rant, but I feel like making those implications explicit.


Continue reading "All Wet"

Permalink | Comments ( 8 ) | TrackBacks ( 2 ) | Category: Economics

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Georgia, regime change, and casus belli
Posted by: Bryan Pick
This is one of those "I must respectfully disagree" moments...

Earlier today, McQ made the following point in his post, "Is Georgia Worth Going to War Over?":
But one thing [it] does point out is that Russia believes if "regime change" is a legitimate reason for the US to invade another country, it is certainly just as legitimate for Russia to do so.

And while you can argue the differences between Iraq and Georgia until you are blue in the face, the basic premise holds, like it or not.
"Regime change" is a strategic objective of an invasion rather than a rationale for one. If a state wishes to forcibly change the regime of another state, they must have a separate, legitimate casus belli.

And the differences between the causes (in this case, between invading Iraq and invading Georgia) are precisely where one builds the case that one regime change is less legitimate than another.

In the beginning of the post-Cold War era, and especially as we began the War on Terror, the United States and her allies began to lay out a standard for the legitimacy of state sovereignty that rested on the consent of the governed, which includes states' respect for human rights. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these states were beyond the shadow of a doubt not states of consent. Their people did not enjoy even the most basic protections; they did not select their own governments. (That is not to say that we will go to war with every country that violates its people's basic rights, but it is considered a valid rationale.)

In addition, we had national security rationales for invading both Iraq and Afghanistan, and more generally for our global war on terror. In the case of Afghanistan, our national security objectives were both retaliatory (they had harbored and provided support to the group responsible for the attack) and preclusive (as opposed to preemptive — we wished to prevent from arising the conditions that could lead to more attacks). In the case of Iraq, they were almost entirely preclusive.

Both sets of rationales found their way into our arguments before the UN and in the congressional Authorizations of the Use of Military Force. The AUMF against Iraq had 23 such rationales. Where our sacred values and strategic interests intersect, we build the strongest case for war.

Can Russia build a similar, strong case for its invasion of Georgia? That is the salient question.

Permalink | Comments ( 28 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: The War

Friday, July 04, 2008

Posted by: Bryan Pick
In a discussion of torture, Radley Balko on terrorism:
"Terrorism" by definition is an effort to use a few attacks to induce unwarranted and irrational fear across an entire population. The aim is get the terrorist's target to alter its policies, waste its resources, and change its way of life in an irrational response to an enemy without the resources for a more traditional war.
Surprisingly, it's not just the anti-war crowd that has been using this definition with some regularity since 9/11 and especially since the Coalition went to war in Iraq; even some who agree with our war aims have agreed with this idea of the terrorists' aims. But it's natural that anti-war individuals would accept that definition more often, since it's complementary with the opinions that (a) the threat of terrorism has been overinflated, so (b) the response is bound to be irrational. It seems like cold calculation on the part of the terrorists to perform spectacular attacks with the intent of drawing an expensive overreaction, and this throws a particularly bad light on those who are perceived to be cynically exploiting the natural fear of violence to push a pro-war agenda, which of course would play right into the hands of the terrorists. (As an aside, I would argue that we should not confuse achieving our aims with preventing the enemy from achieving his. Sometimes the enemy achieves a tactical goal to his strategic detriment.)

I won't argue against the proposition that al Qaeda wanted to draw the United States into an expensive and bloody war. I won't argue that the responses to terrorism, both by individuals and by all levels of government in the US, have all been rational and warranted. They haven't, and what's more, that fact shouldn't surprise anyone. And I agree wholeheartedly that al Qaeda intended to alter US (and Spanish, and British, etc.) government policies; they have repeatedly stated as much.

But is Balko giving us a good working definition of terrorism? I think not. In some places, it's sloppy; in other places, it's simply wrong.
  • When — not if — fear of terrorism becomes rational and warranted, will it still be terrorism to perform the next attack? I would submit that it is. Terror is the goal, whether rational or irrational.
  • Does terrorism require "a few" attacks? History shows that it does not, although that does amplify the signal. Tim McVeigh was a terrorist after one spectacular attack. And I would suggest that the credible threat of violence can substitute for an actual attack.
  • Is terrorism defined by attempts to change government policy? I would submit that it is not; al Qaeda, in addition to its attempts to change state policies, has also used terror as an instrument of its own governance, to change personal behavior and to destroy Western values. Other, more established states have instituted programs of terror against their own people — terror as policy, rather than as an attempt to change policy.
  • Is terrorism defined by attempts to get its target to waste resources? I would say not. The Madrid train bombings were not designed to draw Spain further into the war, but to dissuade them from continuing their support of the war. The same goes for the London tube train bombings. Many of the responses to terrorism thus far have been wasteful, and because it is strategically convenient in the current context it was part of the intent of al Qaeda, but this fact does not define terrorism. Does anyone doubt that if al Qaeda had the capability to inflict another attack on the United States, more spectacular than 9/11, whether or not it caused us to waste more resources, they would do it?
  • Is it necessary that terrorism be carried out by the more poorly-funded party to a conflict? To agree would be to argue that states do not make use of terror, or that it isn't terrorism if the victim has fewer resources than the attacker. Though the overwhelming economic and conventional military dominance of the United States (and its allies) has contributed to the rise of modern, international terrorism — by funneling would-be violent challengers into unconventional violence and particularly against noncombatants, whose security is vital to the legitimacy of our states — that is a circumstance and not a necessarily defining aspect of terrorism. The better-funded can engage in terrorism too.
  • Is terrorism defined by attempts to get the target to change their way of life? This hits closest to the mark.

Back in April March, I recommended the book Terror and Consent: The Wars for the Twenty-First Century by Philip Bobbitt. Bobbitt is all about the intersection of law and strategy, and he has a more compelling definition of terrorism than any other I've seen:
Terrorism is the pursuit of political goals through the use of violence against noncombatants in order to dissuade them from doing what they have a lawful right to do [Emphasis his]. This definition puts the goals of terrorism back into the picture by linking strategic means (attacks on civilians) with legal ends (the deterrence of lawful action). (p. 352)

I would add the credible threat of violence rather than just the use of violence, but I think Bobbitt's definition has much greater clarity and thereby much greater practical value than Balko's. Using Bobbitt's proposed definition, if Balko and I basically agree on rights, my terrorist will not be his freedom fighter, so to speak. And while Bobbitt's definition must be understood as extremely broad — I don't doubt for a minute that Balko would apply this definition to certain American institutions — it is nonetheless useful. Over the course of 546 pages and almost 100 pages of notes, Bobbitt explains in great detail why this understanding of terrorism will be crucial to the legitimacy of our states, our institutions, and our way of life (so to speak). He explains why the concept of a "war against terror" is a perfectly legitimate one.

There's a lot more implied by "lawful right" than I can do justice to here, but suffice it to say,
In the case of al Qaeda, the goal of the terror network is the destruction of Western values in any area where these can have an impact on Muslims. Rendering persons too frightened to act lawfully on their basic values is both a means and an end, for such a situation of terror, of terrified people in a terrified society too fearful to freely choose their actions (and thus manifest their values) is an end roughly equivalent to the total destruction of Western values. (p. 357)
There's a strong flavor of negative rights, of creating a civic peace with political freedom, in Bobbitt's argument.

And I should point out that far from being an enthusiastic apologist for the Bush administration and its prosecution of the war thus far, Bobbitt takes plenty of opportunities to rake the Bush administration over the coals — on everything from Iraq to Katrina to, yes, torture — but he's able to do so without falling victim to conveniently complementary ideas of just what it is we're facing.

Permalink | Comments ( 10 ) | TrackBacks ( 4 ) | Category: Terrorism

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Scalia opinion for DC v Heller tomorrow? (Update: It’s Thursday)
Posted by: Bryan Pick
Mike O'Shea at Concurring Opinions talks about the probability and implications of Justice Antonin Scalia writing the opinion for DC v Heller. Noting that "[t]omorrow might be the big day" for the much-anticipated decision, he writes,
Court-watchers have noticed that [...] the only case left from the Supreme Court's March sitting is D.C. v. Heller, and the only Justice who hasn't written any majority opinions from that sitting is ... Justice Antonin Scalia. Tom Goldstein [of SCOTUSblog] thinks it's "exceptionally likely" that Scalia was assigned to write the Court's lead opinion in the most important Second Amendment case in American history.

What could that mean for the decision in Heller? As I'll explain, I think a Scalia-authored opinion would be great news for those who are mainly concerned with the Second Amendment as a limit on federal gun control, but somewhat ambiguous news — at least in the short term — for those who hope for the incorporation of the Second Amendment as a check on state and municipal governments.
Do read the whole thing, because an awful lot is riding on this. Scalia is about the best the gun-rights crowd can hope for in the current Court, at least as far as federal laws go. Incorporation might be another matter.

The Left, seeing the writing on the wall of public opinion, has mostly backed off of guns as an election issue in recent years; the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban sunsetted in 2004 without much fuss, and as McQ pointed out a couple of weeks ago, even groups like the Brady Campaign are falling back to a lower-key, incremental approach, which would be considerably eased by an opinion that resisted incorporation.

Beyond the historical implications of a strong pro-individual rights ruling on the Second Amendment, I'll be interested to see how the presidential campaigns respond to the Heller decision. McCain may not be golden on the Second Amendment, but the gun-rights crowd is piling up the ammunition on Obama's record and there may be an opportunity on the Right to make Obama confront the issue. Time will tell.

UPDATE: SCOTUSblog reports:
At the close of Wednesday's public session, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., announced that the Court will issue all remaining decisions for the Term at 10 a.m. Thursday. The test case on whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a gun is among those remaining (District of Columbia v. Heller, 07-290).

Permalink | Comments ( 5 ) | TrackBacks ( 1 ) | Category: Guns and Gun Rights


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