Free Markets, Free People

Bruce McQuain

Underlining “Contradictory and Confusing”

No one with any sense is going to argue that AIG should be doing what it is doing or that the insurance giant isn’t absolutely tone-deaf to the dirge playing within the economy. But the effort and the PR agenda to reclaim the bonus money pursued by our new president just underscores the “confusion and contradiction” his actions and words engender.

President Obama vowed to try to stop the faltering insurance giant American International Group from paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses to executives, as the administration scrambled to avert a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street that could complicate Mr. Obama’s economic recovery agenda.

We’re talking “hundreds of millions” of dollars here. But when confronted by a omnibus spending bill with hundreds of billions of dollars in 9,000 pork projects, meh, no biggie – “last year’s business.”

~McQ

The Narrative Continues To Build

I mentioned last week that there was a narrative building which could be quite detrimental to the Obama administration. That narrative started with the British press, in a snit about the treatment of British PM Gordon Brown during a visit to the White House, noting that the administration seemed “overwhelmed”. Supporters claimed that was normal for a new administration, and besides, this one had been handed a very difficult crisis as they came into power, one that would test the abilities of even the most seasoned of administrations. But that didn’t stop the narrative from continuing to form. Then we saw others, even among supporters, begin to wonder. Camille Paglia and Howard Fineman were concerned that things seemed “not quite right” even after 50 days. Was this new administration in over its head? Even Paul Krugman carefully mentioned that those things which needed to be addressed immediately weren’t getting the attention they needed or deserved.

A feeling of uneasiness seemed to be settling over even the Obama supporters. Yesterday, Michael Goodwin, hardly someone who would be identified as a rightwinger, wondered out loud if there may indeed be something to the building narrative:

Not long ago, after a string of especially bad days for the Obama administration, a veteran Democratic pol approached me with a pained look on his face and asked, “Do you think they know what they’re doing?”

The question caught me off guard because the man is a well-known Obama supporter. As we talked, I quickly realized his asking suggested his own considerable doubts.

Yes, it’s early, but an eerily familiar feeling is spreading across party lines and seeping into the national conversation. It’s a nagging doubt about the competency of the White House.

As I said then, when I first brought it up, this is a narrative that if it becomes established, then becomes “conventional wisdom”. Speaking of “eerie”, this is very similar to the narrative that developed and established itself about Jimmy Carter. Goodwin goes on:

The tag of incompetence is powerful precisely because it is a nondenominational rebuke, even when it yields a partisan result. It became the strongest argument against the GOP hammerlock on Washington and, over two elections, gave Democrats their turn at total control.
But already feelings of doubt are rising again. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid were never held in high regard, so doubts about their motives and abilities are not surprising.

What matters more is the growing concern about Obama and his team. The longest campaign in presidential history is being followed by a very short honeymoon.

Polls show that most people like Obama, but they increasingly don’t like his policies. The vast spending hikes and plans for more are provoking the most concern, with 82% telling a Gallup survey they are worried about the deficit and 69% worried about the rapid growth of government under Obama. Most expect their own taxes will go up as a result, despite the President’s promises to the contrary.

Goodwin is right – the GOP sits on the sidelines for exactly the same reason that the Obama administration and Democrats should be concerned about this building narrative. Voters questioned their competence. And, of course, Democrats hammered the issue. Reid, Pelosi and the Democratic presidential candidates all talked about George Bush’s incompetence, and, by extension, the competence of the GOP. The shoe is now on the other foot and the same charges are beginning to be made about Obama and the Democrats. Warren Buffet has chimed in with criticism. The Treasury Secretary is a Saturday Night Live punching bag. The nomination process has been a disaster.

And it isn’t just the circumstances of a difficult situation which is making this seem worse than it is. No, there’s much more to it than that as Goodwin points out in his conclusion:

Which brings us to the heart of the matter: the doubts about Obama himself. His famous eloquence is wearing thin through daily exposure and because his actions are often disconnected from his words. His lack of administrative experience is showing.

His promises and policies contradict each other often enough that evidence of hypocrisy is ceasing to be news. Remember the pledges about bipartisanship and high ethics? They’re so last year.

The beat goes on. Last week, Obama brazenly gave a speech about earmark reform just after he quietly signed a $410 billion spending bill that had about 9,000 earmarks in it. He denounced Bush’s habit of disregarding pieces of laws he didn’t like, so-called signing statements, then issued one himself.

And in an absolute jaw-dropper, he told business leaders, “I don’t like the idea of spending more government money, nor am I interested in expanding government’s role.”

No wonder Americans are confused. Our President is, too.

Confusion and contradiction are not what people expect from strong leadership. It is what they expect from weak leaders. Obama, to this point, has exerted little leadership. He let himself get rolled by Congress on the “stimulus” bill, eventually becoming a front man trying to excuse their excesses and trying to spin the enormous social spending as economic stimulus. He was again pushed forward to pretend that the omnibus spending bill was “last year’s business” and the earmarks were Bush’s fault. Even the most rabid of supporters have had difficulty swallowing that bit of nonsense. Goodwin is right, what the nation and world is presently seeing from this administration is not the stuff of confidence and competence. It is, instead, precisely what those who actually looked at his previous accomplishments or lack thereof said we should expect – an eloquent and likable young man with no executive experience, no leadership experience and precious little legislative experience who appears overwhelmed by the job. The contradictions and confusion are a result of being pulled hither and yon by competing interests among his advisors and Congress as they try to convince him to back their agenda.

There are no timeouts in the job he’s won. Running off to Chicago for a 4 day Valentine weekend doesn’t slow or stop the world or the events always in motion from continuing to unfold. There’s a reason we usually don’t elect legislators to the presidency. And that’s probably even more true about inexperienced ones.

Unless something drastic happens in which the Obama administration is able to blunt and change the building narrative, watch for it to continue to grow.

~McQ

Reaping, Sowing, etc.

Glad they finally noticed:

The Obama administration is increasingly concerned about a populist backlash against banks and Wall Street, worried that anger at financial institutions could also end up being directed at Congress and the White House and could complicate President Obama’s agenda.

Of course the greatest stoker of this populist backlash has been the Obama administration. I’ll be the first to agree that some of the financial institutions, such as AIG recently, have played into the populist condemnation by the administration, but instead of being specific about the AIGs of the world, they have instead gone after an entire industry to the point that “banks and Wall Street” are synonymous with crooks, swindlers and liars. Having established that narrative, seemingly purposely, there’s now a huge backlash building which may, in fact, cripple the administration’s efforts pertaining to both.

“We’ve got enormous problems that need to be addressed,” David Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, said in an interview. “And it’s hard to address because there’s a lot of anger about the irresponsibility that led us to this point.”

“This has been welling up for a long time,” he said.

Mr. Obama’s aides said any surge of such a sentiment could complicate efforts to win Congressional approval for the additional bailout packages that Mr. Obama has signaled will be necessary to stabilize the banking system.

As it is, there have already been moves in Congress to limit compensation to executives at banks and Wall Street firms that are receiving government help to survive.

Beyond that, a shifting political mood challenges Mr. Obama’s political skills, as he seeks to acknowledge the anger without becoming a target of it. A central question for Mr. Obama is whether his cool style — “in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger,” he said in his address to Congress last month — will prove effective when the country may be feeling more emotional.

And the country is feeling emotional because the administration has been making emotional arguments targeting the industry it wants to help. Not very smart politics. And they’ve now finally realized that.

“Never underestimate the capacity of angry populism in times of economic stress,” said Robert Reich, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “A big challenge for President Obama will be to maintain a rational and tactical public discussion in the midst of this severe downturn. The desire for culprits at times like this is strong.”

The “culprit” has been identified. In their desire to escape blame, government officials in Congress and elsewhere have almost unanimously used their access to the media to vilify banks and Wall Street while pretending they had no hand whatsoever in this debacle. Unfortunately they’ve been quite successful in the scapegoating. However, having established the narrative, they now have to attempt to reverse it because the public rage they’ve helped stoke may prevent them from doing what they think they need to do to turn the financial industry around.

The entire problem that the administration is now recognizing is one of their own making and another indication of their inexperience and lack of foresight. It’s one thing to demonize such industries when campaigning, it is, as they’re learning, an entirely different thing when you do it as the President of the United States. The administration now has to figure out how to reverse a narrative they helped build and establish. That should be interesting to watch.

~McQ

Podcast for 15 Mar 09

In this podcast, Bruce, Michael and Dale talk about the week’s events, and the state of modern journalism.

The direct link to the podcast can be found here.

Observations

The intro and outro music is Vena Cava by 50 Foot Wave, and is available for free download here.

As a reminder, if you are an iTunes user, don’t forget to subscribe to the QandO podcast, Observations, through iTunes. For those of you who don’t have iTunes, you can subscribe at Podcast Alley. And, of course, for you newsreader subscriber types, our podcast RSS Feed is here. For podcasts from 2005 to 2007, they can be accessed through the RSS Archive Feed.

Bombers and “Bombers”

Daniel Larison is trying to smack Ed Morrisey around over a particular story:

There is a non-story making the rounds that the Russian military might base bombers in Venezuela and Cuba, provided that the Kremlin wanted to do this. In the same story that is being circulated, the Kremlin ruled out the idea as hypothetical speculation. Naturally, this had no effect whatever on wild accusations of Obama’s foreign policy failure.

As you can tell, Larison is sure there is no smoke or fire with this particular story, but refuses to let an opportunity go by to blame Bush for something, which he proceeds to do. However it seems Larison’s research into the story must have omitted this CNN version. The lede:

Russia expressed interest in using Cuban airfields during patrol missions of its strategic bombers, Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.

I put them in bold so they might catch Larison’s eye. You see, when most people see the words “Russia expressed interest” they interpret them to mean the state of Russia – you know, the country?- is interested enough in something to actually express that interest outloud to where a news agency heard it and reported it. And the words “Cuban airfields” usually mean, well, you know, airfields in Cuba – the object of the Russian interest. The thing airplanes fly off of. The fact that a Russian news agency reported the story about Russia’s interest and Cuba’s airfields, while also mentioning strategic bombers, kind of ties it all together and gives the statement some credibility over and above Larison’s hand-wave of dismissal. It certainly makes it more than a “non-story”.

In fact, Russia has obviously done more than just “think” about it.  Here’s the scoop on Venezuela:

Zhikharev also told Interfax that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has offered a military airfield on La Orchila island as a temporary base for Russian strategic bombers.

“If a relevant political decision is made, this is possible,” he said, according to Interfax. Zhikharev said he visited La Orchila in 2008 and can confirm that with minor reconstruction, the airfield owned by a local naval base can accept fully-loaded Russian strategic bombers.

Offer made by Venezuelan head of state. Enough interest to host a visit by Zhikharev (Chief of Staff of Russian Air Force).  Further interested enough to scope out the construction necessary to make it suitable for strategic bombers.

Yup – non-story. [/sarc]

But hey, never let the opportunity for a rant get slowed by facts, huh?

~McQ

Governmental 3 Card Monte

A week or so ago, I highlighted a story about the possibility that Democrats were going to tax your employee health care benefits (after all, those among the 95% who are getting a tax cut have to have something to spend it on) and I was assured this particular plan comes up all the time and never gets out of committee. Well it appears those assurances of nothing to worry about were premature. The idea may not only get out of committee this time, but be signed into law as well:

The Obama administration is signaling to Congress that the president could support taxing some employee health benefits, as several influential lawmakers and many economists favor, to help pay for overhauling the health care system.

So you’ll pay taxes on your private health benefits to pay for health benefits for others, while government tells you how expensive your private coverage is and how they can run it much more cheaply and efficiently if only you’ll pitch in and pay for it.

Question: If taxes on your health care benefits are going to pay for a governmental health care system overhaul, and one assumes the purpose of the overhaul is to bring more and more of the health care system under governmental control, how will government “pay” for all of this in the future when you no longer have private health care benefits to tax?

Read the whole article.  It doesn’t even take a double digit IQ to spot the law of unintended consequences laying in the weeds just salivating over this one.

~McQ

Years of Math

From an email.

Why? Because I think it is funny. And yes, I understand that we are still capable of and do teach math well.

But as I chuckled about it, this bit of humor is more about our priorities and some cultural issues than math.

1959-2009 (in the USA )

Last week I purchased a burger at Burger King for $1.58. The counter girl took my $ 2 and I was digging for my change when I pulled 8 cents from my pocket and gave it to her. She stood there, holding the nickel and 3 pennies, while looking at the screen on her register. I sensed her discomfort and tried to tell her to just give me two quarters , but she hailed the manager for help. While he tried to explain the transaction to her, she stood there and cried. Why do I tell you this? Because of the evolution in teaching math since the 1950s:

1. Teaching Math In 1950s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price. What is his profit ?

2. Teaching Math In 1960s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is 4/5 of the price, or $80. What is his profit?

3. Teaching Math In 1970s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80. Did he make a profit? 

4. Teaching Math In 1980s

A logger sells a truckload of lumber for $100. His cost of production is $80 and his profit is $20. Your assignment: Underline the number 20.

5. Teaching Math In 1990s

A logger cuts down a beautiful forest because he is selfish and inconsiderate and cares nothing for the habitat of animals or the preservation of our woodlands. He does this so he can make a profit of $20.  What do you think of this way of making a living? Topic for class participation after answering the question: How did the birds and squirrels feel as the logger cut down their homes? (There are no wrong answers, and if you feel like crying, it’s ok.)

6. Teaching Math In 2009

Un hachero vende una carretada de maderapara $100. El costo de la producciones es $80. Cuanto dinero ha hecho?

~McQ

The False Premise of “Properly” Spent “Stimulus” Money

President Obama and VP Biden are going to be watching you:

Obama and Biden both gave stern warnings yesterday about misuse of stimulus funds. “If we see money being misspent, we’re going to put a stop to it,” Obama told a gathering of state officials at the White House. How? Obama says “we will call it out and we will publicize it.” Biden, meanwhile, scolded: “If we don’t get this right, folks, this is the end of the opportunity to convince Congress that anything should go to the states.”

Of course, these were words spoken to representatives of states getting “stimulus” money.

Lost in the shuffle is the fact that there is no one to shout “BS” to the whole scheme and declare it all “misspent” money. A $787 billion dollar social spending scheme isn’t money “misspent?” Hah!

But other than that, I think Earl Devaney provides us with the ground truth about this upcoming spending debacle:

The chief watchdog for spending from the $787 billion stimulus package says it’s guaranteed there will be waste and fraud.

Earl Devaney, tapped by President Obama to track the giant spending plan, also said it will be at least a year before the government gets recovery.gov, the Web site the administration has touted as a key part of its transparency, up and running properly.

“I’m afraid that there may be a naive impression that given the amount of transparency and accountability called for by this act, no or little fraud will occur.

A “naive impression?”

Heh … nah, you don’t say?

The word “naive” seems to describe a lot of what is going on right now with the Obama administration.

~McQ

One Man’s “Terrorist” Is Another’s “Law Enforcement Problem”

Is homegrown terrorism the next problem? That’s the question being asked by some:

There is an increasing threat of homegrown terror stemming from segments of a deeply isolated and alienated Somali-American community, a U.S. Senate committee hearing concluded Wednesday.

The hearing, conducted by the Senate Homeland and Governmental Affairs Committee, focused on the attempted recruitment of young Somali-American men by al-Shabaab, “a violent and brutal extremist (Somali) group” with significant ties to al Qaeda, according to the U.S. State Department.

“Over the last two years, individuals from the Somali community in the United States, including American citizens, have left for Somalia to support and in some cases fight on behalf of al-Shabaab,” noted the committee’s chairman, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Connecticut.

Al-Shabaab — also known as the Mujahedeen Youth Movement — was officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government in March 2008.

If you’ve been following this, Somali youths from all over the US have been “disappearing” to end up half-way around the world engaged in war in Afghanistan. This is pretty much the same model as has affected the UK (although their particular group consists mostly of Pakistanis). The obvious next step is, instead of radicalizing them and exporting them to far off places, to do what was done with the 7/7 bombers in the UK and do it here.

The recruitment is made easier by the apparent isolation of the Somali community. The extremists pick off clusters of dissatisfied youth and radicalize them. The apparent distance between the Somali culture and the American culture are so vast that some simply cannot overcome that – or so the theory goes.

This is a situation which bears very close watching (and, hopefully some remedial effects brought on by positive intervention) – this is where AQ could put together a group that could travel thorough America with little difficulty and help foment an attack or attacks.

On another terrorist front, we already have home-grown terrorists (besides William Ayers) operating here:

The recent fire-bombing of a university professor’s car here appears to be part of a trend of animal-rights activists targeting the personal lives of researchers, rather than just the labs or companies where they work. The idea is to scare the scientists into reconsidering using animals in their research work.

Despite tightening laws, California saw an uptick in attacks last year with 21 reported incidents – of 36 nationwide – ranging from vandalism to firebombs, mostly targeting University of California researchers, according to data compiled by the Foundation for Biomedical Research. By contrast, the state saw just four or five such incidents the previous two years.

“The tactics [of animal-rights activists] have changed. They’ve gotten very personal,” says Frankie Trull of the National Association for Biomedical Research, an organization that advocates for the responsible use of animals in research.

The latest incident occurred early last Saturday outside the Westwood residence of Dr. David Jentsch, a neuroscientist at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The professor’s vehicle was engulfed in flames and destroyed, though no one was hurt.

If terrorism is “the calculated use of violence (or the threat of violence) against civilians in order to attain goals that are political or religious or ideological in nature; this is done through intimidation or coercion or instilling fear”, these acts fit.

So while we may have an international brand of terrorism on the rise, we already have our own domestic terrorists at work on the West Coast. My guess is, though, they’re considered a “law enforcement” problem, not one of terrorism.

~McQ

Put The Race Card Away, Please

Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, said this the other day about the possible effects of all of the spending the Obama administration was doing and planning:

“What you’re doing is buying into the notion that if we just print some more money that we don’t have, send it to different states — we’ll create jobs,” Sanford said. “If that’s the case, why isn’t Zimbabwe a rich place?… Why isn’t Zimbabwe just an incredibly prosperous place. ‘Cause they’re printing money they don’t have and sending it around to their different — I don’t know the towns in Zimbabwe but that same logic is being applied there with little effect.”

A little oversimplistic, but this is “sound bite nation” so you have to condense. In effect his point is true to the extent it goes, and the example is a good and valid one, since Zimbabwe is printing money as fast as it can add zeroes to its demonimations. By now, the hyper-inflation it is undergoing from doing so should be well known to people versed in current affairs.

Unless, of course, you want to make a racial thing out of it. Rep. James Clyburn, Democratic Majority Whip, reacts to Sanford’s lesson and example of Zimbabwe:

“For him to compare the president of this country to Mugabe. … It’s just beyond the pale,” said Clyburn, who has sparred with Sanford over the Republican’s refusal to accept all the state’s stimulus funding.

[…]

“I’m sure he would not say that, but how did he get to Zimbabwe? What took the man to Zimbabwe? Someone should ask him if that’s really the best comparison. … How can he compare this country’s situation to Zimbabwe?”

Of course the “how” is fairly simple – if what is being touted as a solution here and was touted as a solution there, then Zimbabwe should be in great economic shape right now. But Clyburn would rather make a racial thing out of it. Obviously Sanford could have used Wiemar Germany of the ’30s, but it isn’t as relevant today as the case of Zimbabwe. And, he could have also used Venezuela. But Venezuela isn’t quite the basket case Zimbabwe is. Nope, in terms of a current example of what might happen, in terms of hyper-inflation from artificially pumping up he money supply, Zimbabwe is as good as it gets.

And besides:

“Rep. Clyburn always plays the race card,” shot back Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer, who said his boss has also compared the stimulus to failed government policies in Germany and Argentina. “This policy will result in hyper-infaltion. … [Clyburn] is ripping off the people he purports to represent.”

Round 2 to follow.

~McQ