"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Friday, May 28, 2010

Friends in High Places

The New York Times reports today on a strange story about the Pennsylvania Senate race.  Political horse-trading is a fact of life inside the Beltway, but Republicans have seized on efforts by the Obama Administration to convince Congressman and retired Admiral Joe Sestak to drop out of the Democratic primary and to clear the way for Arlen Specter as a possible scandal.  According to the White House, there was no wrongdoing:

The office of Robert F. Bauer, the White House counsel, has concluded that Mr. Emanuel’s proposal did not violate laws prohibiting government employees from promising employment as a reward for political activity because the position being offered was unpaid. The office also found other examples of presidents offering positions to political allies to achieve political aims.
In a tough election, a candidate will often make special deals with his or her primary opponents in order to consolidate support for their party earlier in the election cycle, especially at the national level.  If then-candidate Obama had not offered Hillary Clinton a high-level post in his administration in return for her support, the 2008 Democratic National Convention would have been a disaster.  Although Obama had a slight advantage in the delegate counts, Hillary could have easily caused a split in the party.

Now that Obama is President, we have seen other examples of special deals that are probably not illegal, but are also pretty sleazy.  The attempt to eliminate the ability of Republicans to filibuster in the Senate by appointing Senator Judd Gregg as a cabinet secretary was particularly egregious.  However, the Hatch Act specifically prohibits the use of influence to influence an election.  Whereas Gregg was already a sitting Senator who was asked to resign, Sestak had not yet been elected.

By now it is an old joke that Obama has brought the "Chicago Way" of politics to Washington.  Despite the largest Democratic majority in Congress in a generation, the Obama Administration, lead by Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel has taken an aggressive and risky approach to further consolidate political power.  Even if the allegations of scandal prove to be unfounded in this case, it is only a matter of time before the Chicago way of doing business catches up with this administration.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

In regard to the oil spewing from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, an exasperated President Obama is reported to have said, "Plug the damn hole."  Clearly, when public opinion demands it of him, Obama can be decisive.  Nevertheless, Obama's approach to Iran has been painstakingly slow and will do nothing to stop the Islamic Republic's nuclear program.  While Obama plays diplomatic games, Iran is running thousands of centrifuges day and night and could have enough enriched uranium for a bomb within one or two years.

The New York Times reports today that President Obama has released his new National Security Strategy.  Of course, the Times also cannot resist adding a little editorializing about the Bush administration:
That line is just one of many subtle slaps at President George W. Bush.  Much of the National Security Strategy, which is required by Congress, reads as an argument for a restoration of an older order of reliance on international institutions, updated to confront modern threats.  While Mr. Bush’s 2002 document explicitly said the United States would never allow the rise of a rival superpower, Mr. Obama argues that America faces no real military competitor, but that global power is increasingly diffuse.
This analysis provides a stark contrast with the reality of the two presidents' foreign policy--particularly regarding the issue of nuclear weapons proliferation.

Despite the liberal trope that the United States acted alone when we invaded Iraq, the truth is that Bush navigated the same UN Security Council process that now bedevils his successor and obtained a unanimous vote that Saddam's defiance must come to an end.  Furthermore, he built a coalition which involved more than 30 other nations at one time or another.  Most importantly, Saddam Hussein is now dead and the Iraqi people no longer live in fear of his tyrannical regime.

Meanwhile, on the issue of Iran, Obama has sought to convince our "friends" in the UN to support tough sanctions, but only after making painful concessions such as the removal of the so-called "missile shield" from Eastern Europe.  Now, Russia has finally agreed to support sanctions against Iran, but only after getting a last-minute loophole to allow weapons sales between the two countries to continue.  Brazil and Turkey are in an uproar and it remains to be seen what other sacrifices the United States will have to make before the sanctions can actually go into effect.

Even then, what happens when Iran defies international pressure and sanctions and continues enriching enough uranium for a bomb?  Iraq's pursuit of nuclear weapons turned out to be illusory, but in the case of Iran, we face a growing and imminent threat which is very real.  At some point, Obama will have to take decisive and possibly unilateral action.  Let us hope that he is up to the task.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Liberal Paradox

Today's New York Times asks the question, why are American politics stuck in the mindset of the 1960's?  To answer this question, perhaps the old grey lady should recall the fable of the crab and its mother:
A CRAB said to her son, "Why do you walk so one-sided, my child?  It is far more becoming to go straight forward."  The young Crab replied: "Quite true, dear Mother; and if you will show me the straight way, I will promise to walk in it."  The Mother tried in vain, and submitted without remonstrance to the reproof of her child.
As with the crab, the liberal-leaning New York Times is trapped in the 1960's by its own nature.  Bai observes, "The choices of our moment are not nearly so neat or so satisfying as they were a generation ago, which makes them less useful as a basis for one’s political identity."  The language there is telling.  Only a liberal would describe the moral choices of the '60's as "neat" and "satisfying."  For the rest of us, the '60's were a dark time of assassinations, riots, and social upheaval that nearly tore the nation apart.

In his analysis, Bai cites two recent examples of this continuing trend.  In both cases, the scandal was created and then whipped up by liberals.  In the first, Blumenthal himself opened the door by "misstating" (i.e., lying about) his service.  Then the liberal-leaning Times obligingly announced the scandal, tearing open the wounds of the Vietnam era once again for the nation to reconsider for the umpteenth time.  Meanwhile, Rand's difficulties with the Civil Rights Act were prompted by an absurd hypothetical posed by a correspondent on MSNBC whose political views are well known.

Similarly, during the Bush Administration, liberals could not resist drawing comparisons between Iraq and Vietnam, even though the reality has turned out to be very different.  Hurricane Katrina raised the ghosts of the civil rights movement and the destruction of New Orleans was viewed by many as an example of deep-seated racism, even though the death toll was color-blind.  These perverse comparisons with the liberal myth of the 1960's as a glorious triumph were simply too much for liberals to resist, no matter how crass and misguided.

For liberals, it is much more politically expedient to stoke the last faint embers of those divisive times, possibly to win a few more votes in the next election by reminding aging baby boomers of their guilt and shame.  However, it is worth remembering that after the liberal triumph of Carter in the 1970's, the nation overwhelmingly elected Reagan by a landslide and moved strongly to the right.  If Bush was a repeat of Nixon, a repeat of the subsequent decades would not favor Democrats.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The President Obama Comedy Hour

The Associated Press reported today, apparently without any sense of irony, that President Obama, "sent legislation to Congress on Monday that would allow him to force lawmakers to vote on cutting earmarks and wasteful programs from spending bills."  Back in 2008, candidate Obama spoke of using a scalpel to eliminate waste.  Of course, that was before the $787 billion "stimulus" bill, which was nothing more than the mother of all earmarks.

The AP itself criticized the underwhelming results of the stimulus bill last year:
The AP reviewed a sample of federal contracts, not all 9,000 reported to date, and discovered errors in one in six jobs credited to the $787 billion stimulus program — or 5,000 of the 30,000 jobs claimed so far.

Even in its limited review, the AP found job counts that were more than 10 times as high as the actual number of paid positions; jobs credited to the stimulus program that were counted two and sometimes more than four times; and other jobs that were credited to stimulus spending when none was produced.
With the so-called stimulus bill, GM and Chrysler bailouts, and continuing subsidies for Fannie and Freddie, the Obama Administration created a 2009 federal budget deficit of more than $1.4 trillion, or almost 10% of GDP.  At the beginning of this year, the Congressional Budget Office predicted the 2010 deficit would decrease slightly to $1.3 trillion, but that was before the trillion-dollar health care bill and the European debt crisis, which threatens to reverse the modest economic gains of the past few months.

For Obama to demand tighter controls on spending after the presiding over the largest increases in federal spending since the Second World War is reminiscent of the old joke about locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.  Thus, it turns out that Al Franken isn't the first comedian to serve in the Senate.  If this trend continues, C-SPAN might start competing with Comedy Central for ratings.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Don't They Know It's Rude To Point?

The Associated Press ran a story yesterday analyzing the financial "reform" bill which recently passed in the Senate with the absurd headline, "New financial rules might not prevent next crisis."  Stop the presses!  Messrs. Wagner and Jacobs might really be on to something here!  As reported on these pages earlier, the final version of the bill does not include the tough measures proposed by Senators McCain, Shelby, and Gregg to force Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac out of government conservatorship.

Instead, the government will continue to own and run the two institutions at the very heart of the financial collapse.  Bad mortgages will continue to be issued or underwritten by Fannie and Freddie, backed by the unlimited credit of the federal government.  Big Wall Street banks will still find loopholes in the laws and regulations in order to make a profit, emboldened by new rules which only further strengthen the policy of "too big to fail."  Loose monetary policy and speculation will continue to drive up prices and lead to another asset bubble.

Democrats have used this crisis as nothing more than a cynical ploy to claim that they're "getting tough on Wall Street" and to shift public rage away from the health care fiasco leading up to the elections.  However, the longer-term implications of this self-serving blame game are troubling for the nation.  By claiming that they have fixed the problem, Democrats reinforce the dubious notion that the government can predict and control the future even though the events which led up to the crisis argue precisely the opposite.

In a profile of Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC, Time magazine notes that she saw warning signs that mortgage markets were headed for trouble almost immediately after her appointment:
Bair had hardly been named to the FDIC post by George W. Bush in 2006 when aides alerted her to a dangerous disintegration of lending standards across the banking industry — loans with hidden fees, poor documentation and explosive adjustable rates. Even though the regulation of these standards was the primary responsibility of the Federal Reserve, Bair authorized her staff to purchase a large industry database to confirm their suspicions. "It was just amazing to us what we saw," she says.
Despite these and many other warnings in 2006 and 2007, the Democrat-controlled Congress failed to act.  It takes a stunning credulity to think that next time will somehow be any different.  The problem was not a lack of regulations or oversight, but a lack of will on the part of politicians to respond.  Instead of pointing fingers at the private sector, Democrats could have implemented real reform, but that would have required them to admit that government is the problem, not the solution.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Takin' Care of Business

While walking along a street in San Francisco, the Prolix Patriot saw a strange sign in the window of a shop advising passersby that a public hearing must be held before the store could be sold to new owners.  Apparently, shopkeepers in the city by the bay are required to submit detailed proposals for public debate for even the most modest changes.

In this case, a frozen yogurt store had to obtain a fourteen-page document which grants government approval to change the restaurant to a take-out counter.  The document also specifies what hours the cafe may be open and also certifies that the change will not cause environmental damage or alter traffic patterns.  Moreover, the new owner could not even apply for building permits, let alone begin work, until the approval was granted.

As a more extreme example of the problems caused by a hyper-bureaucratic state, a mob of angry hipsters converged on City Hall last year to protest the proposed construction of a new American Apparel--ironically, a purveyor of hipster-style clothing--in their midst in the gentrifying Mission District.  A check of the company's Northern California store locations reveals that the proposed store was never built.

For a vocal minority of neighborhood busybodies, this is undoubtedly a great victory which sends a message to much larger national brands that they had better stay out.  However, such draconian policies also carry a high cost for the same "quirky" local businesses that these ordinances are meant to protect.  By creating a Gordian knot of bureaucracy, the city discourages potential entrepreneurs from even beginning the process without a sufficient bankroll.

Worse still, a struggling business owner might have to wait months to get through all the approvals necessary to save his or her store from financial ruin.  For many businesses, that wait was too long.  The San Francisco examiner reported last year that the retail vacancy rate was somewhere near 13 percent and it appears to be holding steady.  Neighborhood activists may be winning their battle against big box stores, but at what cost?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Water, Water, Everywhere

Alcatraz Island, like any National Park, is sprinkled with information panels detailing the history of the place, the local flora and fauna, and so forth.  However, in this particular park, there is one panel that does not depict a historical event, but rather, makes a prediction about the future.  Perhaps inspired by the new brand of post-apocalyptic science fiction that is regularly broadcast on the so-called "History Channel," the Park Service helpfully shows what the coastline of San Francisco would look like during a 100-year flood.

As you might expect, these dire predictions are accompanied by the usual environmentalist alarmism about how everyone needs to do their part.  If we all work together and change a few light bulbs, we can turn back the forces of nature!  Sadly, such alarmism ignores the plain facts of history.  Like most cities, large parts of San Francisco's waterfront were built on landfill.  For purposes of comparison, a map published in 1855 shows the original coastline and the man-made areas of the city.

The map above is a composite which shows the original shoreline in red.  From it, one can see that the areas most in danger of flooding are precisely those areas that were under water before the massive building boom of the California gold rush.  When faced with the threat of natural disasters, the environmentalist response is always that we should make sacrifices and change our lives in order to accommodate the vagaries of nature's wrath.  A man-made problem cannot possibly have a man-made solution.

The areas presumed to be in danger of flooding were originally built with vastly inferior 19th century technology.  It stands to reason that the citizens of San Francisco will figure out some way to avoid inundation in the next 90 years, but you will never hear an environmentalist admit that, in the relentless march of human progress, we will find new ways of dealing with nature.  Science is only useful when it supports the environmentalist cult of sacrifice.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Westward, Ho!

The Prolix Patriot is currently re-enacting the westward journey of Lewis and Clark. They took an airplane, right? He will return on Wednesday, May 19.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Money to Burn

Last week, Senators McCain, Shelby, and Gregg introduced an amendment to the Democrats' phony financial "reform" bill which would have actually reformed the culprits at the very heart of the financial meltdown--namely, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.  However, the Washington Post reports that while the Senate should hold a vote on the amendment any day now, it is unlikely to pass.

Meanwhile, ABC news reports that Fannie and Freddie continue to hemorrhage taxpayer dollars from their unlimited government credit line.
Fannie Mae, the largest U.S. residential mortgage funds provider, on Monday asked the government for an additional $8.4 billion after the company lost $13.1 billion in the first quarter.

Including the latest request, Fannie Mae will have received more than $84.6 billion from the government, and the firm said it saw no end in sight to federal assistance.

The announcement comes less than a week after smaller mortgage finance company Freddie Mac, said it would need $10.6 billion in government funds after losing $8 billion in the first quarter.
If the McCain-Shelby-Gregg amendment does indeed fail, it will be impossible to take Democrats seriously when they claim they are fighting the big banks to fix a broken financial system.  In July of 2008, the New York Times reported Fannie and Freddie were the biggest players of them all.  Before the big crash, Fannie and Freddie owned or guaranteed more than half of all mortgages issued in the United States.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that the author of this legislation, Senator Dodd, was consistently the top recipient of campaign contributions from Fannie and Freddie during the past two decades.  And who was number two on the list?  A young and charismatic senator from Illinois named Barack Obama.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Don't Judge Me!

The Washington Post is always a source of entertainment.  Their coverage this morning of last night's leaked announcement that Press Secretary Robert Gibbs would announce that President Obama would announce Elena Kagan as his nominee to replace Justice Stevens is typical in its fawning nature, but achieves spectacular new heights in the abuse of our language (emphasis added):
And she's never been a judge, which gives her a quality that Obama is known to have been seeking: someone to bring a different sensibility to a court that's currently dominated by judges.

That particular lack of experience also means she does not have a long record of controversial rulings that could provide fodder for the presidents [sic] political opponents.
Imagine that, judges in our courts!  Who would have thought?  In all seriousness though, the next paragraph is more telling.  Obama faces a much more hostile Senate than last year and his party has sunk to the lowest advantage in voter identification it has had against the GOP in five years.  Going into elections this fall, he could not afford to nominate a doctrinaire liberal with an extensive history that would lead to a polarizing debate on social issues.

Strangely, the President has come under attack from many liberals for not making an ideologically "safer" choice.  Commentators such as Greenwald at Salon.com suggest that, if confirmed, Kagan would actually move the court to the right.  Conservatives may hope that she becomes the Democrats' Souter--a blank slate who soon diverges from the liberal cause--but an academic study by Lee Epstein, Andrew D. Martin, Kevin M. Quinn and Jeffrey A. Segal shows that these hopes are likely in vain.
Of the twenty-six Justices who served on the Court for ten or more terms since 1937, all but four exhibit ideological drift over the course of their tenures.  Twelve moved to the left, seven to the right, and three in more exotic ways.
The study concludes that Supreme Court Justices are likely to change ideologically--mostly to the left--and that presidents and the Senate should focus more on the qualifications of the nominee than his or her ideology.  On this point, Kagan is an eminently qualified legal scholar, but it remains to be seen whether her lack of judicial experience will be a serious handicap if, as seems likely, she is confirmed.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Parliamentary Split Personality

After considerable delay by American standards, the BBC and other major news outlets have finally called the parliamentary election in the United Kingdom.  The result: nobody won, which has resulted in what our cousins across the pond call a "hung parliament."  The most likely scenario is that David Cameron and Nick Clegg will agree to form a schizophrenic Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, but as the major parties in Britain try to assemble a governing majority, we can learn something about our own political system--and its advantages.

Third parties are not an anomaly in the United States.  Rather, we have seen a credible third party presidential challenger every 20-30 years, with astonishingly futile regularity.  Third parties do occasionally win Congressional elections, and recently, the trend seems to be increasing, but no third party candidate has ever won the presidency.  Thus, even if a situation arose where no party had a majority in Congress, there would at least still be a clear leader.  As Hamilton writes in The Federalist number 70 on the composition of the executive branch:
But no favorable circumstances palliate or atone for the disadvantages of dissension in the executive department.  Here, they are pure and unmixed.  There is no point at which they cease to operate.  They serve to embarrass and weaken the execution of the plan or measure to which they relate, from the first step to the final conclusion of it.  They constantly counteract those qualities in the Executive which are the most necessary ingredients in its composition, vigor and expedition, and this without any counterbalancing good.
In short, the current situation in Britain is an example of the paralysis that arises when the legislative and executive functions are combined.  Moreover, with the escalating debt crisis in Europe, the instability and uncertainty of a hung parliament has already caused the pound the fall in relation to the dollar and could cause a total collapse of the British economy if no party is able to form a government for a prolonged time.

Fortunately for America, we almost always have a clear winner for the highest office even when there is no majority in the popular vote.  Ironically, while reporting on the instability the election has caused, CNN seems to side with the Liberal Democrats on the issue of proportional representation.  Never mind that a proportional system would only exacerbate the problems of forming a ruling majority with three or more parties.
Under the [British election] system, the candidate who receives the most votes in a constituency wins. The system, known as "first past the post," is praised for its simplicity and the strong ties it forms between voters and representatives, but critics dislike its failure to provide proportional representation.
Some factions--perhaps including the journalists at CNN--would see us abolish the Electoral College system and instead rely on a nationwide popular vote.  However, in a year with a strong third party challenger, this would be disastrous for the nation.  In all but a few cases, the Electoral College gives a decisive victory to the candidate with the broadest support across the whole nation, sparing us from a prolonged and painful leadership vacuum.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Victory for Whom?

When news reports first came out this past weekend that an attempted attack on Times Square failed because of the would-be bomber's incompetence, the nation breathed a collective sigh of relief.  The Washington Post however, sees things a little differently:
When Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. stepped up to the lectern at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday, it was more than an unusual middle-of-the-night appearance trumpeting the swift arrest of an alleged terrorist. It also marked a rare moment of glory for the attorney general....

A good week doesn't necessarily make for a turnaround. But with the arrest of Faisal Shahzad in connection with Saturday's attempted bombing in Times Square, Holder and the law enforcement agencies he oversees were able to claim a victory for the administration.
Even though the government failed to prevent the attack and almost bungled the arrest of the prime suspect, only just catching him in nick-of-time before his flight took off for Pakistan, the Post describes the arrest of Faisal Shahzad as a "glorious victory."  This is reminiscent of the Chris Rock comedy sketch about the person who expects you to be proud of them because they didn't go to jail.  "What do you want, a cookie?  You're not supposed to go to jail," he retorts.

Similarly, the American people reasonably expect the Justice Department to swiftly arrest the suspects in major crimes.  This begs the question, does the Washington Post believe that our government is really so dysfunctional that when the government succeeds at something it is supposed to do, it is a "glorious victory?"  Moreover, the Post describes this not as a victory in the war on terror, but for the Obama Administration--that is to say, a political victory.  More to the point, does the Post believe that it is a "glorious victory" when the Obama Administration is only just barely less incompetent than would-be terrorists?

All joking aside, there is something more ominous in this episode.  In both this case and in the failed Christmas Day underpants bombing, the al-Qaeda network clearly did not deploy their A-team.  In both cases, horrific loss of life was only averted by the would-be bomber's own incompetence.  One has to wonder if these attacks were even meant to succeed, or if instead, the terrorist masterminds who still survive in some cave in Afghanistan are using these attempts to probe for weaknesses in our defenses.  If this is true, these failed attempts are victories not for us, but for al-Qaeda.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Unintended Consequences

Amid all the destruction and terror of this past weekend, it is reassuring to finally hear some good news.

The Washington Post reports that the D.C. City Council is reassessing earlier plans to enact a soda tax similar to the one which has prompted outrage in New York after being proposed last year.  However, the fact that this tax was even contemplated should be cause for concern.  In both cases, the cities would levy a tax of one cent per ounce.  For the 12-packs of Coca-Cola pictured above, the tax of $1.44 per case would amount to 43 percent!

The proponents of the crippling soda tax have forgotten that the rise of soda fountains and of soft drinks in the first place was largely a reaction to prohibition.  As the New York Times reported in 1916 when the temperance movement was at its height, "The wave of prohibition that is slowly sweeping over the country has done more than any other one influence to develop the soda water trade."  Ginger ale and root beer were once billed as the healthy alternative to their alcoholic namesakes.

Meanwhile, the District of Columbia has some of the lowest alcohol taxes in the nation.  The tax for wine is only 30 cents per gallon, or roughly one-quarter of a cent per ounce while the tax for beer is an embarrassingly low nine cents per gallon, or less than one-tenth of a cent per ounce.  By raising taxes on soda to several times that of beer and wine, the D.C City Council will effectively encourage the citizens of our nation's capital to drink more alcohol instead of soft drinks.

Ironically, what started as the cure for the supposed evils of alcohol may ultimately cause more alcohol consumption.