Friday, October 30, 2009

Honduran Debacle

Deposed President Manuel Zelaya is allegedly on the brink of reinstatement. This is bad news for the U.S. for two reasons.

First, while Honduras is not exactly the most consequential nation on the world stage, it is in our backyard and may act as a bellwether for relations with Latin America. Zelaya is not only not friendly to the U.S., he is quite friendly with Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, an avowed enemy of ours. While provisional Honduran President Roberto Micheletti was a member of Zelaya's political party, he opposed Venezuelan interference and would have helped keep Honduras neutral. If Zelaya regains power, Honduras will fall back into Venezuela's sphere.

Second, and even more troubling, this crisis demonstrates a profound lack of respect for the rule of law by the U.S. and other foreign powers. Zelaya was deposed by Constitutional means after he was caught trying to illegally convert himself to a President-for-life along the lines of Hugo Chavez (you can see why they're friends). So what conceivable reason could there be for the Obama Administration to support Zelaya over the rest of the government (who were almost entirely united in their opposition to him)? Imagine that, during Watergate, major European nations announced their support for Nixon and that any attempt to remove him via impeachment would result in trade sanctions against and diplomatic isolation of the U.S. Would that not be cause for outrage? The story in Honduras is far more outrageous. Zelaya committed worse sins than Nixon ever contemplated; our influence on Honduras (in the form of military aid and trade) is greater than Europe's on us (especially in 1974).

I'm still trying to fathom the motivation behind our behavior in this crisis. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, "This is a big step forward for the Inter-American system and its commitment to democracy." It's hard to see how this can be true in any sense. Had Zelaya not had foreign support, the "crisis" would probably have ended as soon as he was deposed, and he'd be living off his Swiss bank account on some Venezuelan beach by now. Instead, we've extended and exacerbated the crisis, undermined democratic rule of law, and helped to entrench an ally of our most outspoken Latin American enemy.

What's in it for us? Our interests and our principles were aligned in this case: support of Micheletti would have helped the U.S. That should have made our foreign policy easy. Instead, both interest and principle were ignored in a vain attempt to, what, court Chavez? Maddening.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Einstein Vindicated Yet Again

One of the responsibilities - and joys - of doing science is in discovering something new, something that doesn't fit with existing theories. For that reason, it's important to continue to test those theories, and to test their limits.

NASA's Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope has been operating over the past year in this capacity. In 1905, Albert Einstein developed the theory of Special Relativity, which is based on the assumption that light travels the same speed under all conditions. This is hard to test thoroughly on Earth, because light travels so fast. The Fermi telescope, though, can record Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) - very short-term events (a few seconds at most) emitting a wide range of photon energies. GRBs sometimes occur very far away. The photons emitted race toward Earth for millions, even billions, of years, and we can record their arrival and calculate their relative speed.

In May, 2009, a GRB lasting 2.1 seconds detonated in a galaxy about 7.3 billion light years away. Fermi detected photons with energies about a factor of a million apart, which arrived only 0.9 seconds apart. Thus, the maximum difference in speed between the two would have resulted in a 3-second disparity in arrival time over 7.3 billion years (and possibly no disparity at all, depending on when the photons were actually emitted). This corresponds to an accuracy about 1 part in 100 million billion, or put another way, a difference of 3 nanometers/second in a speed of light of 300,000 km/second.

This is "good news" in the sense that it eliminates a class of theories about the structure of the universe. Some theories held that the speed of light actually was not quite constant under certain conditions, and would have predicted a much higher discrepancy that was measured here. Those theories must now be rejected or, at least, modified.

But it's sort of "bad news" (to the extent that any scientific fact can be given such value labels as "good" or "bad") in that it means we didn't discover a new discrepancy in our understanding of the universe. Such discrepancies are the source of all new theories; Einstein himself based Special Relativity on the Michelson-Morley experiment (which demonstrated that 19th-century theories about the propagation of light were fatally flawed). It would have been more "helpful" to find a large discrepancy in speed, which would enable us to reject all theories except those that admitted such a discrepancy. But, facts being facts, there's no use crying over it.

We know that the two great theories of 20th century physics, Relativity and Quantum Theory, are incompatible. The grand project of determining how they fit together just took another baby step.

NJ Governor

The race for NJ governor is a little like the World Series in my mind: on one hand you have a team that I dislike and that can buy whatever it wants; on the other a band of underdogs, who look like they might win, but about whom I can't summon up much enthusiasm other than the desire to see the disliked team lose.

I'm talking, of course, about Corzine and the Yankees on the one hand, and Christie and the Phillies on the other. About the former there's not much to be said that I haven't already. About the latter: how can I be enthusiastic about Chris Christie? His strongest credential is fighting corruption. Since we have a corruption problem in NJ, that would seem to be important. But we have a much more urgent problem: we're going bankrupt. It's bad already and the dynamics are only getting worse.

As of right now, New Jersey suffers the highest tax burden of any state, according to the Tax Foundation. So the treasury coffers must be bursting, right? Well, no. In fact, our debt continues to balloon to ever-greater heights while, at the same time, both residents and businesses flee the state. Eventually, whoever is left will have to pay this off, so let's hope the last person left in the state is really wealthy.

Back to Christie: he talks a little about cutting spending and cutting taxes, but there's no reason to believe he's serious about it. He won't take on the public employees' unions that are sucking the state dry. He might cut some taxes, or reinstate the property tax rebates that Corzine suspended, but without commensurate spending cuts that only delays the inevitable.

The only reasons to back Christie at all are that he's not Corzine, and that electing him would send Obama Nation a message that people are getting fed up with Democrats - even in New Jersey. Is that enough to get me to vote on Tuesday? I'm not sure. Maybe I'll be out celebrating a Phillies victory instead.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Whole Earth Discipline Previewed

One of the environmental movement's founding fathers, Stewart Brand, has a new book out: Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto. In it he lays out the case why environmentalists should embrace nuclear power, genetically modified organisms, and mega-cities. The book grew out of an earlier article Brand wrote for the MIT Technology Review in 2005.

This is remarkable. Brand founded the Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, and preached the merits of "back-to-the-land" life, seemingly the opposite positions of those presented in his new book. But he has not given up his environmentalism; rather, he has come to the realization that modern civilization requires high technology, and that such a civilization is more likely to be environmentally friendly than is barbarism.

I have heard Brand interviewed on NPR, but have not read the book yet. When I do, I will post a complete review. This is a welcome sign that the stultified dogma of the environmental movement may finally be cracking.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Public Option Opt-out

So the public option lives on. Good for Reid: he's sticking to his guns. Unfortunately (for the bill, and for us if it gets signed into law), this Frankenstein monster he's crafting contains the worst elements of its forebears, and risks bringing out the villagers with pitchforks once the full details and implications become widely known.

The latest idea is to have a public option, but allow states to opt out. While the instinct to federalism is admirable, it's hard to imagine a worse compromise. It undermines the stated purpose of a common national health care plan, which is to force all insurers to compete with a "lowest common denominator" plan. (Of course, this won't work - if payments remain on their current trajectory, it will merely shift costs from health care consumers to taxpayers; if payments are cut, it will cause a shortage of health care. But that's the stated purpose.) This compromise means that insurers will be able to lobby their states of business to keep them free of this new competitor.

Imagine a bill establishing the U.S. Postal Service, but allowing states to opt out. Reid's compromise is just slightly less ridiculous.

Obviously, this was done to calm nervous Democratic senators from conservative states, who can now tell their constituents: Look, if you don't like it, just opt out of it. Which just shows that the Democrats have no philosophy, no unifying ideals that they aren't willing to compromise, as long as they get their beloved public option somewhere.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Biden in Poland

VP Joe Biden is in Poland to get their buy-in to a revised plan for missile defense in Eastern Europe. There's obviously some diplomacy going on here that isn't being reported. The previous plan was withdrawn in response to Russian objections (ridiculous ones, incidentally), the assumption being that we would obtain as quid pro quo Russian assistance in reining in the Iranian nuclear program. But Russia gave no public assurance of that at the time and has since only stymied international efforts in Iran.

So is the new plan just a face-saving measure? Instead of reinstituting the old plan, which would be an admission that their strategy vis-a-vis Russia had failed, the new plan is put in place for technological reasons. (But if that's the case, then surely we should be updating our own missile defense sites in Alaska and California immediately. Aren't they more important to our own security that the Eastern European site?)

Let's hope that's the case, and that the new plan is much better. But I can't help but think back to 1930s Poland, whose independence was "guaranteed" by Great Britain and France after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. When Poland was subsequently carved up by the U.S.S.R. and Germany in September, 1939, Britain had no choice but to stand by helplessly and watch, because they simply had no way to back up their guarantee. Lesson: don't make guarantees you can't back up. And don't provide Eastern Europe with a missile defense system that can't do the job.

More Obama Financial Incoherence

There's a mythology growing up around the financial collapse last year that's going to lead us to make policy mistakes if we don't dispel it: that the problems were due only to speculation, derivatives, and over-reliance on incorrect models. That was certainly part of the problem. But underlying all of that was the fact that banks were loaning money to people who couldn't pay it back.

Yesterday, President Obama said the following:

"When I hear stories about small businesses and medium-sized businesses not being able to get loans, despite Wall Street being profitable, that tells me people aren't thinking about their obligations," Obama said, chastising bigger banks.

(Let's hope Obama isn't just "hearing stories," but is actually looking at hard data.) But let me get this straight. Obama thinks banks have "obligations" to lend money to small businesses? All small businesses? Even ones that, maybe, the bank thinks won't be able to pay them back? He's in favor of "tighter regulation," but apparently in his mind that means looser lending rules. Despite the fact that loose lending rules got us into this mess in the first place. Someone please tell the President that when you're in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who Defends Free Speech Now?

Mark Steyn has been embroiled in a Section 13 case under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Recently, he testified to the Canadian parliament about this. Speaking of the case, Jay Nordlinger today writes:

And it is very interesting that, in these times, the burden of defending basic liberty has fallen to people known as right-wingers. As an old Ann Arbor kid, I find that very, very interesting, and astounding.

Interesting, maybe. Astounding, not at all. The Left (and here I mean the institutional Left, not necessarily your neighbor who tends to vote Democrat) champions free speech as a tactic only while they do not control the commanding heights of speech. The fact that they now wish to suppress speech merely confirms what we already know: they do now command those heights. "We" may have Fox News and talk radio, but "they" have every other TV network. We may have the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Times, the New York Post... but they have nearly every other newspaper. And so on.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

NPR's Grasp on Finance

Heard on NPR this morning (paraphrasing): "Think of the [New York State] loans [for weatherizing houses] as a bridge. These people can save $10,000 over the next ten years. But only if they spend $10,000 now, which they don't have. These loans provide that."

No wonder NPR needs all those pledge drives, if they invest their money like this.

Friday, October 9, 2009

DNC Losing It

This just in from the Democratic National Committee (via Daily Kos):

The Republican Party has thrown in its lot with the terrorists — the Taliban and Hamas this morning — in criticizing the President for receiving the Nobel Peace prize. Republicans cheered when America failed to land the Olympics and now they are criticizing the President of the United States for receiving the Nobel Peace prize — an award he did not seek but that is nonetheless an honor in which every American can take great pride — unless of course you are the Republican Party. The 2009 version of the Republican Party has no boundaries, has no shame and has proved that they will put politics above patriotism at every turn. It's no wonder only 20 percent of Americans admit to being Republicans anymore – it's an embarrassing label to claim.

This is standard fare on the over-the-top hate-fest that is Daily Kos. But for some reason I expected better from the DNC. Guess I learned my lesson today. If nothing else, we have certainly learned that while it is unacceptable to question someone's patriotism for, say, opposing funding combat troops in an active war zone, it is perfectly OK to do so for questioning the propriety of winning a Nobel Peace Prize after ten days as President.

Something to remember the next time you hear Kos - or any other liberal - complaining how the DNC pulls its punches.

Other Prize News

In other news:

The New York Yankees have been awarded the 2009 World Series. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said, "They're such a good team, and everyone likes them, and they've worked so hard to get here. They deserve it."

Brazil has been declared the winner of the soccer gold medal in the 2016 Olympic Games. "After all," said IOC President Jacques Rogge in a written statement, "they will be the home team. Does anyone really doubt they will win it?"

Nine-year-old Peewee League quarterback Johnny Minton of Odessa, Texas, has been announced as the winner of the 2020 Heisman Trophy. Asked about the honor, Johnny said, "Well, why not? President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. I have a lot of potential, too."

Nobel Absurdity Prize

So Obama has now won the Nobel Peace Prize. World leaders have certainly won it before:

2008: Martti Ahtisaari, former president of Finland, won "for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts."

2002: Jimmy Carter, former president of the U.S., won "for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development."

2000: Kim Dae Jung, then president of South Korea, won "for his work for democracy and human rights in South Korea and in East Asia in general, and for peace and reconciliation with North Korea in particular." While only elected president in 1998, Kim had been in politics since 1954.

Other world leaders winning the Prize won for finding peace in Ireland, in the Middle East, South Africa, Indochina, etc.

Remind me: what exactly has Obama done? The Nobel committee says: "for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples." Could they, maybe, name a few? Desmond Tutu (winner of the 1984 Prize) had this to say:

"In a way, it's an award coming near the beginning of the first term of office of a relatively young president that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all," he said. "It is an award that speaks to the promise of President Obama's message of hope."

Right. So it really has nothing to do with any accomplishments at all. Got it.

This will not bode well for our President's already inflated ego.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

French Happiness

A recent story in the New York Times (free registration required) points to data showing that France's suicide rate is the highest in Europe, and about 50% higher than America's. Even more surprising, most of these suicides appear to be related to workplace stress.

Two months ago I came at this from a different direction:

And does [France's 35-hour work week] lead to more personal satisfaction? There may be "some indication" that it does, but there is also plenty indication that it does not. The world map of happiness shows the U.S. ranked 23rd out of 178 nations surveyed (and the highest-ranked really large nation). France comes in 62nd. "Industry is the enemy of melancholy," said William F. Buckley. Why should we assume that more leisure equals more happiness?

These suicide numbers are just more evidence that mandatory short work weeks does not happiness make.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Liking Paterson

I have to admit to having a soft spot for Gov. David Paterson of New York. Sure, I don't like many of his policies. Sure, he's a liberal Democrat. But he specializes in annoying all of the right people. After months wrestling with New York's fiscal woes, he's denied funding increases to the powerful state health care industry, fought with the teachers' union, and now comes a story in which he announces an 11% across-the-board cut in spending. Well, not quite across the board: Medicaid and public education are left untouched. But it's a start, and for an unpopular governor facing almost certain electoral defeat it shows gumption. Kudos.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Totalitarian Impulse

Tom Friedman rightly came under fire a few weeks ago for writing in his NY Times editorial:

One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages.

Yes, it certainly would be easier to get things done if you don't have to deal with all that messy democracy stuff.

This impulse is not confined to the left, of course. Over the weekend, Andy McCarthy from NRO posted the following exchange:

E: Hmm. I think the marines should be the commander in chief.
A: [Laughing, of course] I bet the marines would like that.
E: I mean, if we didn’t have the marines, what could Obama do?

Here, "A" is McCarthy and "E" is his son. It's possible to make too much of this innocent exchange with a 7-year-old. But clearly McCarthy is intrigued by this idea. Is it necessary to point out to him the reason why we have a civilian leading the armed forces, the historical reasons for this, and the advantages of doing so? It intermingles politics with war-fighting, and that's certainly messy, but the desire to undo that is no less dangerous than what Friedman yearns for.