Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Brown on the Jobs Bill

Newest Senator Scott Brown broke ranks with most other Republicans to vote for cloture on the new "jobs" bill (quotes added out of skepticism at what this bill will actually accomplish). I wrote this the day after Brown was elected:

[Brown] isn't going to become another Rick Santorum. In my opinion, that's a good thing. It's possible that Brown is close to my ideal candidate: fiscally conservative, socially moderate. He was elected primarily on the former, and we will have to see how he does. But even farther-right conservatives than I should be happy if he legislates around the middle of the party.

I'm not surprised to see Brown exercise his independence. It's slightly disturbing to see it come on a fiscal measure. And if he continues to vote for fiscal "stimulus" then that'll be a shame and I'll have to re-evaluate him.

But he'd have to commit an awful lot of sins before I'd regret supporting him, as long as the health care bill in its current form dies a final death.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Gimme a Double McTwist

American snowboard half-piper Shaun White, who won his second consecutive gold medal in Vancouver last night, proved he is currently the king of the sport. No one else could really touch him. White's airs were a good five feet higher than anyone else's, and he executed incredible tricks nearly effortlessly. It's not that often in sports that you see someone so dominating.

I'm still torn on the judged events, though. They can be fun to watch, but some of them (like figure skating) tend in the direction of excessive predetermination: there are a fixed number of tricks, and each skater is expected to execute a certain number of them. So the differences come down to execution and artistry. Execution could be judged pretty objectively, but artistry cannot be. In some cases, the objective elements separate the competitors enough that it's clear who should win anyway (as in Shaun White's case), but all too often the subjective judgments are decisive.

Snowboard half-pipe still seems pretty "free", though. The sport is still innovative. White mentioned in his post-competition interview that the trick nearly everyone who had a shot at a medal was doing (the "double cork") was just developed in the past couple of years. White's latest invention, called the Double McTwist or the Whitesnake, is basically done only by him. But required elements are creeping in: every 'boarder had to do at least one "straight air" where no spins or flips were executed. It would be a shame to see that free-wheeling spirit eroded the way it has been in figure skating.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Morgenthau on the Terrorist Trials

Former Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau speaks to Brian Lehrer about military versus civilian trials for KSM and terrorists in general.

Morgenthau believes civilian courts should be used because they have "more experience handling complicated cases." But he doesn't believe they should be held in Manhattan. I'm not sure why experience should be a major issue (and neither our civilian nor military courts have any experience with a "suspect" - I guess we have to call him - like KSM).

Lehrer asks Morgenthau about Miranda rights, and this is where the former DA really goes off the rails, in my opinion. He believes we ought to treat terrorists fairly, because it will help our cause in converting the Arab world to democracy. As far as it goes, that's fine, but he doesn't seem to understand the issues involved:

Lehrer: But is anything lost, say, in being able to learn what's really going on in Yemen after that suspect on Christmas Day was arrested by reading him Miranda rights and letting him have a civilian lawyer after just a few hours [actually, 50 minutes - J]? Do you think anything is lost in terms of national security?

Morgenthau: No, I think we should have just been listening to his father, and we would have gotten all the information that was necessary.

I'm not sure here whether Morgenthau is being flippant to avoid answering an uncomfortable question, or really believes this. But it's a shame Lehrer didn't press this point at least a bit. To put the case in terms that a former Manhattan DA ought to understand, suppose a low-ranking member of the Gambino crime family was arrested while attempting to carry out a hit. This arrest has value in unwinding other Gambino plots. It makes no difference whether the hitman's father turned him in; that's just a one-time lucky break. Real intelligence can't just be based on lucky breaks. Surely Morgenthau knows this.

Lehrer asks Morgenthau about this clip by Joe Biden:

Looking at the evidence that has been made available to me as part of the executive branch of the prosecuting team [I don't know exactly what Biden means here, but I think we get his drift - J], I am absolutely convinced - I am absolutely convinced - that [KSM] will be put away for a long, long time.

Morgenthau believes this is inappropriate, which of course it is. It undermines the whole point he made earlier that showcasing a fair trial for KSM would help to convert the Arab world to our cause. Surely seeing our President, Vice President, and Attorney General all agree that KSM is definitely guilty and will be convicted negates any positive effect the trial might have in that regard. If convicted, they can call it a show trial (and they'll have a point). If not convicted... well, we needn't worry about that, because it won't happen. And that's the problem. The Obama administration has gotten themselves into an untenable position, where it's politically impossible to allow an acquittal, but diplomatically unhelpful to make one impossible. The whole thing could have been avoided by simply finishing the military trial that was already underway when Obama was inaugurated.

Morgenthau tries to burnish his anti-terrorism cred with this anecdote:

Morgenthau: I was on the receiving end of seventeen suicide attacks - seventeen - they called them kamikaze attacks in those days. I was on a picket station on a destroyer in Okinawa. So I'm not soft on these guys, and I know what our people have gone through in dealing with them. But I think we want to be known as a country that is fair.

Lehrer: Do you see a moral difference between the suicide bombers who were the kamikazes for Japan in World War II, and these suicide bombers [like KSM]?

Morgenthau: No.

This is a stunning conclusion. The kamikazes in WWII flew aircraft with Japanese emblems on them, in a war zone. It's certainly true that they did horrific damage to American forces, and it's understandable that someone who fought against them, and lost friends to them, would view them negatively. But there simply is a difference between the kamikazes, who flew military aircraft into military targets in the midst of a declared war, and the terrorists who masqueraded as civilians, took over civilian aircraft, and flew them into civilian buildings. That a former DA can't see that, or won't recognize it, is troubling in the extreme.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Olympics: Some Early Thoughts

I admit it: I'm a sucker for the Olympics. Winter, summer, whatever. I still remember the 1980 Winter games in Lake Placid. Not so much because of the Miracle on Ice, and Eric Heiden - those stories I only learned and came to appreciate later in life - but because my parents were so into it. As for myself, I'd build little skaters and skiers out of Lego to entertain the family.

Some random thoughts on this year's games:

  • The fatal training accident that killed Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili seems like it could have been prevented by a wall to stop out-of-control competitors. Such a wall was built after the accident, before competition started on Saturday. It is truly tragic that such a simple measure could have saved a life. But it's also hard to blame the engineers who designed the Whistler Sliding Centre; the course was approved by the IOC, and over 5,000 successful runs had been made prior to the accident. These sports are simply dangerous and it's not possible to eliminate every risk.
  • I felt bad for the Canadian organizers of the opening ceremonies when the fourth Olympic cauldron pillar refused to rise. There's such a curse on these things, almost like missions to Mars. Other than that glitch, it was a terrific ceremony, highlighting Canada's technical accomplishments, free-wheeling spirit, and artistic sense. Unlike the obsequious NBC commentators, I didn't think the Beijing ceremony was so wonderful that nothing else could ever top it. These events are all different and tell us different things about the host nations. Beijing's told us that China can get thousands of its people coordinated. Great, and pretty to watch. But Canada's more individualistic endeavor was more aligned with Western values.
  • One thing I love about short-track speed-skating is that there is a gold-medal heat in which the first to cross the finish line is the winner. An irritating necessity of long-track speed-skating is that each heat is basically just a time trial. There are two skaters, but by and large they are skating against the clock, not each other. Some of the thrill is lost when the eventual gold-medalist skates early and all the tension is in watching other competitors fall short. Can you imagine, say, the running or swimming events from the Summer games in a similar format? Snoozerama.
  • One thing I hate about short-track speed-skating is the role played by cruel fate. In the first medal event, the men's 1500-meter, the powerful South Korean team entered the final turn in first, second, and third place. They were on track to sweep the medals. Then the Korean in third tried a risky pass, caught an edge, and wiped out, taking his second-place teammate down with him. Americans Apolo Anton Ohno and J. R. Celski, in the right place at the right time, ended up second and third respectively. Many of these newer "extreme sport" events have this roller-derby aspect to them, and while it's entertaining in a way, it can be very frustrating to watch. Where's the pure sport in it?
  • The pairs figure skating event left me conflicted. I was happy to see Russian dominance of the event ended - they are the Yankees of pairs figure skating - but wish it had been by anyone other than the Chinese. Their athletics program is so inhuman, so collectivist, so identity-destroying, that I find it hard to root for them. This is not the fault of the individual athletes, though, and many of them, including the gold-medalists Shen and Zhao, have remarkable stories that compel admiration. And there was no question that the Chinese team was the best on the ice.
  • When watching events that feature cross-country skiing, I'll take Nordic Combined over any of the others. The other events, even biathlon, feature many of the worst aspects of sport: staggered starts mean that you can only figure out where competitors rank while on the course by comparing times at checkpoints, and, let's face it, watching a skier struggle up a hill, then coast down it, is about as boring as it gets. At least with Nordic Combined, you get the soaring thrill of the ski-jumping part, which determines the start sequence for the cross-country part. So the finish is a real finish: if I cross the line before you, then I beat you, period. No comparing of times or racing against the clock.
  • Since I started this with a tragic note on the luge, let's end on a lighter note also on luge. Is it really a sport at all? This question came up last night at a dinner party. The arguments on the "yes" side were based around the fact that it's physically challenging. I'm sure this is true: the G-forces can be extreme, the visibility is poor, the speeds are high and the tolerance for error small. But does this qualify something as a sport? Flying a fighter aircraft is physically challenging, but that's not a sport. Moving furniture is physically challenging. Although either of these could be made into sports; Ultimate Frisbee, the Highland Games, and Chess-Boxing all seem to prove the point that any physical activity humans can engage in will at some point be turned into a competition.

    But I think the reason people question luge is different. It's that the run times are so close and it's so hard for the uninitiated (of which I am one!) to distinguish a "good" run from a "bad" run (without checking the clock). The gold-medalist in Vancouver, German Felix Loch, finished his four runs in a total of 3:13.085. The tenth place finisher, Austrian Manuel Pfister, finished 2.184 seconds back; that's just 1.1%. The thirtieth place finisher was only six seconds, less than 3%, behind the winner. That would be all eight runners in the 100-meter dash finishing within 0.1 seconds of each other. If that happened, we would rightly wonder whether most people can run about the same speed, but sometimes one person happens to get a good start or a lucky break, and wins.

    But that's (one reason) why they have multiple runs in luge. For reasons that I can understand intellectually but which are too subtle for me to perceive, a slider like Loch can consistently herd that luge down the track faster than anyone else. And I think that makes it a sport. Unlike short-track speed-skating, cruel fate doesn't seem to play much of a role. What an awful tragedy that the one time it did in Vancouver, it took a life.

Compensation in the Public and Private Sectors

Brian Lehrer on NPR discusses the following question: What is the proper social contract between taxpayers and public employees in a changing world? His guests are Bob Master, Legislative and Political Director for Communications Workers of America in the Northeast, and E.J. McMahon, who specializes in NY city and state taxes and budgets for the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank.

Why is there a "social" contract at all between taxpayers and public employees? Don't they have real, legal contracts? The "social contract" is supposed to be a concept whereby we all agree to give up some of our freedoms in exchange for mutual safety. (And yes, taxes are a form of this. Taxes represent a loss of freedom to keep all of your earnings.) The social contract certainly comes into play when considering questions of taxation and public service, but it is not between taxpayers and public employees. Rather, it is between all members of society and covers far more than merely that one relationship.

As an aside, the whole idea of the "social contract" is an attempt to legitimize the use of government force on its citizens. Taxes are sometimes described (by liberals) as voluntary or at least as a very soft form of coercion. Of course this is completely false: fail to pay your taxes and you will find yourself in jail. That's not very soft. To justify this, liberals will sometimes bring up the idea that a tax-dodger has broken the "social contract" and, as good conservatives, we are expected to defend contract arrangements. The real goal, I suspect, is to mask the naturally adversarial relationship between taxpayers and government. (Other examples of the same tendency are found in the way our taxes are deducted painlessly from our paychecks, and the fact that tax day - April 15 - is almost exactly six months from election day in early November, i.e. as far away as possible.)

Getting back to the NPR segment, Lehrer opens by suggesting that public employees get much better deals than employees of private firms and asks whether this has to change. Master concedes that they get better deals (with only token resistance), but prefers that private employees get better compensation. He views reduction in compensation for public unions as a "race to the bottom."

Lehrer then poses the following question:

If I in the private sector don't have a defined benefit pension any more; if my job in the private sector doesn't come with unions any more, so I have to work cheaper than my father did [er, what? steal bases much, Lehrer? - J]; then why should the teacher, or the cop, or the toll collector have these things that cost me as a taxpayer more in benefits than my boss is paying me at my private company?

For my home state of New Jersey, and for our neighbor New York and our spiritual and financial partner California, this is a critical question, since public sector spending has gotten so out of balance it now threatens the solvency of these states. Master lists a few concessions which the unions he represents have made to these concerns:

We have made very significant sacrifices and changes in our pension plan to try to address those questions. We've increased the pension contribution of our members in New Jersey from 5% to 5.5%, as have teachers and local government workers all across the state. We raised the retirement age from 55 to 62. In terms of direct compensation, we postponed a raise, we took ten unpaid furlough days, and we have given up a total of $450 million in compensation over the past three years.

This really shows how disconnected the unions are from reality. The pension increase is nice to see, but doesn't bring the pension plan into the black - and doesn't match what private employees have to contribute to their 401(k)'s in order to ensure a comfortable retirement (and even so it isn't ensured in the way a government-backed defined benefit pension is). An increase in the retirement age to 62? This only highlights the fact that it was 55 - fully ten years younger than a private sector employee. Now the gap is merely five years, since private sector employees of my generation will be retiring no earlier than 67, and quite likely later. Incidentally, the combination of low pension contributions and early retirement is financially devastating.

McMahon points out a few other shortcomings with Master's claimed "concessions":

In New York State, public sector workers in state government last year received a 3% across the board salary increase plus longevity steps and are due to receive another 4% next year, in the teeth of the worst recession in 70 or 80 years, when in the private sector those people who have managed to hang on to their jobs are receiving no pay increase.... Even when, in those storied days of the New Deal and its aftermath, when the old line industrial union members - pick the UAW, for instance - had defined benefit pensions - and UAW members still do. You realize the UAW pension at its peak, at its richest, is not as generous as a typical public sector pension. That's a fact. There's never been anything in the private sector by and large as generous as what most state and local government workers get in pension and benefits.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The GOP Bench

It's no earth-shattering revelation to note that while the GOP has a number of solid governors, senators, and Congressmen, it is lacking in obvious talent prepared to vie for the Presidency in 2012.

A recent Hotline poll shows Obama up by only 2%, 44-42, against the generic GOP candidate. Among potential GOP candidates, there is no clear leader. Here are my thoughts on the contenders in this crazy-early, not really worth bothering about survey:

Romney (14%): Great policies. Great look. Really boring. GOP should only nominate him if they want to run a decent losing campaign.
Palin (11%): Does not look like Presidential material to me. Could have a role as kingmaker, though.
McCain (7%): C'mon, seriously? This guy already lost to Obama once. How old should the GOP's candidates be?
Brown (4%): Well, he'd have more Senate experience in 2012 than Obama had in 2008.... But for realsies, let's see how he looks in a year or two.
Huckabee (3%): My nightmare GOP candidate. Would look like W on steroids if elected.
Gingrich (3%): I have a soft spot for old Newt. He served a great role keeping Clinton in check. And he's been a useful conservative voice since he left Congress. But I think his negatives are too great to be a serious contender.
Paul (2%): I have a soft spot for Ron Paul, too. I think this would be a better country if he had a prayer of being elected. But he doesn't.
Pawlenty (1%): I hear good things, but really have no idea.
McDonnell (1%): Like Brown, let's check back in a year.
Thompson (1%): Has a useful place in the GOP. Just not in the Executive branch.
Jindal (1%): A star in Louisiana politics, but not sure if his quirks work on the national stage.

If Marco Rubio notches a primary win against Charlie Crist and goes on to defeat Kendall Meek for Florida Senator, look for him to start showing up in these pools by mid-November of this year. There's one to watch.

Also, interesting that Giuliani didn't even register. Are his Presidential hopes dead following his dreadful 2008 primary campaign?

How the Social Security Administration Views the World

I just went to the Social Security Administration's Web site to check the maximum tax for 2010. They don't make this really easy to find, but I've always been able to locate it. This time, just for kicks, I clicked on their "Information For" drop-down list thinking that I'd just click on "employees" and start there.

Employees? There is no such category. OK, maybe I'm a "Taxpayer" or some synonym. No, sir. On reflection, that makes sense. The government doesn't like to remind us that we actually pay taxes (unless we haven't paid enough).

That's when I went through each category, trying to figure out which one I fit in:

American Indians/Alaska Natives: No.
Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders: No (why are these special groups singled out?).
Attorneys: No.
Congress: No (they get their own category?? there are only 535 of them! And they have their own staffs!)
Employers: No.
Financial Planners: No.
Government Agencies: No.
Government Employees: No.
Health & School Professionals: No.
Human Resource Managers: No (but this is probably where I'll find the information I was originall looking for).
Immigrants: No.
Job Seekers: No.
Kids: No. (Really? Kids get their own category in our government retirement system's Web site?)
Medicare Outreach Agencies: I have no idea what the heck this is, but I'm not a member of one.
Press: No. (Unless Athwart History qualifies. OK, no.)
Representative Payees: Um...
Representatives: What is this? I have no idea, so I assume no.
Researchers: No.
School Officials: No.
Self Employed: No.
Social Agencies: No.
Software Developers: Hey, what? Yes, I am one! Er, wait, though, do software developers get special Social Security benefits? I don't think so. This must deal with developing software to calculate benefits or taxes or something, so while I might go here to find the information I'm looking for, it's not my category.
Vendors & Contractors: No.
Veteran-Owned Small Businesses: No.
Women: No.
Wounded Warriors: No.

So there you go. I don't fit into any of the SSA's categories. They list 26 of them. As I count it, that's 11 covering protected groups (like those Asians and Pacific Islanders), 9 covering people who actually might have particular questions (e.g., Press) and 6 that I simply can't categorize (Congress? Kids?).

I guess regular taxpaying employees just don't rate. I noticed the same thing on Obama's Web site back when he was running for President in 2008. He had all sorts of categories of people he would help out. I didn't fall into a single one. Oh, well. I suppose I should take pride in this.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Wealth Gap: Checking NPR

NPR is running an ongoing story on the "wealth gap" in America. This is just the same old story: the rich have more money (shock, horror!); the rich have gotten rich, the poor have gotten poorer; etc. There's some truth to it, but NPR also contributes to distorting the truth, and brings in some new canards.

I got wise to their story last night on Marketplace, with "behavioral economics" researcher Dan Ariely. The question Ariely investigated was people's perceptions about the wealth gap.

ARIELY: Right now the top 20 percent of the people have about 85 percent of the wealth. People think that they only own 68 percent of the wealth, so people underestimate the inequity, but if you ask them what's kind of an ideal world in the Rawls kind of sense that you would actually want to participate in, they say 33 percent.

Ryssdal: I'm stuck on the idea that there is a segment of society out there that thinks that inequality is the way it ought to be.

Is Ryssdal a socialist? I ask this question honestly. Is he really "stuck" on the idea that there should be any inequality of wealth at all in society? Does he actually believe that a productive person who invents, say, a new way to produce power cheaply and cleanly, should be no more wealthy than a high school dropout whose only skill is to flip burgers? At first blush it sounds like he does think this. That's a bit shocking, especially coming from NPR's business reporter.

Moving on to Ariely's comments: there's a bit of a stolen base here. The Rawls conception of a "fair society" is (roughly) this:

[A] fair society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you'd be willing to join it in a random place in the distribution. You would be willing to toss the dice and put you in one bin of wealth, for example.

Ariely's questionnaire presupposes the Rawls conception and asks people to consider how equal they would want society to be given this definition. But Rawls' is not the only conception of the "best" or "fairest" society.

In later posts I may tackle some of the other problems with a naive analysis of the "wealth gap", including: the fact that there is tremendous movement among the quintiles (for example, if you are in the bottom quintile in one year, there is about a 90% chance you have moved to a higher quintile within a few years; the same is true for people in the top quintile moving down); the fact that wealth and income is often measured per household, and this is misleading since average household sizes have become smaller, especially among the middle class.

Monday, February 8, 2010

The Ryan Plan: A Wedge Issue?

Kos contributor McJoan thinks the Ryan budget "roadmap" is a "wedge issue" that the House Dems will use to beat up on the GOP.

Er, really? Here's the so-called plan:

A Democratic leadership source told TPMDC they are considering options for turning the Ryan plan into a bill. Once that's done the Democrats would put the bill on the floor, forcing Republicans to vote for or against a plan they don't want to talk about.

So the plan is for a Democrat to craft a bill that reifies the Ryan plan, in the hope of embarrassing Republicans. Wouldn't the sheer hypocrisy of such a move be so obvious as to have exactly the opposite effect? Which Democrat is willing to fall on his sword in this manner? "Hello, senior citizens. I'm running for re-election in a tough year for Democrats and I've just introduced a bill to cut your most cherished benefits. But don't worry! It's just a ploy. I don't really mean it." Yeah... OK.

The conservative side of me would welcome this sort of discussion. The Ryan plan doesn't cut Social Security or Medicare for anyone under 55, so the only way senior citizens would oppose it (out of self-interest) would be if other Democrats resorted to their usual trick of mischaracterizing their own bill. I'm used to them painting their own bills in brighter colors and the GOP's in darker tones (and the GOP does the same thing), but it's innovative to introduce a bill and then distort it to make it look worse. Are the Democrats really so desperate that they would try a plan so fraught with the possibility of backfiring?

McJoan continues:

...the major difference here is that the Dems had very targeted cuts aimed at whittling away at inefficiencies in Medicare, while Ryan's budget "just goes after Medicare with a chain saw."

Well, not really. The major difference here is that the Dem plan had cuts that would affect existing Medicare recipients (and also cuts, such as to doctors' pay, that everyone knew wouldn't really happen), while the Ryan plan affects people who have less at stake. But hey, Democrats, don't let me talk you out of it. Give it a shot.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Subsidiarity and Libertarianism

Unbeknownst to me, Jim Manzi wrote an extensive blog post in September 2009 on exactly the issues I raised in my post on the Oregon tax hike, except that, characteristically, he goes more into depth than I did.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Obama Takes On the BCS

Geoffrey Norman laments the idea recently floated by President Obama to investigate the BCS - that's Boal Championship Series, the method by which college football national champions are selected, for the uninitiated - for possible anti-trust violation.

Personally, I say: go for it! Let Congress investigate. Let them hold hearings on steroids in baseball, adultery in golf, illegal handling of the ball in soccer, improperly tightened tennis racquets, and whether or not disabled sprinters with electric-powered prosthetics should be allowed to compete in the Olympics. Bring it on!

Because, I figure, if they're spending their time on sports, that leaves less time to pass "stimulus" packages, "fix" our health-care system, and institute cap-and-trade rules on our carbon emissions.