Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tea Time

I wouldn't exactly put on my Mike Myers voice and call this Scottish Breakfast Tea "crap", but...

I'm getting the impression that American tea drinkers are wusses.

I didn't even know such a blend existed until I saw it in a clearance bin at the mall. Kensington Scottish Breakfast Tea promises a "thick full bodied tea with a slightly malty character".

And it delivers. Perhaps a bit too much. They aren't kidding when they say "thick" and "malty".

It comes in those oversized tea bags common to imports from the UK or Ireland, so I threw it in the jumbo mug I have for such occasions. I like my tea relatively strong (or at least I thought I did), and when brewing a standard US-sized bag I usually just let it seep the whole time I'm drinking it - no milk, no sugar, no honey. For this stuff you really have to pay attention to how strong you're letting your tea become.

I think I'll stick with Barry's Irish Breakfast tea (aka "green label"), which I always considered to be on the bolder end of the spectrum, though I now see the website promises an "uncomplicated tea" that is "a bit softer in taste."

Either American tea drinkers are incredible wusses or I need a bigger mug. Or both.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Larry the Stimulus Guy

Lawrence Lindsey makes more sense than most of the current and former officials opining on a Federal stimulus package. Generally, he prefers particular tax cuts to infra spending. I can't say I agree with everything he says, but Lindsey makes several good points.

I think his criticisms of infra spending are generally valid, and he admits that while some such spending may be good, it can hardly be called a reliable economic stimulus.

Lowering (or at least promising not to raise) taxes on dividends and capital gains accomplishes Lindsey's criteria for effective stimulus - it addresses the problem (household wealth), it is timely (immediate), and it fundamentally strengthens the economy going into the expansion phase.

However, Lindsey is really pounding the table for a decrease in the payroll tax. I think his analysis is right that it will work, and for the reasons he states, but I am hesitant to further degrade the Social Security trust fund.

In the short run, effective fiscal stimulus requires that government revenue drop, thereby enriching the private sector, and with the Treasury making the Social Security trust fund whole by way of intergovernmental bookkeeping. Longer term, however, spending cuts or a new source of revenue would be needed.
There's the rub -- we're robbing the trust fund, and paying it back out of general funds. Lindsey's most promising source of future revenue is a carbon tax that can be phased in better economic times. Yikes.

But you can't have your cake and eat it too, and Lindsey's plan seems better than Obama's by any reasonable measure.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Liberal Fascism Part 1

I requested and received Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism for Christmas.

First, let me add to the anecdotal evidence of a bookseller's blacklist at Barnes & Noble stores. My parents were unsuccessful at the State College B&N, and so enlisted my brother who lives outside the area. After having similar failure at at least one B&N near Philly, my brother eventually located the book at a Borders. How ironic -- a popular book about fascism is oddly difficult to find...

Anyway, I finished the first chapter last night, which was about Mussolini. The book more than makes the case that Mussolini was a committed socialist through most of his political life. And it's pretty clear that at no point did Mussolini adopt anything that would resemble a right-leaning political philosophy, particularly not one that would be recognized as such today.

But there was a subtle shift to a kind of "whatever keeps me in power" philosophy, and Mussolini eventually de-emphasized class consciousness in favor of nationalist identity, infuriating Italian socialists at the time.

This is a difference from the short-form way that the Goldberg argument has been summarized -- that Mussolini and Hitler were just socialists who weren't internationalists. Clearly, at least with Mussolini (as that's all the farther I've read), there was a more important shift occurring.

Otherwise, there are numerous parallels drawn between Mussolini and Lenin including tactics, their views of Pragmatic philosophy, reaction to world events, and small-p pragmatic deviations from by-the-book socialism.

Good stuff so far. And with such an uncomfortable similarity to current political rhetoric (including a "third way" to get beyond "the tired categories of left and right", the rejection of the "dogma" of classical liberalism, and an appeal to "pragmatism" with a heavy state hand), it's no wonder sales of the book have jumped since November.

Looking forward to the rest of the book.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Over Regulation

Think we're under-regulated? Not entirely. Sarb-Ox is an anchor tied to the necks of entrepreneurs. (H/T Slashdot)

For all of this, we can first thank Sarbanes-Oxley. Cooked up in the wake of accounting scandals earlier this decade, it has essentially killed the creation of new public companies in America, hamstrung the NYSE and Nasdaq (while making the London Stock Exchange rich), and cost U.S. industry more than $200 billion by some estimates.

Meanwhile, FASB has fiddled with the accounting rules so much that, as one of America's most dynamic business executives, T.J. Rodgers of Cypress Semiconductor, recently blogged: "My financial statements are a mystery, even to me." FASB's "mark-to-market" accounting rules helped drive AIG and Bear Stearns into bankruptcy, even though they were cash-positive.


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Capitalism FAIL

This rises to UK-levels of FAIL.

Wal-Mart’s not in the custom upholstery business. But they do sell sheets and various sorts of bedding. And as such, they need at least three permits from this single government agency. To sell sheets. Because, I guess, Californians are so stupid that if they were left to their own devices they couldn’t buy proper bedding. They’d probably buy bags of potato peelings to cover themselves and gallons of gasoline to fill their waterbeds, and wonder why they woke up feeling starchy and engulfed in flames. Let us stop and thank God above that the California Bureau of Home Furnishings and Thermal Insulation is there to prevent such a travesty.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Palin Pontification

I weigh in on the ongoing Sarah Palin conversation over at PAWaterCooler, and try to see how many P-words I can use in a single sentence:
...and he did so peering patronizingly over the spectacles perched professorially on his proboscis.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Rick Warren the new Billy Graham?

With all the hubbub over Pastor Rick Warren's planned role in the Obama inauguration, I have to wonder if Warren is about to assume Billy Graham's former role as unofficial pastor to the Presidency.

Frankly, at this point in time, no pastor who doesn't oppose gay marriage is capable of assuming that role.

But Warren isn't exactly a hardcore political conservative. He's got sort of a new-agey Salvation Army vibe. He's about as squishy as a pastor can credibly get and still advise a future Republican President.

And that's just the point.

Plastic Snow Shovel Rant

Plastic snow shovels are the work of the devil.

When I was a kid you could buy an honest-to-God steel snow shovel that wasn't a piece of crap.

I don't want any "steel core", or "steel blade". Even the aluminum shovels don't last long -- the corners and edges get dinged up, and soon you're left with a worthless piece of aluminum on a stick... and even then it's still better than a plastic shovel.

And I'll have none of those allegedly "good for your back" shovels with the bend in the middle. They don't really help your back at all, they screw up your leverage when thrusting into heavily packed snow and/or ice, and if you're moving any large quantity of snow it's impossible to throw it far.

Where are the quality shovels of yesteryear? The ones that weigh half a ton... the ones that kill your back... the ones that are so rigid they'll dislocate your shoulder if you hit a crack in the sidewalk... the ones that are probably dangerous enough they shouldn't be sold to minors?

You know, the ones that actually get the job done?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Rise of the Machines

The Quote of the Day can be found in an interesting article suggesting that the current financial turmoil is effectively a giant, distributed computer crash.

In computer science terms, you could say that both Taleb and Mandelbrot, in a recent and very scary interview with Charlie Rose, have essentially argued that the current global system is in an "undefined state." This means that there's no way to predict what its output will be, which is why attempts by governments to meddle massively with the inputs will definitely have some kind of impact, but nobody can say what it really is. Government intervention becomes the equivalent of "percussive maintenance," i.e., beating on the side of the machine on the chance that you'll magically unbreak it.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

CQ bailout reporting bias

Specifically, those who are for the auto bailout are "pragmatic", and those who are against it are being "ideological" and "populist". (Link: "Bailout Season Has Republicans Choosing Sides")

On one side are pragmatists such as President Bush and the Republicans in Congress whose home states would be hardest-hit if auto manufacturers and their web of suppliers and dealers were to disappear.

On the other side are Republicans who believe so deeply in the conservative free-market philosophy that they oppose bailouts, either the huge $700 billion package (PL 110-373) Congress passed after tumultuous debate during the presidential campaign or one aimed at a unionized auto industry anchored in Midwest states where GOP fortunes already are sagging.


Just to set the blog record straight, I was for the financial bailout, but am in the Corker corner with respect to the auto bailout. And somehow the financial bailout did manage to pass...

Only in the 15th paragraph does CQ decide to mention Senator Corker's proposal, calling it "nuanced".

The difference with the auto companies is that while the banks had/have a problem that could be solved with large amounts of free money, the auto companies don't. There is a fundamental structural cost issue that must be resolved for the autos to be viable. Bob Corker understands this, and so do a lot of Republican Senators.

But back to CQ:
William Bianco, a political science professor at Indiana University, said anti-bailout Republicans had made a savvy political calculation that they could satisfy their base by scuttling a congressional auto bailout, knowing that they could score ideological points while feeling sure that Bush would intervene in any event.

"Everybody knows the game everybody is playing here. Republicans are playing to the politics of their districts with the firm expectation their actions in blocking the House-passed $14 billion loan package would have no policy consequences, because the industry will get bailed out anyway. If they’re wrong, they could be in trouble,” Bianco said.

Or, alternatively, the Republican Senators knew that a free money bailout was pointless, and are actually angry with Bush for potentially caving in? Also, the professor seems to suggest it's an "ideological" point, but one that they also didn't really believe.

When I was taught Political Science there was at least a theoretical pretense of neutrality. The idea seemed to be that it didn't matter whether or not politicians believed what they said, but academia didn't so far as to claim to know what was in their heads.

And this is just downright inconsistent:
Stan Luger, a political scientist at the University of Northern Colorado who has studied auto industry history, predicted that the nuanced stand taken by Sen. Bob Corker , R-Tenn., would be popular with some constituents, such as the non-union workers at the Nissan factory in Smyrna, Tenn. Corker’s plan would have required big wage concessions by the United Autoworkers Union as a key part of any deal.

"We have taken a very thoughtful stance. I don’t think it’s going to hurt us," Corker said.

"The South has taken over the Republican Party ideologically, They are taking a populist stance against bailouts. It will not be popular with unions. But it may appeal to workers for foreign automakers that do not need bailouts," Luger said.
Last I checked, the South was a region, not an ideology. Second, last time I checked, Tennessee was in the South - yet Corker, a Senator from Tennessee (and thus the South) had a "nuanced" plan, not a "populist" anti-bailout stance. And Corker just happens to be the lead Republican Senator on this issue.

Additionally, the transplants suffer if the parts suppliers suffer, so the idea that Big-Three bankruptcy is an unmitigated good for the foreign manufacturers is bogus.

Monday, December 15, 2008

There's always been Subprime in Eastasia

Great catch by John Hood at NRO.

In a ridiculous 1984-esque moment, Barney Frank tries to B.S. Maria Bartiromo on the history of subprime:

[MB] With all due respect, congressman, I saw videotapes of you saying in the past: "Oh, let's open up the lending. The housing market is fine."

[BF] No, you didn't see any such tapes.

I did. I saw them on TV.

Yeah, well, I never said open up the housing market, the market is fine. In 2005 a group of us in Congress were trying to pass a bill to restrict subprime lending, and we were opposed by right-wing Republicans led by [former House Majority Leader] Tom DeLay, and I don't remember us being able to get any media attention. No, I have been on the record as saying repeatedly that pushing people into homeownership when they can't afford it is a bad idea for them and the economy. In 1994, in fact, Democrats in Congress passed a bill giving the Fed the authority to restrict subprime lending. Alan Greenspan, as he later admitted, refused to use it.


Except for the bit about Greenspan, that's almost the exact opposite of what actually occurred.




I'll be the first to say it, a lot of Republicans are to blame too. But the Democrats uniformly opposed greater oversight over Fannie and Freddie, and the only people calling for it were Republicans.

Who ya gonna believe, Barney Frank or your lying eyes?

Hoekstra for MI Gov?

CQ Reports Rep. Pete Hoekstra isn't seeking another term, and his campaign website said, "In 2010 it will be time for us to move on to new challenges."

Thankfully, Granholm, the wicked witch of the North, is term limited. Her reign of economic terror will soon be over.

Some other Republican candidates are said to be in the running, but something tells me Hoekstra would make the best Governor. He might have been a contender for McCain's VP slot except for the fact that he's not a native born citizen.

Of course, MI will be a hard campaign for any Republican, so Hoekstra had better have some major support from the RGA, RNC, and just about every other Republican organization.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

FNS: Corker vs Stabenow

Senators Corker and Stabenow were on Fox News Sunday discussing the auto bailout.

Stabenow wasn't making a lot of sense.

Corker asserted that the bond holders were willing to take $0.30 on the dollar, but the UAW wasn't willing to become "competitive" (a purposely vague term, and established by the certification of a future Obama Labor Secretary) by the end of 2009.

Some time after Corker said this, Stabenow reached into her bag of talking points and pulled out the idea that the UAW workers were the only ones asked to make sacrifices. She didn't even bother to address Corker's previous claim about the bond holders already having agreed to severe cramdowns.

Another of Stabenow's claims doesn't make sense. She stated that the wages (I think only for newer workers) are already comparable to the transplant companies, and in some cases lower.

I guess legacy costs are a killer, aren't they? But if the labor costs are already not just "competitive" but virutally identical, there are two problems:
  1. What was the problem with the Corker amendment? Why did the UAW and the Democrats reject language mandating something that has already happened?
  2. What is the value of the UAW if they can't negotiate better wages than a non-union shop? Why would anybody care what happens to the UAW if they aren't adding any benefit for their members?
The UAW talking points don't seem logically consistent to me. Are they that attached to their 22-pound work rule manual?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Heather does not have two mommies

... or at least she shouldn't on her birth certificate, as NY Gov. Paterson has made possible through executive order, and seems to be the case in states allowing gay marriage.

The justification seems to be that hetero couples using a sperm donor still have the husband's name on the birth certificate -a presumably noble lie of sorts- and that this suggests gay couples should have a similar standing.

But it isn't true, and it's not even something we can pretend is true. Heather does not have two mommies. I expect that Science Almighty will allow such a thing during my lifetime, but right now that's just not the case.

(On an adjacent issue, unknowing cuckolds are often forced by state law to support children whom they have not fathered, even after that fact has been proven. This too should be corrected.)

To me, this isn't even about gay marriage - an issue on which I am conflicted. This is about the government attempting to make something true by fiat for politically correct reasons and in opposition to the plain facts.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Gaming out the Auto Bailout

Republican Senators were right to kill the $15-bn down-payment mini bailout. Here's why.

  • A necessary condition for the long term survival of the domestic car companies is a cost of labor comparable to their "transplant" competition*.
  • A mini-bailout of $15-bn would create a "sunk cost" mentality in Washington, giving bargaining leverage to those who are in favor of a bailout and decreasing the pressure on the UAW.
  • The Corker amendment, weak though it was, was the only chance of getting labor concessions in the ballpark of the appropriate level.
  • Therefore, the mini-bailout (sans Corker) creates a likely scenario where numerous tens of billions are put into companies that have virtually no chance of long-term survival.


* - (Assuming a current $48/hr "transplant" labor cost, even a 20% increase over that is $57.60/hr. But the current cost of labor for the domestics is approximately $73/hr, which is a 52% premium to non-union labor. Would the UAW be satisfied merely making a half-crapload more than their competition, or are they holding out for the entire crapload?)



I think this would actually set up the worst possible case scenario - the auto companies go under AND the public gets fleeced for billions.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Knowledge

I'm fairly convinced that Obama knew about Blago's bribe demands but didn't want to play ball. (h/t Ace)

Part of me wants to beat up on Obama, Axelrod, and all the shady connections, but frankly that's the media's job. We tried to raise the character issue of before the election, but now I'm not going to get too excited about anything short of Watergate.

This has the potential to shorten the media honeymoon. Journos, lefties though they are, are ultimately fickle. They will turn on Obama in a heartbeat in order to file a juicy story.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Zune-gate

Oh noes! Obama uses a Zune! Or so this guy thinks. Definitely a non-Apple audio device, for sure.

How could be be so tragically un-cool!

From NBC's Chuck:
Chuck: "Morgan! Hey, uh, buddy do we carry any Rush CD's in the store?"
Morgan: "No need, I've got 'em all on my Zune."
Chuck: "You have a ZUNE?"
Morgan: "Are you kidding me? No, no. I'll grab my iPod."

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Breaking Down the New New Deal

Politico hails it as the "21st Century New Deal". A little grandiose, if you ask me. Let's break down some of the components of Obama's plan.

First, the idea that Obama will "save or create at least 2.5 million jobs" is completely unfalsifiable, and therefore a completely worthless statement.

—ENERGY: “[W]e will launch a massive effort to make public buildings more energy-efficient. Our government now pays the highest energy bill in the world. We need to change that. We need to upgrade our federal buildings by replacing old heating systems and installing efficient light bulbs. That won’t just save you, the American taxpayer, billions of dollars each year. It will put people back to work.”

Maybe some of this needs done, but it's not an energy plan. It's not even a fake energy plan, and it sure ain't a jobs plan. More of this light bulb nonsense... and don't these office buildings already have (normal) fluorescent lighting?

—ROADS AND BRIDGES: “[W]e will create millions of jobs by making the single largest new investment in our national infrastructure since the creation of the federal highway system in the 1950s. We’ll invest your precious tax dollars in new and smarter ways, and we’ll set a simple rule – use it or lose it. If a state doesn’t act quickly to invest in roads and bridges in their communities, they’ll lose the money.”

Again, some of this needs done, but is the real problem of transportation and infrastructure primarily one of total funding, or better management and less wasteful pork? "Use it or lose it" is a recipe for abuse and waste. It is the definition of "throwing money at a problem", as Obama declared he wouldn't do (t= 1:50 in the YouTube vid).

—SCHOOLS: “[M]y economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen. We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools.”

This is a re-hash of the energy "plan" above. Some of this needs done. But as a potential plan for jobs, energy, or education, it accomplishes none of those things efficiently or effectively. New computers? Kids can't read or do math. How 'bout some textbooks? Or better yet, ask yourself, "Does every school district in the nation have the same needs, or do some need books while others need to fix leaky roofs, and still others need to hire teachers?" One size does not fit all.

—BROADBAND: “As we renew our schools and highways, we’ll also renew our information superhighway. It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m president – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.”


Internet is great and all, but this is in his "jobs" speech?

—ELECTRONIC MEDICAL RECORDS: “In addition to connecting our libraries and schools to the Internet, we must also ensure that our hospitals are connected to each other through the Internet. That is why the economic recovery plan I’m proposing will help modernize our health care system – and that won’t just save jobs, it will save lives. We will make sure that every doctor’s office and hospital in this country is using cutting edge technology and electronic medical records so that we can cut red tape, prevent medical mistakes, and help save billions of dollars each year.”
Probably not a bad idea, but making things more efficient will probably cost jobs. (See UAW)

We're in trouble if this is all Obama has come up with.

Or should I be happy he's not engaging in anything more destructive? 21st Century New Deal? Not nearly so grand, thank goodness.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Saxby

I'm glad that Sen. Chambliss won reelection. Really. But to hear the cheerleaders talk about it you'd think the Republicans had scored some major victory over Obama and the Democrats. Um, yeah, I'm not seeing it that way.

It's frickin' Georga, for Pete's sake. And we were playing defense. And Obama wasn't on the ticket.

Energy mistakes of the past

Mark Twain said, "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Rather than pour money into subsidies and attempts to mandate our way out of a lousy energy policy, the vast majority of government focus should be on developing new technologies.

Looking back at the 70s and 80s, we see some similarities to the recent events. There was a massive energy crunch, high prices, calls for conservation (some reasonable, some not), federal support for alternatives (some reasonable, most not) including the nascent ethanol boondoggle, and automakers were caught flatfooted on vehicle mix.

Then we got relief. Oil dropped from $39.50 a barrel to under $10 by 1986. US energy policy stagnated. Nobody was interested in developing new technologies, and farm state politicians kept the ethanol dream alive.

Similar dynamics have occurred this year. Oil price shocks, similar government responses. And oil has since dropped about a hundred dollars a barrel since the summer.

Now what?

It doesn't make sense to subsidize the implementation and use of technologies that are uneconomic, and particularly uneconomic with oil around $43/bl. Instead, we should focus on developing technologies that can replace a significant fraction of our future oil consumption that individuals have a non-subsidized incentive to utilize. Dump some more money into fusion research. Fund a few labs working on more efficient solar PV collection. Work on carbon sequestration so we can utilize our massive coal reserves without angering the enviros.

Successful development of more economical technologies is a public good. Once in place, it can be enjoyed by the whole society without coercion. Mandates and subsidies for uneconomic technologies represent the coercive management and inefficient distortion of the economy.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Let them buy drek souvenirs

I always knew the Capitol Visitor Center was a ploy to keep the unwashed masses out of the Congressional office buildings, but I never expected anybody to acknowledge that so vividly:

Harry Reid:
"My staff tells me not to say this, but I'm going to say it anyway," said Reid in his remarks. "In the summer because of the heat and high humidity, you could literally smell the tourists coming into the Capitol. It may be descriptive but it's true."
You guys aren't even around for most of the summer, what are you griping about? Get over yourselves. Might I suggest that no distance can separate the American people from the stench emanating from Congress.

And another tip, genius - there's a reason your staff told you not to say that.

Monday, December 01, 2008

David Gregory lands MTP gig (?)

HuffPo is reporting that David Gregory will be the host of Meet the Press, though NBC says they have "nothing to announce."

Within the very weak lineup at (MS)NBC Gregory is probably the least bad pick, but he's still a bad pick. I had hoped Brokaw's time as interim host would allow them to find somebody with some real cred. Alas, no.

MTP is likely to lose its place as the premiere Sunday show. In that event there will probably be a serious split among political junkies as to whether This Week or Fox News Sunday is the better show.

Quote of the Day: Voinovich

The quote of the day may be the understatement of the year...

Sen Voinovich (OH - R):
"I question your [Pelosi and Reid's] decision that congressional leadership and committees of jurisdiction are best positioned to make determinations about a multinational corporation’s future financial prospects."

Purple Reb

Personal anecdote alert---

I wasn't as surprised by the Confederate battle flag stickers on the vehicle in front of me so much as I was surprised by what they were on... a purple Toyota 4Runner. I've never seen the rebel flag on any vehicle other than a domestic truck, and never in a girly color before.