Archive for August, 2008


Friday, August 29th, 2008

There is always predictable political spin to any event. To see what people really think, one must examine indirect indicators.

Today, Senator John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin for the vice-presidential end of the Republican ticket. Among Democratic supporters there was surprise and concern that that Palin would be able to appeal those female voters who perceive  that Senator Barack Obama “dissed” Senator Hillary Clinton. Before the announcement, Conservatives were grudgingly and reluctantly coming to support McCain, mostly on the basis of their fear of the very liberal  Obama. Largely resigned to a losing this fall, Conservatives were heartened by the addition of this attractive, articulate, vice-presidential candidate. It fun to watch the news once again. What would have been a predictable Republican Convention next week, will now be doubly energized.

Some say that this was a desperation “Hail Mary” pass in the last moments of the fourth quarter of a football game. This is the wrong sports analogy. The selection was more aptly described as “swinging for the fences” in a baseball game: an aggressive move, but not one motivated out of fear.

Governor Palin brings important attributes. She is socially Conservative, a mother of five (one of whom will be deployed to Iraq in September), with a lifetime membership to the National Rifle Association. She is pro-life and backed up her theoretical opposition to abortion with her recent decision to give birth to a child even though she knew that he would be challenged by Down’s Syndrome. She has a populist sensibility having rooted out corruption in Alaskan state government and decline the pork-barrel “bridge to nowhere.” Recently, when tax revenues to the state from oil companies operating in Alaska increased with the rise in oil prices, she returned the cash directly to the people of Alaska with individual checks.

Despite her many positives, there remain legitimate concerns. She has not been vetted on the national scene. Though she was surely carefully examined by McCain’s investigators, she has not been subject to the scrutiny of the national press extremely adept finding embarrassing personal histories. We may yet find an ugly skeleton in Palin’s so far a pretty clean closet. Although she acquitted herself well in her speech after having been selected by McCain and has articulately expressed her ideas on Washington interview programs, she has not faced a press as ferocious as the Washington one.

Palin has been a governor for a couple of years and can be faulted for her lack of her experience in international affairs. Hence lies a trap for the Democrats. She is a least as experienced as Obama and the more an issue is made of her inexperience, the easier it is to remind Americans of the paper thinness of Obama resume. Obama’s key executive experience is running a thus far successful political campaign. This certainly speaks well of Obama’s political acumen, but not necessary of his governing competence. Democrats will be wise to avoid criticism of Palin’s experience. If she is indeed too inexperienced, it will show in the coming weeks without Democrats having to draw attention to  it.

Governor Palin’s first impression has been excellent. Her speech on behalf of Senator McCain in Dayton Ohio was confidently and persuasively delivered. Her direct appeal to woman voters was disarming and depressed previously confident Democrats. She, nonetheless, has many more challenges ahead. If, over the course of the time until the election, she appears to be in over her head, McCain’s pick will appear to be a patronizing and embarrassing one. The Republicans may stunted the growth of a future leader before she had a chance to flower. On the other hand, if she acquits herself well, McCain’s choice will seem inspired. Regardless of the outcome of the election, if she is seen to have helped the McCain candidacy she will be an important new Republican politician. At this point, the pick deserves a tentative, “Wow.”

Obama Obfuscation Tests Supporters

Sunday, August 24th, 2008

In March of 2003, Barack Obama was state senator in Illinois dealing with the Illinois Born Alive Infact Protection Act (BAIPA). The key goal of the act was to make it an affirmative obligation to render conventional medical treatment to all children born, even if the birth was a consequence of an induced abortion. The act brushed against the ragged, politically dangerous edges of the pro-choice and pro-life movements.

One aim of pro-life advocates was to ensure that children born alive and completely separate from their mothers are not treated as medical waste, but accorded appropriate medical attention. Pro-lifers may want to prevent abortions, but there is a much broader constituency who would want to protect children already born. Testimony before Congress has reported cases where live children, the product of unsuccessful abortions, were unceremoniously disposed of rather than treated. The concern was clearly not just a theoretical one.

Pro-choice advocates were concerned that about the legal assertion of rights for babies that were theoretically pre-viable; though one might  expect viability to change as a function of medical technology. Specifically, the  Illinois BAIPA declared, “A live child born as a result of an abortion shall be fully recognized as a human person and accorded immediate protection under the law.” The pro-choice community is perhaps rightly concerned that someone sometime in the future might ask the embarrassing question: How is a being a fully recognized human only moments after being excess tissue?

The legislative dilemma is how to reconcile the humanity of treating with medical respect babies born alive versus the concerns of the pro-choice community to avoid the legislative precedent of declaring babies born alive as persons. Obama and his Democratic colleagues implemented a compromise by adding a clause to the  law that would effectively prevent the law’s use a precedent against abortion. Specifically they added:

“Nothing in this Section shall be construed to affirm, deny, expand, or contract any legal status or legal right applicable to any member of the species homo sapiens at any point prior to being born alive as defined in this Section.”

Curiously, the record shows that Obama voted only for the amendment, but still voted against the bill. The problem is that Obama’s district was still sufficiently to the Left, that deviation from pro-choice purity, even at the cost of the maltreatment of born-live infants, would have had political costs. Either Obama believed that such infants do not deserve such protection or that the political costs of approving the bill were too high. The whole episode was hardly  a “profile in courage.”

If this story became widely acknowledged, it would make Obama appear far out of the national mainstream on the issue of abortion. When asked about the vote in 2004, Obama claimed, according to the Chicago Tribune, that  he voted against the state legislation but would have supported a similar federal bill because “the state measure lacked the federal language clarifying that the act would not be used to undermine Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court opinion that legalized abortion.” However, contrary to Obama’s assertion, the two bills are nearly identical. Obama knew they were nearly identical because he was chairman of the committee that amended the bill so that it would resemble its federal counterpart.

Rather that conceding the issue, Obama accused his pro-life critics of “lying” about his record. Finally, Obama’s campaign’s has conceded that the federal and state bills were near identical. The only way to reconcile his vote in Illinois against the BAIPA and his later claim that would have voted for the nearly identical federal act, is that in both cases he was acting in immediate political self-interest.

There is certainly room to argue about Obama’s first vote in Illinois, though it does depict him as part of the extreme pro-choice wing of the spectrum. However, there is no excuse to misrepresent his vote and worst to call others liars for disputing what turns out to be the facts of this case.

It is not surprising that this story has not been discussed much in the pro-Obama press, but the story is slowly emerging. One character test for Obama supporters is how do they deal with this report. The reactions can involve either be honesty, dishonesty, or deliberate self-deception

One honest reaction is to concede Obama’s serious mistake and consequent dishonesty, but still maintain their support given his overall record and ideology. However, this would tend to undermine the serious messiah complex of some Obama supporters.

The dishonest way is to continue to obfuscate the issue and to attack the veracity of opponents. This will undoubtedly be the reaction of political partisans.

Perhaps the most common way for Obama supporters to deal with the issue is denial. Rather than examine carefully the details of this serious vote and related dishonesty, they will just to avert their gaze. They will not take the time an effort to determine out the truth. It easier to believe that political enemies are after your candidate than to face an unpleasant truth.

A pro-life advocate, Jill Stanek, performed the difficult task of digging up many of the original documents some of which are linked to in this post.

Public Debt – It’s Not So Bad

Saturday, August 16th, 2008

Both Democrats and Republicans find convenient rhetorical uses for complaining about current budget deficits and total public debt. Democrats cite the deficit and debt to argue for increasing taxes, while Republicans point to  them as reasons to reduce government expenditures. One verbal tactic is to compare either the current tax receipts, total expenditures, the deficit, or total debt in terms of absolute values as in: This is “the largest tax increase in history” or the “deepest budget deficit in history.” But as the country continues to grow at a rate of about 3% per year and as even low inflation devalues the currency, over the long run modest tax increases or deficits can be made to appear much larger than they really are.

To appropriately understand our fiscal situation is it necessary scale national fiscal values the same way we scale our own finances, by our income. The house one purchases today may be substantially more expensive in nominal dollars that a house bought twenty years ago. However, during the intervening time one’s ability to afford that house increases with income growth, while inflation has increased the house’s nominal, but not real value. This is evidenced by the historic expansion in the rate of home ownership. Even though house prices have increased with time, more and more people over the last century have been able to own their own home. Despite price increases, growth in incomes have made homes are more affordable

Similarly, government expenditures, revenues, and debt must be scaled by the gross national product GDP. Here, we focus particularly on the national debt as measured against the national GDP. The graph below is instructive. It is a plot of total US debt divided by GDP as a function of time from the beginning of the country to 2006.

The national debt has taken on a greater importance as the size of government expanded so tremendously since the 1930’s so it is important to focus on the graph after that time. Even during the Civil War in the 1860s, government spending as a fraction of our total wealth was lower than it in the period after the early 1930s.

Government spending has a stimulative effect, taxation has depressing effect, and some level of public debt seems salutatory. The radical decrease in the debt-to-GDP ratio after the end of World War II in 1945 was not the result of budget surpluses, but very strong growth in GDP.  However, at the end of the 1960’s the debt ratio dropped below 40% and in the 1970s the US experienced decade-long economic stagnation. The period from 1980 to the present has experienced much higher levels of total debt-to-GDP and simultaneously much greater rates of economic growth and general well  being. While individual year surpluses may be beneficial, if they drive the debt too low, the government suppresses economic growth.

We are perpetually warned that we are leaving too much debt to our grandchildren. However, the erstwhile “Greatest Generation” that survived the Depression and won World War II left a debt-to-GDP ratio of over 120%, twice that of the current period. Their more generous and important legacy was the subsequent decades of rapid economic growth that dramatically reduced the debt-to-GDP ratio.  In the current period, we should perhaps be a little less concerned about the debt we leave our children and more concerned about whether we bequeath to them a vibrant and rapidly expanding economy.

The current debt-to-GDP ratio is not only reasonable but hovers around a level consistent with a period of nearly three decades of continuous and robust economic expansion. The long-term concern should not be the current debt, but the unfunded Social Security and Medicare liabilities we have incurred. The only way we can hope to meet these obligations is to maintain high economic growth, and a proper level of debt is necessary for such growth.

Freedom of Speech Requires Courage

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

It is often interesting to watch old movies and television programs. Although there are certainly classic movies and programing with a timeless quality, it is often illuminating to see the world through the unique cultural vision of the period . Perhaps the most conspicuous and consistent difference is the past glamorization of smoking before the 1960s, whereas by contemporary standards smoking is considered déclassé. Other times we are reminded of more heroic perspectives.

This week the TV Land network aired an episode of Lou Grant with an important message for our times.  If you remember back to the 1970s, the character Lou Grant, played by actor Edward Asner, began with comedy, the Mary Tyler Moore show, set in a Minnesota newsroom. Lou Grant was a spinoff drama, where character Lou Grant was now a news editor of the fictitious Los Angeles Tribune.

In the particular episode, Nazi, reporter Billie Newman (Linda Kelsey) is pursuing a story about an American Nazi  who turns out have been born Jewish. The salient point here is that the reporter was fearful for her life, but pursued the story nonetheless. The show was not shy about moralizing, and the message here was clear: Fidelity to the truth and the unfettered right of free expression often requires courage. In this case, the reporter was not threatened by government censorship, but self-censorship induced by fear of private person or group.

Three decades later, that message of courage seems to have been forgotten. Sherry Jones is  a journalist who has taken a considerable interest in Islamic culture and pursued its study. That study and several years of writing led to a fictionalized historical novel about Mohammad and his favorite wife Aisha. Random House publishing company advanced Jones $100,000 for two books, of which The Jewel of Medina was the first.

Now Random House has lost it publishing nerve. As far as we know, there have been no specific threats against Random House or the author. Rather, the book was sent to Denise Spellberg, a scholar in Islamic studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Spellberg warned that some Muslims might find the book offensive. After the experience of the Danish anti-Mohammad cartoons that caused riots and the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini for the death of Salmon Rushdie who wrote the Satanic Versus, Random  House is apprehensive.

With this recent history, the concern about a violent reaction to a book that is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as insulting to Islam, is not irrational and precautions are prudent. However, if Random House and the author are convinced of the literary quality of The Jewel of Medina, they would demonstrate considerable moral fortitude in proceeding with the publication. If not, they will help establish precedent that one can successfully intimidate the publishing community.

Can Obama Admit He Was Wrong?

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008

The Left-of-center policy Brookings Institute has performed an important public service by publishing a monthly set of indices marking the progress in the Iraq security and reconstruction. The report is comprehensive. There are over 40 Security indicators covering items as inclusive as the number of US troop fatalities, to the number of insurgent attacks by province, and indices of political and press freedom. These indices have largely shown significant progress over the last year since the surge in troops took effect. However, perhaps looking at press coverage is an additional index of the situation on the ground in Iraq. Specifically, the less the coverage the better the situation on the ground.

The American Journalism Review reports that:

“During the first 10 weeks of 2007, Iraq accounted for 23 percent of the news hole for network TV news. In 2008, it plummeted to 3 percent during that period. On cable networks it fell from 24 percent to 1 percent”

According to, in the three months of 2007, 245 American died. That number fell to 108 in the first three months of this year. Last month experienced the fewest number of American casualties since the war began, 13. Although the Washington Post deserves credit for noting this milestone, the important milestones has not received  nearly the attention that high American casualty rates did.

This victory of sorts comes on the dramatic decision by President George Bush last year to implement the surge. Many in the military and most in the political world thought that Iraq was lost and that frankly the sooner we withdrew the better. Bush doubled-down his commitment to Iraq and found the right general, David Petraeus, who wrote the book on how to defeat insurgencies, to prosecute the war. At this point, Al Qaeda has been largely defeated and the Iraqi Army is leading most combat operations.

Last year, Presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama, who argues that judgment is more important than experience judged that:

“I am not persuaded that 20,000 additional troops in Iraq are going to solve the sectarian violence there. In fact, I think it will do the reverse.” He went on: “I don’t think the president’s strategy is going to work. We went through two weeks of hearings on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; experts from across the spectrum–military and civilian, conservative and liberal–expressed great skepticism about it.”

At least in this particular, Obama’s considered judgment on an important matter has been proved wrong. He underestimated what American forces under the proper leadership could accomplish.

As far back as 2003, the Left was arguing that in light of the failure to find large stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction “Bush must admit the error of his ways” and that failure to do so constituted a character flaw. Where are those same voices urging that Obama admit the failure in his assessment of the efficacy of the surge? We will have to be satisfied with the fact that criticism of the surge was purged from his campaign web site. The final confirmation in the success of the surge, of course. will come if Obama starts arguing that he was behind the surge all along.