Archive for January, 2009

Obama is No Jefferson

Sunday, January 25th, 2009

In his first inaugural address in 1801 Thomas Jefferson bespoke a compelling confidence in open dialogue when he said:

“If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Indeed, the confidence we have in an idea is proportional to exposure to different ideas. As John Stewart Mill expressed it in  On Liberty “…the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion.”

Perhaps in revealing moment, Obama was supposed reaching out to Republicans when warned them , “you can’t just listen to Rush Limbaugh and get things done.” It would seem to me that if Limbaugh’s were so clearly wrong we could let him  “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Limbaugh has 20 million listeners everyday and it would seem that someone who wants to transcend politics  would reach out through Limbaugh TO these people. Obama’s partisanship was showing. If he was trying to circumvent extreme voices, he would have been critical of the Daily Kos and Keith Olbermann.

Necessary Due Diligence on Nominations

Saturday, January 24th, 2009

In 1989, Senator John Tower was President George H. B. Bush’s first choice for Secretary of Defense. President’s almost invariably get their choices for cabinet positions confirmed by the Senate. According to King and Riddlesperber [1] in the post-War era from 1945 to 1988, opposition to the nomination of cabinet officials was dominantly based on policy differences, but still are very rare.  On paper,  it looked like Tower had the necessary qualifications including Chairmanship of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Moreover, Senators are generally loathe to embarrass their own.

However, Senators perhaps knew Tower too well. Although, he served competently in the Senate he was reputed to have a drinking and womanizing problem. Part of the ultimate rejection of Tower was a little political payback to Bush winning the previous election, but Tower would have survived the nomination process had there not been very real and serious  issues with Tower’s character.

In retrospect, the Senate did President Bush an important and historic favor. Ultimately, Dick Cheney was approved overwhelmingly by the Senate for Secretary of Defense. Whatever present reservations there are about Cheney’s recent performance as vice president, there remains consensus that he was a key element of the successful effort to remove Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in the first  Gulf War.

The Senate, particularly, the Republicans, as the opposition party now have an obligation to exercise due diligence and put up a substantial fight against at two of the remaining  nominations of President Barack Obama. The opposition should not be based upon political or policy differences but on the simple question of character.

Eric Holder, Jr. the nominee for Attorney General, should be opposed based on the role he played in the Mark Rich pardon and the pardons of the Puerto Rican terrorists — pardons that were clearly made for political expediency under President Clinton. As Deputy Attorney General, he had a obligation as a presidential legal adviser to stand up to President Clinton’s ill-advised pardons. The president would have probably still issued the pardons, but at least he would have been ignoring the proper legal advice.  There may come a time when a  sensitive legal issue comes before President Obama. He deserves an Attorney General whose legal advice is  not hostage to cynical political calculations.

There is no informed and intellectually  honest person who believes the nominee for Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner,  did not deliberately cheat on his income taxes. He is just too smart and informed about his tax obligations to have committed an inadvertent over sight. There is no doubt as to Geither’s credentials or that he would try to implement Obama’s policies with competence. However, he lacks the character to be granted the fiducial  responsibility of Treasury Secretary. Just as yourself if you would hire a brilliant financial analyst to handle your finances if you knew that he cheated on his own taxes. We are told that  Geithner is so brilliant that we have to overlook his character. Is that the moral message the Obama wishes to endorse?

The Democrats, perhaps not for the most altruistic motives, helped President Bush (41) by forcing the selection of Dick Cheney over John Tower for Secretary of Defense. It is time that Republicans paid that back favor to President Obama. He would be best served by an Attorney General with character to tell the President what he make not want to hear and a Treasury Secretary worthy of the trust placed in that position.

[1] King, J. D. and J. Riddlesperger, chapter in From Cold War to New World Order, 2002.

Digital TV Conversion

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

One thing that everyone concedes the government should manage is broadcast bandwidth. Now there may be arguments about whether bandwidth should be put up for auction, but that the government should be the agency that allocates bandwidth is not seriously questioned.

There are rational reasons for switching to digital television broadcasts. It frees up lower frequency bandwidth for mobile applications while allowing broadcast stations greater flexibility in providing programming.

If you have purchased a television recently, it can receive the ATSC signals. Older televisions must be re-fitting with a conversion boxes. The cost of such boxes run around $60. The government provides two coupons for $40 each to every household that requests them. While it is easy to see the need to aid lower income Americans to make the change, why is the coupon available to everyone? I can afford the conversion boxes and new television, why should the government be in the business of subsidizing my television needs?

It would have been easy to send two coupons to every household that filed taxes indicating income below some threshold. There could be additional programs to take care of those who fell through the cracks of that program. The fact that affluent people get free conversion box coupons is a small example of what governments do wrong.

The Captain and His Ship: Bush Reduces Global Warming

Sunday, January 18th, 2009

For better or worse, fairly or unfairly, the captain of ship is saddled with the responsibility or lavished with credit for the failures or successes of his term at the helm. If  a ship is struck by a meteor, it’s the captain’s fault. If unexpected fair winds power the sails of a ship it reflects positively on the captain’s command. The same rules applies to a president. If calamity strikes, the president get the blame. If things go well, the president basks in the credit, deserved or not.

As we prepare for the media’s embarrassingly obsequious coronation of Barack Obama as president, it is not too busy to make sure that Bush’s legacy is portrayed as negatively as can be managed. Now that the Iraq is going so well after the application of the surge, it is necessary to focus on  the economy over the last eight years.

The Washington Post on January 12,  2009 ran the headline “Under Bush, Economy Weakest in Decades.” The article broke up time by the different presidential terms since Truman to evaluate whose economies had performed better. Of course, Bush did not look good in the comparison.

Although the principle that the captain is responsible is often applied and the rule of thumb in politics, the Washington Post should be expected to provide a more comprehensive analysis. It is instructive and probably no accident that the list of performance began with Truman. If Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the term of the iconic liberal hero, were included, the unemployment and growth statistics of the Great Depression would have pulled the average for Democratic presidencies way down. However, that would not have served the purpose of the article.

In reality, gross economic performance is far more complex, with good and bad economic policies interwoven with natural business cycles. We will have recessions in the future, no matter how wise our policies. We suspect that the Post knows this but found it convenient to not dwell to much on the complexity.

For example, when a president comes to office, for the first year, two, or even perhaps three, he is saddled with or buoyed by the economy he inherited. Hence, the proper measure of the effects of a president policy should began sometime after he comes to office. It will undoubtedly be true that unemployment after the first year of the Obama presidency will be far greater than the average of the Bush years. The headline, “Obama’s Unemployment Record Worse than Bush’s” appearing after the first year would be unfair and the Post would never print it. However, they allow a similar analysis to affect their measure of Bush’s presidency.

As we know now, Bush inherited a recession from his predecessor which was compounded by tragic events of 9/11. Bush’s economic record improves considerably if you start the clock  in 2003. Similarly, there was a recession that ended in the last year of the first President Bush’s (41) term. The recovery did not really start to improve the unemployment picture until late in 1992, too late to keep President Clinton from winning the Presidency. Yet, Clinton inherited an economy in recovery with a 4.5% growth rate in the last  quarter of 1992.

Moreover, in evaluating a presidency a thoughtful analysis must consider whether a president manages to get his policies enacted and what those policies are. For example, the Post points out that under President Kennedy, the economy grew at a robust 5.3% rate. Yet one of Kennedy’s key policies was decreasing the top marginal income tax rate from 90% to 70%. Does the Post want to concede that reducing tax rates increases economic growth. Even now, Obama has decided to postpone eliminating the Bush tax cuts in a tacit concession, unmentioned during his campaign, that lower tax rates contribute to economic growth.

If we are allowed to sacrifice thoughtful analysis at the altar of partisan goals and scoring political points, allow us to note the following.  NASA’s Institute for Space Studies, whose research is directed by Dr. James Hansen, a vocal critic of the Bush Administration, produces a time series of global temperatures. Measured from 1993 to 2000 (the Clinton Presidency) the global temperature anomaly increased by 0.19C. However, from 2001 to 2008, (the Bush Presidency) the temperature anomaly decreased by 0.04C. Of course, such an analysis is deliberately oversimplified much as the Washington Post’s was. The difference is that we are telling you so.

George Bush – A Literary Man

Friday, January 2nd, 2009

It is always amusing to run across a story that tells us as much about the people commenting on a story as about the immediate subject of the story. The recent Wall Street Journal column by former Bush presidential adviser Karl Rove represents just such a story. In the column, Rove reveals that President George W. Bush is not just voracious reader, but a competitive industrial-strength reader, averaging over a book a week. Apparently, Rove and Bush competed on who could read the most books in a year. Rove was the victor, but Bush was able to find time to read:

“… biographies of Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Mark Twain, Babe Ruth, King Leopold, William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, LBJ, Genghis Khan. ” Other nonfiction included “Andrew Roberts’s A History of the English Speaking Peoples Since 1900, James L. Swanson’s Manhunt, and Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower.” Bush’s reading tastes also extended to “eight Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald, Mr. Bush tackled Michael Crichton’s Next, Vince Flynn’s Executive Power, Stephen Hunter’s Point of Impact, and Albert Camus’s The Stranger, among others.”

What is most interesting is how people reacted. Of course, some simply did not believe the column because it ran so counter to the image of Bush in the media and painted by his political enemies. How could such a dolt or disinterested frat boy be so attracted to books? The best way to deal with inconvenient evidence is to ignore it or dismiss it.  Interesting, no one questions whether Rove, also a very busy person, read the number of books he reports reading. But, of course, Rove is an evil genius.

For Bush supporters, the story does provide some evidence of the intellectual capacity of the President. However, their opinion of the President would not have changed if he had read only  a few books while President. A president is a very busy and might be expected to primarily read work-related material. He would have to rely on the well of intellectual capital acquired before reaching office.

For those who dislike Bush — at least the ones who believe Roves’s reports — are compelled to spin the news negatively. On the basis of this evidence, you don’t here anyone saying, “Perhaps I was wrong in my estimation of Bush’s intelligence.” One approach is to criticize Bush for reading too much and not spending enough time actually implementing  policy. Another is to criticize his reading list as not sufficiently introspective or is in some other way inadequate. Yet another is to assert that Bush feigned being a good-old-boy to hide his trues intentions.

The truth is that the Left and the press has always found it rhetorically convenient to paint Bush as an idiot. The problem is that for the most part, Bush politically defeated his opponents, winning the presidency twice. To reconcile this success with the caricature, Bush had to have clever evil henchmen who did his thinking for him. The usual candidates where political adviser Karl Rove or  Vice-President Dick Cheney.

If the same story came out about Barack Obama, with the same list and volume, we would all be amazed at his commitment to pursuit of intellectual enrichment. It would be additional evidence that he is a thinking man.

Anyone who followed Bush carefully with an open mind should have realized how profoundly he is affected by books. Natan Sharansky, was a former Soviet dissident who managed to emigrate to Israel and rose the position of Deputy Prime Minister of Israel. Sharansky advocated a compelling thesis articulated in his book The Case for Democracy. The argument is that many of the world’s political problems were a consequence of the lack of true democracy, freedom, and the rule of law. The lack of these was the source of political disruption that leads to war and terrorism. Democracies do not fight one another.

Hence, one goal of American foreign policy should be to encourage democratic ideals. These arguments are part of the underpinning of Bush’s policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. One working definition of an intellectual is a person who takes ideas seriously. By this definition, Bush is an intellectual who put into practice ideas he acquired through reading, study, and reflection.

The tactic of painting a political adversary as not just wrong, but stupid, was applied to President Ronald Reagan. Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of defense Clark Clifford once referred to Ronald Reagan as an “amiable dunce.” Ironically, Clifford died just  ahead of an indictment in a scandal surrounding Bank of Credit and Commerce International. He whined that in his defense,  “I have a choice of either seeming stupid or venal.” Claiming stupidity (not even amiable stupidity) was Clifford’s best defense.  By contrast, after Reagan left office, a compendium of his writings revealed a thoughtful and eloquent person.

Similarly, former President George H. W. Bush (41 to friends) was ridiculed for his mangled verbal expressions while in office. However, it turns out that Bush was an inveterate letter writer. The collection of these letters also reveals a delightful and intelligent writer, not consistent with his public persona.