05 December 2011


No country suffered more than Russia during the 20th century, with millions upon millions killed in war and through Communist oppression. That alone would leave one to think they would want to throw off the yoke of tyranny, but their parliamentary elections lead one to think otherwise. Vladimir Putin’s party, United Russia, got just under 50% of the vote, and even that required ballot stuffing, cheating, and suppression of the opposition. But the opposition parties that did compete are hardly reassuring. The Communists came in second with 20% of the vote. That’s the same party that was responsible for the deaths of millions of Russians and totalitarian repression. The best spin that can be put on this is that some of it was a protest vote for a party that otherwise represents older pensioners. Next in line was A Just Russia, a left-wing socialist party with 13% followed by the Liberal Democrats, who are anything but, with 12%. The latter are even more nationalistic and xenophobic than Putin’s party. Real liberal democrats didn’t even get enough votes to be represented in parliament.

This outcome indicates that Russians may be tiring of Putin, but nevertheless clearly have a penchant for “strong” leadership. The electorate seems to be fertile ground for xenophobic demagogues and nutty nationalists. Genuinely democratic forces hardly register. None of this would matter if they didn’t possess a huge nuclear arsenal, but that is their trump card in international relations. This is otherwise a country of 140 million with a declining population, a huge chunk of the earth’s territory, and vast natural resources, which are still mismanaged. The leadership continually postures with aggressive anti-western rhetoric, creating enemies where there are none, essentially running a gangster regime. Putin, a former KGB man, is clearly nostalgic for the Soviet Union and his party organization emulates the Communists. None of this bodes well for the future, that is, the future of the Russians themselves. 
The reality is that the long term threat to Russia comes not from the west, but from the Muslim population along the central Asian border, and a rising China along the eastern border. Posturing against the west does nothing to advance the real geopolitical interests of the country. In fact Russia only has a future if it is firmly anchored in the west. This could eventually include membership in the EU, but at present they aren’t even able to join the WTO. Unfortunately, given these electoral preferences, Russia is likely to have repressive governments for the forseeable future and thus will remain a thorn in the side of the west, as it continues to align itself with other tyrannical regimes. But as they continue to make mischief with countries like Iran it may eventually come back to haunt them.  

28 November 2011


A year before the election the news is dominated by the presidential race, and has been for months. Nowadays campaigns begin years before the election date and cost huge amounts of money, so it is no wonder that politicians spend more time running for office than they do actually governing. While Republican candidates have engaged in an endless series of debates, the current occupant of the White House has all but given up on governing in favor of campaigning. The chronic campaign produces two results- a dysfunctional government and elected officials who are good at campaigning rather than governing.

Permanent campaigning is a relatively recent development largely due to primary elections spread out over many months and geographic locations. Primaries are a result of the efforts of the progressive movement in the early part of the twentieth century, but only became decisive in 1960 when John F. Kennedy used them to prove his viability as a candidate and win his party’s nomination. But it is worth noting that Kennedy did not even declare his candidacy until January of that year. Nowadays it has gotten to the point where the next campaign begins the day after election day. We are subjected to all politics all the time. Is there any way to end this electoral cacaphony?
Contrast this with Britain, where campaigns are brief once elections are called. I am not suggesting we adapt a parliamentary system, but rather find some way to limit campaigns to a set time in order to end constant campaigning. There are of course parties with a vested interest in extended campaigns, including the media, campaign consultants, pollsters, fundraisers, political junkies, and activists. But how long should we allow the system to be hijacked by these groups? 
One way to reform the process would be to have candidates nominated by elected officials such as members of congress, the Governors, and representatives of state legislatures. Who after all best constitutes the party if not elected officials? This would likely produce better candidates who would also be better able to work with other elected officials. Those having the respect and  confidence of their peers would be in a better position to lead the country. Primaries also give too much weight to activists who are ideologically rigid, when government of necessity requires consensus and compromise. Would scrapping the primaries not limit the chances of outsiders? Not necessarily. Dwight Eisenhower was nominated and elected president despite never having served in public office. Generals were often nominated in the 19th century long before primaries. Any charismatic figure who could garner support could be nominated, but for the most part we would be better off with public officials who are known to others holding office. We might, in the process return to some of the character displayed by our first five presidents, who would find openly seeking the presidency unseemly, relying instead on the regard and respect of their peers. 
Under these circumstances campaigns would be much shorter and the cost of elections much lower. It would also give rise to people whose main talent is not in raising money and running for office, but in governing effectively.

23 November 2011


The City of New York finally evicted the “Occupy Wall Street” protestors from their encampment, never mind that most of the institutions they were protesting are no longer located on Wall Street but in midtown or elsewhere. While they expressed little in the way of a coherent platform, one recurring theme is that banks and corporations have too much power. This will come as a surprise to virtually every CEO in the country since they do not see themselves as all that powerful, but instead feel they are constantly under siege by shareholders, competitors, consumers, and the government. Their decision-making space is constrained by all these factors.

Then there is the 1% that presumably controls everything. But the people in the 1% are no different from the 99%, and in fact are in a place where most of the latter would like to be. Nor are the 1% a fixed elite with anything in common, and have themselves mostly emerged from the 99%. The make-up of the 1% is very fluid. I used to be part of the 1% but now I’m not. Those who currently compose it have worked at climbing the ladder of success, but on the other hand this doesn’t mean they are a pure meritocracy, since luck, focused ambition, and networking ability have at least as much to do with it as talent. Furthermore, rather than being any kind of reactionary force, most would like to think of themselves as “progressive.” Thus a majority of the 1% voted for Obama, who raised the most money in history from Wall Street and even now he has raised more money from bankers than all the Republican Presidential candidates combined. On this basis alone they deserve to get shaken up a bit and continuing Republican resistance to any increase in taxes on them makes no sense. 
Another alleged evil is “greed.” Many people do in fact have good reasons to be angry at “Wall Street,” but greed is not one of them. It is more a case of people being told over the years to make “secure” investments like GM and Citicorp only to see them fizzle- in other words poor performance handling 401(k)s that have gone nowhere for years. But this is more a matter of incompetence than chicanery. The truth is that a lot of the people in charge of things at this time are not very good at what they do. We live in an age of mediocrity not meritocracy. This is true of celebrities as well as CEOs. Is much of this “talent” overcompensated vis a vis everyone else? No doubt, but this does not justify class warfare. Taking something from one person does not make another richer. 
Nostalgic 60s leftists in the media have been sympathetic to the protests, for which the term “occupation” has been attached. But to refer to this phenomenon as “the occupation” is a very sick parody of the real thing, which occurred during World War II. My parents were stuck in Greece for the duration of the war owing to the Nazi occupation and saw a third of the population of Athens starve to death. That’s was the real occupation, not this gathering of clueless miscreants. 
I can’t get too excited in opposition to these demonstrations. From a policy standpoint they are vacuous, and participants clearly have no understanding of economics. They reject hierarchy and order, and favor a vague mix of anarchy and socialism. But they do not represent a serious challenge to authority and their actions are relatively mild. After all anarchists in the past assassinated President William McKinley and in the 1920s set off a bomb on Wall Street. Today we see nothing of that magnitude. 
Although these protestors have little in common with the Tea Party, one thing that stands out across the board is a general disillusionment with elites. This attitude is well founded, given the extent to which the people in charge have mismanaged things. It is increasingly difficult to believe that this is the best we can do, but any changes requires improved mass perception of quality.  In truth we can and must do better, and for elites to justify themselves they must rise above the pervasive mediocrity of our age.

18 November 2011


Even as medical advances improve the length and quality of life there may be parallel developments. We may eventually co-exist virtually, not in the sense of silly game avatars, but in full consciousness. This would mean essentially transferring one's consciousness for an indefinite period, or as long as the power stays on. Initially there will be stages that have already begun, such as using sensors to duplicate physical movement on a computer screen. The next step would be to communicate sensory responses to another person so that it would be possible to make love on line for example, although this would still be mimicry. But suppose it would be possible to somehow be wired in communicating directly from your brain.  There are profound consequences to this. 
First, you could be a different version of yourself, putting your best self forward. By that I mean the age at which you are physically at your peak accompanied by the wisdom you presumably have gained over the years. Or you could use an image of say Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe. Or you could be a dog. Or you could visit the equivalent of another place and time, or roam the stars. The possibilities are endless. Second, you could duplicate your self, your consciousness. That presupposes that there is an actual mind that is more than a product of our bodies; if not there would at least be a representation of it. Although the consensus in mind science is that our mind is a product of our bodies and the world in which we live and nothing more it may not matter since it would be possible to construct one, or even the whole idea of heaven. Third, you are free from the limitations of the physical world and can link with others in ways we can hardly imagine. For example, it would be possible, when networked with others, to expand consciousness and intelligence exponentially. 
Thus there is physical longevity on the one hand, which must bump up against the limits of nature, and the possibility of an electronic existence that would make our current digital life seem as primitive as the dinosaurs. We cannot know what direction physical evolution might take but the “mental” may diverge significantly. If this were to be possible more people would opt for a virtual existence that eventually seems real. The potential relative immortality might be appealing, although even the universe is not timeless and will come to an end. It is possible that there is some intimation of this prospect in the developed world given the decline in birth rates. 
It is likely that some people, perhaps those with strong religious convictions, may opt for a "natural" life and eschew the virtual. But it is also possible that these worlds, the virtual and spiritual, may eventually converge. On the other hand it is also possible that those who opt for the virtual may just be postponing an even better afterlife. Whatever the case, the prospects for a post-material world make our petty conflicts and concerns seem lame.

04 November 2011


Barely a week has gone by since I had a total shoulder replacement but I am already able to type fluidly on a remote keyboard. The shoulder is the latest technology, made of metal and plastic, and is indicative of other parts that may eventually be replaceable. In this connection there is a story today about a doctor who has developed a technique that can turn brown eyes blue by using a laser. The laser essentially burns away brown pigmentation, but the process cannot be done in reverse so that eye color cannot be changed back. Brown is the default state in nature but there are about five hundred million people with blue eyes, all descended from a single ancestor who had a genetic mutation 10,000 years ago. They may soon be joined by others using this process.

Our bodies are becoming increasingly malleable as medical science progresses and it will be interesting to see what else can be changed. This will be accompanied by more genetic programming of the fetus to be rid of childhood diseases, if you view it positively, or produce "designer babies" if you view it negatively, and many ailments that plague us later in life may be attenuated in advance rather than through subsequent treatments. This will mean healthier and longer lives for those coming into the world. The rest of us will have to settle for medical attention, whether through drugs or surgery.

The only problem with these developments is the cost and who is going to pay for it. Logically a life-threatening organ replacement should be covered; a cosmetic procedure like changing eye color should not. Such continued advances will occur unless the government interferes with them and decides what constitutes health care for everyone. But whatever changes occur physically, imperfect human nature will remain the same in the brief moment in which our species has existed.

31 October 2011


There is a movie being advertised that is based on the premise that Shakespeare did not write his plays but instead was a front man for someone more sophisticated, presumably the Earl of Oxford. This is an old theory that might work as fiction but it is not history. Indeed the film makers are doing to Shakespeare what he himself often did to historical figures- fabricating nonsense to make good drama. The theory is based on the assumption that someone with Shakespeare's ordinary, middling background could not have written so well.

But Shakespeare in fact is relatively middle-brow, and certainly in his own time, produced popular entertainment. But as the language has become more and more antiquated, and thus more difficult, it has been lifted to an intellectual level that is not there. I have often thought that non-English speakers may get a better read on Shakespeare because it is unlikely that he would be translated into arcane language.

Shakespeare had an undeniable gift for language and the stage, but this does not require a higher education and there is nothing miraculous about this. What does show through is a vague understanding of history that is not well-developed. When Shakespeare relies on sources like Plutarch he is relatively on the mark in, say, Julius Caesar, or Antony and Cleopatra. His historical figures are otherwise pretty consistently distorted, i.e. Richard III was not a hunchback, and often reflect Tudor propaganda.

Shakespeare is one of the most well-known persons in history even though parts of his life may be obscure, but the absence of information does not support fanciful conjecture. Given the passage of enough time things that we know to be true today may become hazy in future reference. Shakespeare had remarkable gifts, but his work does not require that he be an aristocrat. Shakespeare wrote his plays.

30 October 2011


It now costs $11.50 to enter New York City from anywhere further west and that will soon rise to $15.00. Imagine having to pay that every day. Never mind that the bridges and tunnels being tolled have long since been paid off. Once you enter the city, due to the anti-car mentality of the Bloomberg administration, there is virtually no free parking any more but plenty of bike lanes. To park on the street you have to pay the meter, or otherwise park in an exorbitantly expensive garage. It's not as bad as London but it's getting there. Where I live there is unnecessary alternate side parking four days a week, which means you have to go out and move the car every day or otherwise double-park for hours for the few minutes that the street sweeper actually passes by. Then there are the exclusive bus lanes, which leaves one lane open for everything else, and a heavy fine if you're caught intruding, although cabs constantly fly in and out of the lanes. The message is clear. Cars are not welcome even if they are sometimes necessary. This all may seem strange to the rest of the country, but you've been warned- don't drive in New York.

15 October 2011


I can remember a time when travel used to be fun. It was once possible to take a helicopter run by New York Airways to the airport from atop the Pan Am building near Grand Central Station in midtown Manhattan. Everything about jet airline travel then was “futuristic;” the airport, the aircraft, even the attire of the stewardesses. Now everything seems dismally past. The city banned the helicopter, Pan Am is gone (now the MetLife building), and routine travel has become an inconvenient ordeal. Once there was no onerous security screening and you could roam freely. It was also easy to catch a last minute flight. I remember one time missing a flight on American Airlines. I was able to simply walk over to United Airlines using the same ticket and catch their next flight to the same destination. There were also more direct, nonstop flights. Now you have to go through a “hub” and often wait around to change planes, hoping your luggage also made the same transfer.

The days of convenience and service are long gone. Once the airlines all provided meals and snacks, and baggage was considered an integral part of the trip- so much so that it would never have occurred to anyone to describe it as free. Now the airlines impose additional charges for every conceivable item, and ticket prices have been substantially inflated to the point, where, on my last ticket purchase taxes and fees were one-third of the price. A good deal of this has come about because of enhanced “security,” the passage through which can be a major nuisance. (I’m sure I could find a million other people who’d love to join me in stomping the “shoe bomber” to death).

Overall this is one area where life was definitely better thirty to forty years ago, and actually more modern. Something has gone terribly wrong with aerospace. Back then we were walking on the moon. Now we can’t even get to the International Space Station on our own. Then the future seemed a sure bet to be even better, with ever increasing improvements. Instead everything is essentially the same in many respects and far worse in others. Anyone who has lived through this regression cannot fail to be disappointed. Where once a trip to the airport was an occasion for wondrous joy, now we try an avoid flying as much as possible. We need to take a really hard look at this situation and come up with some solutions that will at least get us back to where we were, if not better.

15 September 2011


At various times there have been proposals put forth to privatize Social Security and/or invest proceeds in the stock market. This is a nonstarter, both politically as well as logically. Rick Perry may be an appealing candidate, and aspects of Social Security may in fact resemble a Ponzi scheme, but he has simply handed Democrats the perennial fearful campaign club of wanting to get rid of Social Security. This has been a dream of many libertarians, but it is factually untenable. The market has gone nowhere over the past ten years, and losses are quite possible even with “secure” blue chip investments; just look at GM or Citibank. When your 401(k) has gone nowhere in ten years it is sobering and necessitates a reconsideration of potential Social Security changes.

This does not mean that Social Security is not in need of some reform, such as amending the cost of living adjustment, but the fact is that Social Security is not in that much trouble. It is Medicare that is the big problem in terms of covering projected costs. Social Security is solvent and only needs minor adjustments to stay that way.

People should definitely save and invest for retirement, but through their own private accounts, such as IRAs, as they do now. These are tax advantaged and more should be done to encourage people to establish these accounts. Longer term the stock market should yield a good return, but there is no guarantee. Social Security is more like a basic floor, on top of which other resources should be prudently accumulated. Certainly Social Security can provide a better return through compounded interest over time to everyone’s account, but the stock market is too unstable to be a serious alternative for Social Security trust funds.

10 September 2011


These were taken from a ferry headed to Ellis Island for an engagement I had there. I have many photos of the towers under construction at various stages I used to take from a pier in Brooklyn, and I'll post them when I find them. There are so many memories from the foundation of the towers, to many meetings in the buildings, dinners and drinks on the top floor, and of the sweeping view of New York harbor, not to mention the small church where I was married, which was obliterated.

Ten years on and 9/11 resonates just as painfully as it did in 2001. It is a wound that may never heal, even with the death of Bin Laden, as the struggle continues to play itself out. 9/11 is a dividing line in time, from which there is a clear before and after. I recall the night of the millennium and how magnificent celebrations around the world occurred without the slightest thought of terrorism. The innocence of that moment is gone forever, as we live in a world of unending wariness and security precautions previously unimaginable. In this there is no end in sight as we must remain ever vigilant, even as we have largely decimated Al Qaeda and the city and country bounced back. The cost in blood and treasure has been enormous, as war continues in remote outposts in Afghanistan. So much of the burden of our security rests on so few shoulders, unlike past conflicts, and indeed never have so many owed so much to so few. We must never forget the front line troops and their sacrifice, and all those innocents who perished on that awful day. Thus we must keep those images vividly in mind, as awful as they are, so that we never forget. It is not something to "put behind us," as some would have it, bu to remember always. Never forget.

09 September 2011


There are serious warnings about a potential terrorist attack as we approach the anniversary of 9/11, which resonates strongly here in New York. When, where, or how is unknown, but clearly a high degree of alertness is warranted. Hopefully the perpetrators will be apprehended and stopped before they can strike, as has happened many times before. But as Margaret Thatcher once said, we have to be right every time; the terrorists only have to be right once. That said, where you are when something bad happens is purely a matter of luck in being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Some people move, or think about moving to get away from everything. In these parts no place is farther away from it all than upstate New York or Vermont. Yet these very places are still struggling with floods caused by excessive rainfall, with all the attendant inconveniences like lack of power and ruined possessions. Who would ever have thought that a hurricane could impact Vermont, or that upstate could be seriously flooded? If you aren’t safe from perils there it’s hard to think of anywhere you can be. In Texas the opposite conditions prevail, with drought and wildfires burning out of control. The point is that disaster can strike anywhere, and the extent you are affected or threatened is purely chance- of being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Why does a hurricane land in one place and not another? Why is one area impacted while another remains undisturbed? There is just no way to know. Of course there are places where such events are more likely and building and rebuilding in their wake makes no sense, but as to what can happen unexpectedly at any given moment we are largely clueless.

But the same is true of good things, like winning the lottery, because, as they say, “hey, you never know.” If there’s any solace in all of this it is that while you’re unlikely to win the lottery, you’re also unlikely to be at the center of a calamity. There are always some very lucky people for whom everything goes right, just as there are some very unfortunate people who experience the worst of things. However, most of us will never likely experience either extreme, but at most will endure inconveniences in life. So next time you grumble about a power glitch or an airline trip think of those who have lost everything, including their lives, and consider yourself fortunate, if not lucky.

25 August 2011


As I write this a hurricane is approaching New York. There was an earthquake on Tuesday that radiated from Virginia all the way to Canada and shook New York City, although it wasn’t felt where I’m currently located, on sandy Long Island. The hurricane likely will be felt, and all of this is a reminder of the precariousness of life on earth, given the forces of nature. In the comfortable cocoon that civilization provides us we tend to forget how insulated we have become. Only when natural disaster strikes does it register how savage the natural world is, because most of the time the storms, floods, earthquakes, and tsunamis happen somewhere else. People who live closest to nature, such as farmers, have few illusions about it. Those with a more romantic view are urbanites, largely clueless as to reality and perils of the natural world.

Some similarly romanticize the past, and think it would be nice to live in a different era, when things were perhaps simpler. It is true one could go back a few decades and still be comfortable, but further beyond that, not much more than a century, and the inconveniences would be overwhelming. The smells alone would be intolerable to a modern person. Think of life without electricity, indoor plumbing, toilet paper, refrigeration; never mind the Internet. Think of life with exposure to diseases now vanquished, when more than half of children born would not survive to adulthood, along with the ever present threat of war, famine, and pestilence.

There is a window beyond which we would find ourselves very uncomfortable, and it is likely our descendants would find our present equally unpalatable. For we are of our place and time whether we like it or not, just as our ancestors were of their place and time. We are part of the world we live in, and but one stop on a procession of generations that stretches backward and forward in time.

20 August 2011


These are the gloomiest times we have seen since the Carter years. This is confirmed by survey after survey showing a lack of faith in institutions, a lack of confidence in the future, and dismal economic statistics. The stock market dropped 450 points last week, or 1300 so far this month and 2000 for the year, wiping out $3 trillion in wealth. The previous week the market finished its wildest week in history, with four 400 point or more daily swings in a row. Though a lot of this was pure silliness, and an overreaction to the slightest scrap of news, mostly from overseas, it is clear the economic fundamentals are not good. Unemployment is over 9% and underemployment is 18% plus. One in five males are out of work, with profound social consequences.

Gold is up 30% for the year. What does it say when gold is a better investment than productive assets that would actually provide growth? There is fear and uncertainty across the land. 47% believe the future is only going to get worse, 73% say the U.S. is on the wrong track, while the number of people satisfied with the way things are going has hit a new low at 11%. Deficits are running at 10% of GDP, with debt over 100%. In short the economic outlook is bleak.

There is an even chance the economy is tanking again as anemic growth sputters towards a double dip recession. We are constantly bombarded with a frenzy of bargains deals to try and increase sales without much effect. Yet despite so much slack in the economy prices are rising and may get worse thanks to all the money the Federal Reserve has pumped into the economy. So far the government response has been, if anything, counterproductive. The last time I used the title Economy and Society was in 2009, ending with the question what if it (the then proposed trillion dollar stimulus) doesn’t work? Clearly it didn’t work and government policies have brought us to our current circumstances.

The news from Europe is even worse, souring markets around the world, as countries struggle with debt problems and their banks appear shaky. But in the big picture what is really going on is a wave across the western world, as the realization begins to set in that unsustainable spending, borrowing, and entitlements cannot continue without sufficient population growth. This is not really news as it has been predicted for years, but unfortunately governments ignored the problem and failed to deal with long-term arrangements, instead reacting to short-term, day to day headlines. Now they are running out of options.

Given chronic government mismanagement there is nothing a change in policies would not correct by, i.e. returning to balanced budgets and sound money. Everything will not go down the tubes unless we let that happen. It is still within our power to correct these conditions, if the vision and will can be found. For the question is whether we still believe in the future, or whether we will bury our heads like the Europeans and slowly fade away. Americans are usually the most optimistic of peoples, and that dormant positive outlook needs to be rekindled. Unless we think the world is going to end, things will turn around sooner or later, depending on when we take the right actions. Economic forecasting is about as reliable weather forecasting so dire predictions need not trouble us. There are always gloom predictors and boom predictors, but most of the time we manage to muddle through somewhere in the middle, as neither the very worst or the very best often happens.

06 August 2011


Vladimir Putin described the United States as a “parasite” on the world economy due to the pre-eminence of the dollar, which presumably provides certain advantages. This comes from someone late to the world economic party, considering that Russia still can’t even qualify for the World Trade Organization and remains an economic backwater. But then Putin is nostalgic for the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and great power status. He thinks by being antagonistic to the US he elevates Russia, but no one wants to play his game on this end. The long-suffering Russian people deserve better than the gangster government they have, and attempting to deflect blame for life’s miseries via ultra-nationalism will not rescue a grossly mismanaged state. Given that he’s not exactly buff he should also keep his shirt on.

It is easy to understand resentment of American dominance, although this comes at the expense of no other country. Indeed in all of history there has never been a more benevolent world power. Since World War II the American military has kept the world at relative peace not only for the US but for everyone else, thus providing stability and prosperity. This has come at huge cost to the American people, and the US has the burden of carrying a load for the world in other areas as well. The American economy is still the engine driving the world economy, and if it sputters so does everyone else. Americans are also subsidizing the rest of the world in terms of innovation across the board, but particularly in health via new cures and drugs. For example, the Nobel Prizes in medicine has been awarded to more Americans than to researchers in all other countries combined. Eight of the 10 top-selling drugs in the world were developed by U.S. companies. With this, however, come all the development costs, which are largely born by the US market. So the US is hardly “leeching” on the world economy but rather is carrying a heavy burden.

But the extent to which American problems are displaced across the world can be overstated. The stock market dropped over 700 points this week not due to anything domestic but rather because of fear of defaults and economic collapse in Europe. So while markets crashed and even gold went down, where did money from around the world flow? To US Treasuries, for safety and security, actually driving down the yield. In this context the S&P downgrade of US debt from AAA makes no sense. True the government has to rein in borrowing and cut back on debt, but that process will work itself out. The momentum is all in the direction of cutting spending and debt reduction over time. The economy may be doing poorly at the moment, in no small measure due to the federal government, but this will be set right. After all change is coming; change you can believe in.

31 July 2011


The ideology of the left recognizes little distinction between the state and society, and this view pervades the current administration. Decisions that properly belong in the private sector are being second-guessed or usurped by government officials. The most egregious case involves the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and the Boeing corporation. Boeing has substantial facilities in Washington state and recently expanded by creating a second production line in South Carolina for its 787 Dreamliner. You would think that expanding capital investment and jobs is a good thing for everyone, but not for administration bureaucrats.

The general counsel of the NLRB has issued a complaint against Boeing on behalf of the International Association of Machinists union, which if successful, would actual compel the company to move its South Carolina operation back to Washington State. The reason for this is that South Carolina is a non-union, right-to-work state, i.e. you aren’t forced to join a union to work. Never mind that, as it turns out, this expansion will also lead to an increase in jobs in Washington State as well. This is an outrageous and fundamental abuse of government power for which there is no possible justification. It is an entirely political move, which is not surprising, given that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka boasted during a February news conference that he's "at the White House a couple times a week, two, three times a week." and that he has "conversations every day with someone at the White House or in the administration." It is just as bad when a crony-capitalist corporate executive has similar influence.

Politicians are inept enough at running the government, never mind trying to run the economy. This is the sort of state direction you would expect in Russia and China, where state-directed capitalism prevails, not the United States. But apart from the sheer stupidity of trying to manage business decisions, badly, either we are a free society or we aren’t. Either individuals and corporations are free to make decisions about their own affairs or they are not. It is not the business of the state to arbitrarily favor one group over another, or determine how they will conduct their affairs beyond established law and regulations. No wonder the economy continues to falter.

28 July 2011


The overriding philosophy of the left demolishes the distinction between state and society, in the belief that broad political direction of things is justified by what are, presumably, higher ends. From this standpoint the constitution becomes a nuisance to the extent that it explicitly limits government power. Thus today we have people on the left calling on the President to extend the debt limit on his own, allegedly based upon the 14th amendment. This would empower the President bypass the congress, where there are sharp disagreements reflecting the will of the people, and unilaterally dictate an expansion of the debt limit. This is typical of a left that chooses to ignore the constitution and substitute the rule of men.

We share a constitutional republic with people we often disagree with. Civil society is only possible if we agree on the basic rules. But things begin to unravel if a significant element does not. The constitution limits power; by any reading that is clear, as inconvenient as that may be to some. If the constitution is superseded by Ideology, the result is arbitrary power. In its extreme form this becomes revolutionary- consider those who want to eliminate Fox News, which is reflective of a totalitarian mindset.

The irony is that it is the liberals that are most protected by the constitution. They are far outnumbered by conservatives, and any devolution to arbitrary power would not serve them well. Those who would go so far as to employ the force of the state to get their way are laughable, for this ultimately means violence in the service of some idea. But when it comes to the means and ability to employ force, use guns, and fight, such capabilities are found on the right, not the left. Thus those on the left who would upend the constitution for their own aims should think twice before abandoning its principles.

23 July 2011


There are times when a strategic retreat makes sense, even losing a battle in order to win the war. That is the position the Republicans are now in with regard to the debt ceiling-budget battle. Although polls indicate that most people agree with conservative positions on these questions, when it comes to assigning blame on the impasse, 39% blame the Republicans, not Obama. Given this reality it makes no sense to continue insist on legislation that is not going to go anywhere given the Democratic Senate, although the Republican House membership must be credited with some great ideas. The question is how to ultimately get them implemented.

It is in everyone’s interest to get this default issue behind us, and take the McConnell plan, or something similar. That puts an end to the immediate crisis until the next election, at which time conservatives will be in a much better position to capture the Senate and Presidency. At that time the President will have no cover, no basis to blame Republicans, and will have to take the fall for the lousy economy. It is important to keep the long-term picture in mind. Most goals can be reached, but after 2012, if cooler heads prevail.

11 July 2011


The “star” system originated in the 19th century entertainment industry, but it really flourished in Hollywood and became entrenched., In the past the great studios exercised a good measure of control over excess, but they are long gone while the stars, such as they are today, remain. But the star system is no longer confined to Hollywood in America. It is now ubiquitous. That is obvious in professional sports, but it has also spread far afield, i.e. to the business world. Thus CEOs now find themselves on the cover of business magazines and treated like superstars, at least in terms of their pay packages.

This has resulted in a “winner take all” society where those at the top are disproportionately rewarded, deservedly or undeservedly, because they are in a position establish their own terms. The more advantages you have the more advantages you can obtain. This is one consequence of our free enterprise system, which I support, but I find such outcomes troubling given the resulting disparities.There is room for only a few at the top of the pyramid. I don’t subscribe to the “share the wealth” school of thought because it ultimately just makes everyone poorer. What I do find unacceptable is the undue awe and deference given to such people, which is almost entirely based upon money and notoriety.

We would be a far better society if those who possess an admirable degree of honor, integrity, character, and other intangible virtues were more highly regarded. There was a time when this was the case, when a man like George Washington was held in highest esteem by his contemporaries and succeeding generations, but this has been lost. We should hold the virtuous in highest regard, but this will only happen if our educational system emphasizes these characteristics. Instead today the emphasis is on building “self esteem,” which there is far too much of and results in all sorts of selfish behavior.

Too few of the “stars” in society display any sort of virtue that can be separated from ego gratification. They are famous because they want to be, and various public relations people manage their image. Apart from real disasters, most of what you read or hear in the news is placed by such representatives behind the scenes. The star system would collapse if no one paid attention to them, which would require a degree of maturity, as evidenced by the fact that those most impressed by celebrities tend to be teenagers.

True virtue is quiet and steady and is reflected in the way people live their lives. It is the basic decency of unsung heroes that makes life worthwhile. For in truth most of the people you have heard of today aren’t worth knowing about.

06 July 2011


I have known a fair number of very rich people during my life and the one thing that strikes me is that they are not that "different" from others, notwithstanding F. Scott Fitzgerald. They are often more acquisitive, but basically just have bigger or more expensive versions of what everyone else has, i.e. houses, boats, watches, etc. They are certainly not any smarter than others,nor are they particularly talented. They are frequently very focused on getting more, and in the process may work hard. But so do a lot of other people. In truth the one thing that characterizes them above all else is luck.

The older I get the more I realize how important luck is in life. Opportunities, connections, circumstances, etc. have to come together in just the right way out of random possibilities, but this is often forgotten. For example, CEOs believe they deserve to be in charge, never mind that any number of others could have risen to that position had things been slightly different. It too frequently follow with "star" status that there is a sense of entitlement, and a total loss of humility. Movie stars are no different. To be sure many are talented, but the aspiring actor pumping gas may be just as talented, but hasn't been at the right place at the right time. There are some exceptions, such as professional sports, but even there circumstances matter.

I bring this up because of the issue of taxation. I don't begrudge them their wealth, nor do I think there ought to be any kind of leveling to establish "fairness," as the left would have it. But I do object to their having undue governmental influence. Unfortunately politicians are in awe of the rich, even though there is less there than meets the eye. They can't legally contribute any more than anyone else, and their fundraising prowess is actually based upon leaning on others, i.e.suppliers, business associates, etc., becoming a fundraising "bundler." This gets them special access to elected officials, who are constantly raising money for re-election; access they don't deserve.

Low taxes on the rich is a position largely held by Republicans, who as a result are saddled with the impression of "favoring the rich." Yet a majority of the richest people in the US favored Obama in the last election, so it is not as though the Republicans owe them anything, and it is time for them to put an end to this stereotype. Given the disastrous amount of spending and debt we are facing, the very richest people can pay more, given how fortune has favored them.

This need not involve confiscatory tax rates, but rather ending all sorts of deductions and loopholes that are in the tax code. I would also add that certain contributions ought not to be deductible. For example, large donors, usually with large egos, frequently get facilities named after themselves. Why should plastering their name all over get them a tax deduction? If their egos are such that they need to see their name on things, let them fully pay for the privilege.

That said, the actual conservative position is not to intrinsically favor the rich because they are rich, but rather to maximize economic benefit for society as a whole. For the question is what is preferable- to have them control and spend their own money, or have the government do it. In seeking confiscatory taxes the left wants to control the money themselves through the government in order to "improve" society in areas they think are deficient. But government is ineffective and inefficient at just about anything it does. When it comes to their money, the rich, on the other hand can do only one of two things- either they invest it or they spend it.
If they invest it they precipitate economic growth, which benefits everyone. On the other hand, if they spend it, even on luxuries, they are still contributing to economic activity and creating jobs. For example, when someone wealthy buys a yacht they are creating and sustaining jobs for all the people involved in its production.

What they don't need are any favors from the government, and that is what must end. In addition, I believe the income tax should be graduated, but with a low ceiling, for the simple reason that money breeds more money. Someone wealthy has far more access to funding and loans than others do. This would not impact small business given a credit for investing in new enterprises. In fact the best thing that rich people could do for the economy is to behave like rich people, spending an investing, rather than trying to influence public policy. That especially includes annoying wealthy offspring who often feel compelled to engage in "public service" due to their fortunate circumstances, which inevitably involves public spending at the expense of everyone else.

Those who have created fortunes are far more obsessed with making money than other people. Americans tend to be indulgent of the wealthy because most of them want to become rich themselves. Personally, like the ancient Greeks, I think the pursuit of money and possessions at the expense of everything else in life is folly, for in the end you cannot take them with you and your ownership is nothing more than temporary. There are many more satisfying and appealing aspects to life and better ways of using one's time. But I suppose it is necessary for some people to keep the wheels of commerce turning to maintain economic prosperity for everyone else.

28 June 2011


The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, and the courts have scrupulously upheld this principle. The latest incarnation is the Supreme Court ruling striking down a law banning violent video games for children. In all such matters, whether it be pornography or extreme violence, the problem is children, and how to shield them from such things.

Television in particular is a problem. Although broadcast networks currently do not televise “adult” material during the hours children may be watching, they are constantly pushing the envelope, and moves are underway to remove even these restrictions. Cable is another thing, particularly “premium” services that people incomprehensibly pay extra for. In particular Showtime and Starz distribute shows that are truly disgusting.

Starz has hit rock bottom with Spartacus: Gods of the Arena, never mind that it has nothing to do with Spartacus. In addition to the expected over-the-top blood and gore, there is constant female as well as male nudity, including fully frontal shots, and every sort of sexual activity imaginable. It is essentially an hour of gay porn. Every other word is f--k. But this is not “adult” material; it is the sort of thing that attracts impressionable thirteen year olds males since the content is too dumb for an actual adult. Anyone with children ought to cancel Starz.

Californication on Showtime, as its title implies, is totally concerned with sexual escapades. But what this show unintentionally shows is a nihilistic, amoral, hedonistic culture that is in serious decline. Unfortunately such people totally dominate the entertainment industry, but demographics are not with them. They are a diminishing population in a sea of new arrivals with different perceptions of life and family. Although it characterizes the powerful in California, it is a society on the wane, and no longer points to the future.

If you pay for these “premium” channels you are essentially supporting shows like this, and no matter what restrictions you place your kids, teens in particular, will access them. Therein lies the dilemma- how to reduce these influences without compromising freedom. Surely such material ought to be restricted, but not by the government. Freedom of expression is too important and too precious a principle to be compromised. What is needed is self-restraint on the part of producers of “entertainment.” In the past the motion picture and television industry adhered to some standards as a result of public demand. Now there are no standards, thanks to degenerate liberalism. The only way to rectify this situation is for a large number of people to express their objection to such content and apply continuous pressure. Canceling pay services for stated reasons is particularly effective. These companies must learn that they cannot continue offending a very substantial portion of the population without consequences. After all, there are more of us than there are of them.

26 June 2011


The administration’s half-hearted policy in Libya is a no-win situation all around. Americans may be war weary, but the preservation of the NATO alliance is still in our interests as well as theirs. It is true the Libya campaign has unmasked the impotence of the Europeans in carrying out any mission without significant American support. The Europeans continue to bury their heads and avoid adequate expenditures for their own defense. However it is hardly in our interests to see this mission fail. We made a commitment to this effort and to avoid looking impotent ourselves we need to see it through. It would not take a major effort on our part to finally topple daffy Quadafi, who has American and British blood on his hands. Having come out in favor of his overthrow we should make it happen, and then leave the post-Quadafi situation to the Europeans.

The case against Quadafi is that he has murdered his own people. By that standard the Assad regime in Syria is even worse, yet we are standing by as what is clearly a popular revolt is being brutally suppressed. There is a tacit policy of supporting the status quo in Syria in the interests of “stability.” This is nonsense. The fall of this Iranian ally would clearly be in the interests of the West. Without direct engagement on the ground we have sufficient forces in the area to support the revolt, and given its resilience in the face of murderous suppression it would likely succeed.

Again Americans are war weary, but having gone this far and largely succeeded in Iraq and Afghanistan it makes no sense to precipitously withdraw, thereby vastly increasing Iranian influence. The sacrifices we have made should not be in vain. Iran is the greatest threat to world peace and “stability” at the moment, but we effectively have them encircled. Until that regime is toppled by its own people the treat remains and we ignore it at our own peril. Regime change in Syria would be a major blow to Iran, not only there by in Lebanon, given Syrian mischief in that country.

Unfortunately the administration continues to project weakness, which only emboldens our enemies. This is suicide. Neo-isolationism is a dangerous fantasy and it is disturbing to hear some Republicans taking this position. The fact of the matter is that we may not be interested in the world, but the world is interested in us, and we cannot wish away those intent on destroying us.

16 June 2011


Entertainment companies are constantly complaining about piracy, but meanwhile they themselves often rip off the consumers who actually pay for their products. For example, I saw 2001:A Space Odyssey when it first came out in a premium-priced Cinerama roadshow. (For those who are too young to remember these terms, Cinerama was a process that used three screens to provide a really wide image of a movie. A “roadshow” was how major movies used to premier. They would initially be booked into a high-end theater, say on Broadway, and run there for months before going into general distribution).

So I paid for that ticket. Then I bought a VHS video tape when it came out. Then I bought a very expensive laser disc version. Then I bought a DVD, and finally I bought a blu-ray DVD. It’s the same with music- buying a record, then buying the CD, and if you’re too lazy to copy your own records, an MP3. Never mind the additional "collectors edition" that inevitably comes out after you've paid for the regular version. That adds up to a lot of money paying for the same product several times.

If these companies had any sense they would work more like software companies do with updates. You should be able to register your purchase, and then get a discount when the “upgraded” version or technology comes out. That would be a reasonable marketing approach. They in turn would benefit from a user or database.

There is a lot of piracy, mostly outside the United States, in places like China, and companies are losing a substantial amount of money as a result. If these items were paid for our trade balance would not be so bad. As usual Americans basically foot the bill for the rest of the world, just as they do in medical research, pharmaceuticals, etc.

The entertainment companies would benefit if they looked at their products more like software and treated fans of a title better. Then they might get more sympathy.

15 June 2011


I think Facebook is going to wind up being an ephemeral phenomenon just like many other “hot” things that have been part of the Internet. There was old AOL that actually did it all better with a minimum of hassle in its time, then MySpace, and then... -you get the idea. They appear to be changing processes and rules only to make it worse. For example, I used to get a lot more feedback on blog posts there, but then it mysteriously tapered off.

It turns out that your posts are no longer being seen by many, if not most of your friends. Due to some sort of formula they are now only visible to people who you have recently interacted with. So unless you spend all your time on Facebook "interacting" with particular individuals they don’t see your posts. This means they are following everything you do to get this information for their algorithm. This also means your friends are not seeing your posts either unless they tweak a setting on Facebook. This is ridiculous and defeats the whole point of the network.

There is a fix for this as explained here. I urge everyone reading this to follow the instructions to adjust their accounts so that we can continue to communicate. The more rules they throw on here the more irritating they become and the more they are going to alienate people.

Forward this to your friends to correct this nonsense.

13 June 2011


It seems that Anthony Weiner will be seeking “therapy” for his transgressions. This will presumably wean him off of his sexual deviancy. This is the typical secular-liberal approach, which is to pathologize immoral conduct. To attribute this to a disease of some sort is a travesty, and trivializes real mental illness, which is largely physiological and best treated pharmacologically.

This is what we get from people who do not believe there are any standards, that individuals are not ultimately responsible for their own behavior, that we must be “nonjudgemental,” that there is no objective truth, and ultimately that there is no such thing as evil.

But even if we were to accept this nonsense, when someone presumes to hold public office they should in fact be held to a higher standard. The Internet is fertile ground for sexual escapades that anyone might conceivably succumb to. But the thing that guides us and prevents us from yielding to temptation is character. Character is what restrains us from doing stupid things if it is sufficiently developed. Without it we are left with nothing but impulses, and the desire to satisfy them no matter what the consequences. When one seeks public office it is a public trust, that one will do the right thing. But if one cannot make proper judgements in their private affairs how can they be trusted with public power? In the past people understood this, and character was of primary importance before the arrival of our “modern” sensibilities. But in the end there is no surer measure of who a person is and what they will do. Character matters.

11 June 2011


Anthony Weiner is a man without honor, prudence, decency, or shame. Anyone with a sense of propriety would have resigned after the revelation that he had exposed himself online. But the standards of rectitude seem to apply only to Republicans, who consistently step down when a misdeed is uncovered. Weiner, a liberal hypocrite, was promoting himself to be the next Mayor of New York City before these revelations, and he still intends to hold onto his congressional seat. More mind-boggling is the fact that a majority of the voters in his district believe he should stay in office. What kind of people are they?

This country has the misfortune to have its major institutions dominated by a rotten elite- people without standards, who are contemptuous of the traditional values of the mass of the people. They control the media, the education system, the entertainment industry, and virtually all forms of communication. It is not so much that they are “liberal,” as that they are nihilists. They don’t believe in anything and ridicule anyone who does. But a person who believes in nothing will believe or fall for anything. Thus we find them forever attracted to radical propositions designed to upend society in order to “improve” it, and especially stand firm against “intolerance.” So apparently, due to the moral and intellectual failings of some people, we must tolerate Anthony Weiner and his ilk.

Given the myopia of his constituents, and the unlikelihood that he will be ejected from congress, the only way to get rid of Weiner is to eliminate his district in redistricting. New York is losing two congressional seats as it continues to hemorrhage people, so one of them might as well be his.

The other unpleasant thought is that people like this actually have power in this country. Do we really want to be ruled by such unprincipled scoundrels? The only way to protect ourselves and our children is with less government. The framers designed the constitution along these very lines, which have largely been abrogated, wherever possible, by the “liberals.” We need to return to basic constitutional principles that devolve the concentration of power in the federal government and restore decision-making to the lowest possible level; that is to say the community or the individual. We should be jealous of ceding control over our lives to government, given the imperfections of man, ideally to the point where government doesn’t matter.


I did something stupid. I signed up for QuiBids thinking it was an auction site something like Ebay, which I use frequently. It’s not. Before you can even bid on anything you have to shell out $60 for 100 bids, which sounds like a lot, until you start using them. Each bid cost you 60 cents. There are enticing items, like Macbooks, LED TVs, appliances, etc. but there are mostly gift cards and credits for more bids. This works in such a way that you wind up using your bids awfully fast, coming away with nothing because of the way the “auction” is structured. Each bid raises the price by a penny, but costs someone 60 cents. The kicker is that if anyone else bids in the last 20 seconds the clock is reset to twenty. As a result you are stuck in a game of chicken with whoever else is bidding until you run out of points. It is true that at some point somebody wins, and may even get a Macbook for $10, but meanwhile an awful lot of money has been wasted by people losing the auction. That’s how they can afford to offer a few prizes that could go for pennies on the dollar. It depends on hundreds or thousands of other idiots spending the $60 and getting nothing. When something looks too good to be true it usually is. Avoid getting conned. Stay away from lthis one like the plague.

20 May 2011


When I look at Dominique Strauss-Kahn he appears to be an older man to me, even though we are the same age. Yet in his interaction with a hotel maid he appears to have deluded himself that he is younger. I just don’t get the sexual assault he is charged with. Why bother with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with you? Where’s the joy in that? But I’ve seen this kind of thing before. When I was a boss I periodically had to deal with sexual harassment problems always caused by men in their early sixties.

My take on men in these situations is that they probably want to be sure they can still do it. They haven’t yet reconciled to that image in the mirror or the idea that no one younger is going to be attracted to them, unless they are very rich- and how real is that? Almost anything young will do, as though their vitality could somehow be transferred. Whatever these men have accomplished in life, they are missing a priceless attribute of aging, which is the wisdom which comes with maturity. Rather than developing on the advantages of being relieved of passionate infatuations, they seek to return to the prerogatives of an age that is gone forever. Thus they make fools of themselves, and there is no fool like an old fool.

04 May 2011


Justice was long delayed, but the killing of Bin Laden brings some degree of closure, particularly for those of us living in New York, to the horrors of September 11, 2001. Yet joy is tempered by the fact that we know we are always going to be a target for the fanatics and must be ever vigilant. All those involved in this successful mission deserve our praise and thanks. Even better they apparently recovered a treasure trove of computer information that will aid in the war against the terrorists, which needless to say, continues.

Still at large is Ayman al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s number two, who if anything is far more evil than Bin Laden, who was something of a nut case. But Zawahiri is an Egyptian doctor for whom there is no excuse. Also at large, is the “American”leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, Anwar al-Awlaki , who probably represents a greater threat at this point.

There are only remnants of Al Qaeda left in Afghanistan, and with the demise of Bin Laden there is less reason for our presence there. Our conflict was never really with the Taliban, but the fact that they refused to give up Bin Laden. But as awful as they are, given our flaky Afghan government allies, we need to rethink our policy there. The Afghans are the most backward white people in the world, and bringing them into the modern world may be an exercise in futility. As for the opium crop, instead of antagonizing farmers we should simply buy it up, given how much we’re already spending there.

The real problem now is Pakistan, which is virtually a failed state. It is noteworthy that Bin Laden lived in plain sight in a modern development outside of Islamabad. It is just not credible that elements of the Pakistani government did not know about this. Today’s Pakistan encompasses much of the heartland of ancient India, and the biggest mistake the British made was to allow the creation of Pakistan out of a portion of British India, to provide a Muslim majority state. The Pakistanis are in fact Indians, who were converted by Muslim invaders, and it is the only state founded specifically to be an Islamic country. That is the whole rationale for their existence. Initially a moderate form of Islam prevailed, but after a military dictatorship promoted Islam, and the Saudis financed a vast number of madrassas, providing little in the way of education outside of Islam, a significant portion of the population has been radicalized. Given the fact that they possess nuclear weapons the Pakistanis represent a far bigger problem than the Afghans. Continued instability there is a cause for concern and provides a greater rationale for remaining in Afghanistan than Afghanistan itself.

Bin Laden’s strategy of provoking the United States to overreact, thereby inflaming the Muslim world has failed. He totally misread us in terms of determination and staying power. But he partially succeeded in one intentional objective- wrecking our economy by forcing huge expenditures on wars that would consume vast resources and weaken our economy. What we need to do now is pursue a smarter and cheaper targeted anti-terror policy and instead of larger scale military engagements focus on pursuing terrorists.

14 April 2011


Everyone acknowledges that the US is running up an unsustainable debt and clearly the time for budget and entitlement reform is now. There are a number of proposals on the table now, including those of Rep. Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, the bipartisan group of six senators working on a compromise, what was finally put forward by President Obama, and his own deficit commission headed by Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles. Unfortunately the President has largely ignored the proposals of the latter, and gave a disappointingly partisan speech outlining his own position, which sounded more like campaign rhetoric than thoughtful consideration of the problem.

Yet somewhere between all of the above there is a solution that ought to be reached by consensus. The timing and window of opportunity will never be better, but it is rapidly closing as we move towards the presidential campaign. The opportunity is here because the government is divided between parties, with Democrats controlling the Senate and Presidency, while Republicans overwhelmingly control the House. Painful choices are going to have to be made, and the only way this can occur is on a bipartisan basis; otherwise one party will attack the other for some inevitably unpopular decisions. Furthermore the baby boomers are starting to retire. That means there will soon be a mass constituency that will be resistant to any kind of Social Security and Medicare reform, even if these only apply to subsequent generations. Demagogues will have a field day and the chances for any meaningful reform will disappear, at least until bankruptcy.

It may be too much to hope that politicians will rise above partisan posturing and come up with some truly bipartisan solutions. Were this to happen on his watch the president would receive a lot of credit, both currently and historically. Unfortunately in his first pronouncement on this he has instead taken the low road rather than rising to the occasion. However, if the congress comes up with a solution my guess is that he will go along with it. For what remains inescapable is that these problems must be dealt with now.

09 March 2011


Since turmoil began in the Arab world the price of oil has steadily risen. This was preceded by a large increase in the price of food, which has been a significant contributing factor to unrest around the world. For the eighth consecutive month the United Nations index of global food prices hit another record high in February. While weather has been a contributing factor, government policies have exacerbated the situation. Corn prices have nearly doubled since a year ago, and corn is a vital element in many commodities such as animal feed, which in turn affects meat prices. This is a direct result of inane government policies that heavily subsidize biofuels such as ethanol, thereby diverting large tracts of agricultural land away from food production, not to mention paying farmers not to grow crops. Today there are growing food shortages around the world, and rising prices affect the poorest populations disproportionately as a much higher portion of their income goes towards food. There is certain to be price inflation at your local supermarket as well.

While oil prices skyrocket our government pursues policies designed to make the cost of fossil fuels high, based on the illusion that vast quantities of green energy are just around the corner. They are not, and our society is unavoidably dependent on fossil fuels. Meanwhile a huge portion of our balance of payments deficit goes towards the import of foreign oil, leaving us dependent on unstable and/or unsavory regimes around the world, even as abundant domestic resources remain unexploited. The EPA has done everything possible to frustrate domestic energy producers. Meanwhile the Interior department continues to maintain a moratorium on offshore drilling, even in defiance of a federal court order, frustrating not only production but costing thousands of jobs in the gulf region. Vast tracts of domestic resources remain off-limits. New technologies make possible the extraction of oil and gas from shale deposits around the country, but those efforts are being frustrated. Meanwhile roadblocks are being thrown in the way of piping in oil from the Canadian tar sands. We have domestic oil resources but production is being frustrated, denying us an essential resource that is bound to become ever more scarce and expensive as Asian demand increases in the coming years.

These increased costs will radiate throughout the economy, increasing the cost of transport of goods as well as the goods themselves, which means the cost of living will rise. That along with loose money policies will result inevitably in inflation, the likes of which we have not seen since the 1970s. It is time for these destructive policies to end and to maximize production to our full potential. Failing that we will pay a heavy price in the not too distant future.

27 February 2011


From the Maghreb in North Africa to the Persian Gulf we have witnessed mass protests over the past several days, resulting in regime change in a number of cases, with others on the brink. Where some governments have yielded to the popular will, in Libya we currently see thousands being killed, even as army units and officials defect to the opposition. Largely peaceful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have resulted in the departure of long-serving dictators. These revolutions were spearheaded by young, secular activists who made great use of technology and social media to organize, from the bottom up, a spontaneous movement that rapidly gained popular support. They were clearly educated, and middle class by the standards of their country. There was nothing “Islamic” about these movements; indeed the Islamists were caught by surprise. The youthful protests were as much a result as economic malaise as a desire for freedom, given high unemployment and dismal prospects even for the educated. In Egypt the average age is only 24 and there are some 20 million Internet users. They are young people seeking a better life in dysfunctional societies without opportunity, and they have no interest in jihad or clerical rule.

In Tunisia, where the movement began, there is a largely secular society established by its first President, Habib Bourguiba, who once jumped off a stage and ripped a veil from a woman’s face to emphasize secular modernity. However, in Egypt, to put things in perspective, Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations can hold about 250,000 people. There are 18 million in Cairo, and more than 80 million in Egypt, most of whom are poor peasants barely living at subsistence levels. The average Egyptian survives on less that $1000 a year, and 40% get by on $2.00 a day. They are a world away from the events in Cairo and Alexandria. It is the same peasantry that has endured for thousands of years as regimes have come and gone. It is not clear what their sentiments are, and how they will respond in a democracy, should one emerge. Power remains in the hands of the Army, which has promised a new constitution to be approved by a referendum, and free elections. The Army is popular and the guarantor of stability in the country. Much will depend on their willingness to cede power to an eventual elected civilian government. Although there appears to be a genuine interest in freedom, in reality economic concerns are equally salient.

Let us hope that the young seeking a better life are not disappointed as their expectations rise. In Egypt there has been something of an Islamic revival. Thirty years ago there were few headscarves in Cairo. Now they are ubiquitous, but this does not equate with radical Islamism by any means. My guess is that Islamism will not ultimately triumph in this situation. Young people want a better life; that is life in this world, not the next, and revolution opens possibilities and optimism that there will be change and opportunity. They have no more desire to be ruled by clerics than we in the west do, especially having seen the results in Iran. Islamism can only take hold when there is desperation, hopelessness, and alienation with the possibilities of this life. The only risk is that reformed governments will be unable to deliver.

Some analysts in the west have worriedly pointed to the fact that revolutions often result in radical extremists taking power, as in France, Russia, and Iran. I do not see that happening in this instance because power ultimately rests with the men with guns, who are part of a professional army.

In Libya the situation is somewhat different. Muamar “Daffy” Qadaffi has turned the guns on his own people, resorting to bringing in mercenaries from African countries as army units defect. The US once had an air force base in Libya until Colonel Qadaffi overthrew King Idris. But it is the flag of the old king that the rebels are now waving. With the east and much of the countryside lost, Qadaffi is left with a base in Tripoli, where his forces continue to slaughter the opposition. The French and British have taken the lead on this as the administration has again been clueless. What needs to be done now is to establish a no fly zone so that Qadaffi cannot attack his own people from the air.

It ought to now be clear that the desire for freedom does exist in the Arab world. Through modern communications young people realize there is a better life elsewhere, that there are alternatives to tyranny, and that opportunity in their own societies can only be realized through change. The clock cannot be turned back.

28 January 2011


Chinese President Hu Jintao recently completed a triumphant visit to the United States, at least according to the Chinese media. American officials wound up looking like fools as they sat through an anti-American song played by pianist Ling Ling, to the delight and contempt of Chinese nationalists and hardliners. The prevailing narrative these days is that China is rising while America is declining. This may well be the case over the next few decades if we allow it, but there is nothing inevitable about it. If we seriously reduce our deficit and institute pro-growth policies so that the economy grows at 5% this won’t happen. But the government is a long way off from getting the economy on a solid footing. On the other hand there is no certainty that China will continue to grow at a 10% rate indefinitely any more than Japan did.

China faces a host of internal problems. There is rising inflation and a property bubble that may eventually collapse. There is misallocation of capital by state enterprises, and rising discontent amongst a population that is still overwhelmingly poor. The government’s top priority is maintaining internal order and a “harmonious society” that keeps the Communist party elites in control. This is a bit tricky insofar as they have largely scrapped communist ideology in practice, but to be logically consistent they ought to do so officially, by rejecting Marxism as a foreign ideology and returning to Confucian roots. There has already been a revival of Confucianism, and a full embrace would legitimize the government in accordance with Chinese tradition. If this is accompanied by a merit system, rather than one that favors party functionaries, the government would be on solid ground, even if not democratic.

But in the long run, China will be outpaced by India. India is like a slow-moving elephant that has a long-term consistency once it is headed in the right direction. Its population will eventually pass China’s, and will be considerably younger due to China’s one-child policy. Even at a slower rate of growth in the long-term this means a larger economy. However, neither will be anywhere near the west on a per capita basis. Nor is it inevitable that the United States will be outproduced if we get our fiscal house in order, increase saving and investment, fix our dysfunctional education system, and encourage economic growth without bureaucratic obstacles. For this to happen we need a leadership that is optimistic and inspirational to move this country out of the current doldrums.

08 January 2011


Throughout history there have been groups of people who have either influenced or obtained the actual power of the state to benefit themselves at the expense of others. In ancient times these were frequently oligarchies, who used the government to enrich themselves. In modern times we have organizations that give money to support politicians with the expectation that their interests will be regarded favorably. While this is often associated with business corporations, by far the largest donors are labor unions. Their clout is magnified by the fact that they also bring out voters as well as members to work on campaigns. When it comes to public employee unions they are especially effective in electing politicians who will be extremely pliable in responding to their demands at the expense of the public. I wrote about this almost a year ago (see Pernicious Public Employee Unions). Since then there has been a growing public awareness of the extent to which they are being taken as states face increasingly dire fiscal conditions, owing largely to generous public employee pensions for which there is no equivalent in private industry. The Economist has devoted its current issue to this question.

Not only has this resulted in a bloated public sector, but it has also institutionalized resistance to meaningful reform. This is particularly true of the miserable public education system in the United States despite billions upon billions thrown at the problem. Teacher’s unions resist any kind of change that would reward the best teachers while weeding out the incompetent. Public employees generally, have a vested interest in continually expanding government expenditures and hence higher taxes for everyone else. They are the foot soldiers for the party of big government. The same problem manifests itself throughout Europe as well. Yet despite all the revenue it still takes forever to get a permit when you need one.

More broadly, in addition to the bureaucracy, the party of government includes trial lawyers, the universities, the courts, lobbyists, the mainstream media, some big business, and nonprofit organizations that get government funds. Together they constitute an irresistible force for ever expanding government spending. If you add all those on the bottom who pay no taxes and live off the government you have the makings of a formidable political machine. This is essentially what has governed over the past two years. Worse, when revenues are not enough to support the demands of these constituencies they expand the public debt.

However, all those who are not part of this machine and are continually taxed are increasingly fed up, and in many places have managed to elect governments that will strongly resist these forces and attempt to rollback many of the excesses. There will, however, be fierce resistance by the machine, which will organize and lobby against reform. It is thus necessary to remain vigilant by monitoring those elected officials who are responsible and how they respond to these pressures. The last American election was an open revolt against these forces, but the unorganized citizens must stand fast against the highly organized pressure groups. For better or worse, the machine isn’t going away.

05 January 2011


The energy picture for the new year seems increasingly dismal. The price of oil continues to rise, making everything more costly, from gas at the pump to home energy to a wide range of industrial uses. Oil, inexpensive oil in particular, is so necessary that life as we know it would not be possible without it. Our dependence is complete, and no amount of clean energy mantra is going to change that any time soon, no matter how many federal dollars we waste in subsidies. The price of oil will escalate over the coming years due to a devalued dollar, rising demand in places like China, and the administration’s virtual prohibition of new oil production in the United States. New production consists primarily of offshore drilling, where there are still plentiful reserves of domestic oil, but which the administration has effectively frozen. In the light of our own needs, the nefarious sources of foreign oil and oil pricing, this is insane. New objections are being raised to pipeling oil from the Canadian tar sands; indeed virtually any new source of oil production is being deliberately frustrated.

Nothing produces electricity as cheaply as coal, which we have in abundance in the United States, yet the EPA is now threatening the entire energy industry with onerous new regulations concerned not with pollution, but greenhouse gasses. Higher electricity prices are thus being deliberately induced by the government. Needless to say, life as we know it would also not be possible without cheap electricity.

The administration wants to wish these things away with vague visions of green energy, and things like expensive electric cars that no one is buying, but which we are all forced to subsidize. Yet despite their aversion to “old” energy sources they have nothing to offer in the way of “alternative energy” that is in any sense practically available now or any time in the near future. These policies are deliberately destructive of our industrial economy, which does not need further blows given stubbornly high unemployment and low growth. We are still the world’s largest industrial economy and ought to make it our business to remain so.

The electorate responded, and will continue to respond to misguided priorities that have nothing to do with economic growth. The top priority of any administration ought to be encouraging economic growth, usually best done by getting out of the way. We also need a cold dose of realism about our true energy sources and needs for the foreseeable future.