2008/10/30

After the election?

I have to agree that this is about the dumbest idea I've heard all week:

Last, I believe this [that Obama will pursue a centrist strategy] is likely because Obama understands that to succeed, he must make peace with John McCain just as he has done with Hillary Clinton. When this historic election concludes, I expect the two to sit down, without precondition, and negotiate an agenda of reform.

The problem here, is that if Republicans had any serious ideas for how to run the country better, they would already have been talking about those ideas. Instead, Karl Rove's "big idea" is for them to have started attacking Barack Obama's relationship with Palestinian-American Professor Rashid Kahlidi last spring instead of waiting until the week before the election. To attack Professor Kahlidi is racist to the core as:

[Kahlidi] is a distinguished scholar, and the only objectionable thing about him from a rightwing point of view is that he is a Palestinian. There are about 9 million Palestinians in the world (a million or so are Israeli citizens; 3.7 million are stateless and without rights under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza; and 4 million are refugees or exiled in the diaspora; there are about 200,000 Palestinian-Americans, and several million Arab-Americans, many living in swing vote states). Khalidi was not, as the schlock rightwing press charges, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization. He was an adviser at the Madrid peace talks, but would that not have been, like, a good thing?

John McCain has attacked Professor Kahlidi as a "neo-Nazi" and of course, Matt "the GOP-friendly Internetist" Drudge has splashed the story onto his home page, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin has been pushing the story as only a Vice-Presidential candidate can. The Obama campaign's very appropriate answer is that the whole controversy is:

...another recycled, manufactured controversy from the McCain campaign to distract voters' attention from John McCain's lockstep support for George Bush's economic policies.

And this was a good one:

At an event Wednesday in Raleigh, North Carolina, Obama said McCain has spent the last few days calling him "every name in the book."
"I don't know what's next. By the end of the week, he'll be accusing me of being a secret communist because I shared my toys in kindergarten. I shared my peanut butter and jelly sandwich," Obama said.

Governor Palin then went on for a few paragraphs about achieving "energy independence" from Mideast oil, but didn't once mention alternative energy. Simply drilling for more oil runs into the "Peak Oil" problem (A few decades ago, the US had already pumped more than half the oil it will ever pump and the rest of the world is now at or very near that same stage). Nuclear energy has a lot of advantages, but storing the nuclear waste is a problem that hasn't been solved yet.

...the DOE acknowledges much progress in addressing the waste problems of the industry, and successful remediation of some contaminated sites, yet also major uncertainties and sometimes complications and setbacks in handling the issue properly, cost effectively, and in the projected time frame.

So, while "energy independence" is most certainly a valuable and worthwhile thing to do, it's far from clear that the McCain-Palin campaign has any seriously meaningful ideas for actually achieving such a thing.

How about in other areas? How's the War on Terror going? Well...er...not so hot, actually. It's really cool for:

...defense contractors, lobbyists, think-tankers, ambitious military officers, the hosts of Sunday morning talk shows, and the Douglas Feith-like creatures who maneuver to become players in the ultimate power game

but, as for the rest of America, it's

a fiction, a gimmicky phrase employed to lend an appearance of cohesion to a panoply of activities that, in reality, are contradictory, counterproductive, or at the very least beside the point.

Sorry, but the idea that Obama and McCain can sit down after the election and talk productively with each other about the future direction of this country is, well, a pretty stupid one. I simply can't see McCain having anything serious to propose.

2008/10/18

The frustrations of figuring out the traditional media

The New York Times does a front-page, somewhat lengthy (16 kilobytes) story on Cindy McCain that's all about her as a person. The reporters go to rather absurd lengths, one of them "...trolled Facebook and found adolescent classmates of Bridget McCain's and -- at least in one case -- sent an email..." that asked some rather rude and invasive questions along with dredging up 15-year old matters and wondering whether the McCains' marriage was one of true love or was instead a convenient business-sort of alliance. This wasn't attractive when the NY Times did it to the Clintons (David Broder defended a 2006 article of theirs and was called, quite justifiably, a "panty-sniffer") and it's no more attractive when they do it to a political conservative.

There simply don't appear to be any standards left. It seems that every aspect of a politicians life is now fair game and it's not at all clear that the public has gained anything useful from all this.

Ah, but wait! Are there any subjects that are off-limits? Any questions that the traditional media will not ask? Strangely enough, yes. In late August, the Religion Blog in the Dallas Morning News noted that "The presidential candidates have answered more religious questions than a seminary student," but although Governor Sarah Palin was clearly a Christian, it wasn't at all clear what "flavor" of Christianity she subscribed to. The blog finally concluded she might be a "Charismatic" Christian. One thing that's clear, religion is a subject near and dear to her heart:

Palin, her husband Todd, and their growing family attended Wasilla Assembly of God until 2002, when they moved to Wasilla Bible Church. Palin also has worshipped at other churches, including the Church on the Rock in Wasilla. In Juneau, the state capital, she has gone to Juneau Christian Center.
Of these four churches, two--Wasilla Assembly of God and Juneau Christian Center--are members of the Assemblies of God. Founded in 1914, the Assemblies of God is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country. Pentecostalism--which takes its name from the day of Pentecost when, according to the Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit descended upon the Apostles--is a movement that began in 1901 and is best known for its emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit, including speaking in tongues. The other two churches are freestanding congregations. The Church on the Rock is "charismatic," a term usually applied to more recent forms of Pentecostalism, while Wasilla Bible, the Palins' present church, is neither Pentecostal nor charismatic.

These branches of Christianity are quite clearly not meant to be ones that their adherents take casually or that they attend on an on-and-off basis. The Catholic Knight defends Palin's religion as a perfectly ordinary one:

What we have here is very typical of mainstream Evangelical doctrine. It is very Protestant. There is nothing on the fringe or radical about it. This is what most Evangelicals believe. The same goes for most Pentecostals. The difference between them is mainly in detail and practice.

There was apparently a backlash around the beginning of September:

Time’s Mark Halperin went so far as to publish a graphic suggesting that “Anti-Republican, liberal media bias” contributed to a “feeding frenzy” in which the press becomes a shark pursuing a saintly Sarah Palin.

It was noted at the beginning of October that:

We've noted before how the campaign press seems reluctant to ask pointed questions about Palin's religious beliefs. Specifically, if she believes that Christ will come again in her lifetime as part of the End Times theology her former church preached, and how that End Times belief might guide her decision-making as vice president.
The Real News Network just posted an informative video about Palin's fundamentalist faith and asks why the press isn't posing direct questions about it. 

So Palin's religion appears to be one matter that the media considers more-or-less off-limits, though of course the other three candidates remain completely fair game for that subject.

Another subject appears to be the whopping double standard of the Barack Obama-William Ayers relationship and the far deeper, far closer relationship of John McCain with G. Gordon Liddy. Liberal blogs were talking about that relationship as far back as May of this year. It took a late-night comedian, David Letterman, to finally ask McCain about what was clearly a blatantly obvious double standard. Funny thing, no one appears to have taken Letterman's questioning as permission to start questioning that relationship themselves.

Unfortunately, after Letterman broke the media's embargo on questioning McCain's relationship with Liddy, reporters quickly pretended it never happened -- or, if they did mention it, downplayed the significance of the relationship.
-----
But the worst was MSNBC. This morning, the cable channel played a clip of McCain on Letterman -- but not the Liddy exchange. Then, immediately after the clip, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall referenced the McCain attacks on Ayers. At no point did Hall mention Liddy.

So is the media taking a "no holds barred," "scorched earth" policy and asking all sorts of rude and inconvenient questions? Well, yes and no. There are quite a few areas where they step very gingerly and other areas where they've disgraced themselves with their boldness.

2008/10/07

Detailed examination of Biden-Palin debate

This really struck me early in the debate, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin said:

"Now, Barack Obama, of course, he's pretty much only voted along his party lines. In fact, 96 percent of his votes have been solely along party lines..."

Well, okay, but remember that Palin's running mate, Senator John McCain (R-AZ), has voted with G. W. Bush 95% of the time. Also, as a fellow member of the incumbent party, he and Palin are pretty much guaranteed to give us four more years of pretty much the same policies.

Palin: "...we need also to not get ourselves in debt." This chart demonstrates that the national debt went steadily downwards under all of the Presidents from Truman to Carter, underwent dramatic increases under Presidents Ronald Reagan, the elder George Bush and the younger George Bush and in between the Bushes, it fell under Clinton. Again, to vote for McCain-Palin is to vote for four more years of the same. Looking at the rhetoric McCain used in his debate with Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), he came up with a few minor savings, but he failed to specify any big-ticket items he'd eliminate. By specifying that he'd eliminate the Iraq War as a spending item, Obama did far more to establish his deficit-fighting credentials than McCain did.

As the McCain campaign has touted Palin as an energy expert, let's look at her comments in that area:

"Patriotic is saying, government, you know, you're not always the solution. In fact, too often you're the problem so, government, lessen the tax burden and on our families and get out of the way and let the private sector and our families grow and thrive and prosper."

Of course, Palin also says:

"Now, as for John McCain's adherence to rules and regulations and pushing for even harder and tougher regulations, that is another thing that he is known for though. Look at the tobacco industry. Look at campaign finance reform."

But let's go with the idea that Palin is a believer in small, limited government. Okay, but then she talks about her desire to do something about America's energy supplies. Her initial set of talking points are about causing greedy oil companies grief and of denying them tax breaks. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) agrees that Palin imposed a windfall-profits tax in Alaska, but points out that the McCain-Palin team will ask oil companies to pay even less in taxes, according to McCain's already-published tax plan. Here's more from Palin:

"When we talk about energy, we have to consider the need to do all that we can to allow this nation to become energy independent.
"It's a nonsensical position that we are in when we have domestic supplies of energy all over this great land. And East Coast politicians who don't allow energy-producing states like Alaska to produce these, to tap into them, and instead we're relying on foreign countries to produce for us.
"We're circulating about $700 billion a year into foreign countries, some who do not like America -- they certainly don't have our best interests at heart -- instead of those dollars circulating here, creating tens of thousands of jobs and allowing domestic supplies of energy to be tapped into and start flowing into these very, very hungry markets.
"Energy independence is the key to this nation's future, to our economic future, and to our national security."

What's the likelihood that America can become energy independent? Well, there's a concept here called "Peak Oil" that Palin doesn't appear to be familiar with. Essentially, there's only so much of the stuff. The US extracted half of all the oil that we'll ever extract back in the 1970s. The rest of the world is at or near that same point. It is simply impossible for the US to ever become energy independent by drilling for more oil.

Palin later mentioned "hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of clean, green natural gas," but natural gas is not exactly environmentally-friendly. Like oil, natural gas is a fossil fuel. Like oil, the burning of it produces a great deal of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Natural gas is "the cleanest of the fossil fuels," so Palin is not entirely wrong in her description of it. Using more natural gas can certainly be part of the solution to America's energy needs, but only part.

Can the US build more nuclear power plants? Well, yes, but no one has ever figured out how to dispose of nuclear waste, material that's no longer radioactive enough to heat water, but that's still too toxic to keep around humans.

What's left? Alternative energy! Defined as:

solar energy, wind power, geothermal, biofuel, biodiesel, hydrogen

basically:

every form of renewable energy

Now, the conservative website Human Events claims:

...no matter how fast we pursue every form of alternative energy known, our economy will remain largely oil-based for decades.

And I believe that's a true statement, but it's also a true statement that we're never going to get to energy independence by simply drilling for more oil and by digging up natural gas. The McCain-Palin path is a guaranteed dead-end. The alternative energy path may take quite awhile to produce real results, but progress in this area won't happen by the US sitting on its collective duff. As the world's leader in technology, the US is uniquely positioned to make real progress in this area. And obviously, alternative energy solves the problem of depending on foreign countries. One hardly needs a commercial relationship with Saudi Arabia if one is getting sufficient quantities of electricity from wind power.

I noticed that this assertion of Palin's was not disputed after Biden shot it down:

"But when you talk about Barack's plan to tax increase affecting only those making $250,000 a year or more, you're forgetting millions of small businesses that are going to fit into that category. So they're going to be the ones paying higher taxes thus resulting in fewer jobs being created and less productivity."

And Biden's answer:

"...95 percent of the small businesses in America, their owners make less than $250,000 a year. They would not get one single solitary penny increase in taxes, those small businesses."

So yeah, some small businesses would get extra taxes, but obviously not "millions." It's difficult to categorize Palin's statement as anything but a flat-out lie.

And Biden's right. Palin's statement: "We have got to win in Iraq," is not a plan. It's not at all clear what "win" means in the context of Iraq. One of the major problems of fighting a guerrilla war is in identifying who exactly the enemy is. "Al Qaeda in Iraq" is clearly part of the problem, but only part. The Sunni insurgency, the backbone of which was Saddam Hussein's army, dismissed and left on their own by J. Paul “we really didn’t see the insurgency coming” Bremer, is now the backbone of the "Awakening Councils" and we'll see what happens now that the Shiites have assumed command of them. The Shiites (Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is a Shiite) have essentially been biding their time, waiting for the US to leave. Juan Cole says:

My best guess is that Iraqis will go on fighting their three wars, for control of Basra among Shiite militiamen; for control of Baghdad and its hinterlands between Sunnis and Shiites; and for control of Kirkuk among Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen. They will fight these wars to a conclusion or a stalemate. It is only the battle for Baghdad that has been fought at a lower intensity because of the American surge in any case, and I would be surprised if it does not start back up as US troops leave.

Nothing in Iraq was truly solved by the US invasion of 2003. A vacuum was opened up and various groups are simply waiting for the US to leave so they can continue their own power struggles. Iraq is and was not Eastern Europe of the 1950s through the 1980s. There is/was no movement "yearning to breathe free." The US invasion was not greeted with flowers. It was entirely correct to describe Saddam Hussein as an evil dictator. He was certainly that. But Hussein's regime was not communism and he ruled the same territory that his predecessor did. Palin's statement "we're getting closer and closer to victory" is simply nonsensical.

I can certainly understand Palin's frustration here:

"No, in fact, when we talk about the Bush administration, there's a time, too, when Americans are going to say, 'Enough is enough with your ticket,' on constantly looking backwards, and pointing fingers, and doing the blame game.
"There have been huge blunders in the war. There have been huge blunders throughout this administration, as there are with every administration."

But properly putting blame where it belongs is an essential part of moving forward. And I'm really not sure we can describe many things as mere "blunders" when we don't know the full background story behind them. The Bush Administration is, and has been, an extraordinarily secretive group. Remember, the firing of the US Attorneys starting in 2006 was pieced together mostly by the blogs. We owe absolutely nothing to most of the traditional media (McClatchey Newspapers being a big exception, they made many positive contributions) for uncovering that. I do agree with this statement of Palin's:

People aren't looking for more of the same. They are looking for change.

I and most of the people who watched their debate, however, did not agree that the McCain-Palin team constitutes a change. John McCain and Sarah Palin are offering "more of the same." It's been charged that a first term of McCain equals a third term of Bush. I and most of the country agree with that.

2008/10/01

The bail-out plan

Starting with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-month September 2008, the US economy started showing signs of distress. Looked like all of the bragging about the successes of Bush's economic stewardship weren't true after all. The trouble with the housing bubble actually started back during the Clinton Administration and with Alan Greenspan's habit of talking in vague, indecipherable mumbles.

Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan deserves much of the blame. He was grossly negligent in allowing both the stock and housing bubbles to grow unchecked. He decided to just let the bubbles run their course, expecting to pick up the pieces after they burst.

Further explanation from Dean Baker of CEPR:

Everyone should understand that we are in this mess for two reasons. First the financial regulators, both in the Bush administration and more importantly at the Fed, were completely asleep for most of the decade. As the housing bubble grew to ever more dangerous proportions, and lenders adopted increasingly questionable lending practices, the regulators did nothing.
The other reason we are in this mess is that the Wall Street banks got themselves hugely leveraged in real estate and other assets. In many cases they had no appreciation of the value of the underlying assets. They also apparently did not understand the complex financial derivatives that they had themselves created.

As Paul Krugman of the NY Times explains, the current problems stem directly from the housing bubble's collapse:

The new system was supposed to do a better job of spreading and reducing risk. But in the aftermath of the housing bust and the resulting mortgage crisis, it seems apparent that risk wasn’t so much reduced as hidden: all too many investors had no idea how exposed they were.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem as though Bush was very educated about how the economy worked before he entered the Oval Office. During a talk on the 23rd, he sure didn't talk as though his economic knowledge was very wide or deep.

"Well, my first instinct wasn't to lay out a huge government plan. My first instinct was to let the market work until I realized, upon being briefed by the experts, of how significant this problem became.
"And so I decided to act and act boldly. It turns out that there's a lot of interlinks throughout the financial system. [emphases added]

The full talk is at the link, but I read that and I'm like "Wow! Did this guy not know that the economy was very highly 'interlinked'?!?!?!" And when someone doesn't know much about the economy, is it really a good idea to "act boldly"?!?!? Really?!?!

Actually, the final bail-out plan that was voted on appears to have been a pretty good one. Krugman did not like Treasury Secretary Paulson's initial plan. Baker also didn't like it:

The bailout is about taking money from the school teachers and cab drivers and giving it to incredibly rich Wall Street bankers, who are so incompetent that they drove their banks into the ground.

But Krugman approved the re-worked plan that was voted on upon the 29th:

Maybe we can let Wall Street implode and Main Street would escape largely unscathed. But that’s not a chance we want to take. So the grown-up thing is to do something to rescue the financial system.

Why didn't the bill pass?

Mr. Paulson never offered a convincing explanation of how his plan was supposed to work

And let's also consider the Bush Administrations record in handling huge amounts of cash. These guys have a well-documented record of flushing billions and billions down the toilet.

Many people also noticed Section 8 of the bail-out plan:

Sec. 8. Review.
Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency. [emphases added]

This section simply made any trust in the administration absolutely impossible and made it necessary for Democrats to extensively re-work the proposal. That wasn't enough to save the plan, though.

The Republicans tried claiming that they couldn't vote for the bill because Speaker Pelosi was mean to them. A claim they later backed off on. Other conservatives came up with similarly unconvincing reasons as to why the crisis occurred in the first place. As the blogger emptywheel says:

It's bad enough Bush fucked up the economy so badly. Now his party wants to use his own failure to beat Democrats over the head for their plans to fix the broken economy.

Personally, my answer is that first, we have to remove Republicans from power. Getting Blue Dog Democrats out would be a good thing too. But there are simply no good solutions possible with the current crew in office.