Monday, December 31, 2012

If Republicans really want to cut the budget

I don’t believe the Republicans really do want to reduce the size of the federal expenditure, but if they do, there’s a way. It’s the same way the socialists had to turn to when the United Kingdom finished the war broke in 1945.
Britain sold off its overseas investments to buy weapons and food and entered 1946 facing a world in which its overseas markets consisted of ruined people who could not afford to buy things; while at home, a wornout industrial plant was in no shape to produce efficiently and the residual effects of the Great Depression were unresolved.
In the ‘30s, Britain (under a coalition National government that was in spirit extremely conservative) had run austerity budget after austerity budget without much success in reviving its economy. The socialists who came into office in mid-1945 were disposed to spend money on domestic services and indisposed to spend money on an empire.
But even if the Tories had been in office, there was no money to spend overseas. The Bank of England went begging to the U.S. for a billion-pound loan to keep the currency from crashing.
As a result, Britain quit India, dumped its plans to support Greece against a communist rebellion and could not even fund a small force to keep policing Palestine.
Without an empire, it cut its military to prewar levels, which had been very low. There were aberrations. A useless battleship, HMS Vanguard, was completed, but generally the way Britain negotiated itself out of its fiscal crisis was to demilitarize. It took over a decade and was accomplished in part by relying on the United States to provide military muscle where needed.
The situation of the United States in 2013 is not nearly as critical as it was in Britain in 1946, but there is no question that some reduction of national expenditures would be helpful, along with a return to the kinds of tax rates (and concomitant infrastructure investment) that the U.S. charged during the period of its greatest prosperity.
You see, the Republicans understand nothing about public finance. Taxes are not a problem. Taxes are a solution. If you doubt that, try privatizing garbage collection and see where it gets you. (It gets you a lot of garbage dumped secretly on public property.)
So, no matter what else is done, if the Republicans want a smaller national expenditure, they need to make a large reduction in military spending.
A lot of that is locked in. By starting two wars, they obligated themselves to provide veterans benefits to men and women in their 20s and 30s who will live into their 70s and 80s. The Republicans have shown a strong disinclination to pay that bill, but it will get paid, nevertheless.
Republicans love to buy shiny toys, especially if they go boom. They are going to have to cut that out.
Here are some realistic cuts that could be and will eventually have to be made:
Zero out the Marine Corps.
Cut 80 or 90% of the ballistic missile submarine fleet.
Reduce the air force bombers, perhaps to just B2s. Rein in the army’s air force, which is about the same size as the Air Force’s air force.
There are some real problems with reducing the military budget. The biggest is that the force we have is disastrously short of infantry, which is (taking into account veterans’ benefits) a very expensive kind of force. The price we paid for not having any infantry in Iraq was that we lost that war.
Assuming we are going to use our military in the future, the infantry (always and still 'the "queen of battle") needs to be much larger.
If you read the papers, you know that the Republicans want to spend more money, not less, on armies, navies and air forces.
Not going to happen.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Book review 263: Britain's Moment in the Middle East 1914-1956

BRITAIN'S MOMENT IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1914-1956, by Elizabeth Monroe. 254 pages. Johns Hopkins

It was a short moment, just 42 years, less then 1% of the Middle East's history. Journalist Elizabeth Monroe's 1963 book also is brief, but concentrated in the way that some English writers have.

It holds up well, too, after half a century, which is more than most books written about the Middle East in the '60s do.

When Britain came in as a colonial power, the Moslems were weak, hungry, sick, ignorant, illiterate, politically incompetent and resentful. This was more true of the Arabs, somewhat less so of the Persians, with the Turks somewhere in the middle.

When Britain left, the Koran Belt was marginally better fed, healthier and literate. It remained resentful, ignorant and politically incompetent. The British were, and still are, blamed for this. This hardly seems fair to the Turks, who were colonial masters for hundreds of years.

The historian A.J.P. Taylor used to distinguish between governing and merely administering. The late Ottomans could barely even administer, and the British has no interest in governing, either.

By the mid-19th century, England had more empire than it cared to look after and was loath to acquire more. Thus, its first acquisition in the Middle East, Aden, was a port that controlled the Red Sea. The British neither knew nor cared what happened in the medieval Yemen that lay outside the walls of Aden.

Their thinking was entirely strategic, and so is Monroe's analysis.

No one cared what the locals did or thought as long as they were quiet.

At first, Britain's strategic intent was to block the move of Russia on India. Russia was then gobbling up the khanates of the Caspian Area, people even more backward than most of the Arabs.

Britain preferred a barrier of independent but non-hostile states – Turkey, Persia and Afghanistan. It wanted the French corralled in the western Mediterranean but had no interest in places like Egypt, Palestine or Syria for themselves.

Thus it opposed opening a canal at Suez. However, once the canal was opened, Britain, in the name of protecting India, had to start taking over the Middle East. Monroe explains clearly how that messy situation evolved and then goes on to marvel that Britain managed to ride out the vagaries of Moslem politics during the interwar years in a chapter called, without irony, “The Years of Good Management.”

While generally excellent, Monroe gives insufficient attention to the overriding concern of the British colonialists, which was not Russia but the prospect of what used to be blandly called communal disturbances.

The Moslems were not then, as they are not today, nationalist in spirit, except for a tiny film of western-influenced (and sporadically important) elites. They were Moslems.

Often Britain had a policy it would have liked to impose in India but did not for fear it would set off riots in Egypt, and vice versa. This vitiated whatever feeble intentions toward modernization British rulers may have felt.

As a result, the Middle East came out in the mid-1950s as backward politically as it had been in 1750.

Oil later became a complicating factor, and Monroe provides a brief overview.

After the war, Britain faced what she calls a “loss of nerve.” This is the imperialist viewpoint. More realistically, an impoverished England could not afford an empire any more, besides which the socialists running the government didn't want one on any terms.

It is by no means clear that even if the modern powers had wanted to assist the Moslems to modernize, they could have done so. They have made a complete hash of it on their own for the last half century.

Thus Monroe's imperialist assessment of the Balfour Declaration as “one of the greatest mistakes” makes sense only if you also believe that the Arabs are capable of self-government in a modern state.

That they are incapable of democracy is obvious. “Democratic systems were later to be discarded in country after country with a readiness that was tacit acknowledgment of their unsuitability for the less developed countries,” writes Monroe.

As we observed in 2012, the peoples of the Koran Belt are not even capable of operating modern despotisms.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Another gun nut belief proven wrong

It appears that having an armed person at the door is not enough to deter a shooter. And it is obviously not true that gun-free zones are the places of choice for shooters.

Nor is it true, if this report from New Jersey today is correct, that being armed is a good defense against an assailant.

Seems someone got a cop's gun and shot 3 cops with it.

The crime scene tape around the police cars seems to say that all the blather from the gun nuts is just so much hogwash, doesn't it?


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Book Review 262: Between Two Seas

BETWEEN TWO SEAS: The Creation of the Suez Canal, by Lord Kinross. 306 pages, illustrated. Morrow

The building of the Suez Canal is one of those historical events that are summed in a few paragraphs or pages in relevant histories, but whose detailed story is far more interesting and complicated than potted summaries allow for.

Lord Kinross’s history, written for the centenary in 1969, restores to a heroic position Ferdinand de Lesseps, who in American history tends to be tarnished by his later failure in Panama.

It turns out that Lesseps was one of the supreme adventurers of the adventurous 19th century, taking on and defeating two empires with one hand, subduing Bedouin robbers with the other; and all the time displaying patience, diplomatic adroitness and a higher degree of honesty and rectitude than any of his many foes.

However, he was a businessman, and in  the end, under financial pressure, he, too, resorted to underhanded schemes to bring his vision to fruition.

Kinross, a knowledgeable and evenhanded writer about Ottoman subjects, is well-suited to this complex task.

Ironies abound, which he relates without making much of them, Although Lesseps was the “onlie begetter” of the canal, he could not have done it without various allies of dubious character.

Among these were successive Viceroys of  Egypt, who were, ineffectually, desirous of bringing their province (which they hoped to make into their kingdom) into something akin to a modern state, though they had no real idea how to do so; Emperor Napoleon III, who at the same time he was trying to extinguish Mexican independence was doing something that might -- had the Egyptians been smarter -- have done something to protect Egypt’s; and his wife Eugenie, who used the power of the boudoir to save Lesseps more than once.

He was, in many ways, a giant of a man. Kinross lists his personal qualities as “resolution and patience, his diplomatic dexterity and practical resource, his talent for handling and inspiring associates and workers alike, his dedicated, single-minded commitment to a work of creation.” Here was a man. The day after the canal opened, when he was 64, he married a girl of 20 and she gave him a dozen children.

His opponents, many of whom have high names in (at least) Whig histories, turn out to have been full of sententious blather but in practice not nearly as high-minded as they claimed -- or as Lesseps was, most of the time.

As an engineering feat, the canal was not remarkable although it did require its French contractors to design and build new kinds of excavating machinery. As an organizational feat, it was rather more impressive. The Suez Canal Company was, on the whole, a humane and trustworthy employer, which could not be said of many of the other great private enterprises of the age of unrestrained free trade.

Kinross says, however, that the story was not about engineering but about political maneuvers, and in the obviously corrupt Ottoman and Second French empires, and the more mealy-mouthed but equally corrupt British Empire, being a political operator was a dangerous game. Lesseps was a passed master. His achievement equals that of Bismarck, but Bismarck had an army as Lesseps did not.

Britain opposed the canal, largely (a point underemphasized by Kinross) because of strategic considerations directed against Russian expansionism. (During this whole period, Russia was gobbling up Moslem khanates, which she found indigestible but which alarmed England, which was  anxious about India.)

Ironically, Britain, which wanted no canal and did want Egypt preserved as part of the Ottoman Empire, ended up with the canal and in control of a technically independent Egypt.

That story is alluded to only briefly by Kinross, who in one of his few errors writes that in 1969, for the first time in its then 99-year history, it was closed (as a result of the Six-day War). In fact, during several years of World War II, while the canal was open, the Mediterranean was closed to British shipping. When it came down to it, the canal was not the threat to India that England feared up to 1876, nor the lifeline to India that it thought it was after 1876.

Opening the canal changed the geography of the world, as Kinross saw it, but technology disregarded it. For oil, the supreme maritime cargo, the route around the Cape of Good Hope became safer and more economical in the age of the supertankers.

It was, and is, a remarkable story, not less so for the fact that history proved all its backers and foes wrong on important points later on.


How the Second Amendment really works

A few weeks ago, when headlines announced a flap between Dick Armey and his pressure group FreedomWorks, I paid no attention. Such dustups among political fringists are common and usually insignificant.

Insignificant this one was, but it turns out that the sordid details were especially sordid and -- in light of the renewed push by gun nuts to offer themselves as saviors of the rest of the country -- well worth examining. Thanks to the Washington Post for washing Armey's dirty laundry in public.

Recall to begin that a main, in fact the principal argument of the nuts in favor of an armed populace is that only those privately armed citizens temper and, at need, resist the tyranny of government. They still say this although in over two centuries, these heroes never have resisted tyranny with force; first, because they have had no occasion to; and second, because in one instance when government troops were used to control a restive populace (the former Confederate states, 1865-76), the armed populace thought better of testing the bluecoats.

When the federal troops were withdrawn, the armed populace then did unleash a reign of terror against the people (one of whom was my grandfather), but when there was danger of actually getting shot by a soldier, they were timid and complaint.

So, if these numerous weapons are not being used to intimidate the anchors of state power, against whom are they being used? Most recently against unarmed young women working for the Tea Party pressure group FreedomWorks. Says the Post:

 The day after Labor Day, just as campaign season was entering its final frenzy, FreedomWorks, the Washington-based tea party organization, went into free fall.


Richard K. Armey, the group’s chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.

It could have been tragic rather than comic if Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the leading gun nut group, the National Rifle Association, were right in his belief that all American office buildings are protected by armed guards. Who can say what the outcome would have been had FreedomWorks or its landlord had an armed savior present -- perhaps someone like George Zimmerman, a zealot for protecting the defenseless public?

Fortunately for all concerned, LaPierre is a psychotically delusional paranoid crybaby, and no shots were fired. FreedomWorks was saved from the depredations of the armed nut, though. The Post reports:

 The coup lasted all of six days. By Sept. 10, Armey was gone — with a promise of $8 million — and the five ousted employees were back.

I hope an imaginative District of Columbia prosecutor treats this as a kind of bizarre delayed-action armed robbery; or perhaps as extortion, and that Armey and his wife spend the rest of their lives behind bars; and that the young women they terrorized sue them for every ill-gotten penny they have. But I doubt that will happen.

I regret this terrific story was published on Christmas Day, because relatively few people will have taken the time to read it, but Christmas is over and I commend it to your attention now.

And henceforth, every time some gun nut asserts that without having guns freely available to citizens, people will be robbed and intimidated, save the link and remind him that when it came down to it, the people who were robbed and terrorized were employees of a rightwing nut pressure group, and that the terrorizers were not scary black men, or even liberals with long hair and chardonnay breath, but rightwing crazies.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Why putting armed citizens at schools is a stupid idea

From a Bloomberg News story that had nothing whatever to do about firearms:

After being dismissed from her job as a Midtown Manhattan securities attorney in October 2009, Christina Tretter-Herriger hitched a used horse trailer to her Dodge Ram pickup and drove 1,628 miles to Texas.
The 32-year-old lawyer sold skin-care products in Houston before finding work as the assistant general counsel of a futures-trading firm where an irate customer punctuated a recorded voice-mail message with gunfire.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Funniest.Comment,Thread.Ever

Read 'em and weep

My suggestion for closing the budget gap

Tax the churches.

Tens of trillions in tax subsidies for organizations that contribute, so far as I can see, nothing measurably positive, although I admit they provide a psychological crutch for people who cannot face reality.

I call as a witness Bill O'Reilly, who opined a week or so ago that it is OK for the government to allow sectarian outbreaks in the public space of all of us because "Christianity isn't a religion."

As the Cockneys say in East London, I 'eard diff'rent.

However, O'Reilly is a leading exponent of the religious approach to public life. He says that the Constitution would ban public favoritism toward, say, Presbyterians, because they are a religion (I'm sure the Presbyterians thank him for that, and he should be grateful because history teaches that an angry Presbyterian is a fearsome thing).

Well, does that mean we can at least start taxing the tens of thousands of non-denominational Christian churches?

My suggestion for gun control

Define firearms as attractive nuisances, like swimming pools, so that owners are strictly liable for injuries caused by the guns. That ought to cool the ardor for ownership (without excluding those who genuinely need to keep a firearm).

It would require a national registry and tracking system, without loopholes.

Even if it didn't cause some twitchy folks to dispose of their shootin' irons, it would at least prod them to take better care of them. Unlike, for example, Smart Pawn in Kansas City, which supplies free assault weapons to local thugs:
But this recent theft is now the third time guns have been stolen from Smart Pawn in the last year, including a theft in October where thieves emptied the gun cabinets. A Smart Pawn manager told FOX 4 that corporate is looking at ways to improve security.
Last year, Smart Pawn told the media “We also share the community’s concerns about access to firearms by theft” and said the new store would be protected with state of the art alarms and security.

 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Adam Lanza, he-man

Two days ago, in an uncharacteristic display of restraint, RtO suggested mildly enough that if gun control zealots are going to go forward they need to find a new kind of penis substitute for the all the gun nuts.

I was tempted, believe me, to express it more harshly.

I should have given in to temptation.

Thanks to Little Green Footballs, I have since learned about the Bushmaster company's "Consider Your Man Card Reissued" ad campaign for the kind of rifle that Adam Lanza, well-known studly child-killer, used at Newtown.

Just as well, I suppose, I didn't try, because calling on all the vituperation at my command, I couldn't have expressed more eloquently than the Bushmaster company what a sick, conscience-less pack of whining  creeps worried that their peckers are too short the gun nuts are.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The first step toward gun control

Lots of my friends are demanding restrictions on firearms.

As a practical matter, they're going to have to come up with a new kind of penis substitute to replace all the guns they take away.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Book Review 261: Power, Faith and Fantasy

POWER, FAITH AND FANTASY: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, by Michael B. Oren. 778 pages. Norton, $35

Michael Oren contends that the development of the United States has always been much more closely connected to the Middle East than anyone would think at first. While I think he overstates the case, it is true in both significant and insignificant ways that the two places have interacted more often than standard histories would suggest.

A significant way was the early American crisis with the Barbary pirates. Oren contends that it was the inability of the associated government under the Articles of Confederation to deal with the pirates that largely motivated the change to the Constitution. Even after signing the Constitution, the US was so weak that, despite the misgivings of Washington, the country spent 10 percent of its national budget on tribute.

While the irritation of the pirates was significant and meaningful, there were plenty of other reasons to dispose of the Confederation, from Indian relations to state debts.

An insignificant, but amusing, example was the origin of the Statue of Liberty. The original proposal, linked to the Suez Canal, was for a statue of a somewhat zaftig feminine Egypt "bringing light to Asia." Only the bankruptcy of the khedive repurposed the sculptor's vision to the more svelte Lady Liberty facing Europe.

In Oren's view, the relationship of America and what he does not call the Koran Belt was always more fraught than we think, composed of three usually antagonistic elements: government power (not originally in favor of America), religious outreach (always one way) and fantasy (an image derived mostly from the "Thousand and One Nights" which isn't even Arab or Turkish, although most of America's interactions were with Arabs or Turks).

The religious component is the most typically American, bizarre and muttonheaded. At the same time that missionaries were landing in Hawaii, where they remade a traditional society, other American missionaries were landing in Syria, where they were complete failures as far as faith goes.

Given the one-way attitude of Muslims toward missionizing, this was predictable. Stubbornly refusing to give up, the Americans turned from gathering souls to opening schools and hospitals. Oren attributes to them the infection of modernism in the Koran Belt.

True, many of the opponents of the Ottomans were exposed to western ideas in missionary schools, but the Ottomans themselves sent their promising young men to France, and well before the Americans arrived. Oren overstates this aspect in two ways. First, he makes the infection seem exclusively American, which it was not; and, second, he makes it seem important, which it never became.

As we see now ("Power, Faith and Fantasy" was published in 2007) with the reversion of the misnamed Arab Spring to atavistic social and political norms, the infection of modernism never caused more than a temporary rash in the Koran Belt.

The book is fun to read, with caution. Oren tends to underplay the immiseration of Muslim society and overplay its openness to change. The influx of Americans to the region in the 19th century was tiny, even if it included names we know, like Mark Twain; and not happy for the Americans.

It seems that the usual fate of these sojourners was to die of disease, or if not that, to be murdered; or if they ever got out, to end their days in poverty and obscurity.

But enough did get back alive to infect America with a continuing hankering to do good or do well in the region. Most of this infection was centered on Princeton University. Oren does not tell (though it is no secret) that he, too, holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies from Princeton.

He is an Israeli of American origin (since publication of this book, his country's ambassador to Washington), and the names of his collaborators as given in the acknowledgements are almost entirely Jewish.

Despite his militant Zionism as a political actor, he is scrupulously even-handed as a historian in his books (also his history of "The Six-day War"). You would hardly guess, from the texts, that he has been an active player in the latest uproars in the Middle East.

This fairmindedness, which ought to be a virtue, is in the end a flaw. By treating all players -- Americans, Turks, Muslim Arabs, Jews, Arab Christians, Persians etc. -- as equally free actors in history he leaves a misleading impression.

His short history of US government policy since 1945 is scathing, but does not acknowledge the big fact that led to failure: In an interaction between one side that is (however imperfectly) motivated by democratic principles; and another that is (perfectly) constitutionally impervious to democratic principles, the first side can never hope to prevail.

It sometimes seems as if Oren has read everything. (He hasn't really; a platoon of graduate students in New Haven, Cambridge, Washington, Princeton and Jerusalem ransacked the libraries for him.) Among the authors he cites is the Syrian political scientist Bassam Tibi. He misses Tibi's masterful insight.

Tibi wrote that Arabs are not interested in democracy. This is obviously the case. Any book, no matter how judiciously intended, that assumes a different possibility is going to be fundamentally misleading, and in that sense, "Power, Faith and Fantasy" is misleading.

It is, nevertheless, required reading. Oren says, I think correctly, that no one had tried to write the story of America in the Middle East (a term invented by an American, Alfred Mahan) before.

Bank messenger

The $1.9 billion settlement agreed to by UK-based international bank HSBC for laundering terrorist and drug money was described by American authorities as a message.

Senator Carl Levin, who chaired in inquiry, said, ""The HSBC settlement sends a powerful wakeup call to multinational banks about the consequences of disregarding their anti-money laundering obligations." 

A message was indeed sent, but in the other direction. The message -- a lesson that market skeptics like me learned long ago -- is that in a competitive market, somebody will always estimate that it is more lucrative to take the extreme position and take it.

No HSBC managers were charged as individuals and, indeed, while they are indecent human beings, what they did as business managers was -- by market standards -- acceptable, even commendable.

Markets are immoral. Not amoral. Climate is amoral. Hurricane Sandy did not target Manhattan. Markets are immoral. Their only goal is to increase profit. There are no limits as to how. 

The market values HSBC at about $200 billion. The day the settlement was announced, the value of the shares rose more than half a percent -- about a billion dollars. So half the so-called fine was gained back by the shareholders in a few hours.

Some commentators who have been critical of the leniency of the settlement pointed out that the money came not from the managers but from the shareholders. But they're wrong.

I don't know how much additional profit HSBC generated by taking blood money, but when you add that to the approval of the market of the settlement, it is obvious that the shareholders came out ahead on the wrongdoing. I do not anticipate that any of them will feel obliged to disgorge their dirty money.

Since HSBC had already been caught twice before laundering money, there is no reason to think that it will not do it again. Laundering money makes money. The market approves.

Not only the market as an impersonal mechanism. The people who operate the market also approve. The demonstrated indecency of the HSBC managers will not harm their position as marketeers. No one in the banking business will decline to do business with them because they are immoral. Socially, none of them will be asked to resign from their clubs in London. 

If it made money, then it was the right thing to do. The only thing that will get you frozen out is passing up an opportunity to take a profit.

If the market approves, it will happen. If the market thinks you are worth more to it dead than alive, it will arrange to have you killed.



Friday, December 14, 2012

Restating the obvious about firearms

From a review I wrote of a book about Irish police work:

The Irish are not a peaceable people. Several of the murders recounted by Reddy were IRA assassinations (the only famous crime in the selection is the bombing of Lord Mountbatten's fishing boat, a political assassination). And the murders selected were not chosen by Reddy to make any points about firearms or causes of murder, but only to illustrate good forensics work,

But it is remarkable how hands-on Irish murderers have to be.

Guns are common in the countryside, for hunting, and there is a shotgun murder here. But there are many more strangulation murders and beatings.

It is a lot easier to kill in the heat of the moment if you have a pistol handy.

American gun nuts are fond of saying that guns don't kill people, people kill people. That's true, but people who have guns are able to kill a lot more people than people who have only a knife, candlestick or bare hands.

Ireland, like Somalia, has suffered from the increase in the population of cheap but reliable handarms. After an offduty Garda officer was shot by bankrobbers, the minister of justice, Patrick Cooney, said: "Those who have introduced this cult of the gun into Irish society have a lot to answer for."

Book Review 260: The Freemasons

THE FREEMASONS: A History of the World's Most Secret Society, by Jasper Ridley. 357 pages. Arcade

Whether the Freemasons are really powerful or not -- author Jasper Ridley does not really demonstrate much power -- they can glory in the finest lineup of foes of any society, secret or free, anywhere.

All the most evil men of the past 300 years have condemned the Masons -- the popes, the Nazis, the Communists, the Facists, the Phalangists, assorted emperors and tyrants.

Not bad for a social group devoted merely to tolerance, conviviality, a vague deism, social equality (more or less) and friendship.

But if ideas have power, Jasper Ridley shows -- with a wicked tongue -- just how frightened the bad guys have been by the idea that men, some of them prominent, were gathering together privately to praise liberty, equality and fraternity, even if wrapped up in childish mumbojumbo.

Ridley, a graceful writer, goes back to the origins in a labor union of carvers of stone who went to work on medieval cathedrals and bridges after the rough masons had put up the structure. For obscure reasons -- perhaps because the freemasons had to travel around to their work -- this union was susceptible to ideas of tolerance and leveling once these got a certain traction in reaction to the murderous intolerance of the 17th century religious fights. He describes the early Freemasons as "intellecutal gentlemen who favored religious toleration and friendship between men of different religions and thought that a simple belief in God should replace controversial theological doctrines."

Most lodges banned discussion of religion or politics. They went so far as to admit women, colored people and Jews, at times reluctantly.

That the Freemasons were, and are, regarded as subversive of oppressive regimes will seem odd to Americans, who know them mostly as Shriners, an excuse for grown men to fool around like 9-year-olds under the coloration of raising money for sick children. It's a measure of their diabolical cleverness that they go to such lengths and effort just to mess around.

Ridley, an Englishman, pays little attention to the Americans, though they make up about half the world's Freemasons. He is more concerned to debunk the notion that Masons were a self-serving circle out to subvert government.

At length, he shows that in ordinary political wars and disputes, Masons were on both sides; the stories about Masons letting captives free on seeing a secret sign are fantasies.

There have never been any Masonic armies, Masonic manifestoes or Masonic political parties (though there was an Anti-Masonic Party in the United States, where most of the men who led the nascent Republican Party cut their political teeth).

So it is hard to imagine what power Ridley imagines Masons wield. It seems that their influence was indirect, a place for men of like thoughts to learn of each other's existence and network. In Latin countries, the Lautaro Lodge did spawn revolutionaries, but more as a midwife than as a revolutionary movement itself. There have never been any Masonic Black Shirts.

In the 20th century, Ridley writes, antimasonic writings reached new levels of insanity. All -- or at least very many -- of the forces of antimodernity recognized Freemasonry for what it is: a stalking horse for modernism.

Tomas Masaryk, the father of Czech modernism and independence, put it in a nutshell: "Freemasonry is the guilty conscience of the Catholic Church." And not only of that body; all rightwingers have hated masonry, though antimasonic feeling has never figured too prominently among Muslims. (There are Muslim Masons; they hold a Koran during their ceremonies, while Jewish Masons use the Talmud.)

After all this sturm and drang, "The Freemasons" ends almost on a note of comedy, where Ridley lists some of the accomplishments of men who were Freemasons. (Though Ridley is sophisicated about European and Latin American history, he is pretty shaky about American popular culture, labeling Lowell Thomas as Thomas Lowell among several other flubs).

Did you know, for example, the Hubert Eaton, the man who introduced flat grave markers so lawnmowers could roll unimpeded over the corpses, was a Mason?

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

'Fiscal cliff' in a nutshell

Never, ever worry about the poverty of people who have more money than you do.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Good bread for everybody

Lots of people are posting fond memories of Jose Krall, the baker and pastry cook at Maui Bake Shop & Deli, who is missing since his plane crashed Saturday. Here is my favorite.

Jose’s productions were first-rate and priced accordingly. A strawberry dressed up in a tuxedo made of dark and white chocolate, for example, cost about $3. The exception was his baguettes, the bread that is the staff of life for the French.

When a sort of imitation baguette was available at local supermarkets for $3 or so, a genuine, crusty, hard baguette from Jose cost just $1.25. I once asked him why his baguettes were so cheap when his other loaves were priced around $6. I cannot recall his exact words, but the gist was:

“Everyone should be able to afford to eat good bread.”

In his old shop, before his brief retirement, he had a poster that read, in French, “In his (the baker’s) hands, the essence of good bread.” Jose Krall was a master baker who took his craft seriously. He walked the walk.

The text above is what I posted at Kamaaina Loan's blog. Since Kamaaina Loan's outlook is generally positive, I stopped there. The rest of the story is that Americans won't eat hard, sour bread.

Over the years, Jose's baguettes got fatter and softer, and the price also converged with the imitation baguettes in the supermarket trade.

I never asked him about it but I think I knew him well enough to guess that he was disappointed that people wouldn't eat his best production even when it was cheaper. As we used to say in East Tennessee, some people, if they didn't have bad taste, they wouldn't have no taste at all. (Photo from The Maui News)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Book Review 259: A Gardener Touched with Genius

A GARDENER TOUCHED WITH GENIUS: The Life of Luther Burbank, by Peter Dreyer. 403 pages, illustrated. Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.

I don't know if Luther Burbank is still a household name. When I was a boy in the '50s, everybody knew that Burbank was the world's greatest plant breeder, although other than creating a white blackberry, I don't think many of us knew what he had done. But we understood that a man who could conjure up a white blackberry was a genius.

According to Peter Dreyer's meticulous life -- necessarily incomplete as the records are not that good -- the white blackberry was one of Burbank's failures. Not especially good eating, it disappeared once the novelty of it wore off.

Burbank himself believed that any character could be coaxed out of a plant by a sufficiently skilled breeder, because he believed that all qualities existed in the germ plasm. He disbelieved in mutations.

This was an open question when Burbank began his plant nursery in the 1870s. Before his career ended in the '20s, knowledge had caught up with Burbank but he did not change his opinion.

He was a -- perhaps almost, the -- stellar example of the self-made Yankee artificer. Only Thomas Edison, perhaps, had a greater reputation with the public. He was also one of the first to benefit from and be tortured by the modern pulicity apparatus.

Newspapers and magazines were insatiable for copy, and while Dreyer emphasizes the magazines and never mentions the Sunday supplements, it was the supplements that ensure that everyone knew the names of Burbank, Edison, Einstein and Fitzgerald. The Hearst papers alone printed 30 million copies, seen by at least 60 million, Americans -- nearly half the population.

The supplements were not too discriminating nor reliable. Burbank was not so widely admired by professional botanists. but like Alfred Wagener (the author of continental drift), Burbank's real achievements were discounted by the professionals. Public opinion was, in his case, more nearly accurate.

He gave his enemies plenty of ammunition to use against him. In business, he fell into the hands of stockjobbers, who boomed his enthusiasm for prickly pear cactus as a desert cattle fodder. (Burbank tried to breed a spineless variety, never quite succeeding.)

Ironically, his greatest achievement was not in breeding. It was his sharp eye that spotted a potato seed pod (a very rare event, it was the only one Burbank ever encountered), saved it, selected two offspring and gave America the Burbank potato -- now more commonly called a russet, baker or Idaho potato, but at one time sold as a Burbank potato.

His entrepreneurial acumen was remarkable. The breeder of the Concord grape (also a New England boy) went broke trying to defend his discovery from poachers. Burbank sold his stock, and all rights, to nurserymen for lofty prices (sometimes $3,000 in the 1890s), and left it to them to market, publicize and protect the rights.

To make this work, he had to produce thousands of new varieties, some scores each year, and he did. A summary of his introductions published as an appendix in "A Gardener Touched with Genius" runs to 110 pages.

He died very well-off though unsuccessful as a breeder personally. His two marriages were barren and his relations with women generally were unhappy.

The story of Burbank is worth remembering. "Charisma is a double-edged instrument," writes Dreyer. "He was trapped by his admirers."

The admirers have passed on now and we can appreciate Burbank better for what he was and what he wasn't -- one of the greatest Americans of the early modern era, a man with opinions on many other subjects besides plants, some of them worth thinking about today.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wal-Mart and the deadly Bangladesh fire

According to a wire story in The Maui News, Wal-Mart is "distancing" itself from the fire in which more than 100 employees of one of its suppliers were killed.

A statement claimed Tazreen was no longer authorized to sew for Wal-Mart but had done so via a subcontractor "in direct violation of our policies."

Balderdash.

One of the things I carried away with me from 40-plus years of business reporting was an anecdote about the Wal-Mart store in Ames, Iowa. A college professor of business writing a magazine article about Wal-Mart (whose founder got his start peddling shirts in Iowa) asked the manager of the Ames Wal-Mart to turn on the exterior lights of his store shortly before sunset in order to provide the magazine's photographer with a showier background.

The manager said he couldn't turn his own lights off or on. "That's controlled from Bentonville," he said.

Do I believe Wal-Mart did not know who was sewing its shirts in Bangladesh? Not in one million years.

UPDATE, Nov. 28

The fire has emboldened lots of commenters to talk about Wal-Mart. One of the more incisive comments comes from the Washington Post's Harold Meyerson, who delves into Wal-Mart's culture of deniability:

But the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work.

This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements. Many are employed at little more than the minimum wage in the massive warehouses in the inland exurbs of Los Angeles, where Wal-Mart’s imports from Asia are trucked from the city’s harbor to be sorted and packaged and put on the trucks and trains that take them to Wal-Mart stores for a thousand miles around.

The warehouses are run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart contracts, and most of the workers are employed by some of the 200-plus temporary employment companies that have sprung up in the area — even though many of the workers have worked in the same warehouses for close to a decade. Last year, the California Department of Industrial Relations, suspecting that many of these workers were being cheated, charged one logistics company that runs a warehouse for Wal-Mart with failing to provide its employees with pay stubs and other information on their pay rates. Wal-Mart itself was not cited. That’s the beauty of its chain of deniability.
The whole thing is worth reading.

What should bankers be paid?

Nothing, if you ask me, based on recent performance.

Nasim Taleb, the "black swan" guy, suggested to a conference in England, not more than the regulators who regulate them. Well, I'm not sure most of the regulators earned their pay recently, either.

Never happen, of course. Bankers who lost billions were hired off by other banks, in some cases with seven-figure signing bonuses. Makes you wonder about all those rightwingers who claim that only a free market can usefully allocate scarce resources.

There's no resource scarcer in the 21st century than a competent banker. It appears that the Bank of England scarfed up the only one, a Canadian who didn't even want the job.

Canada, by the way, refutes the notion that bank regulation is a bad idea. Worked great for the Canadians, both the banks and the citizenry.

I have not made up my mind about Taleb. I began reading his book "Black Swan" but -- unusually for me -- didn't finish it. Either I am too slow to understand him or what he wrote barely made sense. The "black swan" metaphor, in any event, was poorly chosen:

If you lmow the argument -- even if you don't know the book, the argument in some form has entered public consciousness as a meme -- Taleb scorned Europeans who said all swans were white -- true enough for Europe -- but turned out to be mistaken when white explorers got to Australia where there were black swans.

So, nu?

It is one thing to say, all the swans we know are white, another to say all swans have to be white.

Quite another to say, only a market can efficiently allocate resources. We already have evidence to show that markets frequently fail to efficiently allocate resources; and also that planned economies sometimes do a good job of it.

For Taleb's metaphor to work, you would have to have someone from Europe looking at a black Australian swan and say, "There can never be any black swans."

So far as I know, nobody was ever that stupid. On the other hand, we have numerous people who have seen markets at work and go on to claim that nothing can be better.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The real reason Romney lost

It's obvious, but in all the postmortems, I haven't seen anyone finger it.

First, let's review the bidding:

Romney himself: Obama bought the election by gifting non-whites with gummint goodies.

John Podhoretz (editor of Commentary): Democrats had no policy to offer but organized the greatest get-out-the-vote operation in history. (Why the targets voted for a no-policy candidate is not explained in this version.)

Franklin Graham and other religious bigots: It was the judgment of God for America's embrace of homosexuality.

Glenn Beck: Wake up call from God (or something).

Bob Vander Plaats (antigay head of Iowa Family Leader): Obama would have lost if Republicans had run a really far right candidate.

You may have seen a few others.

The real reason can almost (but not quite) be set out as  a syllogism:

1. Almost all voters report to American business management; and if they don't, they used to or have a spouse who does; or at the very least have friends who do and who talk about their experience.

2. After stripping off the decorations, Romney's fundamental offer was to run government like American managers run businesses.

3. Given their personal experience, most Americans have no desire to have something as important as government run like a business.




Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Stuff it, just stuff it

Is there anything more tiresome than a vegetarian using Thanksgiving to recruit? Stuff it, vegans, just stuff it. I'm eating turkey.

Why vote counting is slow

The Guardian, still partly an English newspaper although it is morphing into the first bicoastal daily, marvels at how complicated voting is in America, compared to England, where you get a ballot with one choice: your MP. Here, by contrast:

British general elections can, believe it or not, still be as simple as walking into a voting booth, marking X on a piece of paper and putting it in the ballot box.
But voters entering a US polling station can be handed a telephone directory of candidates for president, Senate, House, governor, state senate and legislature, mayor and some combination of parish, county, ward, municipality, comptroller, supervisor, commissioner, judge and board of education, even if not the dog catcher of urban myth.
On top of the voting for people, there's the voting for things, the propositions and state constitutional amendments to deal with – and it's not all fun and gay marriage. There's the municipal bond proposals, the sports stadium sales tax, and many more. California's voters had to mull over 11 propositions on election day, ranging from the death penalty and genetically modified food labelling all the way to state senate redistricting. It takes time to complete – hence the long queues outside – and even longer to count after the event.
I've never had the opportunity to vote for a dog catcher, but in Polk County, Iowa, we got to vote for the fence viewer. At the Des Moines Regiser one year, we plotted to get one of the reporters elected, but after much talk about it over beer at the Office Lounge (named so reporters could call their wives and tell them, honestly, "Honey, I have to stay late at the office") we never quite got our act together.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The worst-managed company ever?

If asked to name the worst management ever, I suppose many people would think first of Enron, but those guys weren't even trying to be honest.

Among managements at least notionally attempting to play by the rules, you could make strong cases for General Motors or AOL, or possibly Long Term Capital Management; and if you take the long view, there is no question but that the various iterations of Citibank have made more and bigger bad management decisions than any other corporation; but for sustained and obtuse mistakes in the 21st century, there's nobody with a record quite like Hewlett-Packard's.

Tech companies fall behind the curve often enough, usually by giving up on innovation, like Kodak. But for an on-the-ball company like H-P, starting from a dominant position and avowedly pursuing strategies of innovation and new market penetration, nobody has put together such a long string of such big mistakes.

The $8.8 billion writedown of Anthology that H-P announced today works out to a loss of something on the order of $18,000 per minute  and, presumably, counting.   

With Anthology, H-P thought it was getting in on a rising wave. With Compaq, it got in on a receding wave, evidently on the theory that being the biggest player in a marginal business would have some sort of financial advantage. As Nils Pratley in the Guardian points out today, H-P then decided to get out of the PC business anyhow, after overpaying for EDS and Palm:

Remember the context here. Hewlett-Packard was a former computer titan fallen on hard times. Too many acquisitions, such as EDS and Palm, had turned sour and new-boy chief executive Léo Apotheker was desperate to find an instant fix. He decided to get out of making personal computers and buy Autonomy at an almighty takeover premium of 64%.

Accusations of perfidy are flying back and forth, although the bottom line apears to be inescapable: Whichever side was in the right, morally, one side committed a mighty error. It would be unsurprising, given history, if this turned out to be H-P and its Big Four accounting firm. Where have we heard that story before?

Of all the obvious things that RtO has stated over the years, I think the most original observation has been that the business community's shibboleth about the overriding necessity of creating confidence is nonsense. If we learned anything in 2008 (and the Republicans certainly did not), it is that confidence is like strychnine to business management. Give me a worried CEO any time.

Pratley wonders if "Hewlett-Packard's investors might ask whether their management was too driven by the desire to do a deal, any deal, that offered the prospect of a fresh start."

I would rather think that investors should ask, "Can't we get performance this bad cheaper than by paying executives 500 times what ordinary workers get?" Do I hear 50? 25? 10?

At any rate, let us hear no more about running our government on businesslike lines.

Also, see here for a British view of the crisis, rather more broadminded than what the American business press managed to produce.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Scott DesJarlais watch

It's now been 5 days since sworn testimony by Tea Party Republican family values congressman Scott DesJarlais revealed that he is a serial abortionist, liar and flouter of medical ethics. DesJarlais has not been heard from.

But some Tennessee Republicans see an opportunity to investigate Barack Obama.

You read that right. Not since the voters of my home county, Hamilton, re-elected Bookie Turner sheriff while he was serving a term in his own jail have Tennessee voters displayed more loyalty.

Times Free Press reporter Chris Carroll had this today:

Other Republicans on the state executive committee, all of whom said they consider themselves anti-abortion, said issues from 12 years ago -- even the congressman's sworn testimony -- aren't relevant now.
Tim Rudd, a Realtor who resides in Murfreesboro, said the media should "get off DesJarlais" and investigate President Barack Obama's background, education and "what makes him tick."
"We're talking about a personal issue in his former marriage," Rudd said of DesJarlais. "That did not form the man he is today."
I love Tennessee politics.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The silence of the elephants

Ordinarily, the doings in Tennessee's 4th Congressional District would not be grist for RtO's mill, although for me personally the soap opera that is east Tennessee politics never loses its charm. The exposure of Tea Party, anti-abortion congressman Scott DesJarlais as a serial abortionist, liar, philanderer, malpracticing doctor etc. (all by his own sworn testimony) raises the local issue to one of more general interest.

If you had been found yesterday under a cabbage leaf, you might suppose that the party of values and family would be all over DesJarlais to, at least, get out of Congress and hide. But, no.

To rightwing Republicans, family values are flexible things. It's like the old joke we told on the Baptists (I'm sure you've heard it), that the reason they opposed premarital sex was that it might lead to dancing,

I mean, we already knew from Noot Gingrich's success that Republicans are down with adultery. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, not one elected Republican in the state could be found to condemn DesJarlais.

But it's not mere silence. Phil Roe, a rightwing congressman, doesn't see what the fuss is about:

"I don't know that it reflects badly," Roe told the Washington, D.C., newspaper Roll Call. "I think it's an individual decision that someone's made."
He sounds like a Democrat, doesn't he?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

More top-notch local reporting

I always wanted to report for my hometown paper, but they never gave me the time of day. Here's some first-rate work from Chattanooga.
A decade before calling himself “a consistent supporter of pro-life values,” Tennessee physician and Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais supported his ex-wife’s decision to get two abortions before their marriage, according to the congressman’s sworn testimony during his divorce trial.
It gets worse from there, a lot worse.

Typical Tea Party phony.  The voters returned him in a landslide, although the bare bones of his conduct was revealed well in advance of the election. It was not, however, nailed down until the Times Free Press finally got the transcript of his sworn deposition.

The Washington Post notes:

DesJarlais easily won reelection last week despite reports that he had sex with patients and urged one of them to get an abortion. The congressman hasn’t directly responded to questions on the matter since then.
The Christians of east Tennessee have always been like that. Hamilton County was dry when I was a boy. My grandfather used to say it was because the Baptist ministers and the bootleggers allied to keep it that way.



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Our 'no billboards' laws

On my own, I wouldn't spend time on Craigslist, and especially not on Rants and Raves, which seems to be where people go when they're too crazy for an AOL chat room.

But for my other blog (the one I get paid to write), I have to monitor Rants and Raves in case someone says something about the business. And there I found this. Possibly it's a good thing Hawaii doesn't allow billboards:


Dunno where this was.

My other blog is http://kamaainaloan.com/wordpress. Almost entirely different content than RtO.

Local reporting at its best

The Tampa Tribune smothers the local angles of the Petreus story, calling on local knowledge and -- evidently -- lots of footwork.

This story is way weirder than the national press has made it, and that was weird enough. TV miniseries coming up?

This is the kind of local newspaper reporting that Americans are losing as national and international digital methods push daily newspapers off the cliff. Sad thing, most of them don't have any idea of what they are missing.

Nut grafs:

" 'The court fully expects that Ms. Khawam's pattern of misrepresentations about virtually everything, including the most important aspects of her life, will continue indefinitely.'
"She was more than $3 million in debt, records show. She had blown through four jobs in five years and sued a former employer for sex harassment. She had had three failed engagements, left her new husband and moved in with her sister where she quickly began hobnobbing with military brass and others in Tampa's elite circles.
"What moved the top government brass to go to bat for a woman the court said suffers from 'severe' psychological deficits? The answer can be found in Jill Kelley's social climb in the last decade, since she and her surgeon husband moved south from Philadelphia . . . ."

Hostesses with the mostest, sounds like. It makes me wonder about the reliability of the officer evaluations those generals write. RtO has never been a Petreus fan, as documented mostly in book reviews. If he and General Allen couldn't spot the kook factor in the Khawam twins, their judgment should  be seriously questioned.

Kha-WHAM! indeed.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Why we call them gun nuts

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Gun sales are up in the wake of Barack Obama's re-election on Tuesday, driven by fears of tighter regulations under a Democratic president, especially for firearms that might be classified as assault weapons.
And furthermore:

Bill Anderson, owner of the gun shop Call-To-Arms in Denton, Texas, said the big spike will probably hit full force this weekend. He said that gun enthusiasts are assuming that Obama will be more aggressive about gun regulations in his second term.
"Being as this is his second and last term, he might do it, because he's not interested in getting re-elected," said Anderson.
Obama had largely avoided the issue of gun control during his first term, despite some high-profile mass murders by mentally unstable gunmen . . .

Plus, now he'll send the UN army in blue helmets to take those guns. Also, Bill Anderson didn't get the Fox memo about how Obama is going to run for a third term despite the Constitution.


A co-ed military

So, maybe this boy-girl army wasn't such a good idea after all.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A final look at Intrade

I wish I had started following Intrade sooner, but as a non-believer in markets, I was not motivated.

What I've watched over the past couple weeks has not changed my views, but I am interested in the very high volatility of the presidential race market.

In a few days, Romney has gone as high as 45% and as low as 31%. Right now, Obama leads at 67.6% -- that is, you pay $6.76 for a chance to win $10.00.

If my brain had been more nimble (and if I didn't live in Hawaii where I was asleep during the crucial swings), I could have built a Dutch book -- a bookie term for a series of bets where you finish in the money no matter what.-- by arbitraging the differences.

I am not repining. I bought Obamas at considerably under $6.76 and could cash out now for several hundred dollars in profit.

I won't, though, because if you are persuaded by Nate Silver at 538 blog, the odds of losing are one in six. My bets pay off at better than 3 to 2.

You don't get many chances to wager on those terms. I think you have to put money on Obama even if you want Romney to win. And I wonder, how many Intraders bet against their political preferences on the theory that if your man doesn't get in, at least you'll have a payday. And if you lose money, at least your man won.

UPDATE

I should have checked 538, but I thought all the polls Silver was going to get were included in his Monday morning line.

Not so. He now has Romney's odds less than one in ten. Intrade is still paying almost 3 for 2. If you believe Silver, you are never going to see a more compelling wager.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A revealing factoid

Until a few weeks ago, the Romney campaign web page didn't have a pointer to "African-Americans for Romney." At least, according to one of the best campaign stories I've seen all year, in the Guardian.

A frustrated Tampa Republican leader says:


"Romney did a really poor job with minorities. That was my greatest disappointment. You'd go on to his website and he'd have a column for outreach. You clicked on that and there was Catholics for Romney, Democrats for Romney, fishermen for Romney. You never saw blacks or African Americans for Romney until four weeks ago," Wood said.

"I think it's the big frigging smart guys at the top who think they know how to run a campaign, and they probably just wrote off the African American vote. Romney did a really poor job with the African Americans. They're in many ways like Hispanics. They favour traditional marriage, they go to church regularly, they're suffering worse from unemployment."
Very revealing. Romney is cleaning up the Bubba vote. That comes with a cost.

The cost must have seemed small to a candidate who thought that 47% of voters are freeloaders. No points for guessing whether he and his rich country club buddies figured black Americans fell into the 47% or the 53%.


   






Friday, November 2, 2012

A campaign high point

Every campaign deserves a memorable hula, and kumu hula Patrick Makuakane delivers with the “Birth Certificate Hula.” If you follow the link, you’ll hear him say he was born at Kapiolani maternity just a couple days apart from Barack Obama.
The line “drunk in a taxi” is good.
Performance before enthusiastic audience here: hula
Patrick Makuakane
Photo by Kathleen Bender

Thursday, November 1, 2012

They don't need no steenking numbers

From the New York Times, a story about Senate Republicans who hate numbers. I have not read the report, but what RtO has said elsewhere makes it obvious that the conclusion is reasonable, even obvious.

The conclusion being that raising tax rates on the rich does not unduly impinge on productive investment. Not mentioned, at least in the Times report, is the threat of the rich that if the country tries to tax them, they'll just move their money offshore.

I don't doubt it. All the more reason to tax them, in my view.

The Times begins:

The Congressional Research Service has withdrawn an economic report that found no correlation between top tax rates and economic growth, a central tenet of conservative economy theory, after Senate Republicans raised concerns about the paper’s findings and wording.
The whole thing is well worth reading but especially this gem:

They also protested on economic grounds, saying that the author, Thomas L. Hungerford, was looking for a macroeconomic response to tax cuts within the first year of the policy change without sufficiently taking into account the time lag of economic policies. 

Shhh. Don't tell Mitt Romney. He thinks cutting taxes on the rich will instantly produce 12 million jobs. Even Republicans don't believe that.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Everything you want to know about Romney in one sentence

Throughout the day following Hurricane Sandy’s landfall, reporters traveling with Romney have asked him what he’d do with FEMA—they asked him 14 different times, according to this report—and he has refused to answer. 

According to Bloomberg News. The reason, of course, is that Romney was on record as wanting to do away with FEMA and now 60,000,000 Americans have an immediate stake in its existence.

I've said before that Romney is a coward. Who now could deny it?

Worse than a coward, really, because the rest of the paragraph in the Bloomberg story goes on to say:

The question is all the more awkward because Romney has recast today’s campaign rally as a “storm relief event.”
I have always thought that Americans basically vote on the basis of character . That is not a bad thing. No one can predict what issues a political leader will have to deal with.

Franklin Roosevelt ran for president on a platform of cost-cuttting and a balanced federal budget.But when he came into office, things had gotten much worse and Roosevelt reversed course. It took a great deal of character to do that. Only Washington and Lincoln as presidents have ever shown so much.

It is easy to imagine :Romney reversing course -- it is impossible to imagine him sticking to a position, if we ever knew what position he held. But doing so in a way that exemplifies a strong moral character?. That's harder.


Gamblers pick Obama

For the past week or so, I've been following the betting on the presidential election at Intrade, the Irish futures market, and to a lesser extent, the Iowa Electronic Markets. (IEM limits bets to $500, which presumably chases the big rollers away and, perhaps, distorts that market.)

The last week as been very volatile, although the plungers are uniformly leaning Obama-wards. The price of a $10 bet was about $6.10 when I first stopped in to look, fell as low as about $5.40 (for reasons I cannot guess), then bounced back to around $6.10.

This morning, it's taken a largish jump and is around $6.60 -- that is, you pay $6.60 to win $10. No limit, although judging by the number of shares offered at different prices, few bettors are placing  bets over $1,000.

Conversely, it costs around $3.40 to  bet to win $10 with Romney. A lot of the horse players I know won't bet on short odds. Dunno if political bettors act the same way. Is money flowing toward R. because the payoff potential is better? Or, as seems more likely, are bettors putting their money on the man they want to win?

Either way, I tend to think the so-called predictive power of a free market is oversold by the free-marketeers. (The IEM is set up as an educational tool to teach college students how markets work; I don't believe it is capable of doing that. I don't believe anybody knows how markets work.)

I prefer the kind of bet where the loser says he'll push a peanut down Main Street with his nose, but nobody seems willing to make those bets any more. Politics was more colorful in the old days, but the influx of money has made it duller in some ways.

UPDATE

In case it wasn't clear the first time, the reason  I am skeptical of markets in general and this market in particular is that it is hard to match the violent swings in the gamblers' odds with anything likely to be happening among the electorate.

The Obama wager is now over $6.90, a rise of nearly 8% in a day and of close to 15 points in a week.

Even if you argue that the outcome of the election (the wager) is on a knife's edge because it depends on the results in 7 or 8 closely divided states, it seems hard to believe that anything happened in those states so dramatic in a week that the odds should have shifted from 55% to nearly 70%.

Or perhaps once the odds in Obama's favor shifted past a certain point -- say, for the sake of discussion, when it passed 67% or 2:1 -- there was a rush of hot money to get in (late) on an almost sure thing.

I can imagine gamblers acting that way, but the way Intrade works, there has to be a counterseller on the other side of every buy. So there's still Romney money in the mix; the book hasn't just seized up.









Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Well, this is bizarre

Even though I was not following Sandy as obsessively as some people in the house yesterday, even I noticed a Facebook post about the New York Stock Exchange being under 3 feet of water. I've been there and I knew it wasn't true so I passed it by like all the other dreck on the innertubes.

Turns out there is a story there, though, and a weird one.

Somebody named Jack Stuef had nothing better to do than track down the source -- nominally an anonymous Twitter account, but with the Internet, you never can tell -- and found . . . a highly paid Republican campaign operative named Shashank Tripathi.

You might have supposed that this late in the campaign he (Tripathi) would have had more urgent things to do, but apparently not.

And he's a hedge fund analyst. Too sweet.

But that's not why RtO is taking time to note this wicked little lie -- which incredibly enough got onto TV, which is another reason I don't own a TV. No, it turns out that Republicans have serious problems with storms. I cannot guess why.

From another sourcesource, Republican hack Michael Brown attacked President Obama for paying too much attention to Hurricane Sandy. If the name rings a bell, it's from Bush II's "Heckuva job, Brownie" inanity. Yes, the same horse lawyer who didn't pay any attention to Hurricane Katrina.

What is going on with the Republicans?


Monday, October 29, 2012

Having a good time

From a Vanity Fair article about two German  art forgers who stole millions of dollars, got caught and are now in  what Germans amusingly regard as "prison":

The Beltracchis were five months into their jail sentence, and had few complaints about the conditions. Both had been assigned to live in “open prisons”—the equivalent of halfway houses in the United States, without bars, guns, or guards—and were working at Esser’s photo studio five days a week, often until nine p.m. They also had 80 hours of “free time” each month, 21 free weekend nights a year, and extra days off at Christmas and Easter. They had rented an apartment in Cologne to use during their vacation time. “This system of imprisonment doesn’t exist anywhere but here in Germany,” Wolfgang said with a grin, over a lunch of Wiener schnitzel and french fries at a restaurant in an old villa down the road from the loft. Prison officials did, however, insist on strict adherence to the schedule: if the couple reports back late three times in a single month, Wolfgang said, “they will throw us immediately into the closed prison—without any chance to appeal.”

The whole story is amusing if, like me, you think the spread between the best and worst of modern art is very thin.

Businesses Romney does not understand

I’ve been thinking about this post for weeks but putting it off because it’s pretty obscure. On the other hand, Mitt Romney goes around making statements along the line of, “Private business always outperforms government,” and that is wrong.

No one who knows America’s business history thinks that. Of course, the number of people who know America’s business history is very small.

In fact, huge sectors of business exist only because of government supervision or encouragement. In aggregate, most of the U.S. economy would either not exist at all or would be weak and puny without government interference. I don’t have time to list all of them, but let’s take life insurance as an example.

Life insurance is a big, big part of American business. It’s assets were $18,000,000,000,000 (that’s trillion with a T) and cash inflows were nearly $3,000,000,000,000 (trillion again) in 2009. That’s serious money. Without life insurance, capitalism would be hard put to it to find capital.

Yet, until government stepped in, the life insurance business was small, corrupt and disreputable; and, yes, America was starved of capital in those days.

Aside from a couple of benevolent societies (which tried to, gasp, socialize private charity for their members), life insurance was hard to find and often not worth finding in the early Republic. There were no regulations, so insurors did not have to maintain capital reserves. Since they didn’t, they had no need for actuarial science.

Life insurance was not then a form of saving. If you bought a policy, it might -- or might not -- pay off if you were lucky enough to die early. If you were unfortunate enough to live to a normal old age, most likely the original underwriter, figuring you were going to die pretty soon and he had nicked you for plenty of premiums over the decades, sold your policy.

This was legal, since life insurance was unregulated.

If the second buyer was honest (a dubious assumption), if you died on him, he still might not be able to pay off, since he hadn’t received many premiums.

In practice, policies of long-lived customers tended to change hands several times, with each marginal to desperate “insuror” betting that he could get at least one more premium  payment before the customer kicked the  bucket. Prices to buy contracts spiraled downward, and speculators hung around the doors of rich decrepit policyholders (ordinary folks didn’t have the option of life insurance), milking the servants for intelligence about whether Mr. Gotrocks might hold out for at least one more premium payment.

The odds that the holder of the contract when the customer expired would be able to fulfill the policy were remote.

It was, however, a nearly perfect example of an efficient market.

Mitt Romney would have loved it.

Pernicious, meddling politicians and  bureaucrats changed everything.

By regulating insurors, usually at the state levels, requiring adequate reserves and audits, they created a demand for a secondary service business, the actuary.

Once talented statisticians set up shop providing tables for insurance companies, other businessmen  took advantage of their skills for other purposes, and thus was born the multimegabillion consulting sector. It might have happened without government interference, but the fact is, it didn’t.

Other sectors that were created  by, or never thrived until government interference include road building and overland freight hauling, manufacturing using interchangeable parts, electronic computing and aviation.



Why shut down public transportation?

I'm not getting the authorities' reaction on Oahu during the tsunami non-event Saturday, nor on the East Coast anticipating Sandy.

If your goal is to move Americans to public transportation, then it seems to me you keep public transit going as long as possible, you don't shut it down at the first opportunity.

At some point, you've got to stop, but later rather than sooner.

It's already tough to have to rely on a bus system which, in most places, doesn't run 24 hours a day; compared with private cars which are good to go anytime. It just makes it tougher when the mayor shuts it down on a whim.

What did that accomplish on Oahu, other than to frustrate people?

Friday, October 26, 2012

Graham crackers

This is about Romney and evangelicals. Well, not Romney so much as Billy Graham, and not Billy so much as his scheming son Franklin. Billy is probably too senile to know what's going on.

Recall, though, that RtO predicted some evangelical woes for the Romney campaign because evangelicals -- or at least that fraction represented by Calvary Chapel and the like -- really, really hate Mormonism.(See Calvary Chapel and the Republicans, Sept. 17)

In typical sneaky fashion -- and unlike Jack Kennedy, who confronted his version of Protestant hate head-on in public by addressing a ministers' association -- Romney sought an audience with the ga-ga high priest of American Pharisaism (is any event less in tune with what Jesus said in Matthew 6: 5 & 6 than a football stadium full of Billy Grahamites bellowing their prayers?).

Liberty-loving Americans cried foul, that Billy Graham Ministries was using its tax-exempt position to push a political candidate, but though inassailably valid of course they got no response. No bureaucrat is going to tackle Billy Graham by pulling his IRS exemption, and if one did the president -- whoever he was -- would have his head.

But someone did pay attention when Franklin Graham reversed decades of Billy Graham smears by scrubbing the label "cult" from all mentions of Mormonism from the Billy Graham Enterprises websites.

Although Billy Graham was the all-time champion brown-noser of presidents, I am willing to imagine that were he still in possession of his faculties, he wouldn't have gone that far. Maybe I give him too much credit.

While the political cowards who tremble at the power of Christianity held their peace, the Christians themselves did not. The Washington Post reportsreports a sampling of evangelical hatemasters who are washing their hands (metaphor carefully chosen, you bet) of Grahamism.

It is hard to say how much of evangelicalism this little sample truly represents. No doubt it is common opinion at Calvary Chapel, but American evangelicalism covers a lot of territory. I cannot guess how many of them will sit on their hands this election because of Romney's Mormonism. But some surely will.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Romney and the Navy

RtO doesn't give me much opportunity to call on my lifelong interest in naval affairs, but the breadth and depth of Mitt Romney's ignornance is a welcome chance.

We don't need a great many ships in the bluewater navy now. During World War II, a carrier task force included three heavy and one light aircraft carriers, with an escort of one or two battleships, three or four heavy and light cruisers and at least four divisions of destroyers, 16 of them. That doesn't count distant surface and subsurface scouting and distant cover vessels.

Just the core task force contained at least 25 surface warships, and the fleet train supply ships added another six or eight: oilers, ammunition ships, cargo vessels.

Today, a carrier battle group of one carrier has more firepower, range and capability than a whole WW2 task force, and the escort consists of two ships. I remain a skeptic about the fighting capabilities of the Aegis cruisers, but if their past record is any guide, adding more of them wouldn't enhance the battle group's capabilities.

If you do the math, you'll quickly see that the Navy's surface ship count today needs to be only a tenth what it was in the steam era for the same punch. And with nuclear propelled ships, the call for oilers has nearly vanished. Store ships are five or six times as large as WW2 cargo vessels, so fewer of them are needed.

Romney, of course, has not said what ships he'd like to add to the fleet, but he's a Republican, so we can safely assume he means big, showy, useless ships (like the battleship New Jersey that the Republicans brought out of mothballs during the Reagan years and turned into a floating coffin at the price of five or 10 Solyndras). You can be sure that he, no less than Reagan, is not interested in small, cheap, vital vessels like minesweepers.

During the Reagan years, the Navy didn't have any minesweepers. You may recall that when mines began to be effective in the Persian Gulf, the Navy used civilian tankers as "deep draft minesweepers."

That's because, in one of many lapses of competence in the high command, the Navy had decided that minesweeping could be done by expensive, limited range, low endurance helicopters. It's a big ocean, and when needed, the helicopters couldn't cover the water.

This despite the fact that during WW2, antishipping mines were one of our most effective and efficient weapons, delivered against Japanese home waters by B-29s and submarines.

Dropping a mine under cover of darkness is not the kind of Sgt. Rock warfare that appeals to Republicans, who want to be seen to be making a lot of noise, whether anything gets accomplished or not.

So, yes, there is a deficiency in our Navy and in our armed forces generally. But it is not of ships. It is of competent and honorable admirals and generals. They proved incompetent in Bush's wars, which they managed to lose despite overwhelming materiel superiority.

The civilian high command, of both parties, has not been better, either.

And while we're on the subject, I had thought about writing up one of Romney's (and rightwingers' generally) stupider beliefs: That government cannot "pick winners" or perform better than private businesses.

This is not true. About 90% (by dollar volume) of American private business would not exist without government regulation, stimulation and origination. Strong words, which I can back up though at this time I will limit to just one naval example.

Industrial rationalization, innovation and efficiency were invented by governments. In a specifically maritime sense, at the Arsenal in Venice, which produced the dominant naval arm of the middle ages; and at the dockyards of the Royal Navy in the 1790s.

To expand the fleet to meet the challenge of Bonaparte, the Royal Navy required tens of thousands of blocks. To that time, each block had been bored and shaped by hand, a process that took weeks. The naval constructors invented multiple-head, powered boring and shaping machines to produce blocks for the navy's tackle and the course of history changed.

(In America, the so-called American System was a mere copy of the British government innovation and was falsely credited to Eli Whitney. Whitney was, in fact, a complete failure who never delivered a single workable weapon to the army. The American System was developed in the 1830s and '40s at tremendous expense by the Army at the Harper's Ferry Arsenal, and only after the Civil War did private businesses learn the Army's methods and apply them to, for example, sewing machines. Republicans fervently believe that government is incapable of doing these things, but that is because they don't know their own history.)

Where's the aloha?

Driving into town last week, I saw a couple of unMaui slogans on cars.

First, on the side of a new Honda: "Punish and torture . . . "

I don't know what to make of that, but it was disturbing to see the car turning into the hospital.

Less obscure was a slogan on the back window of a working pickup truck: "Take a shower. This isn't Paia."

Clear but mean-spirited.

The haole-go-home stickers have been less common recently, and I haven't seen "Puinsai" for years.

So it goes.