Can Obama plug the hole?

Posted May 31, 2010 by roylatham
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The Gulf oil spill is producing two crises. The obvious one is the disaster with coastal fisheries, but it poses an ideological crisis as well. For liberals, government is supposed to be the solution to all problems. The oil spill is a big problem. So if the government is impotent in solving it, what does that say about the possibilities of government? If the oil spill is a problem that government cannot solve, might there be other such problems? That thought is too horrible to contemplate.

It is boldly apparent that government cannot plug the hole. The government does not have the technology, the expertise, or the equipment. If government did have the technology, expertise, and equipment that would mean that those resources had been diverted out of the productive private sector into the non-productive government sector. That’s not a good idea. People who know how to drill for oil ought to be left to do that, not put behind desks in faceless bureaucracies.

Every time government fails, the outcome can be spun as (a) poor leadership in government, (b) not enough regulation, or (c) regulators tied being too lax because of industry ties. Katrina was a disaster, the Left would have us believe, not because it was a large hurricane striking New Orleans, but because George Bush provided poor leadership. The bust in the housing market was supposedly due to not having enough regulatory laws, so Congress passed new laws regulating largely-unrelated activities — as if the weight of the paper the laws are printed on suppresses underlying problems, never mind the relevance. Airline crashes are supposedly due to cozy relationships between the airlines and government regulators.

In a pinch, there are two more options: (d) increase the number of regulators, and (e) ban the activity altogether. Increasing the number of regulators is surprisingly unpopular. That is because the notion on the Left is that not only is government all-knowing and good, it accomplishes its work cleanly and efficiently. That’s nonsense, but it is part of the ideological package. There is a final method of preserving the good name of government. What happened as a consequence of the Bernie Madoff scandal? There were plenty of laws and plenty of regulators; the regulators looked at Bernie’s operation. He simply scammed them, with surprising ease. So were the regulators all fired? Was there a call for a private rating agency to be set up, like the bond rating companies? No, as a lesson in government, it was ignored. The final refuge is to ignore the lessons of failed government.

Now here comes the oil spill. It was the consequence of chance events accumulating, typical of the scenario behind many air crashes or auto accidents. The oil companies suffer tens of billions of dollars of financial loss when such events occur. The financial penalty is so great, it is unrealistic to suppose that adding some additional regulatory hoop to jump through will make much difference. If a ten billion dollar penalty doesn’t work, would ten billion plus an official reprimand turn the trick? the situation is different if it involves companies that cannot cover the risks they take. Big oil covers their bets.

Obama cannot plug the hole and he has, correctly, said so. That is not a satisfactory answer for the Left, because it is contrary to the ideological principle that government ought to have the solution to every problem. Insofar as the reality penetrates that government cannot prevent oil spills, the leftist alternative is option (e), ban drilling. In this particular case, decreasing domestic oil production means that much more will be imported by tanker. Oil well blowouts are rare. Oil tankers are probably no safer.

I am all in favor of technology as a way to solve problems. Whatever the causes of the BP spill, they ought to be investigated and a solution put in effect. It is virtually impossible to stop a solution from being found, government or not. Oil companies are no more fond of losing tens of billions than anyone else — well anyone else in the private sector. My objection is to demands for complete safety, guaranteed by government as a sure thing. We should minimize risks and then get on with living. In that respect, it is like airline crashes or auto accidents. Auto crashes take over 30,000 lives a year in the U.S., and despite seat belt laws and all else, government cannot completely solve the problem.

I think there is a role for government in cleaning up the mess, though it would be better if it were accomplished through an industry consortium. Oil spills are so uncommon that it is inefficient to demand that each company be independently prepared to handle every contingency. Obama can be held accountable for management of the clean up, but, hey, we are dealing with government and government is inherently inefficient.

We should accept that life involves risk, and not expect government to remove the risks. So find a way to prevent blowouts like the BP one, and get on with drilling.

On Boycotting Arizona

Posted May 18, 2010 by roylatham
Categories: News, Opinion

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I have yet to hear a call for a boycott of Arizona that made an accurate reference to the Arizona law that is at issue. The full text of the law is here. The new Arizona law will require that if someone is stopped by police for other legal reasons, and the person also presents other legal reasons for doubting their citizenship status, that the police must then check citizenship status with the Federal Authorities.

President Obama claimed that under the Arizona law, anyone could be stopped and checked for citizenship if they were no more than going to an ice cream store.  The President is wrong. The Arizona law requires that there first be a “lawful stop, detention or arrest made by a law enforcement official” which means that the person was stopped for some other legal reason, and then after that also have reason to suspect that they are illegal. Federal agents, by contrast, can stop a person to check immigration status without any such constraint, and the liberal Ninth Circuit has upheld the Feds’ constitutional authority to do so.

The Highland Park High School girls’ basketball team has had its trip to an Arizona tournament canceled by a school superintendent because of “safety concerns.” The “safety” issue is that if one of the girls is an illegal immigrant, is stopped for some crime, and then found to, say, be unable to speak English, her citizenship could then be checked. In other words, the danger that is presented is the danger of the laws against illegal immigration being enforced.

Do schools have a general obligation to protect criminal students from law enforcement? If a precocious teen is dealing crack in the high school, is the school obliged to maintain his cover? Must a field trip to a local police station be canceled for fear that a narc might finger him? A civil rights attorney on The O’Reilly Factor claimed that the school might be sued for subjecting a student to potential arrest.

Because the school authorities in Illinois believe this to be unfair, they won’t allow the students to travel to Arizona. They do allow students to travel overseas, even though students must present passports to reenter the States. China, of course, is a model of civil rights compared to Arizona.

Facts have not gotten in the way of celebrating the joys of self-righteousness. San Francisco and Los Angeles are in the forefront of boycotting Arizona, and there is move afoot for state boycott legislation. It is self-righteousness at it’s most joyous because a boycott can hurt Arizona without significantly harming the righteous Californians. Californians can take their vacations and schedule events in other states, no big deal.

California, however, gets one-third of its electricity from Arizona. That’s a consequence of many years of refusing to build ugly dangerous environmentally-unsound power plants in California, while having Arizona do it for them was just fine.

It would be reasonable for Arizona to asked, pointedly, if California would like to extend their boycott to electricity? I suspect that errant self-righteousness would not be so much fun practiced in the dark.

Press coverage of the Tea Parties is unfair

Posted April 9, 2010 by roylatham
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Calls to kill President Bush were common in the war protests a few years ago, but they were rarely featured by the broadcast television networks or big-city newspapers. One collections of Bush death threats is on the blog Bin’s Corner. I searched the New York Times website and could not find a single archived article about leftists protesters making death threats against Bush. Searching for “tea party racism” on The Time site provided 4760 references in just the past thirty days. Let’s just say the reporting is uneven.

A protest march in San Francisco in 2003 was led by an infamous banner proclaiming “We support out troops when they shoot their officers.” The New York Times apparently missed that story, as their archive returns nothing. Leftist professor Ward Churchill called for the murder of American military officers.

Protest rallies as large as the Tea Party are sure to attract some nut cases. The Huffington Post did a round up of the most offensive protest signs at the tea party rallies. There were no n-word signs. They found a few signs of the “Obama = Hitler” sort. Those few are inexcusable, but what is astounding is how few they could find, and by comparison to the Bush death threats, how relatively mild. The Huffington Post ended up with proclaiming as deeply offensive pictures of children holding signs saying things like: “Got Liberty?” and “How will I pay for this?” That’s deeply offensive only to the far far left.

The market for “Kill Bush” merchandise has been thriving for years So hows the market doing for “Kill Obama” merchandise? There isn’t any. Instead, liberals have to invent threats to react to. Pundit Brent Budowsky cited Right Wing Death Threats: “When Rush Limbaugh uses language about wiping out political opponents, and language that could well incite acts of physical and criminal violence, he is taking this campaign to a whole new and darker level.” Sarah Palin was attacked for using the metaphor of Democratic congressional seats “in the cross hairs.” They have stooped to using metaphors!

It is reminiscent of a Monty Python skit. Notorious criminal brothers Doug and Dinsdale Piranha are recalled by the locals. “It’s true that Dinsdale nailed heads to the floor, but he was fair. It was Doug that people really feared. He used… sarcasm. He knew all the tricks, dramatic irony, metaphor, bathos, puns, parody, litotes and… satire. He was vicious.” That summarizes the press coverage of the anti-Bush rallies versus the Tea Party rallies. The anti-Bush protests called explicitly for killing Bush and treason. But the press and the Left apparently viewed that as “fair,” so no big deal. But using metaphors against Democrats? That crosses the line.

I think a political science department at some university ought to provide us with metrics. There are videos of both the anti-war rallies and the tea party protests. What percentage of signs at each called for assassination of the President or administration officials? What percentage made Hitler comparisons? It shouldn’t be difficult to categorize protest signs and statements according to not only advocating violence, but various levels of expression of hatred short of advocating violence. Even metaphors can be counted, if one thinks that important.

With objective data on what occurred, a good political scientist could go on to objectively analyze the press coverage. Which media organizations overlooked calls for assassination of the President? How many swooned over metaphors?

The reason that an objective study would be useful is that it would counter the argument that “there are nut cases on both sides.” That’s sometimes said to dismiss the Leftist death threats as no more than parity. Yes, there are nut cases on both sides, but the numbers are not equal and they do not do the same things. Nancy Pelosi received death threats from some loon, and the guy was, quite properly, found and arrested. How many Bush death threats by protesters were prosecuted? Let’s keep score.

Obama’s election was about process

Posted March 29, 2010 by roylatham
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Democrats are fond of reminding us that Obama made no secret of his radical leftist agenda when he ran for President. Conservatives are fond of replying that they saw it coming. What this exchange misses is the role that promises of transparency and bipartisanship played in the election. Independent voters did not react to the leftist agenda because Obama promised that whatever he did would be tempered by a process that exposed all of the political dealings and by the need to get Republicans to agree. He might or might not want to nationalize everything in sight, it was no matter because he would have to get many Republicans to agree. The claims of transparency and bipartisanship effectively moved Obama from the left to near the center of American politics.

The claim of bipartisanship was not outrageous on the face of it. We saw it work for a while when President Clinton worked with House Speaker Newt Gingrich to craft the major legislative achievements of the Clinton Administration, including welfare reform and NAFTA. Reagan worked with House Speaker Tip O’Neal to achieve Social Security reform. So it is not as if Obama’s promise should have been dismissed out of hand as impossible. Moreover, it could have been achieved. For example, Republicans were eager to support a ban on exclusion of pre-existing conditions from health insurance, and there were many other points of agreement that seemingly could have been developed into bipartisan legislation.

On transparency, nothing prevented Obama from opening legislative process substantially. I don’t think that backroom strategizing would ever be made entirely public, but the meeting with Republicans at the White House that Obama called late in the game showed promise. Obama, of course, was not really seeking Republican input to legislation. He was posturing to justify slamming through the legislation under reconciliation by hoping to show how Republicans just wouldn’t play ball. For some Americans, the event was the first that they became aware that Republicans even had health care proposals of their own. Such events were shown to be potentially disastrous for Democrats.

The C-SPAN broadcasts of Congressional hearing don’t do the job because Democrats control the agenda. Democrats want to protect the heavy contributions they receive from trial lawyers, so tort reform legislation is killed before it is up for serious debate. The advantage of a “summit” forum is that all the ideas are presented uncensored. It is clear why Obama didn’t want that.

Right after the election, Charlie Rose interviewed Tom Brokaw on television. The question they discussed was what exactly we had gotten with Barrack Obama. Neither claimed to know what was really behind the generic claims of hope and change, transparency and bipartisanship. The accurate prediction would have been, “Brutal strictly-partisan Chicago-style politics to advance the most left-wing agenda we’ve seen since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe ever.” Rose and Brokaw are astute observers. If they missed it, we cannot blame middle America. Obama pulled off the biggest lie of modern political history.

Who really wins if health care reform passes?

Posted March 19, 2010 by Judel Morrforus Foir
Categories: Opinion

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According to CNN, “[Obama] framed the vote as a choice between a victory for the insurers or ‘victory for the American people.’ ” This isn’t the case.

According to Reuters, the current health care bill will still require that all Americans buy health insurance. The choice is gone. The American people will be dependent on the insurance companies for treatment, and when they opt not to pay, the suffering patients will be forced to file for bankruptcy. The option of health care independence, of the health savings account, is vanquished.

Worse, because the demand for insurance is inelastic, the price of insurance will drastically increase. Those that cannot afford insurance will either be fined into oblivion or scooped into Medicare, the failing program that will not cover many key treatments.

So who really wins if this reform passes?  The insurance companies will have an unlimited supply of customers. Obama has it backwards. The American people lose if this bill passes. The insurance companies are the victors.

Can you like the parts but not the whole?

Posted February 28, 2010 by roylatham
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Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the solution might be to change the party’s message by focusing on individual reforms in the massive healthcare bill. … Van Hollen noted to reporters that polls show voters support the individual reforms of the Democrats’ healthcare package1

In the health care debate, liberals are fond of citing polls that show, they say, that voters like individual aspects of Obamacare, but do not like the package as a whole2. They conclude that voters are behaving irrationally, because if all the parts are good than obviously the whole must be good. From this line of reasoning, they deduce that if Congress passes Obamacare, then people will realize they really liked it all along. Alas, the logical premise is false. There are valid reasons why one might like the parts, but not like the whole.

Suppose a family is looking for a pet. Would they like a kitten? Yes. Would they like a puppy? Yes. How about a hamster? Yes. Or maybe tropical fish, a rabbit, a gerbil, or a parakeet? Sure, those are all good choices. So can we make the family very happy by giving them a kitten, a puppy, a hamster, tropical fish, a gerbil, and a parakeet. If they liked each one independently, aren’t they logically obligated to like them all when presented as a group? Clearly not.

Do you like macaroni, spaghetti, potatoes, and rice? Do you want them all in the same meal? How about having a couple of speculative stocks in your retirement portfolio? How about owning nothing but speculative stocks? How about taking a vacation in Florida, Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Alaska, or the Greek Isles this year? How about going to all of them?

In each each example is that there is something that accumulates beyond an acceptable threshold. There were the work of caring for pets, the blandness of starchy food, the risk of speculative stocks, and the cost of vacations. Among the things that accumulate with health care proposals are the cost, the risk of unintended consequences, and the potentially unacceptable accumulation of power in the hands of government bureaucrats. A total overhaul of the health care system poses risks not presented by any single modification. An incremental approach is inherently less risky because it is then possible to undo a wrong move without so great a risk of system failure.

While one can logically like each part while not liking the whole, it is not true that voters like every element of the health care legislation. When liberals claim that polls show approval of elements of Obamacare, are they claiming approval of the special privileges for certain states, the cuts to Medicare with costs transferred to the insured, the unions’ exemptions from high taxes on “Cadillac plans,” and the new taxes on medical devices and drugs? Those elements are not mentioned by advocates who claim agreement, but the implication is that those features are not important compared to what liberals consider to be the important parts of the legislation.

The norm is that voters would like all manner of new benefits, so long as they don’t have to pay for them. Would you like A, B, C, D, E, and F? Yes! Would you like to pay for A, B. C, D, E, and F? No! A, B, C, D, E, and F are polled separately, so the score is six yeses and one no.

In the past, the game has been to sell new benefits while pretending that someone else will pay for them. Obamacare claims that only the rich will pay for everyone. This time around, voters are not so willing to accept that claim. There may be agreement on a very long list of items. The poison pill is the single item of paying for it. It does not follow that if 90% is favored, that it’s unfair to reject the whole based upon the 10%. The 10% can be fatal.

Actually, Obamacare has several poison pills. Besides cost, there is the risk of imposed rationing and associated deterioration of the overall quality of care. Individuals may find other poison pills. Representative Dennis Kucinich says he won’t vote for any thing without a government option, and other House Democrats have trouble with the risk of government-funded abortions.

The White House position is that many Republican ideas have been incorporated into pending legislation3. The implication is that Republicans ought to accept the “compromise.” The hundreds of Republican amendments that were accepted into the legislation where technical amendments, staff corrections of typographical errors and such. Substantial changes proposed as amendments were uniformly rejected.

There are indeed some substantial Republican ideas in the legislation, but Democrats got to choose the ones they found acceptable. It’s also true that there are elements of the legislation that voters favor. But it is wrong to suppose that the legislation as a whole ought to be therefore considered acceptable. Accumulated cost and risk to the health care system, and poisonous individual included features make the package unacceptable.


1. Alexander Bolton, White House signals new way on health, The Hill
2. CNN Poll: Health care provisions popular but overall bills unpopular
3., Republican Ideas Included in the President’s Proposal

Is it enough to be “The Party of No”?

Posted February 21, 2010 by roylatham
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Republicans are warming up to the possibility of winning back Congress in this year’s elections. The advice from nearly every pundit and political leader is that it is not enough to just be anti-Obama. To win, all say, Republicans must put forth a plan to solve the country’s problems. This wisdom ignores the success of Democrats in the last election, who ran entirely on blaming Bush for everything and offering very little beyond amorphous “hope and change.” Elections are indeed won based upon little more than not being the last guy. The problem arises when it is time to govern.

Obama supporters may counter that there was a great deal more than “hope and change” offered by the Democrats in the last election. Every campaign puts forth white papers and policy statements. Consider the following examples of three levels of policy statements:

1. We will reform health care to lower costs and extend coverage to all Americans.

2. We will achieve health care reform through greater efficiency, increased competition, and preventive care that saves money in the long run.

3. We will provide coverage to 30 million more people through government benefits using money saved by transferring $500 billion in Medicare costs to increased private insurance premiums.

These are examples of the depths of policy proposals, which we will generalize as Levels 1, 2, and 3. There is a totally noncommittal Level 0, I suppose, that of “hope and change,” but nothing useful flows from that. It’s a slogan, not a policy.

Level 1 sets a goal without saying how it will be achieved. It is in the general category of “motherhood and apple pie.” They are things with which few would disagree as being generically good. Those whose disagree at this level may be reading into it what they believe will follow. The thought may be, “That’s a cover for extension of government.”

It’s a mistake to argue against generic goodness on the grounds that you know the real intent. Better to say, “Of course that’s wonderful. Tell me exactly how you propose to achieve that goal.” One might also take up the banner of the good cause which, “Yes, and the way to do that is to allow interstate competition through legislation that …”

Announced goals do speak to the candidate’s agenda. If he talks more about issue A than issue B, we may conclude that A is more important to the candidate than B. It would have been important to know that Obama would make health care a higher priority than fixing the economy or fighting terrorism. Saying that everything is important is a cop out. There must be priorities.

Level 2 seems to provide policy details, but actually does not. It subdivides generic wonderfulness into subcategories of wonderfulness, still avoiding the specific plans for implementation. The questions of how the goals will be achieved are left unanswered. This is the level at which campaign white papers are usually written, with more specifics in some areas where the campaign chooses to be bold.

This level of information further defines priorities. If there is a lot of talk about regulation and little talk of competition, we get the overall message that the candidate believes in the power of government as paramount. Campaigns are most often waged on the level of political philosophy as expressed through the second level of goal setting. That’s useful and important, but it is still removed from the business of actually governing.

The third level of policy outlines how the goals are to be accomplished. It is unrealistic to suppose that a candidate of Party will offer draft legislation. There are to many considerations to work out all the details. But short of that, it is reasonable to ask the mechanisms by which goals will be accomplished. If health care coverage is to be paid for by “efficiencies,” then it is reasonable to ask for the types of efficiencies and how much each is expected to yield. If GITMO is to be closed, it is reasonable to ask what will be done with the terrorists currently housed there. If solar and wind energy are to be subsidized, it is reasonable to ask the costs of backing up the solar for power at night and the wind energy when it is calm.

Journalists very rarely ask questions that probe beyond Level 2. Perhaps they are not smart enough to ask those questions, perhaps they think voters will not care about such details, and perhaps they think the job of journalism ends with sound bites. So far voters have not cared.

Republicans can get by in the next election by being the Party of No. It worked for Obama and the Democrats, and it can work for Republicans. Republicans must state a set of principles that they propose to bring to policy matters, and they must craft a list of priorities that well-matches the voters’ priorities. Voters care about jobs and deficits the most. They care somewhat about terrorism and national security. They care much less about health care or global warming or, for that matter, about abortion or gay marriage or any of a number of hot-button ideological issues.