Monday, July 30, 2012

The Fascist Rahm Emmanuel

There is a lot of chatter about the Mayor of Chicago (and a couple of other wannabe proto Nazis) has argued that he will try to prevent the Fast Food Chain Chick-fil-A from locating in Chicago because the founder of the chain has commented that he is opposed to changing the definition of marriage.   I have never asked a fast food vendor about their views on marriage or for that matter catsup.   What I want when I visit a fast food place is food.

Emmanuel comes from a long line of proto-fascists.  Those that would deny Walmart a chance to build a big box store in their locale because they disagree with the ability of the chain to offer consumers large discounts are in the same tradition.

In the 2008 election I wrote a post on this blog opposing the Proposition on the ballot which would have limited the ability of the state of California to change the definition of marriage.   With that history one might expect that I would be supportive of this storm-trooper.  But that is not the case.

The role of the state in regulating commercial enterprises should be quite limited.  A city should be able to regulate two types of behavior for commercial activity.  They should be able to have some direction, according to community standards, about where particular types of businesses should be able to locate.   For example, California prohibits liquor stores from being located near public schools.   At the same time they should have some authority to assure consumers that what is being served meets some reasonable standards of cleanliness.

But Emmanuel's pronouncements argue that if a company does not meet what he defines as "community standards" then they should be dumped from consideration.   From my view that is classic Fascism - for those of you that do not remember the definition - here is the one from Wikipedia.  (With the exception of nationalism, it seems to fit the mayor to his brown shirt.

"radical authoritarian nationalist political ideology.[1][2] Fascists seek elevation of their nation based on commitment to an organic national community where its individuals are united together as one people in national identity by suprapersonal connections of ancestry and culture through a totalitarian state that seeks the mass mobilization of a nation through discipline,indoctrinationphysical training, and eugenics."

The simple answer for Mr. Emmanuel is if some, or even many Chicagoans, don't like the fast food being offered they can chose not to frequent the restaurant.

Visions of the Economy

Several decades ago, Leonard Reed developed a brochure called I, Pencil - which made the point that as a result of the marvelous coordination in free markets - no one is responsible for creating a pencil but everyone benefits from all those different steps.  I recently found the updated version of the piece called I, Smartphone.

The piece takes on more importance because of a couple of recent speeches that the President gave; for example  in Roanoke he commented "Look, if you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. You didn’t get there on your own. I’m always struck by people who think, well, it must be because I was just so smart. There are a lot of smart people out there. It must be because I worked harder than everybody else. Let me tell you something — there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen..."

In another he claimed the private sector is doing "fine."  In that speech he argued "Keep in mind that the private sector has been hiring at a solid pace over the last 27 months. But one of the biggest weaknesses has been state and local governments, which have laid off 450,000 Americans. These are teachers and cops and firefighters. Congress should pass a bill putting them back to work right now, giving help to the states so that those layoffs are not occurring."   In both speeches two things happened.  First, the GOP pounced on the remarks.   But second the President's defenders pounced to suggest that his remarks were being taken out of context.  (I offered the extended remarks in both cases to show that the import of what he said was correctly interpreted.) 

This line of reasoning is quite consistent with the statements of a number of other left of center pundits and officials who have taken the original notion of Leonard Reed and turned it on its head.   You can hear it from Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren or even in the thoroughly forgettable book that Hillary Clinton wrote called It Takes a Village.

Ultimately if you take the logic to its conclusion, these figures are arguing that government, not individuals create prosperity and we as individuals benefit from the wonderful things that government does for us..  In the first quote, he seems to be arguing that hard work and individual determination are not enough; that individuals only prosper when government does.    In the second he seems to ignore the labor market participation rate, the 8%+ unemployment rate and the meager GDP growth and suggest that our economic doldrums are caused because we are not hiring enough public officials.   He ignores that a lot of those people were hired with the false promises of the original "stimulus" bill.

One of the key concepts when you begin to study economics is "market failure"  - the concept that in some exchange, benefits from markets will not be realized.  In those cases, it is sometimes appropriate to have the government intervene.  (In many cases market failure is corrected by itself - when entrepreneurs step in to force a different result.)   What should concern voters in this election is that the President and his allies seem to ignore that if there is the possibility for market failure there is, as Gordon Tullock once pointed out, an equally strong possibility for government failure.   Ultimately, the strength of the system which Obama and his supporters would like to change is its flexibility.   The market system offers both benefits and risks.   What the President and his supporters fail to grasp is that a lot of us believe that the government directed alternative includes equal or greater risks and lower rewards - that seems like a bad bargain.

Thursday, July 26, 2012


I was shopping yesterday and was struck by something curious.   In the display for an energy drink called Monster - there were two ways to buy it.  You could buy two cans for $3 or a 4 can pack for $6.99.

There are several possible explanations to this marketing strategy:

#1 - The makers of Monster do think people who drink this energy supplement are not very bright.
#2 - The price of cardboard has sky-rocketed and I have not heard about it.
#3 - This is an example of new math gone mad.
#4 - The guy in the company who did the pricing strategy is a graduate of some university where math has been through the self esteem movement and answers in arithmetic are "whatever you feel they should be."
#5 - One of the hidden characteristics of Monster is that while your energy is restored your reasoning is wiped out.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Three Comments on All Saints Pasadena

Yesterday I went to All Saints Pasadena to attend church with my mother in law.  All Saints is an Episcopal parish that is pretty successful and aggressively on the left side of the denomination. I was left with three impressions.

#1 - The left of the church seems to be interested more in the pomp of the service -  I grew up in a series of parishes in California that were, even for then, conservative.   This service had a lot of people vested and involved.  That may be a very good thing but it is different from the parish I attend.   The rationale might well be that this is a way to get more people involved.   I noticed the same thing when I attended Grace Cathedral for the ordination of my nephew as a deacon.

#2 - The sermon yesterday was interesting but, from my perspective, a bit unbalanced.   The Priest yesterday discussed the role of Mary Magdalene in the church.  She admitted that when she was given the role in an Easter presentation, she felt a bit demoted.  But she made a strong case that even though Mary Magdalene came from low circumstance she could be a participant in the key work of the faith - that Christianity is an inclusive faith.   Where I thought her remarks were, at least, a bit unbalanced was in her commentary about the Rome of the time.    She tried to make the case that Rome of the time was brutal and non-inclusive.   (That is true.)  But she also tried to make the case that because of those limitations that we could possibly diminish the breadth of contributions from the Romans.   I understand the case, but I disagree with it.  One can understand the truly horrible conditions that prevailed in Rome at the time of Christ and yet appreciate the superb contributions made by the civilization.  The Aztec civilization was as brutal or more than the Roman one, but I continue to marvel at the advances made in astronomy by them.   Churchill's admonition about democracies fits here - "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." The Roman system of government/ or criminal justice/ or food safety/ or almost anything else does not stand up to today's standards but it did stand up to the comparative systems of the time.

#3 - What are the appropriate limits of Christian action?   In the announcements phase of the service, one of the officiants urged all of the people there to sign a petition to the Interior Secretary and to write to the California Senate Appropriations Committee - to take action against hydraulic fracturing.   (The process by which fluids are injected into rocks with petroleum resources to extract oil and gas.) California has, in my opinion, severely restricted the availability of petroleum by a series of restrictions on exploration and development.   As a result, we have some of the highest prices for gas in the country.   I doubt the Priest has any technical background to understand the process of fracking.   And I found her dogmatic interjection on two public policy measures to be curious.   One of the key themes which I believe has turned off many people to the left side of protestant denominations has been the extensions which many make into the political realm.  There are clearly places where one's faith an politics should intertwine - but in this case I think the extension to policies on fracking is a bit of a stretch.

That being said, All Saints is a vibrant parish with a lot of active parishioners.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Leadership, Gays and Eagles

My dad and my two brothers were Eagle Scouts; so was I.  So were some of my nephews although my son decided not to become a scout and thus never had the chance to become an Eagle.   Recently on twitter and then in the Huff Post, an Eagle turned in his Eagle regalia as a protest against the BSA (Boy Scouts of America) stand against allowing homosexuals to become leaders in the program.   

I have a nephew who is a deacon in the Episcopal Church who then posted the following:  "As an Eagle Scout, I'm embarrassed by the BSA's continuing discrimination against gays; while I deeply value the time I spent as a Scout, I simply can't support an organization that discriminates so wantonly and senselessly. I would love to volunteer with them, to mentor and lead, but I won't until they're open to all. What's most frustrating is that sexuality is such an ancillary part of Scouting; in fact, I learned absolutely nothing about sex or sexuality as a Scout, and a thousand things about almost everything else. If it's not a central tenant of Scouting, why has the BSA driven such a hard line about it? Martin Cizmar is doing the right thing here, and I hope that it brings a new, open discussion, and eventually change."

I believe my nephew will be a good priest when he assumes those responsibilities but I think his Facebook post was a nonsensical gesture.  Let's start with my own position on the commonly understood BSA position which seems to, at a minimum discourage, known homosexuals from participating in scouting.  I believe an outright prohibition based on sexual orientation is at best outdated.  At the same time since this program is focused on boys who are just beginning to understand their sexuality, the program should actively discourage using the program for almost anything sexual.   I believe that the incidence of that problem is very small.   The the BSA needs to rethink its requirements.    But CIzmar's and my nephew's actions are not an example of leadership but rather a politically correct statement that is unlikely to effect change in the organization.

Cizmar's alternative would have been to enlist a lot of other Eagles to protest the current BSA policy.  But instead he made an idle comment and sends back some trinkets.  If Cizmar really cared about this issue - he would have tried to figure out how to enlist the elite group of Eagles from generations of scouting, who disagree with what seems to be a pretty rigid policy.   A lot of this crap reminds me of the idiots who disagreed with the Vietnam War and said "if we just sing loud enough, they will end the war."   I suspect a lot of generations of Eagles would be quite willing to express opposition to the current policy.  Perhaps many would be willing to draft an alternative which recognized the issue in a better light.

My nephew is a deacon in the Episcopal Church.  A few years ago when the national convention chose to make a couple of decisions which seemed to avoid the normal processes of discernment that the Canons of the church require, I had a long discussion with the then seminarian who argued with me that I should stay in the church and work to change the things I disagreed with from within.  The role of an Eagle in the scouting movement is important - between 2 and 5% of the boys in the program reach that rank (depending on your sources).  About 2 million young men have received the award in the last 100 years.  Some where north of 100 Eagles have returned their medals to the BSA in protest of the current policy on homosexuals.

But from my perspective a better approach would be to identify the living Eagles in the country who disagree with the policy and then enlist them to question the policy.  The symbolic dropping off of medals reminds me of the work by John Kerry during the Vietnam War (who threw his medals over the fence at the White House).  Ultimately, if you want to do something more than a symbol - you need to actually engage.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Two Speeches to the NAACP Convention

I listened with interest to the two speeches at the NAACP Convention.   While I thought the coverage of Romney's was a bit off (explained below), both speakers accomplished their objective.  

Let's start with Biden.   Biden is prone to malaprops and this one was remarkably free of them.  He only mispronounced one word.  He gave a good partisan speech (albeit with some distortions of record) to a liberal group.   Biden has a long history with the organization and he clearly was speaking to friends.   In the last election, the normal role of Vice President as attack dog, was muted because the GOP candidate and the media did a lot of the attacks themselves.  This time it is clear he will be the attack dog in chief.   I believe that a lot of the Obama campaign will be negative because besides Osama and Obamacare (which is still pretty unpopular) there is not much to run on.   Obama's economic record has been dismal.   So the BS that surrogates like the DNC Chair have handed out (with the willing assistance of some members of the media) like the "felony" claim will be the major focus of the campaign.   What I especially liked about Biden's speech was its genuine sound.   Many politicians, including the President, adopt a colloquial sound (dropping gs is one example) when they speak to an African American audience but Biden did not.  

Romney had a slightly different task.   The chances that he will win even a strong plurality of the convention attendees is zero.   So in one sense he was speaking not to the convention attendees, most of who were respectful, but to a larger audience.  And his speech, in my opinion, conveyed several positive things.   First, he showed up.  More importantly he gave a substantive speech.  While the NAACP is not what it once was, most Americans recognize that it is an important group, presidential candidates have an obligation to present their views to a variety of audiences.   Romney came and gave a speech that was respectful in tone.  It did not pander.   In spite of the news coverage, I think most Americans will respect that.   At the same time, in at least one instance, he showed a willingness to present not just his canned speech but the depth of his thought.   When he was booed for suggesting the repeal of Obamacare, he went off text and argued (I believe correctly) that the effects of this new program will depress employment prospects.    Perhaps the most important audience to the speech was the independents, who will hold the balance in this election.  The substance of the speech can be easily parsed into substantive sound bites that hit themes that most polling suggests are concerns for independents.  

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"Visionaries" and OPM

Two local leaders are heading down paths that do not seem well grounded in reality.   The first is Sacramento’s Mayor, Kevin Johnson.   Johnson would like to revitalize the downtown of the city by getting a large project done in an area called the rail yards.    At one time this was a busy part of the city but since rail transport has declined, so has the need for a big repair facility.  For all the time that I have lived in Sacramento, this has been a big, toxic site next to down town.  And with the right vision, the area could be a big deal.  

Johnson’s first shot was to bring our lackluster basketball franchise to come to the area.   Unfortunately, the thugs who own the team thought it was guaranteed that the city would supply most of the cash for the new arena that they wanted. Sacramento's voters have been pretty clear on that notion.  The political class (he has a group called "Think Big" that is made up of leaders from the area.) of the area put together a plan which mostly did not use any (new) public money.  After about two years of drama, the deal blew up this spring.   The Maloofs (the owners) said they would take their franchise and leave.  For most of their history in Sacramento they have been one player away from being a competitive franchise.   From my perspective it will be good riddance if the franchise leaves.  I am not sure any other city would benefit from their move but it is clear we might.

The Bee’s story described the Mayor’s next gambit which would be to attract a baseball franchise – presumably the Oakland A’s, whose AAA franchise (the Rivercats) currently plays in West Sacramento.  That would be a $500 million deal and would most likely mean an end to the Rivercats.   Were the A’s interested in moving to Sacramento, the logical way to do it would be to enlarge Raley Field.   And according to most people, the stadium was built with that possibility in mind.

It is unclear how many fans the A’s would attract to the 80+ home games a year.  In the last two years, attendance at the Rivercats has been on the decline – although they continue to play great baseball.  A good part of that could be the economy.  Those bumps notwithstanding, the Rivercats are considered to be the most valuable franchise in minor league baseball.    A true vision would include the region not just a way to clean up the rail yards.

About a half a mile away, at the State Capitol, another “vision” was being debated last week – the first increment of a proposed $100 billion high speed rail train between the Bay Area and Los Angeles. (Oh I know, the supporters have said this will cost only $69 billion - but these were the same fools who said it would be about $10 billion when they started to push it.)  The plan sounds fantastic.  Get on a train in San Francisco or Sacramento and get off in central LA in a couple of hours.  But there are a lot of problems here.   First, while some of the funding is coming from federal sources (we all know how well the federal budget is), a large portion of it will come from bonds sold by the state.   The first increment, which would build a section from nowhere to nowhere, will produce some jobs but not riders.   Indeed outside experts have suggested there is a lot better route to use.   But our “visionary” governor (who once proposed a state program in space travel) wants to proceed apace.

In both cases the plans are constructed with OPM – other people’s money.  In both cases the economic assumptions of the projects are absurd, at best.  Both represent a desire by elected officials to make that one big play.  In reality, growth and development comes from consistent incremental steps.   Both officials could spend some time trying to simplify the path for development in the state.   One problem with chasing after rainbows is that you never seem to be able to catch them and their attendant pot of gold at one end. 

Friday, July 06, 2012

Constitutional Theology

In a column on July 4 E.J. Dionne discussed the unique American characteristic to engage in high principled debate.  He states in part "We are a more philosophical people than we give ourselves credit for. Constitutional questions enter the political conversation in the United States more than in most countries because our diverse nation is bound by our founding principles, not by blood, race or ethnicity.
This has advantages and disadvantages. The biggest advantages are our openness and the fact that we tend to argue on the basis of high principles. The biggest disadvantage is that differences over policy are often disguised as differences over whether a preferred choice is constitutional or not. When we should be addressing pragmatic questions — Will this approach work? Will it solve the problem it’s designed to solve? Is this a problem government should do something about? — we instead fall back on rather abstract discussions of whether a given idea violates the Constitution."
He goes on that we should not treat the Founders as theologians not the Constitution as scripture.   While I get his point, I think he misses an essential element of the American system.

The Constitution was made to evolve but it also includes some eternal principles.  The Founders were products of their times but they also understood some ideas like the dangers of having a government that was all encompassing.  They enumerated powers to Congress and then put in that pesky "necessary and proper" clause - but that was not there to rescind the limits on the other powers.    So while I agree with him that pragmatic questions are always appropriate - one of the most pragmatic questions is what will the proposed policy do to the underlying American fabric, that the Founders recognized so well.    That is not theology, it is common sense.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

MALO - Your Fifteen Minutes are UP

The Mexican election on the First of July was, according to all observers, a clean process.   Over the last three election cycles, beginning in 2000, the election commission (IFE) has done a lot of things to assure that votes are counted correctly.   This time for instance they required a valid voter ID to cast a vote (what a novel concept that so far liberals in the US reject).   They also use an indelible ink to assure that no one votes more than once (similar to the process used in the Iraqi elections). 

But here comes Manuel Andres Lopez Obrador (or as he calls himself Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador - to avoid being call MALO) still not willing to concede that he took a distant second place with 31% of the vote and declining as the IFE continues its recount.  Lopez Obrador alleged all sorts of misdeeds by his opponents.   Independent observers have suggested that the process was very good- even excellent.   Get over it Bozo, your time in the limelight is passed.  

I am not sure what kind of president Enrique Peña Nieto will be.   The criticism of him early on was that he lacked substance.   But in the last few months, he has presented some challenging ideas about where the country should go.   Josefina Mota has conceded but poor, old AMLO thinks he still holds some sway.   Thankfully, the Mexican people have moved on from this constant whiner.