Monday, October 29, 2012

The Major Impediment to Bipartisanship

One of the most cogent criticisms of President Obama has been his failure to work with the GOP in Congress.   Indeed, the Healthcare bill is unique among landmark pieces of legislation in the country's history because it attracted no GOP support.   The President's supporters have argued that it is those nasty old Tea Party members but there is a much clearer explanation for the President's failures.   The Senate, under the "leadership" of Senator Harry Reid has simply refused to consider any legislation from the House that Mr. Reid did not want to hear.

The criticism of the President's lack of bipartisanship before the 2010 election is probably even more on the Democratic leaders in both houses.  But as you can see from the list at the right (published in an editorial in the WSJ this morning) at least ten pieces of legislation passed by the House, never got a hearing in the Senate. they never even got a hearing.  Consider what might have happened if the President had leaned on Reichs Kommandant Reid to hear some of the bills.   First, the normal political process could have been advanced a bit.  Senators love their independence so they would have considered the bills and modified them - either in large ways or small.   Then there would have been a conference committee and more modifications.   Even if there had been one or two bad ideas (in the eyes to the Democrats) that got through, the President would still have the veto power.

Ultimately, if the GOP did not play under those rules they could rightly have been branded obstructionists.   My suspicion is that even the hardest line conservatives would have recognized the need to engage.  But the President and Reid refused to give the wisdom of our Constitutional system a chance.   And the President and his buddies simply continued to whine about how nasty the GOP can be.    That obstructionism may contribute to the President's defeat and it would not have been an issue had the President had a bit more trust in the complex design of our system.    That is a real lacking for someone who bills himself as a "constitutional law professor."

In this case you cannot blame this on Obama

Last night, as we try to do each Sunday, we had dinner with my son and his family.    We went to a Macaroni Grill - for those of you not from California, think Olive Garden with better food.  It is a modestly upscale restaurant (with some great dishes and efficient and pleasant service).   But when we came in the place was almost empty - on a Sunday night.   Very often on Sunday evenings at about 7 one needs to wait for a table but last night we got in immediately.

My immediate hunch was that this was economically related.   This is a mildly upscale place and we had not been into a MG for a while - I thought - "The economy is still not robust and people are staying home.   But my initial hunch was wrong.   When I asked the waiter he said this was dead for a Sunday and that he actually let some of his staff leave early because business was so slow.   But the explanation was quite simple - most families were home watching the Giants get to inning 37 to beat the Detroit Tigers in a sweep of the World Series.

However, there is one footnote here.   As we were leaving we were given four discount coupons that one can open on the next visit to get a discount or a cash prize.  Evidently, places like this still need to work on keeping business.

I am not a Giants fan but those 37 innings were some of the most exciting that I have seen in the last several years.   The Giants played as a team with the help of at least two former Rivercats pitchers (Zito and Casilla) and the enthusiasm of fans from all of Northern California.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Krugman's Utter Nonsense (but then I repeat myself)

NYT scribbler Paul Krugman wrote in his blog that anyone who questions the methodology used by NYT writer and statistical guru Nate Silver is an "attack on objectivity."   Well, at least Krugman is consistent; consistently wrong.

Nate Silver is a sports nut and a math whiz.   In the 2008 election he had worked for the Daily Kos and developed a set of statistical models which had remarkable accuracy. He missed on state on the electoral map and called all 35 senate races in that year.   This year, he is pretty clear that he agrees with the modeling (a lot less sophisticated) on Intrade which suggests that the president has a 63.2% chance of winning re-election.   Silver's current odds suggest a larger chance for the President (74.6%). Both forecasts (one based on money "invested" by political junkies and the other by Silver's methodology) show that the President seems to have regained some support after the first debate.
But Krugman yammers "Yet the right — and we’re not talking about the fringe here, we’re talking about mainstream commentators and publications — has been screaming “bias”! They know, just know, that Nate must be cooking the books. How do they know this? Well, his results look good for Obama, so it must be a cheat. Never mind the fact that Nate tells us all exactly how he does it, and that he hasn’t changed the formula at all." Except like most of what Krugman writes, most of his claims are untrue.  Silver has explained the factors he uses but not the specific weightings he uses in each of the states. 

Krugman seems to have been reacting to an article on National Review Online by Josh Jordan titled Nate Silver's Flawed Model.   Jordan makes two comments in the article.  First, he suggests that to come up with his forecasts Silver weights his results, in a way that seems to favor Obama.   The methodology which Silver developed involves some subjectivity - how much weight does one assign to various polls in various states.   Those could be done to come up with a result or because of his own judgments.    Jordan then goes on to suggest that Silver is openly rooting for an Obama victory.  Indeed, in 2008 the Obama campaign shared private polling data with Silver.

I read the Jordan article and thought he raised some interesting questions about Silver's process.  Obviously (and I think reasonably) Silver has not let others peek under the hood.   So the formulas in his algorithm are unknown.   Ultimately, we will know in about ten days whether Silver was a flash in the pan or whether he developed an interesting set of formulas that project election results.  

From my perspective there are two things that are pretty clear in this election cycle.   First, polling is flawed at this point.   A smaller proportion of voters have land lines so getting responses is tougher than it once was.   At the same time we have seen a proliferation of polls - some of which have questionable reliability.  Not all polls are equal.    

Second, 2012 is not 2008.  The President has had a devil of a time getting his approval numbers to get near 50%.  (Silver's macro formulas for 2008 and this year rely on the president's favorability ratings (below 50%), economic growth (less than 2%) and then a whole bunch of other stats including polls and historical voting patterns.    In 2008, there was never much of a question who would win.   That is not true in this year.   At the same time there is that annoying fact every president who won re-election raised his votes in the second election.  If Obama wins, that is unlikely to happen.  No GOP candidate has ever won the Presidency without winning Ohio and at least the RCP averages on the state suggest a small Obama lead.   Silver could be correct about the outcome this year, or he could be wrong, but I will guarantee you that whatever the result, there will be some discussion about whether one can construct a reliable predictive model on elections that will last over time.

I have a friend who is an economist who uses economic data to project presidential elections.  He confided to me a month or so ago that while his model has been accurate in the last ten elections, and that this year projects a Romney victory, he had less confidence in the results this year.

Krugman is unwilling to admit that some prognosticators could have flaws in their models.  He, among all people should understand the frailty of any kind of prognosticators - even former Enron consultants.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Evolution or Etch a Sketch

The Sacramento Bee this morning wrote an editorial that is laughable.   But then I can trust the Bee to do that.   They comment (the candidate's) "jaw-dropping willingness to so blithely change his positions for political expediency should also worry voters about how effective he would be in the White House. How could he successfully negotiate with leaders in Congress or around the globe if they can't take him at his word?"

Are they talking about the candidate's oft repeated but broken promises to create the "most open administration in history?"   Or his promise that he would work with the other side to get "beyond" partisanship?  (Which resulted in the first major piece of legislation being adopted without a single vote from the opposition - which is unprecedented in the last several generations and seems to be significantly opposed by a substantial portion of the American public). Or even in his promise to close Gitmo?   Or to follow the rule of law?

The current administration has broken all of these promises and more. That does not even mention the whopper that they would solve our economic problems in the first three years (by any reasonable measure the economy is worse off than it was when the President took office in terms of debt, labor market participation rate, growth and a host of other factors).  But the Bee's scold was not for the person guilty of these transgressions but for his opponent, Governor Romney.   What is appalling is that the Bee is reacting to the caricature produced by the Obama campaign team.   One would hope that views of candidates would evolve.  The President claimed a few days ago that his views don't change - he is the guy he was ten years ago.  (Seemingly never informed by debate and discussion).  Governor Romney has not (to my annoyance) changed his views on immigration (which Obama did) or on the Defense of Marriage Act (which Obama did) but those issues evidently do not count for the Bee.

Candidates evolve.  Let's look at a key issue from my perspective.   In the original Romney plan on taxes he said he favored lowering rates and broadening the base.   About a month ago, he threw out a plan which would put a ceiling on the total number of credits and deductions that could be taken by a taxpayer.   Over the last couple of weeks, I have heard the campaign suggest at least two different figures for that ceiling - is that a flipflop or changing a position for "political expediency" or the example of a candidate who actually listens as he travels the country seeking votes?

If we did not have evolutions of technology, then we would have brick cellphones instead of the marvels we carry today.   If we did not have candidates that adjusted their thoughts as they learned more but adhered to some basic principles, we'd have the candidate that the Bee supports, the President.   If we go forward with that kind of rigidity, we should not be surprised when the American economy remains mired in puny growth and massive debt.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Libyan Fraud

In the last few days it has become increasingly obvious that the Obama administration never understood the cause of the attack on the consulate in Benghazi as coming from a video which it is unlikely that anyone in Libya has ever seen.   From the first statement that the President made on the tragedy he consistently misrepresented the facts surrounding the case.

At no time is there any credible evidence that the administration believed that the attack was caused by outrage but rather it came from a concerted attack by Islamic militants commemorating the eleventh anniversary of  9/11.   Although the embassy in Libya recognized the growing threat to the consulate, the administration repeatedly refused requests to provide additional security.   On September 14 the Press Secretary boldly stated "we don't have and did not have concrete evidence to suggest that this [the Benghazi attack] was not in reaction to the film."   On the sixteenth UN Ambassador reinforced the claim in stating  the attacks were a "spontaneous reaction" to "a hateful and offensive video that was widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim world." "I think it's clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al Qaeda itself I think is one of the things we'll have to determine."   At the UN on August 25 the President tried again to tie this attack not to extremists but to the video.  He said "There is no video that justifies an attack on an Embassy."  On September 16 the President of the Libyan Congress argued that there was no doubt that the attack was pre-planned and premeditated.   The only conclusion that one can come to is there was a purpose for this kind of misrepresentation.

Every administration gets caught in some misrepresentations or shading of the truth - but this is considerably more.  The timeline suggests two issues which are particularly troubling.   First, as the Clinton ad in 2008 suggested, when a "3 AM" event took place, the Obama administration people seemed unprepared to respond in a credible way to the events. There is credible evidence that as the attack was going on the at some place in the Administration they had a live video feed from an unmanned drone above the consulate.  It is not clear they could have saved the four Americans who died but that feed should have induced the Administration to respond.  They failed in that very critical role.   

The last three US ambassadors who have died in service were Ambassador Stevens (Libya) and Adolph Dubs, 1979 - Afghanistan and Francis Meloy, 1976 in Lebanon.   All three were victims of militants in the Middle East.

Second, and even more troubling, for whatever reason the Administration understood immediately that this attack could become a political bombshell and thus chose to confuse the explanations for a serious period of time - to protect not American interests but their political position.  That is inexcusable.

Even if the President's policies on the US economy had been successful, this clear dereliction of duty should influence most voters to reject Obama's request to be re-upped for another four years.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Inside Baseball

Last night's foreign policy debate was an interesting one.  I suspect a lot of people in Northern California were switching between watching the Giants destroy the Cards - but that may be a regional story.

The instant polls may have called the debate for the President but I think there is a different story.  Obama looked combative in this one like he did last week and less somnambulant than he did in their first encounter.   But I am not sure he offered a convincing picture.

One of the most memorable lines from the debate came after an encounter where Romney had challenged Obama on his sotto comment to Vladimir Putin saying we will do something more after the election.  Obama said -

"When it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s," Obama said to Romney.

Some on the left like the comparison - at the end of the 1920s we moved into the Great Depression - although the early 1920s had some unbridled prosperity, a balanced budget and a rising middle class.   In the 1980s Reagan's foreign policy helped to bring down the Soviet empire.   In the 1950s we saw the beginning of the long road to civil rights - with the Brown decision and beginning efforts to desegregate the schools in the south.   No time in history is perfect but Obama either did not study history or simply has no perspective on the important forbearers of current policies.  Hope and change looked increasingly frayed last night.

Supporters of the President argued that he finally got Romney - but from my perspective Obama looked increasingly like a challenger not the President.  On the contrary Romney looked increasingly presidential.   I was surprised that he did not bring up either Fast and Furious or Libya - but I think the campaign may well understand that both of those issues are already pretty well baked into this race.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


This morning I was trying to contact a friend who had been at a meeting in the Lafayette Park Hotel in Concord, California.  The Lafayette Park is a small hotel with a pretty good restaurant (the Duck Club) and has the elements of some of the best boutique hotels in the country.   I have stayed at the place several times in the past.

I went on the net to find a phone number.   There were a series of references to the hotel each had a phone number.   Most were 800 numbers.   I tried the first one and found that it had a phone tree with two options - you could make a reservation or you could change your reservation - but there was no option to contact the hotel.

The 877 number was no longer functional.  In the end I was able to contact my friend by calling his (Mexican) cell number.

I am not sure whether this obscurity is intentional or simply an example of a property that is not well positioned to meet customer needs.   But it will sure cause me to rethink whether I would stay in this hotel in the future.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Rest of the Propositions for November

Early on I did a post on Proposition 32 which I support.   But since the election is coming up I wanted to add my thoughts on the rest of the rest.   My general rule of thumb for all initiatives is to vote no unless there is a compelling reason to vote yes.

Propositions 30 and 38 - The budget of the state of California is a mess.  It has been for more than a decade.   That is caused in part by irresponsible actions by our elected officials including Governor Brown''s two predecessors and the current legislature and, yes, even the current governor.  An example, going forward on the high speed rail boondoggle when the budget is unbalanced.  But there are many more examples. A good deal of the blame for our budget mess comes from spending but another major reason is the volatility in our revenue base.   Both 30 and 38 would add to that problem.  The chart at the left came from a report by the Legislative Analyst early in the last decade, if anything, the problem pointed out by the LAO has increased.

The Economist challenged the Governor's tactic to make an explicit demand that if we do not vote for his tax increase education will suffer "Californians are already highly taxed; but they prize education, and Mr Brown’s gun-to-the-temple tactic may yet see Prop 30 through. Some opponents suggest that even if it fails, the trigger-cuts could be avoided by tweaking the budget after November. But Mr Brown has denied this so emphatically that it is hard to see him going back on his word."

We have heard this claim a thousand times before, perhaps beginning with his first term as Governor when he did the 180 on Proposition 13.   Had the Governor put together an initiative which addressed the tax problem, even if it raised more revenue, I would be a strong supporter but he did not.   Polling on 38 shows it losing badly; it should.   Polling on 30 shows it declining in support; while I am not happy about the position we have been put in on this measure, the only logical vote is no.

Proposition 31 - This is a series of governmental reforms including the suggestion that we create a two year budget.   But there are some other provisions that a just plain silly.   Surprisingly the League of Women Voters is against this hodgepodge, and I find myself in agreement.

Proposition 33 - Californians made a huge mistake when they adopted a proposal by Harvey Rosenfeld (Prop 103) which altered our insurance statutes, including creating an elected insurance commissioner and creating a bizarre set of new standards on which to write auto insurance.   This change would allow insurance companies to give a benefit to consumers (even people who are switching coverage) for persisting with coverage.   A better idea would be to repeal 103 but that is unlikely to happen so this small step is in the right direction.

Proposition 34 - This would repeal the death penalty and would substitute instead life in prison without the possibility of parole.  This is not a moral issue for me (although it influences my thinking), it is a financial one.  The death penalty is applied unevenly, almost randomly; the costs of maintaining the current system are huge.   We should simply move on.

Proposition 37 - This should be called the trial lawyer's relief act.  It establishes a complex set of new rules for labeling genetically altered food.  But if you read the thing carefully, it exempts some forms of food and includes others.   It is junk science put on in part by the trial bar.

Proposition 39 - This is something the legislature should do - deciding the accounting treating for taxation of corporations with operations in several states.  But I oppose this measure because it sets up a dedicated fund for "green" projects which seems to have been inserted by the League of Conservation Voters - those tax extortionists were limited in their ability to take revenues out of initiatives but they have found a way to get more dough.   This kind of clarification should be done in the legislative process.

Proposition 40 - This is a referendum on part of the redistricting plan (the State Senate).   We set up a process and while I am not sure it was perfect, it did follow the rules.

The remaining two - Propositions 35 and 36 would establish new rules on "human trafficking" (35) and would modify the three strikes rule (36).   From my view the Three Strikes Rule has been a bonanza for correctional officers but not such a good thing for the rest of us - this would make it explicit that to get the enhanced penalty you need to do three bad things not two and a "tweener" - Law enforcement seems to be against this measure but if it saves money it is a good idea.   I will probably end up voting yes.   35 is this year's Animal Farm measure - four legs good, two legs bad.  If "human trafficking" is a real problem in the state, then the legislature should consider how to solve it - that is what we pay those folks for and we should let them earn their keep.  I will probably vote no on this one.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Long Tail for the Silver Screen - Atlas Shrugged Part II

We went to see the second part (of three) of Atlas Shrugged tonight.   It is an odd sequel.   None of the original players are in the second part of the trilogy.  I think for the most part it continues to hold relatively closely to the original story.

When the first part was released (2011), it was given lousy reviews, although I actually liked it because it stuck very closely to the book.   Rotten Tomatoes gave it an 11.  But the audience gave it a 73.   I think part of it is the problem of bringing Rand to the screen.   Any writer who lets her main characters preach on in perorations of 70 or 80 pages is hard to translate.  But the producers were able to capture Rand without as much of the pedantry.

The professional reviewers uniformly panned the movie but it is clear that few, if any, had actually read the novel.  Those that had I think were intent on stomping Rand's ideas into the ground.   For example Brian Miller of some rag called LA Review said - "Apart from its deficiencies as fiction, whatever its philosophical limitations (the rich and able should only help themselves in Rand's "Objectivism"), the book proves proudly indigestible on film."   Surprisingly the reviewer for Sacramento News and Review liked the version.

Part II, as mentioned above, has a different cast.  The new Dagne is a bit less stylish.   The second part comes up to the point in the novel when Dagne lands in John Galt land.   The second part cost about $10 million to make and so far has brought in under $2 million.

The reviewers were no less fierce on the second part - for example Steve Persall of the Tampa Bay Times complained "New viewers aren't expected to jump into the dense story now, and anyone coming back for seconds is predisposed to believing this is the most important movie of the year. Sean Hannity or another right-wing mouthpiece told them so."   Again the Sacramento News and Review writer said the second part remained true to the book.   The professionals gave it a Rotten Tomatoes 6 and the people gave it an 83.

Rand's novels have been on the screen before.  The Fountainhead was done in 1949 with Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.  When I first watched the movie I thought it was a good adaptation of the novel but not great entertainment.

Chris Anderson's book the Long Tail may offer some insights for the reviewer community.  The "professional" reviewers, as they ofter do, seem to have missed the mark.  Mike Masnick of TechDirt seems to have had the most astute review of the movie (I think for both parts) "it's not a movie for the reviewers. It's a movie for a specific audience, and it seems to have hit that audience head on."   Masknick recognized that a project like this is for a target audience and that box office is only part of the deal.  The producers also bought the merchandising rights.   And according to Masnick those sales went quite well for Part I.   If you do not want to wade through the 1200 pages of the novel - sitting through six hours of celluloid (which is what the entire project will become) may be a good compromise.   Rand was an odd person and not a very gifted writer - but the body of her writing on liberty could not be more current.  The producers did a mashup of current events with trailers from Part 1 - it helped to drive sales of merchandise.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Second Debate

Last night's debate was an event with mixed blessings.  Clearly, the President did a better job than in Denver.  The  CNN poll thought Obama was the winner 46-36%. CBS agreed but by a closer margin 37-33%.   I think the CBS poll is closer to how I saw it.  But both polls were within the margin of error.  Clearly the President was stronger and more agressive.   But I also thought the President looked a bit uneasy.   I also thought Romney looked a bit tired.   The bottom line is that Romney looked presidential, so did the President - so most of the commentary has been for supporters to confirm their beliefs.  One of the best tweets of the night was from Rich Lowry who commented "This is the crux of the debate Obama says Romney's policies have been tried and failed; Romney says Obama's policies have been tried and failed."  At the same time Lowry commented in a longer piece that 

"Romney, on the other hand, wasn’t quite as good two weeks ago. I think he’s at his weakest as a performer when he gets a little too worked up and shows too much concern with the rules. He did both tonight. He also said “I know what it takes to grow the economy” much too much for my taste — a line I don’t find very convincing since it’s based on biographical assertion. Finally, I understand his instinct to try to nail the president with killer questions, but it sometimes came off as badgering and contributed to his tripping up on Libya. All that said, it was a solid performance overall and occasionally excellent. He was strong on energy at the beginning and superb in an answer toward the end encapsulating Obama’s false promises. The question about how he’s different from Bush was a gift, and he mostly took advantage of it. The big take-away from the debates so far — and the problem President Obama has — is that Mitt Romney has established himself as a plausible alternative with a plausible plan. Absent some terrible gaffe in the next debate, it’s hard to see how that bell is going be un-rung."

Here are some thoughts on five key issues:

Libyan Attacks - One of the key exchanges was on whether the President called the incidents in Behghazi as an "act of terror" or whether it took him a while to come around to the view that the attack on the embassy was precipitated as a result of some film that no one saw.   The transcript of the President's Remarks do indeed use the word "acts of terror" - the timeline on what the Administration actually said is confused at best.   Here are two paragraphs from the President's remarks on September 12 -

Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths.  We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.  None.  The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.
No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.  Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America.  We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act.  And make no mistake, justice will be done.
Clearly the President used a term which would fit the bill.   At the same time however, if you look at the timeline constructed by the Washington Post the Administration shows a remarkably flat footed response.   The charge that they were unprepared and seemed for a while to ignore the real causes of the attack cannot be denied.   On numerous occasions the Administration said things like the attacks were "spontaneous, not premeditated" (Susan Rice, September 16 from ABC This Week) or "no evidence that this attack was not spontaneous" (Jay Carney, White House Briefing, September 18, repeated on the 19th),  Or on the 20th, in response to a Univision reporter's question:

” QUESTION: “We have reports that the White House said today that the attacks in Libya were a terrorist attack. Do you have information indicating that it was Iran, or al Qaeda was behind organizing the protests?” OBAMA: “Well, we’re still doing an investigation, and there are going to be different circumstances in different countries. And so I don’t want to speak to something until we have all the information. What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests –” QUESTION: “Al Qaeda?” OBAMA: “Well, we don’t know yet.”

Then on the 24th on the View he explicitly avoided calling the attacks in Libya and Egypt an act of terror.

Energy - From my perspective Romney nailed the President for his policies.  Obama tried to come back and Romney nailed him again.  The President has to live with his Secretary of Energy who has made some outrageous comments.

The Economy - While a lot of the discussion about the economy was pretty wonky Romney scored points on the failures of the administration to get real growth.  Romney's claim about developing 12 million new jobs (which works out to 250,000 jobs per month) is nothing spectacular except when compared to the Administration's record.    The President was able to slip in a comment about the 47% remark in a place where Romney could not respond.   

He said -

"I believe Governor Romney is a good man. Loves his family, cares about his faith. But I also believe that when he said behind closed doors that 47 percent of the country considered themselves victims who refuse personal responsibility, think about who he was talking about.
Folks on Social Security who’ve worked all their lives. Veterans who’ve sacrificed for this country. Students who are out there trying to hopefully advance their own dreams, but also this country’s dreams. Soldiers who are overseas fighting for us right now. People who are working hard every day, paying payroll tax, gas taxes, but don’t make enough income."
Romney should have seen that one coming.
Taxes - While there was the usual back and forth about the issues surrounding dynamic scoring of the Romney plan there were two items that I thought were interesting.   First, the claim that Obama gave the middle class taxpayers a $3600 tax cut is a bit misleading (according to the Washington Post) - Obama made it sound like a total tax cut of $14,400 but in reality it was $3600 over the four years including the $1000 per year of the Social Security rate cut.   But what was more interesting was Romney's response on his proposal for a deduction limit.   One taxpayer, Mary Follano,  asked about what provisions in the tax code relating to the middle class would not be harmed.  Romney came up with a figure that taxpayers would have a $25,000 exclusion for deductions and credits.   That seems to be a change from an earlier proposal to set the limit at $17,000.

Comparison with George W. Bush - One could have expected a question to understand how Romney is different from Bush and it came up.   I thought Romney handled the question well.  He laid out several comparisons where there were differences.   The next question then went to someone who siad he had voted for Obama in 2008 but had not seen much progress.   From my perspective Romney won those two exchanges.   

The final debate is supposed to be on foreign policy, I expect that both sides will polish up their memes on the Libyan attack.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Bart Simpson Administration

The developing story on Libya has not played well for the Administration.  When the news of the assassination of the US Ambassador first broke the Administration spokespeople, almost to a person tried to claim that the cause of the unrest that caused a mob to storm the embassy at Benghazi was a video of a preview of a nonexistent movie that probably no one in Libya had seen.    That story held for maybe fifteen minutes then they moved (according to most observers) to a more complex story.  The story offered by the Administration's lickspittles evolved into one which said that the attack might have even been an organized effort concurrent with something that happened in September 2001.  Well, duh. Might have even been related to 9/11 - since it happened on (wait for it) 9/11.

So on the weekend talk shows three administration mouthpieces (Axelrod, Gibbs and Clark) argued that a) the White House did not know about the request for additional security and b) this was the province of the Department of State.  That parallels the BS that the Vice President tried to foist on all of us in the VP debate.   For an administration that has shown a remarkable propensity to centralize power, this kind of decentralization argument is almost surrealistic.

So what might happen in the next couple of weeks?  First, the Obama administration might well figure out how to do something in Libya.  That could indeed be an October surprise.   The real story about how the Administration finally got Osama, is not exactly a good example of careful decision making.   But it also seems to be also developing that the Chicago Boys (including Stepanie Cutter) might consider throwing the Secretary of State under the bus.  I suspect that will be a bridge too far but if the Administration continues to stumble they may make that choice.   The cost of dumping Hillary without her consent, could be substantial.    It is unlikely that the most effective spokesperson for Obama (Bill) would zap the candidate who gave his wife a dump.

At the beginning of the Administration, Obama was the anointed one - he even won the Nobel Prize.  But in recent weeks this legendary machine has begun to show its problems while the CEO frequents the links.   So tomorrow what does the President need to do?  Perhaps, he first has to demonstrate that he can think on his feet (instead of trying to engage his belt buckle teleprompter like he did in the first debate).  But when things are going wrong they go wrong and the team which was seen as invincible in 2008 looks increasingly vincible.

Bart Simpson, in an early episode, said, I did not do it and it is not my fault.  That may well be the meme that we see tomorrow night.

Footnote - According to CNN Secretary Clinton said the following about the attacks in Benghazi - What amuses me about this "taking of responsibility" is that it really is nothing close to that.   When executives fail as badly as this, they resign. - "I take responsibility," Clinton said during a visit to Peru. "I'm in charge of the State Department's 60,000-plus people all over the world, 275 posts. The president and the vice president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals. They're the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Several Views of the Current State of Mexico

I am spent a week as a visiting scholar in a university in the State of Veracruz.  It is in a relatively quiet region in the country and I have been coming to this region for most of the last decade.   Mexico is a country that I have come to appreciate.  This is a long post, which includes thoughts on several areas.  So here are some impressions of what I saw on this trip.

The University at night
THE UNIVERSITY - When I first came to this university it was small and undistinguished.  It is still pretty small but the markers of growth and development abound.   In the first instance it has added a new building which increases the facilities by a half.   At the same time infrastructure like better internet connections are installed and functioning.  But more than facilities the students and faculty have also improved.  All of the lectures I gave were in English (which is one of the ways the University improves their students' English capabilities.   While I occasionally translated answers into Spanish it mostly was not necessary.  Perhaps the most surprising thing to me was a question I got at one discussion.   A student asked "Four years ago when you were here, you said you might not vote for President, what do you think about this election?"

The place would benefit from a dormitory - that is not the norm in Mexican universities - but in this case the city has a number of universities and I believe that the university could attract students to it from around the country by continuing to invite foreign scholars to campus and by encouraging their students to study abroad.

Looking out from the Church
THE PROMISE & THE PEOPLE -  On Friday afternoon I had the pleasure of going to a friend's house that is in an area where titles to property are not entirely worked out.   It is a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city I was in.   My friend grew up as a campesino but is wise in the ways of the world.  We were there to celebrate his second son's first confirmation.   This part of the city is a recognition of both the promise and the shortcomings of Mexico.   I've been working in Mexico for about 20 years and have seen a lot of changes.  But this part of the city reminded me that there are still things to be done.   The picture to the left is from the church where the boy took his first communion, a significant event in children's lives here.  If you notice the street in front of the church is dirt.   My friend told me that the money to pave the roads in his part of town, and to furnish a park has been appropriated more than once but as you can see from the picture, it has not been done.

Contrast that with the six children I got to see at lunch.  My friend has four children and there were a couple of cousins there to celebrate.   After lunch I did some slight of hand and showed them my iPhone and we had a great time playing with both.   The kids are smart and genuine.   I expect that were one of my grandchildren to visit they would fit right in.  In this case government has failed them and their parents.

When I first came to Mexico I was advised to carry a small leather purse filled with 5 peso coins to get through things - these morditas have mostly disappeared.   But that does not mean that government here could benefit from more transparency.  One of my colleagues at the university is in the process of doing a very good dissertation on the issues of transparency.

SECURITY - This is a delicate issue.  But in at least two places during my visit I encountered officers who were dressed like the guy in the picture to the right.  What I found out was that there are three types of people who wear these masks.   The Marines and the Army who are doing drug interdiction wear them in essence for self-preservation.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 50,000 people have died in the drug wars in Mexico in the last several years and perhaps 7% of those have been military or police. Imagine 50,000 casualties in a country that is about a third the size of the US.   The masks are probably necessary so that the drug gangs cannot retaliate against law enforcement.  But they are a bit disconcerting none-the-less.   But then there are the state police - who seem to lack the subtlety of the military.   One conversation I had suggested that even some of the cartels have begun to operate these kinds of operations.  Who knows?

As I have traveled in Mexico over the last several years I have never been concerned about safety.  But the discussion of the issues raised by the drug war has been increasing in all parts of Mexico that I visit.   Recently, the leader of one of the major drug cartels was killed (Zetas) and so I was also told that the military and the police are on a bit higher alert.  Ultimately, the drug problem has to be solved - the US is a part of that problem and with nonsense like Fast and Furious they have not contributed much to the solution.

The Square in Perote
CLIMATE & FOOD - I am not a fan of the tropics.  But this time of year was about the most bearable.  As you can see from the two pictures I took we had a fair amount of cloud and rain.  It was temperate.   At other times of the year it is simply hot and humid.  I can probably bear the hot, not the humid.  Like what often happens in the tropics the rain in the afternoon was sudden, intense and brief.  

On the first full day I was visiting we traveled up to the city of Perote - which is one of the roads to Mexico City from the state.  It is a town in the mountains above Veracruz and Xalapa. There is a superb fish restaurant in the town - who knows how they get such fresh fish.   One of my favorite meals in Veracruz is fresh fish, especially a variety known as Robalo, cooked in the style of mojo de ajo - which is a simple combination of chipotle, olive oil, lime juice and garlic (lots of garlic).   A lot of Veracruzana dishes are made in a red sauce with a tomato base.

One afternoon, at lunch, I had a long discussion on the merits of different kinds of Tequila.   But anyone who believes that Mexican cuisine is limited to tacos and tequila has some serious misconceptions.

Chilies and Dried Fish in the Perote Market
In the visit to Perote, we went into the traditional market.  The picture to the left is of four kinds of chilies on sale.   Dried chilies are used in a lot of different dishes and their variation is huge, from mild to intense.   On the back table in the picture is dried fish, which is cured in salt.   The best way to eat that fish is to soak it in water until the salt is washed out.  On Friday night we went to a restaurant back in the city I was in and the cook had not washed the fish adequately, so what should have been a pleasant fish chowder with garbonzos was an inedible salt bath.   One of the changes that has happened in the last ten years has been the introduction of supermarkets.   But in most towns you can still find the traditional market - which either operates continuously or on market day.

THE ELECTION - In July Mexico elected a new president, Enrique Peña Nieto.  He is a member of the party which was thrown out in 2000 (PRI).   The election centered around two other candidates - Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (PRD - Left of Center) and Josefina Vázquez Mota (PAN - the party of Felipe Calderon the current president).  Peña Nieto won with a plurality although there was a lot of discussion about whether he won the vote fairly.  Lopez Obrador has, like he did in 2006, protested the vote (he is an aging left wing windbag).   And there was a lot of wonder why the PAN nominated Josefina.   In January I gave a speech to a bunch of politicians in Xalapa and one female asked me if I knew the word "machisma" (the female equivalent of machismo) - and then told me it would become an important word in 2012.  It did not turn out that way.  And a lot of people I have spoken with over the last couple of months assert a conspiracy.  I am not so sure.

One of the most interesting things was what happened in Veracruz.  The prior governor was named Fidel Herrara Beltran - who was obsessed with the color red and who seemed to be an old style PRI politician.  Veracruz, until this election, had been a reliable PRI stronghold.  But while the country was going with the PRI by the narrowest of margins, Veracruz was electing Javier Duarte de Ochoa, a PANista.   There has been talk that the new PRI people in the federal government might mess with the new governor.   But yesterday Ochoa held a unity rally with all the PAN elected mayors in the region.

The new president gets inaugurated in December.   My friends who are pessimists in Mexico believe the return of the PRI is bad news.  What I see as a foreigner is that Mexico has matured as a functioning democracy.  I believe a lot of voters were concerned about the costs of Calderon's war on drugs (although support for the effort remains high) and voters may have said it is about time for a change.  It will be interesting to see how things develop over the next year or two.  If the President Elect believes he will be able to return to the politics of the PRI, I think he will be sadly mistaken.

Since 2000 I have had the opportunity to work with Fox Administration as well as several governors.  Like the American politicians I have met, they have been a varied lot.   But since 2000 the country has gone through some changes that I believe set the country on a firm and positive path.