The Last Pictureshow

The folks who made the new GI Joe movie have not made their masterwork available for critic's screenings. Movie buffs love to chuckle over such naked displays of authorial guilt - hey, they must know it sucks, too, right? - but, frankly what's the point of having the W$J's movie critic spend 2 hours watching a movie inspired by a toy line? The review practically writes itself, and the W$J's readers are not likely to have watched the movie anyway. Still, the W$J's Joe Morganstern cares enough to try to write a review based on nothing more than the trailer: GI Joe The Rise of Cobra

The first thing that happens in the trailer involves the Eiffel Tower, which is hit by a missile and makes a splash by falling into the Seine. I don’t like movies that trash the Eiffel Tower, although I loved “The Lavender Hill Mob,” in which Alec Guinness’s mild-mannered bank clerk smuggles gold bars out of England by turning them into Eiffel Tower paperweights.

The second thing involves an ­actor intoning, voice-over: “We have never faced a threat like this. A team is being assembled. They’re the best operatives in the world. When all else fails, we don’t.” Even apart from the actor pronouncing “assembled” as “assimbled,” the speech suggests a sound clip from an early rehearsal of a junior-high-school pageant. I don’t like movies with bad actors reading dumb lines.

Like, I said, the review practically writes itself. A better focus may have been to ask why the producers of "GI Joe," the original "real American hero," felt compelled to assemble "the best operatives in the world," rather than an all-American crew of stock archetypes and ethnic stereotypes like Hollywood used to do for B-17 bomber crews.

Morganstern likes to declare that movies based on toys are a sign of cultural decline, but surely the de-patriating of an American icon - even if in toy form - is a much more potent symbol of such decline.

Slothrop at Creekside

Thomas Pynchon has yet another book coming out. Remember the days when he was this mysterious figure (only one photograph of him ever taken! People thought he might actually be Salinger!) who published no new fiction for 17 years after his landmark "Gravity's Rainbow?" That's pretty much a thing of the past. He has now averaged a new novel every 5 years ever since "Vineland" came out: Thomas Pynchon's "Inherent Vice"

Compared with “Gravity’s Rainbow” or “V.” or “Mason & Dixon,” this novel is Pynchon Lite. Those earlier books featured intricate, mazelike narratives and enigmatic confrontations between what he has called “average poor bastards” and emissaries of “an emerging technopolitical order that might or might not know what it was doing.” In contrast, “Inherent Vice” is a simple shaggy-dog detective story that pits likable dopers against the Los Angeles Police Department and its “countersubversive” agents, a novel in which paranoia is less a political or metaphysical state than a byproduct of smoking too much weed.

I think I'll pass, although "Gravity's Rainbow," "Vineland," and "Mason & Dixon" are some of my favorite books. Pynchon only works when you are young and post-modern.

I can't discuss Pynchon without mentioning that you should read "Positively 4th Street" by David Hadju if you want to read anything like a Pynchon biography. Hadju subject was the coupling of Joan Baez/Bob Dylan and Richard Farina/Mimi Baez. Pynchon plays a supporting role thoughout, as he was Richard Farina's roommate at Cornell, and best man at the Farinas' wedding. After decades of the "mysterious Pynchon," it's surprising to see how cool and normal he actually was, and no doubt is.

Here In My Car

OK, "Cash for Clunkers" is an essentially stupid program. You hear the grinding of teeth as servicable cars are destroyed, the used car & parts markets are distorted, and next year's demand is pulled forward into this year. But, Larry Kudlow offers some surprising support: Vote for the Clunkers

In virtually no time, the clunker program has become a national pastime. It has captured the public’s imagination in a way that no other federal stimulus has. Everyone is talking about it. And I truly believe that consumer spirits have been buoyed by the prospect of going out and buying a new car — even with federal assistance, and even under the duress of federal mileage standards.

After a very dreary year or two, people might just have fun trading in their clunkers and buying something new.

Even today, as unfashionable as it sounds, and given Washington’s attack on horsepower, Americans are still in love with automobiles. They still like going to showrooms, checking out the new models, inhaling the great new-car smell, and, yes, kicking the tires and making a buy. Cars may no longer be the heart of our economy — that’s all techie, information gadgets now. But folks still love the car thing.

Now, I wouldn’t want the government to pass out free money for everything. But in this particular case, the cash-for-clunkers rebate program is working. It’s working so well that it’s running way ahead of the computers that are administering it at the Transportation Department and Citibank.

Well, sure. That’s government for you. But unlike most of the rest of the fiscal-stimulus plan, this program actually works because the federal cash rebate actually contributes to a consumer purchase. It’s not just another welfare-type transfer program.

Eh. If you say so. Actually, he is right that this is the sort of stimulous that the $787 Billion monster from earlier this year was supposed to accomplish and didn't. And, Kudlow's right that it is a highly visible program, also unlike the stimulous, where it is unclear where the $$ is going and who is getting it. But ... come on! What kind of program runs out of $$ after just 4 days? We've had a little sugar rush, but too much will not be good.


Squeaky Fromme is being paroled after serving 33 years in prison for her attempted assassination of Gerald Ford at the Capitol Building in Sacramento. I don't approve: Squeaky Fromme To Be Paroled

Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, the waif-like Charles Manson follower who tried to shoot President Gerald Ford outside the Capitol in Sacramento in 1975, will be released from prison as early as Aug. 14, authorities said today.

Fromme, now 60, has been serving a life sentence in Texas. A federal parole board granted her parole last year, but her release was delayed because she got extra time after trying to escape from a West Virginia facility in 1987.

Northern California was not kind to Ford, as he survived a second attempted assassination just 17 days later in San Francisco. Sarah Jane Moore was also a Manson acolyte and is (I think) still in prison.

It's unclear why the Manson Family was gunning for Ford. Fromme's "insights" on the matter failed to provide much-needed clarity:
She once denounced the president in an interview with the Associated Press, saying, "If Nixon's reality, wearing a new Ford face, continues to run the country against the law, our homes will be bloodier than the Tate-LaBianca houses and My Lai put together."

Yes, kids, people used to talk like that back then. PJ O'Rourke - or maybe Dave Barry? - once joked that 21st century grandkids would have to cope with aging Baby Boomers having "Nixon fits." It seemed funny at the time, but that was before Bush Derangement Symdrome kicked in.

It's hard to imagine what Fromme is like now. She was clearly a troubled, if not disturbed, young woman who wasn't quite crazy enough to qualify for an insanity defense, although the fact that she represented herself at trial probably didn't help. Not sure why she's being paroled now. Is she sick? Is it because Ford died? Whatever it is, I sincerely hope there will be no tearful media appearances. If would-be presidential assassains can now be paroled, can we at least agree to ignore them once they're out?

The Austrian Way

The complete meltdown of the financial system seems to have abated, but we are still living with the uncertainty that the Panic of '08 generated. The uncertainty comes from the revelation that our largest financial institutions, and their regulators, were built on a house of cards, rather than the solid citizens that their marketing and regulatory filings had suggested. The panic may have passed, but the suspicion remains that there are significant weaknesses in our government and financial system. What to do? Well, we could always muddle through. But some are not satisfied with this and propose more radical surgery, such as abolishing the Federal Reserve: End The Fed? A Not So Crazy Idea

The Fed's apologists suggest otherwise, of course. They note that the US spent nearly half the years between 1854 to 1913 in recession, as opposed to just 21 percent of the time since the Fed's establishment in 1913. Who would want to go back to those bad old days?

But consider: the US economy has actually grown less rapidly since 1914 than it did before. And inflation has been much worse, despite both the Civil War, which featured the nation's worst inflation, and the Great Depression, which featured its severest deflation!

What's more, the frequent downturns before 1914 were due, not to the lack of a central bank, but to foolish government regulations. Topping the list were bans on branch banking, initiated by state governments and then incorporated into federal banking law.

(snip )

But the Federal Reserve plan proved to be a poor substitute for deregulation. By granting monopoly privileges to the Federal Reserve banks, it allowed them to inflate recklessly: By 1919, the US inflation rate, which had cleaved close to zero ever since the Civil War, was close to 20 percent! Yet the Fed was also capable of failing to supply enough money to avert crises. The first downturn over which it presided – that of 1921 – was among the sharpest in US history. Still it was nothing compared to the unprecedented monetary contraction of 1929-1933.

Would asset currency have been any better? Canada's was: Between 1929 and 1933, for instance, 6,000 US banks failed, and a third of the US money stock was wiped out. In contrast, and despite a fixed Canadian-US dollar exchange rate, Canada's money stock shrank by just 13 percent, and no Canadian bank failed.

While it's fun to consider the idea of abolishing the Federal Reserve (an idea that has kicked around on both the hard left and hard right over the years), I think anyone advocating this needs to admit that this would strike many Americans as being on a par with abolishing the FBI, simply because the Fed has been part of the national landscape for so long. On the other hand, most regular folks don't have a clear idea of what the Fed does all day, beyond setting interest rates. But, while the Fed seems permanent, it's important to remember that it is solely a creature of statute. There is no specific provision in the Constitution that allows for the creation of a central bank. Thus, the seemingly solid Fed could be legislated out of existence tomorrow if necessary (I don't think this should happen, but it could).

More disturbing is the question of what to do with our ever-increasing load of public debt. No matter how many times Paul Krugman might talk about multipliers and the like, our pojected debt is politically and financially unsustainable. Voters hate the idea of running huge deficits, and eventually, bond holders will refuse to continue to purchase US Treasuries. We could always cut spending and lower taxes, but that always manages to be "impossible." So, we are left with vague statements from policy makers about "keeping our options open," which mollify for a minute, but do nothing to settle the great unstated unease out there.

Some are already looking to the future to see what can be done. There is Jeffrey Rogers Hummel's prediction that, in order for the US to escape it's massive debt load, it will need to either inflate its debt away, or default on our national debt. Given the domestic political turmoil that would follow hyperinflation, Hummel thinks that a default would be much more likely: Why Default on US Treasuries Is Likely

It is not literally impossible that the Federal Reserve could unleash the Zimbabwe option and repudiate the national debt indirectly through hyperinflation, rather than have the Treasury repudiate it directly. But my guess is that, faced with the alternatives of seeing both the dollar and the debt become worthless or defaulting on the debt while saving the dollar, the U.S. government will choose the latter. Treasury securities are second-order claims to central-bank-issued dollars. Although both may be ultimately backed by the power of taxation, that in no way prevents government from discriminating between the priority of the claims. After the American Revolution, the United States repudiated its paper money and yet successfully honored its debt (in gold). It is true that fiat money, as opposed to a gold standard, makes it harder to separate the fate of a government's money from that of its debt. But Russia in 1998 is just one recent example of a government choosing partial debt repudiation over a complete collapse of its fiat currency.

The cause of all this is not the the Iraq War or "de-regulation." It arises from a combination of the current economic depression, the Fed's bailouts, the incredible national debt racked up in the last year, and the implacable, vurtually unrestrained rise in entitlement spending. As in CA, there is a crisis of Big Government and the welfare state that is gathering, and may already be here:

A century of experience has taught us that the client-oriented, power-broker State is the gravity well toward which public choice drives both command and market economies. What will ultimately kill the welfare State is that its centerpiece, government-provided social insurance, is simultaneously above reproach and beyond salvation. Fully-funded systems could have survived, but politicians had little incentive to enact them, and much less incentive to impose the huge costs of converting from pay-as-you-go. Whether this inevitable collapse of social democracies will ultimately be a good or bad thing depends on what replaces them.

Hummel is talking about nothing less than the end of the political arrangements that have defined US politics since 1932. We may be a center-right country in theory, but in practice the liberal-left defines our government's spending priororties, and sets out the parameters of political debate. This is not something that will be resolved in 2012, nor is it something that Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin can cook up on the Internet. But, this is the project: to transfer out of our unsustainable welfare state to one that returns the federal government to its ideal low-tax, limited government state.

Adventure Hippies

Herb Caen used to say that there is always a local angle in any news story. Well, the local angle in the story about three Americans who have been detained in Iran is a doozy; the 3 are UC Berkeley grads on some sort of Extreme Internet Journalism Expedition. They are also, naturally, "idealists." Not that this will make the slightest bit of difference to their jailers: Detained US Hikers Described As Idealists

Three Americans whose disappearance in Iran has prompted concern from U.S. officials are idealistic UC Berkeley graduates whose interest in Middle Eastern culture and human rights led them abroad to study and do freelance journalism, friends and colleagues said today

Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal, who are 27, once lived in the same Oakland co-op and taught a student-led class at Berkeley that envisioned a harmonious, postcapitalist society. Sarah Shourd, 30, describes herself on one Web site as a lover of "fresh broccoli, Zapatistas and anyone who can change her mind."

Normally, these are the sort of goofy progressives that I like to make fun of, but as they are presently in some trouble, I will simply note that they do not sound like the sort of people who would do well under prolonged detention in Iran. Bauer, for one, is the sort of person who - in the wake of 9/11 - decided to learn to speak Arabic and major in "peace studies" at UC Berkeley.

Bauer graduated with honors from UC Berkeley in 2007, earning a bachelor's degree with a major in peace and conflict studies and a minor in Arabic. He went to Sudan's Darfur region to research a thesis on the crisis there.

In a course on producing photo projects, Bauer's essay on residential hotels in San Francisco's Tenderloin was selected by classmates to appear on the cover of a magazine that featured the semester's best work, said Adjunct Professor Ken Light.

"He just had a natural sense of how to get inside a story, how to reach out to people," Light said. After graduating, Light said, "He chose to be kind of a foreign correspondent in the new age of journalism. You have to find stories people are interested in, that haven't been done, and that you can sell."

Shourd sounds like the sort of girl you can find all over the Bay Area; a Berkeley grad working with kids who has a touchingly naive view of other cultures and who is astonishingly well traveled (Yemen would not be my choice for vacation).

Shourd is described by those who know her as passionate about teaching, traveling and politics. After receiving a bachelor's degree in English in May 2003, she worked as a tutor with Americorps, a tutoring service in Berkeley and a charter elementary school in Oakland.

"She's a lovely person," said Lisa Miller, director of Classroom Matters in Berkeley, where Shourd tutored mostly middle-school students for about a year. "She's very devoted to making a difference in the lives of young people."

Shourd also worked as a freelance journalist, writing about the Middle East on political and travel Web sites. For a travel site, she wrote a story about Yemen titled "Brave Eyes, Laughing Hearts" about wearing a veil and joining a local family for a Ramadan celebration.

Fattal appears to be the most traditional hippie in this group. If and when he emerges from capaivity, we can expect that he will be blathering about the gentle poetic souls of the men who were holding him prisoner:

Fattal, who earned his bachelor's degree in environmental economics and policy, is a Pennsylvania native who recently worked and lived at a sustainable living research center in Oregon.

A friend, Emily Busch, 25, of San Francisco said Fattal founded a class in spring 2005 called "Liberation and reality: moving toward a collective autonomy" through UC Berkeley's student-run DeCal program.

Liberation and Reality? Moving Toward a Collective Autonomy? Send this guy to Qom immediately! He will keep the mullahs tied up in philosophical "dialogue" until the Islamic Republic falls of its own accord.

Along with the North Korea 2, the Iran 3 represent the second set of Bay Area connected young adults who have been forcibly detained by a regime that is hostile to the US. In both cases, the detainees were hip, citizens of the world who made the elementary mistake of crossing over the border into a country that (1) would not be happy to see them (2) is paranoid about espionage and CIA plots and (3) has long practiced hostage taking as a diplomatic weopon.

Most people reading this probably think these folks are naive, but I would say their problem is their ignorance. Surprising as it may seem, the fraught, decades-long hostilities between the US and countries like Iran, North Korea, and Cuba is largely unknown to the under-30 crowd in general*. For people educated in "peace studies" and the like, their ignorance is compounded by their education, which emphasises US "oppression," rather than the tyrrannical, war-like posture of our enemies. We can only hope that these three survive an experience for which their backgrounds have left them woefully unprepared.

*starting about 10 years ago, I started meeting undergrads who had no idea that there had been an Iranian hostage crisis, the central drama between the US and Iran, and the basic reason why many in the US feel an instinctive hostility toward Iran. Yes, I blame our lousy public schools and superficial MSM for this state of ignorance.

Business Lit

Here's a peculiar article that ran on the front-page of the NY Times Sunday Business section. It claims to be about BB&T chairman John Allison IV, but it's really an extended critique of Ayn Rand. As Rand has had a mini-resurgence since the commencement of Obamanomics, this could not be allowed to stand.

BB&T has survived the chaos of the last year, although it did accept TARP money at the specific request of Hank Paulson, who wanted to bailout Citibank, but did not want to give the appearance of having done so. Allison has retired as BB&T's CEO, and is now barn storming the country denouncing the Wall Street Bailouts and spreading the message of Randian Objectivism. He may be the most prominent person in public life who is speaking to the great unease many feel about the increased corporatization of government, and the increased nationalization of the corporate sector.

If Mr. Allison’s speech sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it’s based on the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who celebrated the virtues of reason, self-interest and laissez-faire capitalism while maintaining that altruism is a destructive force. In Ms. Rand’s world, nothing is more heroic — and sexy — than a hard-working businessman free to pursue his wealth. And nothing is worse than a pesky bureaucrat trying to restrict business and redistribute wealth.Or, as Mr. Allison explained, “put balls and chains on good people, and bad things happen.”

Ms. Rand, who died in 1982, has all sorts of admirers on Wall Street, in corporate boardrooms and in the entertainment industry, including the hedge fund manager Clifford Asness, the former baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. and the Whole Foods chief executive, John Mackey.

But Mr. Allison, who remains BB&T’s chairman after retiring as chief executive in December, has emerged as perhaps the most vocal proponent of Ms. Rand’s ideas and of the dangers of government meddling in the markets. For a dedicated Randian like him, the government’s headlong rush to try to rescue and fix the economy is a horrifying realization of his worst fears.

Indeed, so many bad things are happening that many followers of Ms. Rand, known as objectivists, believe that the ugly scenario in her 1957 novel “Atlas Shrugged” — in which the government takes over industry as the economy progressively collapses — is playing out in real life.

I'll be honest here: despite many years' worth of comments that I would "really love" Ayn Rand, I have never felt any great need to read her books. She was famously "read out" of the conservative movement by Whittaker Chambers decades ago. I think there's something to the critique that her philosophy encourages a sort of grasping selfishness. Mostly, she strikes me as the sort of writer that most people read and love in college, and I am no longer in college.

Nonetheless, I can understand why so many businesspeople and political conservatives find her appealing. If you are looking for a serious, literary exploration of conservative themes, you will find very little in 20th century literature that is satisfactory. 20th & 21st century literature, indeed virtually all serious art from the past 100 years, is almost uniformly liberal or progressive in its orientation. You literally have to go back to Trollope, Tolstoy and (especially) Dostoyevsky* to find the greatest conservative fiction. It's very easy to get a liberal arts education in a typical American college and have at least a passing familiarity with leftist thought, but not once hear the names Burke, Hayek, Rand, etc. in a classroom setting.

The NY Times, of course, goes out of its way to denigrate Rand, trotting out the usual philosophy pundit to give the reliable conventional wisdom that Rand was not a "real" philosopher.

The enduring popularity of Ms. Rand bewilders her many detractors, who complain that her writing is melodramatic, heavy-handed and intellectually bereft.

“To describe her as a minor figure in the history of philosophical thinking about knowledge and reality would be a wild overstatement,” says Brian Leiter, director of the Center for Law, Philosophy and Human Values at the University of Chicago. “She’s irrelevant.”

Professor Leiter conducted an informal poll in March on his philosophy blog, asking, “Which person do you most wish the media would stop referring to as a ‘philosopher’?” The choices were Jacques Derrida, Ms. Rand and Leo Strauss. Ms. Rand won by a landslide, with 75 percent of the roughly 1,500 votes cast.

Professor Leiter says Ms. Rand’s views on moral philosophy and objective reality are “simple-minded in the extreme.”

“She doesn’t understand the historical positions of thinkers on these issues, such as Hume and Kant,” he says. “Even the minority of philosophers with some sympathy for her celebration of the virtues of selfishness usually find her general philosophical system embarrassing.”

That is pure intellectual snobbery in action. I agree that Hume and Kant are deeper thinkers than Rand, but have read enough Kant to state categorically (hee hee) that he has little, if anything, to offer to the average businessman looking for the consolation of philosophy. Rand, on the other hand, is just what the doctor ordered. Is she perfect? Of course not. But a person who is naturally inclined to a pro-business, limited government position has to make a real effort to find contemporary literary or intellectual works that speak to his interests. Rand, at least, has the virtue of having been a best-selling author with a well-developed system of thought. The shame is not that people are reading Rand; it's that there is an unspoken cultural embargo against conservative thought, such that someone like Rand is the only conservative writer that the average person is likely to have heard of.

*one of the best kept secrets of literature is Dostoyevsky's conservatism, which is present in virtually all of his great works. Famed literary critic Laura Bush is one of the few people who have discussed this publicly.

Swamping the Lifeboats

In an article about the cuts in CA's budget, the reporter lets slip with a statistic that, more than any other, captures the unintended consequences of CA's ostensibly generous social safety net. State's Long Spending Spree Halted Abruptly

California has added social welfare programs, like Healthy Families in 1998 to provide health insurance for children that do not qualify for Medi-Cal. That program took a major hit in the budget cuts this year - about $178 million - and health advocates said it will result in about half-a-million children losing the insurance.

Still, the state has more people on welfare than anywhere else in the nation. Thirty-two percent of people receiving welfare in the United States are in California, (emphasis added) according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

"What we've done is created incentives for people to move here just to take part in the generous social safety net," said UC Davis' Yetman.

CA's population, in case you wondered, is approximately 35 million, which is roughly 10% of the population of the US. What a deal. While other states have been competing for business and entrepreneurs, CA has been accepting everyone else's welfare rolls. Everyone else in the West is hanging "Open for Business" signs, while we are saying "Freeloaders Welcome!" (I think we can assume that a significant percentage of those receiving welfare from CA are illegal immigrants, but that number is a closely guarded secret that, if known, would result in some sort of popular uprising against the welfare state and open borders)

The draconian spending cuts decried by the "for the children" crowd have resulted in a drop of per capita state spending equal to what CA was disbursing in 1998 (oh, the humanity!), which means we could cut a lot more without causing the mass starvation and homelessness that supposedly lurks behind every social service budget cut.

The CA budget crisis has been a crisis of Big Government, not a crisis of CA's supposedly polarized electorate. Behind the fine-sounding words of "helping" the weakest among us lies a massive redistribution of wealth, not to native Californians, but to anyone who could manage to make their way here, whether from Nevada, Pennsylvania or Mexico. To be blunt, CA and its voters owe these people nothing. Moreover, CA doesn't even need to be doing this. There are federal welfare programs that can provide the bare minimum for someone to eat and sleep. The welfar reform express obviously passed CA by, but there's plenty of time to catch up and remove this dead weight from the state's budget.

On Our Way Home

Today is a Free Will travel day. Posting resumes tomorrow.

It's A Big Blue Blago-World. The Rest of Us Are Just Living In It

Hey! Look who's written a book! It's Rod Blagojevich! The product description is classic: The Governor by Rod Blagojevich

THE GOVERNOR provides the most comprehensive look to date at the life of a twice-elected public official in the notoriously complicated world of Illinois politics. We take a tour through the segregated neighborhoods of Chicago, a city of great ethnic diversity, and see firsthand how those divides can evolve into cabals that rival anything found on the national political scene.

We follow the governor as he is awakened early one morning –his young daughter sleeping peacefully beside him – and unceremoniously arrested by FBI agents without knowing the charges being brought against him. We see the harsh glare of the spotlight, the media whirlwind already staking out his home and family, rushing to judgment before even the governor himself knew what crimes he’d been accused of committing. We follow him through the maze of political conspiracies that threaten to unseat and impeach the governor of the fifth largest state in the U.S. –forces brought to light by the ambition of an attorney general and the greed of her Democratic State Party Chairman father –as well as the zeal of a federal prosecutor and the manipulations of a disloyal lieutenant governor.

The behind-the-scenes workings to fill the Senate seat vacated by the most popular President-elect in decades becomes something much more incendiary when wiretapped conversations are used by authorities to commit the arrest. But, as the governor soon learns, those tapes are not allowed to be played at his impeachment hearings in the House or Senate. What is on those tapes? And why will the prosecution not let them be heard if they were the primary factor in initiating the arrest that started this political scandal in the first place?

Quoting from sources as diverse as Jim Wallis’ God’s Politics to Aeschylus , Shakespeare to The Purpose Driven Life, THE GOVERNOR provides not just an inside look at politics on a state and national level but a treatise on the proper place of government in the everyday lives of its people.

It is a mandate for healthcare reform, which the governor feels is the civil rights issue of our lifetime. It is a clarion cry, remarkably, against cynicism in modern governing and a return to a more thoughtful and informed sense of government that views its state budgets as “moral documents.” It is a lament against the current state of the political landscape, one that too often is wracked by scandal and interwoven with a media-driven culture obsessed with scandal and snap judgments.

And it is a proclamation that one man will not be silenced, that his side of the story must be heard and that the fight for American liberties and freedom must sometimes occur within its own borders.

If there is another guy out there who is enjoying his infamy more than Rod Blagojevich, I would like to know his name. The only one I can think of off the top of my head is Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinijad, who shares Blago's sense of the absurd. Both men, while symbols of corrrupt regimes, also seem to take great delight in saying the most outrageous things, certain that their detractors will fly into a full-bore tizzy. No matter what else has happened, Blagojevich has been consistent in giving off the air of someone who is enjoying himself immensely.

Right Wing Book Club

By Guy Sorman

For an autocratic communist dictatorship that steals US patents, oppresses its people, pollutes the environment, makes shoddy merchandise, curtails free speech, sells tainted food and medicine, and intervenes forcefully in the procreation of families, China gets astoundingly good press. Some of it comes from free trade types who simply see a market to exploit, but a surprising amount of the books about China are written by western academics who write about China in a neutral or positive light, even as they hang scorching anti-US bumperstickers on their Volvos. It's not as if the dark side of China is being hidden. The western press is filled with stories about China's shortcomings. However, it's difficult to find a comprehensive compedium of info to counteract the relentless happy talk.

I had high hopes that this book would be such a compedium, but it is not. This is not to say it is without value. It has plenty of information, much of it gleaned from Sorman's travels through China, and his meetings with dissidents. But the book is limited to what he sees and learns. He doesn't really go beyond the perspective of what he sees before him. This gives the book a strong personal quality, but it lacks the sweep of a Robert Conquest, Alexander Solzenizen, and other historians of modern tyranny.

Right Wing Book Club

By Clarence Thomas

Justice Thomas has written one of the great memoirs of this decade. Thomas grew up dirt poor in the segregated South. He was raised by his grandfather, a tough old cuss who liked to say things like "Old Man Can't Is Dead. I Know Because I Helped Bury Him!" The narrative takes you from Thomas' birth up to the moment when he walked into his first session at the Supreme Court. Along the way, he tells the story of how that dirt poor boy grew into the man whose strength of will and character allowed him to face down a Senate Judiciary Committee filled with hostile liberals, and earn a spot on the Supreme Court.

Much of the hype around this book centered around his relationship with his grandfather. However, the sections dealing with his childhood are only a small portion of this book. Thomas is brutally frank, and self castigating about the failure of his first marriage, and his law school days as an "angry black man." He unhesitatingly describes his drinking (mostly beer) and his struggles with debt (his refused to ever allow his son to go to public school). he also details his pre-Supreme Court career, first as an assistant to Missouri's attorney general, then as a corporate lawyer at Monsanto, and finally as the head of the EEOC during the Reagan administration. He is especially proud of his work at the EEOC. Along the way, he meets up-and-comers like John Bolton, John Ashcroft, Walter Williams, and Juan Williams. Most interesting is Thomas' relationship with the great Thomas Sowell, who was Thomas' intellectual mentor.

All of this leads up, of course to the infamous Anita Hill hearings. As you might expect, Thomas stoutly denies anything improper happened. More interesting is Thomas' description of the emotional toll the hearings took. He was essentially attacked by the entire liberal establishment - Senators, unions, feminist groups, the NAACP - which used its allies in the media to spread stories that would have embarrassed the Democrats' segregationist forebears. I remember when the hearings were going on, and Thomas called the spectacle a "high tech lynching." I thought he was engaging in wild hyperbole at the time, but I was young and foolish back then.
Thomas quotes extensively from the statements he read to the TV audience watching the Judiciary hearings. I can vividly remember many of his quoted passages and they still burn with righteous rage. Thomas was his grandfather's son because all of his grandfather's pride, strength, and fire had been passed to him, and saved him during the hearings. Many conservatives have been through attacks similar to that which was visited on Thomas, but few have been able fight back so well (Bolton, Ashcroft, and Sarah Palin are others).

As a prose stylist, Thomas is very good. He is economical in his word choices. his chapters move along efficiently and always lead up to a good conclusory sentence that sets up the next chapter. This should come as no surprise if you have read any of Justice Thomas' judicial opinions, which are always marked by an admirable clarity and unflinching forecasts of the practical results of wrong headed decisions. His opinions are the only ones that could be read and understood by a person of average intellect, which is Thomas' intent. Those who prefer the tortured stylings of the Court's more intellectual members find this unintelligent and worse. They should really be asking why their preferred judicial decisions require obfuscation and obscurity, rather than Thomas' sunlight and clarity.

If you are a conservative, this book is, of course, required reading. If you are liberal, or are otherwise a one of Thomas' detractors, I think fairness demands that you read this book as well. Then, you should ask yourself why the defense of your philosophy required that this man be denigrated and destroyed.

Right Wing Book Club


By Friedrich A. Hayek

This is Hayek's magnum opus, a long (but not too long) book that combines his previous studies in economics and political theory to explore the nature of freedom and liberty to answer the eternal question, "What system will deliver the most freedom to the most people?" If you are at all familiar with Hayek's thought, his answer shouldn't surprise you; he was a true believer in liberal democracy and free markets; a descendant simultaneously of John Locke and Adam Smith. What is surprising about this book is his analysis of the contemporary (1960) political scene, where Hayek saw very little freedom, even in countries that seemed to offer its citizens limitless personal license.

Hayek's great insight, originally made in the Thirties when he was fighting on the anti-Keynsian side of the economic denates of the day, was that human knowledge was so vast and complex that is was simply impossible for one person or group of people to centralize that knowledge and make use of it in a useful efficient manner. Rather, knowledge is better spread and utilized when it is dispersed throughout a population, so that it is instantly available to those who can best utilize it for the benefit of themselves and the rest of society. In Hayek's day, and ours apparently, the emphasis was on the technocrat who could "form a committee" and direct society.

Hayek originally made applied this insight in economics, but in this book, he moves it to the realm of politics. Hayek begins by asking what is the best system for spreading knowledge. His answer is that a political system offering liberty and freedom to all is more likely to be one in which knowledge is spread most efficiently and quickly because ideas are allowed to spread and evolve organially without any interference from government. Thus, the dynamism of the American economy is possible because of the freedom guaranteed by its Constitution, while socialist and communist countries become economically moribund because knowledge is held to be the proper province of the government, and none other.

The middle part of "Constitution" is Hayek's analysis of the development of liberty in the west. he credits the British and the US with providing the most political and economic liberty to their citizens. Under Hayek's analysis, the British were the first people whom you could call "free," although their institutions were not as strong as they could be. He sees America's great innovation to be its creation of consitutitional liberty. What is truly interesting in this section is his analysis of European approaches to liberty, especially in France and Germany. While both countries spoke often about liberty and equality, both had gone through periods of dicatorship, and by Hayek's time were countries marked by strong central governments.

In Hayek's analysis, the reason for this was the strong tradition of bureaucratic government in each country. As Hayek puts it, the French Revolution may have marked the end of absolute monarchy, but the bureaucracies set up by the kings of old continued as if nothing had changed. Hayek spends quite a bit of time discussing the development of the German welfare state and the simultaneous encroachment on liberty. He spends an inordinate amount of time analyizing the development of administrative law, but this is to make the point that the bureaucracy used its procedures to create a sort of separate legal system that eventually weighed heavily upon the freedom of the citizenry.

The third part of "Constitution" is Hayek's analysis of contemporary issues such as rent control, minimum wage laws, state education, and the like. Hayek is, of course, in favor of as little government interference in any of these areas. That we have not pursued the Hayekian path is obvious. But, just as obvious should be the realization that there are many people - including many who are wealthy and well educated - who would rather look to the government for protection, rather than look to themselves. And the government is always there to give that protection so long as it can dictate the parameters of how its wards shall live.

This is a thought-provoking and worthwhile book. As Hayek puts it, the liberal-left ideal of activist central government was and remains the dominant political philosophy in his day and in ours. Its promises are seductive to say the least: equality, "social justice," protection from life's troubles. Now, we have a left-wing president promising to save us from "climate change" and offering to deliver "free" health care. Wow! is there anything liberalism can't do? It is difficult to make the argument for limited decentralized government because it seems to offer so little: "we won't do much for you!" won't rally the troops, after all. But that's not really the point. The Hayekian model is a government that sees its job as protecting liberty and guaranteeing the safety of the citizenry. It has been a long time (maybe since the Coolidge Administration) since a US president saw that as his mission in life.

If you only want to read one of Hayek's books, you should read "The Road To Serfdom." But once you have finished that remarkable work, you'll want to read more. This should be next on your list.

When the Deal Goes Down

This may not seem like a big deal, but it certainly is in my line of work (I represent people who are being sued by their credit card companies). The National Arbitration Forum is shutting its doors: Credit Card Disputes Tossed Into Disarray

Two major arbitration firms are backing away from the business of resolving disputes between customers and their credit-card and cellphone companies, throwing into disarray a controversial system that prevents unhappy consumers from filing lawsuits.

The American Arbitration Association said Tuesday it will stop participating in consumer-debt-collection disputes until new guidelines are established. Its decision came two days after another big group, the National Arbitration Forum, said it would stop accepting new cases as of Friday.


Although arbitration long has been controversial, the current situation developed rapidly starting last week when the Minnesota attorney general's office sued the National Arbitration Forum, based in St. Louis Park, Minn., over the way it handled disputes. Among other things, the lawsuit contended that NAF didn't disclose that it has financial ties to the debt-collection industry, violating Minnesota laws against consumer fraud, deceptive trade practices and false advertising.

So, who cares, right? Well, you probably should. The Forum was a place credit card companies could go to obtain money judgments against their customers without going through the fuss and muss of actually proving their cases. If there was a procedural abuse you could conceive of, the Forum practiced it. Notices to appear would show up in people's mailboxes with no information about the date, time and place of the hearing. Hearings often took place in Minnesota, even if the defendant lived thousands of miles away. If some luckless defendant had the temerity to try to participate, their attempts to file documents would be rebuffed for failing to conform to Forum rules. The defects, as well as the underlying rules supposedly broken were, of course, left unstated. The Forum also relied on good old-fashioned "sewer service" to notify defendants of a pending hearing. In many cases, people had no idea an arbitration had taken place, and an award entered against them, until they got a notice informing them that their credit card company was attempting to enforce a big money judgment against them.

There is legitimate business activity and then there is abuse, and the Forum engaged in abuse. The MN attorney general's suit against the Forum is amazing to read. The Forum was set up by the card companies and some of the more prominent debt collection firms. Creditors attorneys practicing in front of the Forum worked for firms whose partners were part owners of the Forum. It was a corrupt system, and certainly emblematic of the abuses and rip-offs the underlay a significant part of the growth in the financial sector.

The Chamber of Commerce spin is that this will throw credit card litigation into "disarray." Don't believe it. You can still arbitrate a case to your hearts' content. You just can't do it in front of an arbitration factory where the results are pre-ordained. My default position is to be pro-business, but I am not going to blindly support this sort of consumer abuse. The Forum is gone and America's financial sector is better off for it.

Gone Fishin'

Free Will is going on a driving trip down the Central Coast. I have scheduled posts for the coming week, but they will not be on current events. Enjoy.

Our Newest Member Dons The Habit

Deborah Solomon's "Questions" column takes on Arlo Guthrie today. In the middle of his "Hey, man!" blather about Woodstock, Coney Island, Alice's Restaurant, & nuclear war, Guthrie let's slip with this startling admission: Questions for Arlo Guthrie

Where are you politically these days?

I became a registered Republican about five or six years ago because to have a successful democracy you have to have at least two parties, and one of them was failing miserably. We had enough good Democrats. We needed a few more good Republicans. We needed a loyal opposition.

Is this true? Is the son of America's most beloved leftist, and original show-biz lifety, turned his coat? Guthrie has always had the air of a consummate wise-ass, but he seems completely sincere. His stated reason - that he wanted to maintain a "loyal oppositon" - is the sort of rationalizing that ex-progressives use to convince themselves that, maybe, social justice and knee-jerk anti-Amercianism is not all it's cracked up to be. Registering "five or six years ago" puts him squarely in the post-9/11 era. In fact, "registering" suggests that he had been voting Republican even longer since (duh) you don't need to register with the GOP to vote for it.

Guthrie is certainly familiar with the chapter and verse of leftist thought and iconography. But, he is also someone who has done well for himself in life and has traveled enough to see that America is not Amerikkka. Good for him for answering Solomon honestly when he could have just as easily dissembled.

Lady Cab Driver

Here's a brilliant idea that would never be allowed to work here in the United States: a ladies-only cab company with pink taxis and female drivers: "Girl Taxi" Service Offers haven To Beirut's Women

These days the (Beirut's) transport staple is facing some serious competition from a growing army of female taxi drivers, dressed in stiff-collared white shirts, dark shades, pink ties and small pink flowers tucked into their flawlessly coiffed hair.

All of them drive for Banet Taxi, or "girl taxi" in Arabic. It is Lebanon's first cab service for women, by women. You can't miss the company's signature candy-pink cars.

"I chose pink because the first idea that comes to mind when you see pink is girls," says Nawal Fakhri, 45 years old, founder of Banet Taxi.

It would never be allowed to work in the US because of rampant corruption and cartelization in US cities that keeps the number of taxi medallions artificially low. It would never work because someone would inevitably bring an equal protection claim. And, it would never work because it would turn into a ridiculous "bold 'n' brassy" post-feminist statement, which would not work with the frankly feminine atmosphere that Fakhri tries to maintain in her cabs:

The company is part of a regional trend. Entrepreneurs across the Middle East have recognized the business potential in offering secure transportation options for women. Banet Taxi follows on the heels of successful women-only transportation models in Dubai, Tehran and Cairo.

In Beirut, the growing company is a sign the private sector is succeeding where the politically volatile public sector fails.

"I like being one of the few female taxi drivers in Lebanon," says Maya Buhaidai, 34, as she takes a sharp turn on a windy road in the mountains overlooking Beirut. "And I like the work. It's easy, it's fun and I get to talk and laugh with my passengers."

As the sun sets, Ms. Buhaidai drives passenger Lamia Samaha, 37, from a suburb on the mountain slope to the busy central Beirut district of Hamra. Along the way, they chat about the news, TV shows and children.

"I am at ease because I am accompanied by a woman. I sometimes find men hard to handle," says Ms. Samaha, causing her and her driver to laugh heartily.

At last, a cab safe for girl-talk! Fakhri, by the way has made back her original $200,000 investment and expects to earn at least that much this year. Lebanon may bear the oppressive weight of Syrian occupation and religious fascism, but in Beirut at least there is enough room for women to find their own corner of freedom.

Placing the Blame

As I write this (7:54 A.M.), the CA State Legislature is debating, and voting on, the new budget. In fact, the State Senate has already voted to approve it. There's plenty of teeth gnashing and foot stomping going on, but it looks like there's no one in the Capitol Building who is willing to be the one who scuttles the deal.

County and municipal leaders continue threatening lawsuits over the plan to raid, er, borrow funds from their coffers. Take it up in 2010, if you care so much. One of the problems with CA's government is that, for many years, people paid as much attention to what was going on in Sacramento as Montanans pay attention to what's going on in Billings (or wherever). Well, CA is too big to ignore, and that ignorance allowed a lot of people to engage in an epic bout of feather-bedding and rent seeking. Hopefully, the fault lines exposed by the budget crisis will still be raw in Nov. 2010, which seems a long way away right now.

The grim search for who to "blame" for the deep spending cuts has already pointed to one oppressed & despised minority. I present to you, the SF Chronicle's take on who is responsible for CA's budget problems:

The Republicans remain united against any new taxes - and it would take at least a few of their votes to reach the required two-thirds threshold. It seems that many of them would sooner see their children in second-rate schools and their cars on Third World roads before they would break their anti-tax pledges and put themselves at the mercy of the right-wing talk radio blowhards.

It's a sad commentary on the state of governance in California, but it is a reality the Capitol's voices of responsibility must confront.

The "voices of responsibility" in the Capitol wanted to solve the budget crisis by raising taxes, piling on more debt, and making cuts to the state programs (education, prisons, first responders) that people actually want the government to deliver. This wasn't opposed by Republicans afraid of "talk radio blowhards." (You cannot discuss the GOP without bringing up "talk radio." Why, you could almost say that Rush Limbaugh was an indirect cause of the budget crisis!). This was voted on and rejected by large majorities of voters in the special election 2 months ago. Surely, you remember that!

The budget crisis was not driven by mean ol' Republicans who are eager to drive their cars on "Third World roads" (hey, who wouldn't? It's a thrill!). It was a crisis of Big Government that finally grew too big from the sort of initiatives that liberals favor - high pay & pensions for unionized public sector employees, generous state services for illegal immigrants, white elephants like high speed rail, a hostile legal and regulatory environment for business - such that its tax base could no longer fund its operations. CA has gone beyond its core competence as a state and pursued all manner of policies - especially in the environmental area - that are properly left to the national government. CA liberals and the occasional moderate Republican have been the drivers of this effort and now they find themselves in the position that was easy to predict: insolvency. And it's all the Republicans' fault?!

Well, sorry, it's not. Politically speaking, it's not the GOP's job to help solve a crisis of Big Government that they did not create, and largely opposed every step of the way. If a high tax, high regulatory environment, with unsustainable public pensions is what is best for CA, then let's hear the liberals complaining about the intransigent GOP justify their proposed policies. But, they can't and won't. It's much easier to blame talk radio blowhards.

2010 can't come soon enough.

The Hidden Hand

You might recall not too long ago that there was a lot of noisy talk about flight delays at US airports. In fact, an annual ritual developed where luckless holiday travelers would be stranded on runways for hours on end, leading to grusome stories about lavoratories "filling up" (gag) and babies howling as their milk supply ran dry. We then had the even more grusome spectacle of consumer watchdog groups forming to express outrage, and the Barbara Boxers of the world manning the microphones to assist in fanning that outrage. Abuse was heaped on the airlines, as if letting their planes sit on runways for hours on end was part of a well-thought out strategy.

Now, the issue has dissipated thanks to, among other things, the construction of new runways, which magically relieved the congestion. Are we doomed to repeatedly re-learning the obvious? O'Hare's New Runway Makes Travel Easier For All

Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is no longer the tar pit of the nation’s air-transportation system.

In the eight months since a new runway opened at the U.S.’s second-busiest airport, plagued for decades with lengthy flight delays, O’Hare has operated with above-average on-time arrivals—better than Dallas, Atlanta and Denver in 2009, according to O’Hare’s on-time arrival rate improved by 27% so far this year compared with the same period of 2008. That was twice the improvement of any other big U.S. airport.

The new runway, opened last Nov. 21, gets much of the credit. While airline reductions in flight schedules have eased congestion and reduced flight delays, the ability to now land three planes simultaneously in most weather conditions instead of two jets at a time has turned O’Hare from a choke point into a reliable airport.

Note that the troubles in the nation's air transit system originated in the City That Only Knows How To Make $$ Off Inertia. These runways could have been built at any time in the past 20 years, but weren't, because the activists who are the true constituencies for many members of the political elite didn't want them built and to hell with the millions of people who got stuck on backed up runways:

Because of the enormous cost and heated legal battles with neighbors and environmentalists, building runways at big airports is a rarity—and a major reason air travel has been bogged down in the past 10 years. Last fall, three major runways opened with much fanfare on the same day in Chicago, Seattle and Washington, D.C. Seattle’s new runway took two decades of planning, approval, court fights and construction. O’Hare’s new runway was the first at that airport in 37 years.

Here is one of the unspoken truths about American politics: gov't at all levels is often unable to plan for the future because querelous activists at the nation's chokepoints - in this case, people in and around O'Hare, along with the inevitable "environmental" groups - can stop a worthwhile project for decades, while someone else - in this case the airlines and the airport - will take most of the blame. It is a truth so explosive that it can only uttered in the W$J's "Lifestyle" section. You would certainly never hear anyone state this so bluntly where it counts.

This is symbolic of how America's public institutions have seemingly ground to a halt. A "can't do" ethos has been imposed upon us without any debate, discussion, or even our comprehension. Even if we can do it and want to do it, we can't. We have changed from a nation of Robert Moses expanding our boundaries to a nation of Ralph Nader keeping us within tightly constricted lines. While highly motivated and concentrated activists can exercise power that is outsized compared to their numbers, the vast majority doomed to sit on delayed flights are too diffused and disorganized to act as a counter-weight. Often, it can be unclear for many years that this effect exists.

It defies reason to ask why an environmental lawyer in Chicago might have an indirect impact on persons living and traveling hundreds of miles away, after all. And yet he does. How long before people look around at their glorious "can't do" society and wonder who else is standing at the nation's chokepoints?

Passengers have detected a difference. Tim Snyder, a Chicago-based sales and consulting executive for a software company, began noticing that his flights in and out of Chicago were more frequently on time, and arrivals frequently used the new runway. He started keeping track and had a streak of 26 consecutive on-time flights before bad weather in Chicago delayed his flight for two hours. But the streak resumed, and now he’s been on time for 36 of his past 37 flights.

“Those are tax dollars I like to spend,” says Mr. Snyder.

Imagine the waste and lost opportunity represented by these unbuilt runways. Imagine all of the time spent sitting on the nation's tarmac. Imagine all that wasted fuel. Imagine the overtime the airlines had to pay. Imagine the loss of revenue from angry customers. Imagine the damage to the airlines brand and reputations. Imagine an air transit system that couldn't expand because there weren't enough landing areas. Now imagine some public interest lawyer sitting in a paper-strewn office who made all of this possible. And yet the law is often set up to bolster his cause, rather than the cause of all those millions of persons and businesses artificially hemmed into a diminishing number of runway space, all so we can vindicate the imagined rights of the environmental lobby, and airport neighbors who act shocked! shocked! when the airport decides to expand.

This is a problem beyond what President Romney or Palin could deal with. This is a product of the legal and political culture that vindicates the rights of activists, rather than that of the average middle class person who is purported to be the object of political concern. Ha! He is the forgotten man in all of this.

Pulling Threads

It's taken less than 24 hours, but the latest CA budget deal is already generating some squawking. First are the counties and municipal governments from whom the state will be borrowing billions of dollars to close the present deficit. It is unclear what mechanism the state will be using to accomplish this (is it in the state Constitution? Could be, as it's long enough). The local governments, unsurprisingly, were not in the room when they "agreed" to this deal and they are a little miffed: Cities, Counties Ready to Fight State Over Cuts

Local governments across California are preparing to sue the state over a budget plan that would divert about $4 billion from their coffers next year. The association of city governments labeled the plan a "reckless Ponzi scheme" that will stall redevelopment projects, cut construction jobs and slash money for roadwork.

It's once again the state balancing its budget on the back of local government," Alameda County Administrator Susan Muranishi said after supervisors there voted Tuesday to back a lawsuit against the state.

Their counterparts in Los Angeles passed a similar motion and local government groups have also pledged lawsuits, including the California Redevelopment Association, which in April won a legal challenge it filed lastyear against the state's attempt to tap $350 million in redevelopment funds.

GOP legislators are angry because a $1.2 billion cut in the prison budget will be paid for by releasing 27,000 prisoners. That works out to $44,000 per prisoner. WTF? Maybe we should cut their silk sheet budget: State Budget Deal Threatened

The deal reached Monday night included $1.2 billion in prison spending cuts - but did not specify how those cuts would be accomplished.

On Tuesday, the governor's officials unveiled the specifics - infuriating Republicans who called the proposal a non-starter that could kill the budget deal.

The plan, according to Matt Cate, Schwarzenegger's top prison official, would reduce the prison population this year by 27,000 inmates, some of whom would be released early. The plan includes:

-- Sending thousands of old and sick inmates to non-prison hospitals.

-- Allowing some non-violent, non-sex offending inmates to serve the last year of their sentence in house arrest.

-- Allowing some non-violent inmates to earn time served by receiving GED or vocational training.

-- Creating a sentencing commission to overhaul the state's sentencing laws.

The governor would also begin considering thousands of illegal immigrant inmates who may be turned over to federal authorities for deportation.

I don't know. Except for the "earn a GED, get out of jail" scheme, those sound pretty reasonable. I know I've groused elsewhere about having to pay for illegal immigrants to sit in CA prisons when they could just as easily be deported. Earlier this year, when a receiver said conditions in CA's prison hospitals constituted unconstitutionally cruel and unusual punishment, I suggested letting the infirm and terminally ill prisoners out on early release, so the prisons don't end up treating cancer and Alzheimer's patients. Let Medicare pick up that tab. That's what it's there for. I would advise the GOP to give this a rest.

This is no doubt only the beginning of the grousing. The local governments have a legitimate complaint over the state's plan to raid their treasuries. But all of the other complaints are from interest groups crying over the loss of their pets. It looks like everyone will have something to complain about, which means the goal of shared sacrifice through spending cuts, rather than tax increases, has been achieved. The state needs a budget for 2009 and that budget is here. If you want to carry the battle further, take it to the ballot box next year.

? and the Obamacans

Keith Hennessey has 20 questions for White House beat reporters to ask the President tonight. They are all based in policy/politics certainly better than asking about Bill Ayers and birth certificates on the one hand and the President's "feelings" on the other: 20 Question for the President

8. You have said transparency is a top priority. Yet you are calling on Congress to pass a trillion-plus dollar spending bill before CBO has had time to estimate its full effects. In addition, your Administration is delaying release of the new economic projections and deficit estimates until after Congress votes on this massive new spending bill. Will you commit now that you will not ask Members of Congress to vote on this massive new spending commitment until your Administration has met its legal obligation to provide an updated economic forecast and deficit projection, and until CBO has provided Congress with transparent and complete analysis of the bill?

20 GOP Senators would be wise to divide these questions and begin asking them everyday. Instead, the GOP has decided to mouth words that a pollster has told them are "effective." You mean, effective at making you look like robots?

Door #3

Hey, look! CA's Big Five have reached yet another tentative budget deal! State Leaders Have A Tentative Plan to Fix the Budget

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders reached a tentative budget compromise Monday to plug a $26.3 billion deficit by making hefty cuts in education, health and welfare services, and taking billions of dollars from county governments.

There's a lot about this deal that's better than what they came up with last winter. For one thing, this deal, and its approval, are pure products of representative government. Voters will not be asked to vote in another "special" election. There is no attempt by the representatives to fob off to the voters their responsibility to vote on these things. Best of all, the outline of the deal provides for deep spending cuts, and no new taxes, just the sort of thing the "tyrrannical" minority GOP has been asking for throughout. Mwa ha ha!

Of course, it's not a perfect deal. for one thing, the state will "borrow" and then repay billions of dollars from county governments, based on what mechanism I have no idea. The journalists covering this story are no help. And, although taxes will not go up, the withholdings from our paychecks will increase (as will our subsequent refunds). Sounds like a lot of money shuffling around, rather than a glidepath to good governance.
The compromise would avoid raising new taxes, but would add more money to the state's depleted coffers by taking billions of tax dollars that local governments receive each year - money that the state would repay in future years. The plan also includes Schwarzenegger's ideas to collect taxes earlier and increase the state income tax withholding in worker paychecks. This move would allow the state to collect more income taxes earlier but could result in higher refunds.
Still, they managed to make some symbolically important cuts, such as eliminating the Integrated Waste Management Board, which had devolved into a glorified sinecure for legislators who were termed out of office, or lost their seats:

The agreement would also eliminate the Integrated Waste Management Board and combine its functions with the Department of Conservation. Together they would create a new department under the state Resources Agency. The plan would eliminate the waste board's six-member panel, which is made up of political appointees who each earn $132,179 a year.

Former lawmakers have often been given the lucrative appointment, including former state Sen. Carole Migden of San Francisco, currently a member of the board. She and her fellow members would be out of their jobs at the end of this year

You won't be able to get rid of Carole Migden that easily! She will rise again!

Incredibly, the deal also provides for drilling off the coast of Santa Barbara. While this is not quite a third rail issue, it is one that is a flashpoint for CA Greens and wealthy NIMBY's who don't like the idea of drilling off the coast, and who are masters at generating a media frenzy. Expect hysterics over this one.

The deal also includes Schwarzenegger's earlier proposal that would allow offshore oil drilling near Vandenberg Air Force Base, about 6 miles from the Santa Barbara County shoreline, generating about $100 million a year in new royalties for the state.

This is cosmetic stuff, however. The big expenses are education, state payrolls, and the CA's overly generous welfare prorams. If there is one thing that voters have made clear this year, it's that they want the government to continue spending $$ on education. The deal works withing the present budget system for education spending, especially the dictates of Prop. 98. While there are significant cuts this year, that money will also be repaid starting in 2012, the projected date of the next CA budget crisis:
Legislators agreed to limit spending on education without suspending Proposition 98, a voter-approved constitutional rule that spells out minimum spending for K-12 schools and community colleges. Sources told The Chronicle that the governor and legislative leaders also agreed on a scheme to pay $9.5 billion to public schools beginning in 2012 to make up for education cuts in the current budget.
CA's welfare state will also face "deep" (and for now, unstated) cuts.

Schwarzenegger's initial proposal to eliminate health and welfare programs outright was rebuffed by Democrats, but those programs - In Home Support Services, CalWorks and Healthy Families - face deep cuts as well.

Is the crisis over? No. While the spending cuts are great news, CA's government will remain a leviathan. There has been no effort to reduce state payrolls and no effort to reform the public employee pension fund. There is no indication that the regulatory and tax climate that has made CA so hostile to business will be rolled back any time soon. There is no indication that the initiative process will be reformed. Worst of all, the budget relies on the sort of goofball accounting gimmicks - paying state employees on the last day of the fiscal year for wages that would have normally been earned on the first day of the following year, for example - that allow the gov't to claim to have balanced budget, when it really has done no such thing.

For now, however, the immediate drama appears to be over. CA remains a Big Government outpost with a center-left orientation. This means the crises will continue to unfold in the middle and long term. Oh, joy. There's only one way to change this, and that is to change the people sitting in the Legislature, but that is a tall order. For most people here, a lazy kind of liberalism is their default position. 2010 should be an opportunity to bring in some new blood, but in the absence of a crisis atmosphere like we had this year, that might be tough to pull off. Still, we must try.

Diminishing Returns

I said earlier that there were hints and insinuations on the Left suggesting some disappointment with the Sotomayor nomination, although outwardly they "celebrated" the nomination of the First! Latina! Justice! (Ta Daaaaa!). Now, Richard Cohen comes out and says what many more are thinking, but whose finely calibrated philosophy could never allow them to admit: Sonia Sotomayor: A Safe, Soporific Bet For The High Court

Don't get me wrong. (Sotomayor) is fully qualified. She is smart and learned and experienced and, in case you have not heard, a Hispanic, female nominee, of whom there have not been any since the dawn of our fair republic. But she has no cause, unless it is not to make a mistake, and has no passion, unless it is not to show any, and lacks intellectual brilliance, unless it is disguised under a veil of soporific competence until she takes her seat on the court. We shall see.

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. We have a neat summary of it in the recent remarks of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who said he wanted a Supreme Court justice "who will continue to move the court forward in protecting . . . important civil rights." He cited the shooting of a gay youth, the gang rape of a lesbian and the murder of a black man -- in other words, violence based on homophobia and racism. Yes. But who nowadays disagrees?

Cohen even dares to go where even the "mean" GOP Senators would not go, saying that the Ricci case was about the denial of individual civil liberties, and that Sotomayor came down foresquare on the side of the rights of the state over that of the individual. Why can't our guys ever make points like this?

What, though, about a jurist who can advance the larger cause of civil rights and at the same time protect individual rights? This was the dilemma raised by the New Haven firefighters' case. The legal mind who could have found a "liberal" way out of the thicket would deserve a Supreme Court seat. As an appellate judge, Sotomayor did not even attempt such an exercise. She punted.

Sotomayor has demonstrated that she is minimally qualified to sit on the Supreme Court. Rah. But there are hundreds, if not thousands of Americans who can meet that standard. In relentlessly demanding the promotion of mediocraties to satisfy an unspoken quota, the Left diminshes itself and the laws it champions as constitutionally protected "social justice."

Our Embarrassing Climate Diplomacy

I don't believe in global warming. I agree that there is climate change - it has changed over the millenia, for good and for bad - but I don't believe that humans have had an appreciable effect on climate change, and have little chance of manipulating the climate to our benefit. I suspect a lot more people share this view. Sadly, the poli-sci majors and law school graduates who make up the West's political elite are absolutely convinced that we are doomed doomed doomed based as much on scary graphics and movies with portentious music as on "science." Things have gotten so bad that our foreign policy has descended into the farce of nagging developing countries about their emissions. Unsurprisingly, we are being rebuffed out of hand India Rejects US Carbon Limits Plan

India dismissed suggestions that it accept binding limits on carbon emissions, with a top official Sunday delivering a strong rebuke to overtures from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for the two countries to work together to combat climate change.

The rejection of the U.S. proposal was made in the middle of Mrs. Clinton's first visit to India as secretary of state and came just as the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama is gearing up to push for a new global pact on climate change.

"There is simply no case for the pressure that we, who have among the lowest emissions per capita, face to actually reduce emissions," Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh told Mrs. Clinton and her delegation."And as if this pressure was not enough, we also face the threat of carbon tariffs on our exports to countries such as yours," he said, according to a written account of Mr. Ramesh's remarks to Mrs. Clinton in their meeting. Mr. Ramesh handed out copies of the account to reporters at a news conference afterward with Mrs. Clinton standing nearby.

India is an ally, but don't worry, we are nagging our rivals, too: Energy Secretary Warns China On Emissions
In meetings with senior Chinese energy officials and in a speech at prestigious Tsinghua University, Mr Chu continued the Obama administration's efforts to push for greater action on climate change. China recently surpassed the US as the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases. While acknowledging that the world's developed Western nations have contributed most of the carbon dioxide already trapped in the atmosphere, Mr Chu warned that China could add more in the next few decades than everything the US emitted since the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas. Mr. Chu said in the speech to students of China's top science and engineering school that "The developed world did make the problem, I admit that. But the developing world can make it much worse." Painting a grim picture of a world faced with making a tough choice between something bad might happen or something very bad might happen even if global warming is addressed, Mr Chu urged China to invest more in energy efficient technologies in partnership with the US.

While the US government is filled with nervous nellies like Sec. Chu, who fears the Heavens & the Earth, and possibly his own shadow, China and India are filled with ambitious technocrats who would like to make as much wealth as we ahve over the decades, but which we have now declared to be politically incorrect. According to the Obama Administration, if other countries won't get on board, we will just have to pay for the emissions reductions ourselves. Has this been thought through? Commerce Secretary America Needs To Pay For China's Emissions

It’s bad enough that the Obama administration wants to penalize all Americans for their energy use through the cap-and-tax scheme that will hobble our economy and hike electricity and gas costs, but until now they only proposed to penalize us for our own energy use. With China refusing to join the West in economic suicide, who will pay for their emissions? Commerce Secretary says that the American consumer is to blame for China’s energy-production emissions — and we’ll pay for that instead of the Chinese:

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke said something amazing—U.S. consumers should pay for part of Chinese greenhouse-gas emissions. From Reuters: “It’s important that those who consume the products being made all around the world to the benefit of America — and it’s our own consumption activity that’s causing the emission of greenhouse gases, then quite frankly Americans need to pay for that,” Commerce Secretary Gary Locke told the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai

So we'll either have a trade war or more massive increases in the cost of living - for Americans. Where's the diplomatic leverage? I would love hear what the developing world's diplomats have to say about our climate proposals behind closed doors. Whatever it is, the word "smart" probably doesn't come up.

Kind of Blue

I thought this picture - call it "Iranian Critic Quotes Khomini Principles" - was fantastic:

It presents an almost Medieval tableau; the old revolutionary denounces the present regime while the past and present Supreme Leader look on and a gent with an assassain's mien lurks behind a curtain. The heavy use of blue adds to the sense of heaven at war with the earth, as clerics war with one another over earthly concerns about power and corruption, cloaking their dispute in the words of religion.

The Chairmen

The NY Times profiles JP Morgan's James Dimon, but completely misses a bigger story within the story sitting right there on the front page: In Washington, One Bank Chief Still Holds Sway

Jamie Dimon, the head of JPMorgan Chase, will hold a meeting of his board here in the nation’s capital for the first time on Monday, with a special guest expected: the White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.

Mr. Emanuel’s appearance would underscore the pull of Mr. Dimon, who amid the disgrace of his industry has emerged as President Obama’s favorite banker, and in turn, the envy of his Wall Street rivals. It also reflects a good return on what Mr. Dimon has labeled his company’s “seventh line of business” — government relations.

The business of better influencing Washington, begun in late 2007, was jump-started just as the financial crisis hit and the capital displaced New York as the nation’s money center. Then Mr. Obama’s election brought to power Chicago Democrats well-known to Mr. Dimon from his recent years running a bank there.

One of them is Mr. Emanuel, who has accepted the invitation to speak to the board pending a review by the White House counsel.

Rahm, you don't need advice from the White House counsel; you need a clout in the ear. There is no way that this is a good idea. People already think there is an untoward relationship between the Bailed Out and Big Government. Indeed, Simon Johnson's idea that the government's balance sheets have essentially been captured by corrupting financiers trying to protect their positions has come dangerously close to becoming a mainstream idea. Now you propose to "address" a board meeting (behind closed doors, naturally) for a bank that has profited handsomely from last year's chaos at the expense of its less well-connected rivals, while bragging about its robust DC lobbying efforts?

For a Republican chief of staff, this would be a no-brainer; he wouldn't speak in front of this bank's board of directors. The "GOP Culture of Corruption" headlines write themselves. I know that progressives think that their platitudinous politics insulate them from the sort of "corruption" charges that are the part of any GOP politicos' resume'. But, Rahm, I don't think there are enough Gay Pride Parades for you to march in to protect you from the appearance of impropriety here.

Dimon, unsurprisingly, is described as a major donor to the Democratic Party, and comes complete with the inevitable "Chicago connection." And you say he is Obama's "favorite banker?" Imagine that.

Old Wine In New Robes

Concurring Opinions writes for a lot of us when it says that too much time and effort goes into watching and analyzing Supreme Court nomination hearings, such as the recently concluded Sotomayor hearings: Randy Barnett Revisits Rosen

But I do think that the legal blogosphere comes out of these hearings looking pretty silly and oddly obsessed with an institution that decides almost no cases that matter to the political, economic or cultural life of the country. Even were the Supreme Court to be as practically significant as, say, the House’s Ways and Means committee (a proposition which is arguable), the devotion of so many resources to the intense study of a single confirmation hearing would still be odd. The goal of such hearings is obviously to allow Senators to talk their political bases about why they ought to be reelected while pretending to talk to the nominee about why she ought to be confirmed. That’s why, for example, we’ve got witnesses on constitutional property rights, an area of law which has - to my mind - disproportionate political salience when you consider the heavy governmental intrusions contemplated by the common law tort and contract regime, never mentioned in the hearings

I get that it’s a slow news week, or perhaps even month, but the attention that law professors, lawyers and journalists have paid to this hearing is unwarranted, especially when other far more interesting problems of legal reform and regulation are pressing. Worse, it encourages the view that the Justices are our platonic guardians, who must be blessed before they ascend into the heavens.

Well, for one thing there is a lot of money and political hay to be made when a Supreme Court nomination comes up, especially when progressives have a chance to beat up a conservative nominee. Chairmen bang their gavels, Senators bang their lecterns, and civil rights groups bang their contributer lists - all raising hell about Life in Robert Bork's America (where blacks must have "back of the bus" abortions).

Nominations are also one of the few areas in government where the checks and balances between all three branches of government play out in public at once. The Court is empowered (by itself, but we won't get into that) to review the activities of the Executive and Legislative branches, but the Court's membership is dependent on being selected by the Executive and then approved by the Senate. The Senate has an opportunity, not just to determine the membership of the Court, but also to check the president's power to make nominations. And, I think, Senators (who often see legislation they labor over for years get struck down by the Court) see nomination hearings as their one opportunity to speak directly to the Court and make its members squirm a little. It shouldn't be a surprise when political emotions quickly head toward 11.

The real problem with these hearings is the air of bogusness that hovers over the proceedings. Nominees assiduously dance around questions using the now-tired formulations "I can only follow the law," "I can only decide the cases in front of me," "I cannot answer hypotheticals." My favorite is "I have to follow precedent," which should be the bumpersticker slogan for policy-making Living Constitution proponents. Should the government take private property and give it to other private interests? "Precedent," or better yet "Super Precedent," says YES! Yaaayyy! But we never hear about this until it's too late.

These evasions may look good politically, but to the average person, they look evasive and Delphic, speaking in tongues where clarity is called for. Lawyers and activists might be satisfied, but the public is left with the impression that our Supreme Court justices are robotic dullards sticking to a script that they don't really believe in.

The root of the problem is that these are lifetime appointments, and Supreme Court justices tend to be very long-lived. As Rod Blagojovich would say, a seat on the Court is a "f***in' valuable thing." The air of drama would be lowered considerably if there were term limits on the justices' time on the Big Bench. The usual objections raised against legislative term limits - they would need time to build "experience" and seniority - simply don't apply to the justices. A justice can start having an effect on the Court immediately. There's no real seniority system on the Court; all they have is their votes. Justice Kennedy became "Mr. 5-4" within a few years of joining the Court, for example. The fact that Renquist and Scalia had been there longer had no effect on that. As for "experience," the justices have that from day one.

(Just as an aside, I thought Sotomayor demonstrated once and for all that she was a fairly mediocre pick in terms of intellect. However, her work experience - while often low-profile - was impressive. She has had a lot of exposure to a lot of areas of law in her work life, but I have had to piece this together from media reports. In an ideal world, her proponents would have downplayed the "first Hispanic woman" BS and touted her solid non-judicial credentials.)

My choice would be a term limit of 20 years. This is more than enough time to make a difference. Scalia would have been termed out in 2006. Thomas would be termed out in 2011. Stevens would have been gone in 1995(!). Back in the Olden Days, which ended sometime during the Eisenhower administration, Supreme Court justices were more subject to the robust operation of God's term limits. Harry Truman made two (or was it three?) nominations in one memorable summer due to death and disease among the justices.

A 20-year term linit would bring a sense of balance back to the Court, as it would be regularly infused with new blood. It would also remove some, but not all, of the hysterics that greet nominations. Finally, it would reduce the value attached to each seat, as we would be much more likely to know when seats would be open, and plan accordingly. The Constitution is supposed to operate with a minimum of fuss and disorder, but the placement of justices on the Supreme Court has become too fraught, such that the Court itself is diminished. Term limits would be a step towards reducing this trend.

A Sentimental Education

CA's budget cutting has struck the state's "other" university system, the 23-campus Cal State Universities. The usual draconian cuts "on the backs of the students" are being debated and denounced: CSU To Join UC In Cutting Pay, Raising Tuition

Just as the University of California's Board of Regents was voting Thursday morning to cut $813 million from the UC budget, the chancellor of the California State University system announced he will ask trustees to approve a hefty 20 percent fee hike on students next week.

CSU Chancellor Charles Reed said he will also ask for layoffs, unpaid furloughs and a range of other measures Tuesday to save the university system $584 million.

"It's nothing short of a mega-meltdown financially," Reed said.


California State University's Board of Trustees will decide Tuesday whether to approve Chancellor Charles Reed's plan to cut $584 million from the CSU budget. Here are the basics of his plan:

Higher student fees: A 20 percent fee hike, on top of the 10 percent increase approved in May, would bring the cost of attending a CSU school to $4,827.

Furloughs: All employees would take off two unpaid days per month.

Enrollment reduction: About 450,000 students attend CSU. Efforts would be made to reduce enrollment by 40,000 over two years.

Campus cuts of $190 million: Layoffs, course reductions, freezes on maintenance, construction, travel and more. Cut to be decided by officials at each campus.

Just to add to the sense of chaos and panic, the linked article fails to mention that tuition will cost $4,827 per year. At $2,413.50 per semester, CSU is still a bargain. I graduated from San Francisco State, and the education I got there was just as good as the one I got while attending Expensive Private U for one year. Most CSU students can actually work their way through school, a virtual impossibility at private schools and even most state schools. As such, most CSU students take these sorts of fee increases in stride:

Not all students are angry.

"I understand that they can't do anything about it," shrugged Aznaur Midov, an incoming senior at San Francisco State University who studies banking. "The university has to help itself to survive."

Lest anyone take Midov for an affluent gent, he works as a waiter and as a security guard, and he pays his tuition with - yes - a credit card.

The adults who work at CCU, on the other hand, are up in arms as their cloistered world is invaded by the barbarian hordes led by the implacable forces of Recession, Balance Sheets, and Macroeconomics:

Employees are worried.

"If my pay is cut, I could very well lose my house," said Jane Veeder, a professor of visual communication design at San Francisco State. "Is the CSU going to co-sign my loan?"

At Cal State Long Beach, librarian Tiffini Travis said she was hoping to teach a community service seminar this fall in which freshmen would help feed the homeless at a local shelter.

"Now I'm afraid we're going to be the ones eating there," she said.

Would it be out of bounds if I guess that a "professor of visual communication design" is the sort of progressive who supports the unionization, high public pension costs, environmentally correct "no growth" laws, taxes on "the rich," and other initiatives that have raised the cost of housing (and everything else) in CA? Now, she's flummuxed that the state government has grown too big to be sustained over the long term? It was inevitable! By the way, having CSU "co-sign your mortgage" is the sort of thinking that lies at the root of the present crisis, demonstrating that some people still don't get it.

The Commission! Let's Begin! The Commission! Look Out Sin!

There's good news/bad news on the Financial Crisis front. Commissioners have been named to a "non-partisan" body that will take evidence and draft a report on the causes and effects of the Crash of '08. The good news is that there will be a commission, so we can maybe sort out what was going on at Treasury, the Fed, the Wall Street investment banks, Fannie & Freddie, etc. The bad news is that this will be yet another "non-partisan" commission headed by a partisan Democrat, in this case CA's former Treasurer Phil Angelides, who comes complete expensive suits, unctuous smile and ties to unions and progressive anti-business lobbies. You can almost feel the fairness in the air. Smells like victory: Financial Crisis Commission Chair: Will Leave No Stone Left Unturned

Phil Angelides, the chairman of the newly formed Financial Crisis Commission, pledged Wednesday to leave no stone unturned as part of the body's investigation into the events that led to the monumental collapse of the financial markets last year.

He said that he would not let partisan bickering derail the commission's efforts, citing as an example the panel established in the wake of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The 9/11 Commission is hardly the Gold Standard of investigative commissions. Will there be a Richard Clarke figure giving partisan anti-GOP testimony in the same week that his book comes out? Will there be a Jamie Gorelick figure who should be a subject of investigation, rather than having a seat in the judge's chair? Who will take Richard Ben-Veniste's attack dog role? Which room should Sandy Berger go to to steal memos about Clinton/Rubin/Summers efforts to de-regulate banks and use Fannie & Freddie to artificially inflate "affordable housing?" Will there be "Jersey Girls" and "Lehman Families" to jeer testimony by Treasury staffers? With Angelides holding the gavel, I would predict that private interests will be whipped while public interests will benefit from the White Wash.

The other members do give some hope that the proceedings will be conducted in a mature manner:
Joining him is former Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and the ex-chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, Brooksley Born.

Representing the business community are Heather Murren, a retired managing director at investment bank Merrill Lynch, and John W. Thompson, chairman of Symantec Corp. (SYMC), a business software provider. The sixth Democratic-appointed member of the panel will be Byron Georgiou, a Las Vegas businessman and attorney.

The Republican appointees to the commission are former chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Bill Thomas, Douglas Holtz-Eakin, an economic adviser to Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during last year's presidential campaign, former director of the Bush White House's National Economic Council Keith Hennessey, and Peter Wallison, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank

The choices of Hennessey and Born are especially inspired. Hennessey is good on numbers, policy and politics. Born will benefit from the Absolute Moral Authority of having been "right" on regulating derivatives.

The Commission has an ambitious agenda before it. While the 9/11 Commission focused on a single discrete event, the Crash of '08 played out over several years and involved bad decisions made by the thousands in offices and homes across the country. Certainly, creating a spectacle out of show trials for the likes of Ken Lewis and Hank Paulson will be a lot more fun than actually trying to learn what happened. Rather than a search for answers, this could easily devolve into the search for the Narrative. Hopefully enough of the Commissioners will be intellectually rgorous enough to pursue the former, not the latter.

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