June 06, 2008

An experiment in Bush/Dow coefficients of correlation

As a brief endnote to Friday's musing, President Bush is about to address the nation on the "economy." I will watch this speech on CNBC and note the Dow at the moment when Bush begins speaking. I have noticed in the past that as Bush speaks, the Dow sinks with practically every word. It's already been a terrible day on Wall Street, and we'll see if King Bizarro Midas can work his magic again:

The Dow at the moment Bush begins to speak: 12,314 Down 289.
Dry mouth, slurring his words. He looks gaunt these days.
5 minutes in, Dow down 288. Confounding the theory.
7 minutes in, Down down 287. This man is a leader.
Uh-oh. At 9 minute mark, down 294.
Bush still on stage, Dow down 298.
So when Bush began, Dow was at 12,314. As he turned to observe the swearing in of his new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dow was at 12,305.

9 point loss in the course of a 10 minute speech. It's good Bush didn't speak for an hour. Would have cost us 54 points. Wait-- now we're at 321 down. This must be the hangover effect from a Bush speech. Just when the country is feeling hopeless, Bush begins speaking and we have our confirmation - there truly is nothing but despair on the horizon.

The Bushed Legacy

I was getting a haircut and talking to C, the redoubtable scissors expert, about something which had been on my mind recently; to wit, that Nixon's great mistake, that which got him thrown out of office, was his timidity in breaking the law. Watergate was a minor episode in American politics, a "third rate burglary," which failed even in its immediate object. It became dangerous only because of the elaborate efforts at cover-up by a paranoid president, who enlisted the CIA's help in thwarting the FBI investigation, laundered money through Mexico to buy silence of the burglars, etc. Nixon came undone when it was finally revealed that his direct involvement in the cover-up conspiracy began a few days after the break-in occurred, thanks to the "Butterfield" tapes routinely maintained in the Oval Office.

To be sure, the Nixon Administration was guilty of other misprisions of office. The clandestine bombing of Cambodia (detailed masterfully in "Sideshow"), harassing tax audits of political enemies, illegal wiretaps, and the "enemies list." Modern Republican administrations (beginning with Nixon) always engage in systematic violations of federal statutes and of the Constitution. Reagan and Bush I had Iran-Contra, a scandal every bit as outrageous as anything Bush Junior ever came up with. I suppose it's because, down deep, Republicans, with their paternalistic attitude about governance, simply don't believe that the laws really apply to them. Laws simply help them do their job of governing the rest of us. They're not meant to stand in their way, because their intentions are good and they're only doing what they have to do.

George W. Bush found the corrective to Nixon's timidity by violating so many laws, and committing so many unconstitutional acts, that the press, Congress, bloggers, everybody, simply gave up trying to follow them. There can never be any focus on one scandal because the pattern of lawlessness is so diffuse and pervasive that the picture hazes over and you're left feeling powerless. My guess is that Dick Cheney is the true author of this innovative approach. Wear the opposition down with a thousand jabs to the solar plexus. While they're trying to digest the latest Senate report concluding that the country was deliberately misled concerning the true level of threat posed by Iraq (as the Senate Intelligency report released Wednesday stated unequivocally), they'll miss the redacted report from the FBI indicating that Scooter Libby practically admitted that he leaked Valerie Plame's name at the suggestion of the Vice President himself. While they're engrossed in all that, keep pushing that telecom amnesty bill to cover up all the illegal wiretapping in violation of FISA, which the House seems poised to enact, and then they won't notice that prisoners in Guantanamo, who have been denied habeas corpus, are having their cases dismissed because they've been tortured in violation of U.S. war crimes statutes. Oh, and we can keep a lid on politicizing the Justice Department by simply giving the finger to Rep. John Conyers through an outrageous extension of the doctrine of executive privilege, and the neat irony there is that's the very privilege which was so spectacularly curtailed in United States vs. Nixon by a vote of 8-0.

It just makes you dizzy. The very real danger the United States faces results from its very tolerance of all this illegality. A constitutional form of government can slip by degrees into autocracy. If you need a historical precedent, study the history of Germany between 1930 and 1933.

I note with unease that John McCain has completely reversed himself on the subject of whether the President is "above the law." It's remarkable the issue can even be posited this way, as if it's an open question. In December, responding to questions from Charlie Savage of the Boston Globe, McCain was unequivocal in his answer: of course not. The President is subject to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and cannot wiretap or intercept the mail of American citizens without a warrant from the FISA court. Now, however, as his spokesman Douglas Holtz-Eakin says, McCain supports the telecom amnesty bill because of the President's inherent "Article II" powers in a time of war to order wiretaps against American citizens with or without court authorization.

This is the "unitary executive" stuff we've heard so much about from Bush operatives like Cheney, David Addington and -- always, inevitably, like a bad dream you can't wake up from -- John Yoo. Samuel Alito was chosen as a Supreme Court judge because of his amenability to this unconstitutional concept, one which rides roughshod over the old regime which served us so well until 2001 - the balance of powers.

The "maverick," who votes with Bush 95% of the time and is now buying into his most dangerous and loony ideas, simply must be defeated. Respect for the law has to be restored, beginning in the Oval Office.

June 04, 2008

In defense of my assessment of GWB's intelligence

I have been challenged by an e-mailer to defend my oft-repeated (okay, occasional and inconsistent) claim that George W. Bush is not dumb, and indeed my sometime and equally mysterious assertion that he is of above-average intelligence. I can understand the question. Listening to Barack Obama's masterful speech today to the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), I was impressed again at how strange it is to listen to an American politician who is not only comfortable speaking English but can risk forays into foreign languages. (Indeed, by the end of the speech I think his Jewish listeners might have been convinced that he was educated in a yeshiva and not in the rumored madrassah, and that his middle name is Heschel, not Hossein.) I would probably pay pretty good money to listen to Bush attempt "tikkun olam" (repair of the world), for example, which Barry handled perfectly. With L'il George, I'm sure it would come out "tickin' all 'em."

Which points out W's major difficulty, of course. He can't talk real good. Verbally he's subpar. It would be fatuous to deny it, although Bush would say it's "fat-you-us." So he sounds like an idiot, but I maintain (maybe delusionally) that he's not. He's clever. I base this on a few observations.

First, he's still President. When one considers how many serious infractions of the United States Code and the Constitution have occurred under his direction while he's been in office, this is no small achievement. Any one of his misprisions of office would have thrown a lesser conniver out on his can. Consider:

(1) It is now commonly accepted that he misrepresented the state of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, systematically and deliberately, declaring himself and sending his reps out to sell the tale that Saddam was absolutely lousy with anthrax, ricin, nukes, nerve gas, you name it. Huge stockpiles of ghastly stuff. Upon arrival in Baghdad 140,000 American weapons inspectors were unable to find a single thing. Not only did Bush not pause in his crusade, he escalated the war. And nothing happened to him.

(2) Bush's closest circle of advisors were involved in a conspiracy to reveal the identity of an American covert operative, Valerie Plame, a felony. The chances of Bush not having direct, personal, and contemporaneous knowledge of the involvement of Dick Cheney, Scooter Libby and Karl Rove in talking to reporters about her work at the CIA are approximately .0000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%. He promised to get to the bottom of the leak, to fire those involved, to clean house. When it became public knowledge that his own lieutenants were among the leakers, nothing happened. He then set aside the one conviction resulting from the conspiracy and still nothing happened to him. He escaped unscathed.

(3) Bush freely admits that his administration violated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), another felony, because they preferred their own methods to compliance with the law. Nothing has happened to him.

(4) Bush freely admits that his administration uses "enhanced interrogation techniques" which we and the rest of the civilized world know are torture and violations of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, and which constitute war crimes under the United States Code (felonies). Nothing has happened to Bush.

(5) Bush's closest advisors, including Harriet Miers, Karl Rove and Joshua Bolten, have been subpoenaed to testify before Congressional committees. They say they don't feel like it. Nothing happens.

Of course, this is a partial list. While all this has gone on, Bush has appeared at many press conferences, press "availabilities," and in other public situations where he has taken questions about all these subjects. He answers them, sort of, out in broad daylight. With truly scary facts working against him, Bush almost never says anything which makes his situation worse. Indeed, often he will invoke the war on terror or Congressional inertia to make the case that he's only breaking the law because he can't get any help in his lonely quest to make America safe. Which brings up his other gift, his ability to bully Congress into giving him what he wants: exonerations, hundreds of billions for his wars, whatever, all while working with the lowest approval ratings of a modern president.

It's worth noting that Bush's SAT scores in math were good, in verbal aptitude not so much. So he is adroit with what you might call symbolic logic, just so long as the language of such logic isn't in word form. I have thought that this may be a paradoxical source of strength. A President like Clinton, for example, was so verbal, so prolix in his expatiation on the topic at hand that he inevitably got himself into deep trouble. He just said too much in too many complex (though well-crafted) sentences, which, when reviewed later, contained too many contradictions. Bush sometimes runs on, but always within the confines of that meager vocabulary. He repeats, over and over again, certain thunderously obvious conclusions in that same dreary language. "Evil-doers who lurk." "Killers." "New democracy in Iraq." "World's a better place without Saddam." "Keep Iran from acquiring the know-how to build a bomb." "Before 9/11..." "After 9/11..." "9/11." "Let taxpayers keep their own hard-earned money." It's hard for Bush to stray away from his "message" because the words don't allow it. He has a general, clear sense of where he's trying to go, and he doesn't care if it sounds like page 3 of a Dick & Jane primer. Granted, it doesn't sound much like an intelligent man speaking, but you try it sometime. Commit all those felonies, all that deception, all those unconstitutional actions right out in the open, then conduct a press conference where you don't take the 5th and see how long you last.

A dubious skill, I admit, but a skill nonetheless. One that a "moron," as Bill Maher habitually calls him, could never pull off.

June 03, 2008

America's IQ Test in November

Next January either Barack Obama or John McCain will be the 44th President of the United States. If Obama is elected, there is a reasonable chance the country will make progress toward modernity and sustainable prosperity over the ensuing four years. If McCain is elected, there is a reasonable chance the country will enter a period of irremediable decline.

One measure of intelligence, and probably a particularly relevant one, is the way a human behaves when confronted with an environment of limited knowledge and uncertain outcomes. The more adept a person is at synthesizing data into relevant combinations and working with that information in a creative way (meaning, as one definition, the ability to see previously unanticipated combinations among such data sets), the better such a person will perform in the face of uncertainty. This is the kind of person we need presently as chief executive: a smart and creative person who can absorb information quickly, see pathways toward results and organize resources to get there. I think this is the kind of person Barack Obama is.

His contest with Hillary Clinton should never have been close. She was the presumptive nominee with an established, wealthy political machine at her disposal and the all-important air of inevitability. Big Media had preordained her coronation. The observation that the primary race has been close or that Hillary won overwhelmingly in the white trailer-home demographic
misses the point entirely. A reasonably good showing by Barack would have been amazing; instead, he kicked Hillary and Bill Clinton's ass up one side of the street and down the other. That's a simple fact. He accomplished this feat because (a) he's a born winner and (b) because he's smart as hell. He put together a political organization that took advantage of modern technology, i.e., the Internet, and cast the tenor of his campaign in terms of youthful reinvigoration of the country, which everyone knows we need.

John Sidney McCain, on the other hand, is another aging dumb white guy with anger management issues. I think we've just concluded the experiment on how that works in terms of keeping America competitive and modern in the 21st Century world. There is absolutely nothing special about him. A child of privilege, the son and grandson of Admirals in the U.S. Navy, he attended the Episcopal School outside Washington D.C. and then his father secured a place for him at the Naval Academy, not too far away in Annapolis. In a class of 899, McCain graduated in 894th position. This is an important point and not some casually observed calumny. He's a goof-off, a glad-hander, a back-slapper, a guy who regales the country club set with his tales of derring-do in the Vietnam War. He retired from the Navy at the age of 44 and immediately went to Congress. He has no background in anything other than flying a jet and politics (and beer distribution), and no advanced degrees in any discipline. We should believe him when he says he doesn't know anything about economics. He reportedly called George W. Bush "dumb as a stump" in one offhand assessment a few years back. No, George W. Bush is not dumb; but this was a case of a door knob calling the stump dense. McCain thinks that the Sunni al-Qaeda would go to Tehran, seat of a Shiite theocracy, for training and support. And terrorism is his signature issue?

McCain has no new ideas. He talks about the United States in strictly militaristic terms. Here's an interesting observation from Dmitry Orlov's book op.cit. about the U.S. military in the modern world: "Russia has scaled back defense spending considerably after the Soviet collapse, but the defense spending of the United States has kept growing like a tumor and is on course to match and surpass what the rest of the world spends on defense. While one might naively assume that the rest of the world is quivering before such overwhelming military might, nothing of the sort is occurring." Orlov points out that the U.S. has never bombed or invaded any nation formerly within the Warsaw Pact. That's because we can't; we can't attack any country with nuclear weapons nor use our conventional army against such a country. A big conventional army may make us feel secure, and it's useful for fighting useless wars, such as McCain's current favorite, Iraq. But it can't make us secure. If it could, why did 9-11 happen? Al-Qaeda succeeded on 9-11 because we had incompetent, out-of-it guys (and a gal) running the government, although don't take my word for it, consider the words of the House Senate Joint Inquiry Report, Findings & Conclusions: "For a variety of reasons, the Intelligence Community failed to capitalize on both the individual and collective significance of available information that appears relevant to the events of September 11. As a result, the Community missed opportunities to disrupt the September 11 plot by denying entry to or detaining would-be hijackers; to at least try to unravel the plot through surveillance and other investigative work within the United States; and, finally, to generate a heightened state of alert and thus harden the homeland against attack."

When you read the 9-11 Commission information, including the Congressional Report cited above, you realize the CIA and FBI actually did a pretty damn good job. It wasn't a case of needing more aircraft carriers; it was trying to get someone at the White House, other than Richard Clarke, to pay attention to what the agencies were finding.

John McCain is not convinced that the $1 trillion we spend annually on defense, wars, intelligence and security is enough. We should keep building our Maginot Line and other World War II relics to make ourselves feel safe. This isn't going to help. We need to be smarter using what we already have. We can't disregard the $10 trillion national debt the next president will inherit, the lack of modern mass transporation, the antiquated and soon-to-be obsolete energy paradigm on which the entire economy is based, the quivering entitlement programs. It's not a time to just keep going with the same old, dumb, out-to-lunch ideas and see what happens.

Give me the smart guy. Give me the kid from the broken home and mixed racial parentage who aced his classes at Punahou, took Columbia University by storm, went on to be President of the Harvard Law Review, then wiped the floor with Billary Clinton. Give me that guy. I'm tired of losing. I think this guy knows how to win.

June 02, 2008

Krugman's Doppelgänger writes another column for New York Times

I'm relieved that I've found the answer to the mysteriously off-base columns appearing under Paul Krugman's byline in the New York Times recently. He's not writing them. Apparently, a doppelgänger has assumed his place in the Op-Ed department and is churning out nonsense in some sort of weirdo retribution move. I don't have all the details.

It's a great word, Doppelgänger, from the German for "double-goer," an apparition or ghost who takes corporeal form and appears in the place of his human counterpart. Spooky. Like Paul Krugman's Doppelgänger's ("PKD," for short) column today. If you think America currently has a problem with inflation, reflected in such luxuries as basic food and gasoline, you're wrong. You might think in such an erroneous way because you're stuck in a 1970's mind-set. Out-of-control inflation gets underway because of a "wage-price spiral," and while prices are going up, wages aren't, so there's nothing to keep driving the prices up. PKD cites a case from 1981 to prove his point, involving the United Mine Workers. In those days of high inflation, the union demanded a hefty 11% pay raise over the next contractual period to keep pace with anticipated inflation. That isn't happening now, so there is nothing to fuel inflation.

PKD notes in passing that there really are no unions to speak of anymore, and any demand for higher wages would fall on deaf ears because of the weak job market. So: "And since there isn’t a wage-price spiral, we don’t need higher interest rates to get inflation under control. When the surge in commodity prices levels off — and it will; the laws of supply and demand haven’t been repealed — inflation will subside on its own."

It's uncanny how well PKD has internalized his double-goer's style, even down to beginning the sentence with "And." Unlike the human form of Paul Krugman, however, the PKD doesn't seem to know what he's talking about. Or he does and he's deliberately making Krugman look bad as part of that karmic thing which must underlie this episode of double-going. Maybe it has something to do with his shilling for Hillary.

I'm not an apparition currently serving as a Geist-instructor (that joke is only for the very subtle) on the economics faculty at Princeton, but it seems to me that the main sources of inflation in food and gasoline do not lie within the direct, one-for-one control of the cash-strapped American consumer. If PKD excludes food and gasoline from inflation computations, as the Federal government does in order not to give Social Security recipients a living stipend, then there's not much of a problem anyway. Simply eliminate everything Americans really have to buy and the inflation problem goes away in a hurry. So I applaud PKD for a more realistic approach in this respect.

However, let us also be realistic about the effect that fading American buying power can have on the world price of oil. 87 million barrels per day, worldwide usage. We import 14 million barrels and produce another 7. Our importation figure against world usage, therefore, is about 16%. The gouging American oil companies, of course, have a "me too" attitude about the prices OPEC and the other big oil producers are demanding, piling up dough against the day when they'll either have to go into the ethanol business or simply start drinking the stuff. So our share of total usage might fall a little and have a diluted moderating influence on price, which may be completely offset by a further decline in the purchasing price of the dollar as our economy continues to tank, in part because of the crushing cost of fuel. And (see?, PKD, I can do it too) since world prices for oil are denominated in dollars, the Saudis and our other friends will jack the price, which will not be felt as strongly in areas of the world which have hard currency instead of American Monopoly money.

We're not in Kansas anymore, PKD, and it's not 1978. Our market does not determine everything that happens in the world. We're, hate to say this, kind of at the mercy of the world.

The food problem is also related to petroleum costs. Displacement of grain crops by ethanol-corn, cost of transport, cost of fertilizer inputs, cost of everything. So it was a cute title for the column, Doppelgänger --"A Return of That 70's Show?," but the real Paul Krugman knows you should not be seduced by a clever title into writing a whole column on a specious theory. Nicht es wahr? You probably looked up that "supply and demand" thing in Chapter 1 of one of PK's econ textbooks. Not much depth there; you're just phoning it in. Maybe it's time to head for the Ausgang.