5 December 2004

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23 October 2004

And I Thought It Was The Heavy Food: Edward Prescott, co-winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize in Economics, asks:

Why do Americans work so much more than Europeans?…

Here's a startling fact: Based on labor market statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Americans aged 15-64, on a per-person basis, work 50% more than the French. Comparisons between Americans and Germans or Italians are similar. What's going on here? What can possibly account for these large differences in labor supply?

The answer? Marginal tax rates. It's a fascinating economic analysis. Read the article (and then go back to work!).

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19 October 2004

Mr. Saigon:

My friend and colleague Jeff Grimshaw has just completed a trip to Vietnam, working to help local orphanages—including the one from which he received his stunning daughter Anna several years ago.

What he saw and experienced is moving … and online via a Flickr photostream he's created. Click the pic and check it out.

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18 October 2004

Did Somebody Step On A Duck?: Esquire has a nice, and free, “What I've Learned” from the late (and great) Rodney Dangerfield. He didn't have an easy life, and in the face of it his humor was remarkable. Among the gems is this account of how a legend was born:

I started over again with an image: “Nothing goes right.” Then when The Godfather came out, all I heard was, “Show respect. With me, you show respect.” So I changed the image to “I don't get no respect.” I tried it out in Greenwich Village. I remember the first joke I told: “Even as a kid, I'd play hide and seek and the other kids wouldn't even look for me.” The people laughed. After the show, they started saying to me, “Me, too—I don't get no respect.” I figured, let's try it again.
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17 October 2004

Freakish Debunkment: The truth about Ozzy's bat, Rod's stomach, Mama's ham sandwich, and more …

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Oil May Float, But It Sinks Airlines: From WSJ online:

Greenspan warned that a further increase in crude-oil prices could risk “more serious negative consequences” for the economy. U.S. retail sales surged 1.5% in September but consumer sentiment soured in October. Producer prices rose 0.1%.
Keep an eye on oil (current spot prices here) … if the rise continues you can expect two “serious negative consequences”—US Airways will be out of business, and Delta will declare bankruptcy.

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Send Me Mail And Tell Me Why Your Opponent Sucks ... Please: Living in a “swing state,” our house is being spammed with a heavy, daily dose of political direct mail. Most of them are from the Dems (which is actually a bit of a surprise to me, given that I thought Karl Rove had made direct mail the province of Republicans), and most of them are ridiculously simple-minded and insulting.

But again, it's like advertisers say: If you hate or don't get an ad, it wasn't meant for you.

Regardless, I figured: when you have a surplus, share the love. So I'll be sharing the main messages from the pieces we get, and you can indulge in the same swing-state reading we're getting in PA.

Today's lot:

  • JOBS SHIPPED OVERSEAS … the Right Choice? From the Dems. Notice the clever double entendre of the word “right?” Ooooh …
  • Congressman Jim Gerlach Hopes You Won't Check Out His Record … Because If You Do, You Will See His Priorities Are All Wrong Also from the Dems, this time in support of their local US House candidate, Lois Murphy.
What are Lois' priorities? Glad you asked. From the mailing:

  • “Stop wasteful spending practices in Iraq” … an interesting rhetorical combination of government largess and the war, there.
  • “No more government contracts to companies that set up sham 'headquarters' in Bermuda” … oh, thank God. For a moment there I thought the critical “sham headquarters in Bermuda” issue would be bumped by something myopic … like violent crime.
  • “Create jobs in America” … always a good priority, and a nice dovetail with the refusal to create headquarter staffing jobs in Bermuda.
  • “Lower the cost of healthcare” … well, now there's a priority.
Welcome to our world …

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Don't Talk To Me: Spending as much time on airplanes as I do, I particularly enjoyed this MSNBC article on how to avoid talkative seatmates (via FARK).

I'm a big fan of the Headphone Strategy myself … although I thought this was interesting (if a bit strange):

Robert Salmon of Chevy Chase sends a different kind of message. Whenever he flies on Southwest Airlines, Salmon dons on a surgical mask in the boarding area. It’s not that he has a breathing disorder or an infectious disease. Since Southwest has an open-seating policy, Salmon uses the mask to discourage people from sitting next to him. And if someone does wind up beside him, he said the mask pretty much ensures the traveler won’t start chatting away.

“It’s very effective. I don’t have to make any excuses about why I don’t want to talk, people just stay away,” said Salmon, a housing constructor.

Hey … I'm sure it works (if you don't mind living a lie) …

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9 October 2004

Jib Jab, V 2.0: It's good to be in D.C.!.

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Keep Or Kill?: I'm struggling with whether I should keep Avocare online … my posting is so infrequent, and I'm so involved in other stuff.

Keep? Kill? Kill? Keep?


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24 September 2004

The Commission: With the presidential debates looming, you might enjoy visiting the online home of the Commission on Presidential Debates.

For the “How Things Have Changed” file: The first debates, held between Lincoln and Douglas in 1858, involved seven debates in seven Illinois congressional districts. The format: each debate lasted three hours; first candidate spoke for one hour; the second for one and a half hours; the first replying for a half hour. Candidates alternated going first.

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19 September 2004

Damn Right: Byron York, Opinion Journal:

The moral of it all is that it is infinitely more difficult for journalists to make questionable assertions in the age of the blogosphere than it was in years past. There is an army of well-informed fact-checkers out there, all connected on the Internet. There are people who know about things like computer fonts, or IBM typewriters circa 1972, or the arcane terminology of the Air National Guard. Pick a completely different subject, and there will be people who know about that, too.

CBS was clearly angry that its judgment was questioned— by nobodies! “You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances \[at the network\] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing,” said one former CBS executive who defended Mr. Rather.

Well, it turned out that the guy in his pajamas was right, at least this time.

As TCP contributor and good friend of the blogosphere N.Z. Bear has said:

That kind of carelessness might have cut it a few years ago, when somnolent Big Media hacks were satisfied to define reporting as getting quotes from both party's spokesmen. But times have changed, friends: there isn't just one new sheriff in town, there's thousands of us. We will fact-check your ass, and we will do it thoroughly and properly, with links and primary sources that let our readers decide where the truth lies. So straighten up and fly right, because we are watching —- and we do this crap for fun.
Cross posted here.

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"The Administration Is Full Of Shit": James Fallows continues his acclaimed reporting on Iraq with his latest installment at The Atlantic, Bush's Lost Year (subscription required). This portion caught my eye (and since many readers likely don't have a subscription to The Atlantic, I'm posting a large segment so you get the general thesis):

“Let me tell you my gut feeling,” a senior figure at one of America's military-sponsored think tanks told me recently, after we had talked for twenty minutes about details of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. “If I can be blunt, the Administration is full of shit. In my view we are much, much worse off now than when we went into Iraq. That is not a partisan position. I voted for these guys. But I think they are incompetent, and I have had a very close perspective on what is happening. Certainly in the long run we have harmed ourselves. We are playing to the enemy's political advantage. Whatever tactical victories we may gain along the way, this will prove to be a strategic blunder.”

This man will not let me use his name, because he is still involved in military policy. He cited the experiences of Joseph Wilson, Richard Clarke, and Generals Eric Shinseki and Anthony Zinni to illustrate the personal risks of openly expressing his dissenting view. But I am quoting him anonymously—as I will quote some others—because his words are representative of what one hears at the working level.

To a surprising extent their indictment doesn't concentrate on the aspect of the problem most often discussed in public: exactly why the United States got the WMD threat so wrong. Nor does it involve a problem I have previously discussed in this magazine (see “Blind Into Baghdad,” January/February Atlantic): the Administration's failure, whether deliberate or inadvertent, to make use of the careful and extensive planning for postwar Iraq that had been carried out by the State Department, the CIA, various branches of the military, and many other organizations. Rather, these professionals argue that by the end of 2002 the decisions the Administration had made—and avoided making—through the course of the year had left the nation less safe, with fewer positive options. Step by step through 2002 America's war on terror became little more than its preparation for war in Iraq.

Because of that shift, the United States succeeded in removing Saddam Hussein, but at this cost: The first front in the war on terror, Afghanistan, was left to fester, as attention and money were drained toward Iraq. This in turn left more havens in Afghanistan in which terrorist groups could reconstitute themselves; a resurgent opium-poppy economy to finance them; and more of the disorder and brutality the United States had hoped to eliminate. Whether or not the strong international alliance that began the assault on the Taliban might have brought real order to Afghanistan is impossible to say. It never had the chance, because America's premature withdrawal soon fractured the alliance and curtailed postwar reconstruction. Indeed, the campaign in Afghanistan was warped and limited from the start, by a pre-existing desire to save troops for Iraq.

A full inventory of the costs of war in Iraq goes on. President Bush began 2002 with a warning that North Korea and Iran, not just Iraq, threatened the world because of the nuclear weapons they were developing. With the United States preoccupied by Iraq, these other two countries surged ahead. They have been playing a game of chess, or nerves, against America—and if they have not exactly won, they have advanced by several moves. Because it lost time and squandered resources, the United States now has no good options for dealing with either country. It has fewer deployable soldiers and weapons; it has less international leverage through the “soft power” of its alliances and treaties; it even has worse intelligence, because so many resources are directed toward Iraq.

At the beginning of 2002 the United States imported over 50 percent of its oil. In two years we have increased that figure by nearly 10 percent. The need for imported oil is the fundamental reason the United States must be deferential in its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Revenue from that oil is the fundamental reason that extremist groups based in Saudi Arabia were so rich. After the first oil shocks, in the mid-1970s, the United States took steps that reduced its imports of Persian Gulf oil. The Bush Administration could have made similar steps a basic part of its anti-terrorism strategy, and could have counted on making progress: through most of 2002 the Administration could assume bipartisan support for nearly anything it proposed. But its only such suggestion was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Before America went to war in Iraq, its military power seemed limitless. There was less need to actually apply it when all adversaries knew that any time we did so we would win. Now the limits on our military's manpower and sustainability are all too obvious. For example, the Administration announced this summer that in order to maintain troop levels in Iraq, it would withdraw 12,500 soldiers from South Korea. The North Koreans, the Chinese, the Iranians, the Syrians, and others who have always needed to take into account the chance of U.S. military intervention now realize that America has no stomach for additional wars. Before Iraq the U.S. military was turning away qualified applicants. Now it applies “stop-loss” policies that forbid retirement or resignation by volunteers, and it has mobilized the National Guard and Reserves in a way not seen since World War II.

Because of outlays for Iraq, the United States cannot spend $150 billion for other defensive purposes. Some nine million shipping containers enter American ports each year; only two percent of them are physically inspected, because inspecting more would be too expensive. The Department of Homeland Security, created after 9/11, is a vast grab-bag of federal agencies, from the Coast Guard to the Border Patrol to the former Immigration and Naturalization Service; ongoing operations in Iraq cost significantly more each month than all Homeland Security expenses combined. The department has sought to help cities large and small to improve their “first responder” systems, especially with better communications for their fire and emergency medical services. This summer a survey by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that fewer than a quarter of 231 major cities under review had received any of the aid they expected. An internal budget memo from the Administration was leaked this past spring. It said that outlays for virtually all domestic programs, including homeland security, would have to be cut in 2005—and the federal budget deficit would still be more than $450 billion.

Worst of all, the government-wide effort to wage war in Iraq crowded out efforts to design a broader strategy against Islamic extremists and terrorists; to this day the Administration has articulated no comprehensive long-term plan. It dismissed out of hand any connection between policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and increasing tension with many Islamic states. Regime change in Iraq, it said, would have a sweeping symbolic effect on worldwide sources of terror. That seems to have been true—but in the opposite way from what the President intended. It is hard to find a counterterrorism specialist who thinks that the Iraq War has reduced rather than increased the threat to the United States.

And here is the startling part. There is no evidence that the President and those closest to him ever talked systematically about the “opportunity costs” and tradeoffs in their decision to invade Iraq. No one has pointed to a meeting, a memo, a full set of discussions, about what America would gain and lose.

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New Nickels: coin_louisiana.gifHave you seen this in your pocket or purse yet? They started showing up in my change last week. CNN informs: it's a representation of the “Jefferson Peace Medal. This was a ceremonial medallion presented to Native American chiefs during treaty signings and other big pow-wows.”

Not that we showered peace upon the native peoples … but that's a different post for a different time.

And the change doesn't end there … we're changing the front and back for 2005.

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13 September 2004

Strengthen The Good: The Brent Woodall Foundation: Some people, five weeks pregnant on the day they lose the love of their live in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, would recoil into an emotional hole and become bitter with the world. But not everyone … some, like Tracy Woodall, would instead see in 9/11 motivation to devote their lives to helping autistic children. Want to feel good about something today? Go here to learn about Tracy and strengthen the good.

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12 September 2004

Three Years On: Friends, family, and colleagues generally know that on the morning of 9.11.01 I was airborne, sitting in a US Airways 737 making way from Philadelphia to Chicago. That flight landed at 7:45 a.m. CDT, three minutes before the first plane hit the North Tower of WTC … which as I figure, makes my arrival one of the last commercial flights to have existed purely in the “old world.”

This past Friday I was again in a US Airways 737, making way from Dallas to Philadelphia, when I cam across this essay by Mark Helprin in the Wall Street Journal. He asks an essential question, “Three years after September 11, where do we stand?” and his response precisely captures the frustration I’ve felt for some months. I’ve posted the full text below.

As you read it, ask yourself: Are we really prosecuting war against Islamic terrorism? Perhaps you can answer the question with another question: “Other than living with greater uncertainty, fear, and economic instability, how has your life changed as a result of our prosecuting war against Islamic terrorism?”

If you are like me, the answer is, “Not at all,” and that, friends, is not war at all.

Three Years On: We still haven't learned the lessons of 9/11.

BY MARK HELPRIN, Friday, September 10, 2004 12:01 a.m. EDT

Three years after September 11, where do we stand?

Out of fear and confusion we have hesitated to name the enemy. We proceed as if we are fighting disparate criminals united by coincidence, rather than the vanguard of militant Islam, united by ideology, sentiment, doctrine, and practice, its partisans drawn from Morocco to the Philippines, Chechnya to the Sudan, a vast swath of the earth that, in regard to the elemental beliefs that fuel jihad, is as homogeneous as Denmark.

Too timid to admit to a clash of civilizations even as it occurs, we failed to declare the war, thus forfeiting clarity of intent and the unambiguous consent of the American people. This was a sure way, as in the Vietnam era, to divide the country and prolong the battle.

We failed not only to prepare for war but to provision for it after it had begun, disallowing a military buildup, much less the wartime transformation of the economy. In the First World War our elected representatives decisively resolved that “to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.” In the Revolutionary War we as a people pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

What is different now of course is that we are combating neither the British Empire nor Imperial Germany, but an opponent who is fundamentally weak militarily, economically, and, in the long run, ideologically. Still, he has by his near mastery of terrorism and asymmetrical warfare necessitated that we mobilize as if we were in fact fighting a great empire. And yet we have not done so, expending not even the average of 5.7% of GDP we devoted to defense in the peacetime years of the period 1940-2000, but, currently, only 3.6%—as if we were not at war, as if the military technological “revolution” could overcome insurgencies or occupy populous countries, as if China's armed forces were not ascending, as if our territory were invulnerable, and as if terrorism, as some used to think and some still do, can simply be managed.

We have followed a confusion of war aims that seem to report after the fact what we have done rather than to direct what we do. We could, by threatening the existence of Middle Eastern regimes, which live to hold power, enforce our insistence that the Arab world eradicate the terrorists within its midst. Instead, we have embarked upon the messianic transformation of an entire region, indeed an entire civilization, in response to our inability to pacify even a single one of its countries. As long as our war aims stray from the disciplined, justifiable, and attainable objective of self-defense, we will be courting failure.

Our strategy has been deeply inadequate especially in light of the fact that we have refused to build up our forces even as our aims have expanded to the point of absurdity. We might have based in northern Saudi Arabia within easy range of the key regimes that succor terrorism, free to coerce their cooperation by putting their survival in question. Our remounted infantry would have been refreshed, reinforced, properly supported, unaffected by insurgency, and ready to strike. The paradigm would have shifted from conquer, occupy, fail, and withdraw—to strike, return, and re-energize. At the same time, we would not have solicited challenges, as we do now, from anyone who sees that although we may be occupying Iraq, Iraq is also occupying us.

We have abstained from mounting an effective civil defense. Only a fraction of a fraction of our wealth would be required to control the borders of and entry to our sovereign territory, and not that much more to discover, produce, and stockpile effective immunizations, antidotes, and treatments in regard to biological and chemical warfare. Thirty years ago the entire country had been immunized against smallpox. Now, no one is, and the attempt to cover a minuscule part of the population failed miserably and was abandoned. Not only does this state of affairs leave us vulnerable to a smallpox epidemic, it stimulates the terrorists to bring one about. So with civil aviation, which, despite the wreckage and tragedy of September 11, is protected in an inefficient, irresponsible, and desultory fashion.

We have watched the division of the country into two ineffective camps, something that is especially apparent in an electoral season. On the one hand is John Kerry, a humorless Boston scold, in appearance the love child of Abraham Lincoln and Bette Midler, who recites slogans that he understands but does not believe. And on the other is the president, proud of his aversion to making an argument for his own case, in appearance a denizen of the Pleistocene, who recites slogans that he believes but does not understand.

At this point the American people, who most of the time are wiser than the experts or politicians who briefly take the helm, may already have decided to reinstall the president despite his shortcomings. If this is so, it is because Sen. Kerry's main motive power has come from those who are foolish enough to exult in the crude and baseless propaganda of a freakish Leni Riefenstahl wannabe (too heavy), and because, in what may have been his campaign's defining moment, Sen. Kerry stated that he learned a long time ago that when under attack you turn your boat toward the enemy. And yet it is clear from his record, his character, and his present policy that this is precisely what he would not do. Nor, though it is exactly what the country should do, is it at all what his most enthusiastic partisans or the base of the Democratic Party would want him to do.

He and they have adopted simultaneously two opposing propositions and embraced two opposing tendencies, which they then present to the electorate as if there is no contradiction. They do not feel acutely, as others do, the dissonance of their positions, because they truly believe in only the less martial of the two.

Although they cannot state why the American, British, Spanish, and Australian invasion of Iraq was any more or less unilateral or multilateral than France, Germany, and Belgium working to derail that invasion, or deny that they admire Britain for standing alone, unilaterally, in 1940, or that the multilateral Axis invasion of Greece was wrong, or that they themselves urge unilateral American action to stop genocide in Africa, they use these words fervently and without logic. They may believe that this is their subtlety, but it is nothing more than confusion and a stylish capitulation to the French, who unfortunately are perfectly willing to capitulate to Islamic terrorism as long as France has purchased its own safety, as of old.

Given the lack of movement in the war and poverty of choice in leadership, Americans looked to a commission. Like the senescent Ottomans we waited and waited as the seasons passed, and were presented neither with swelling armies, well defended borders, nor a string of victories. Although the bravest commissioners of said commission fought to tell us that we are indeed in a clash of civilizations, even they, appointed by their respective parties, did not state the simple unvarnished truth that for 20 years administrations both Republican and Democratic have ignored or misread the evidence concerning terrorism and must be judged negligent and culpable.

The president could have said this, and in doing so clarified the course ahead and won the trust of the people. The commission could have said it simply and directly, but did not. Instead, it offered the labored and nearly impertinent conclusion that the way to prevail in this war is to rearrange the organizational table of the intelligence agencies. Many of its reforms are questionable on their face, most would have merely a neutral effect on the substance of intelligence, and the emphasis is mistaken. Like those who want to fight the war by funding fire departments—knife attacks are not defeated by bandages, and the Battle of Britain was not won by the London Fire Brigades—the commission looked upon one aspect as if it were the essential element, which it is not.

The more good intelligence the better, but because the enemy moves in small groupings he will on occasion, as intelligence is not perfect, elude it. That is why difficult, expensive, inefficient, and general defensive screens are necessary, and why we cannot rely only on pinpoint intelligence even if it is both fashionable and economical. In stressing intelligence, the commission slights elements of equal or greater importance that led to September 11 in the first place. Had the airport screeners been competent, had cockpit doors been reinforced, had the borders been properly controlled, the thousands who were lost that day, and who are loved, would still be alive.

Neither the commission, the president, nor the Democratic nominee has a clear vision of how to fight and defend in this war. Partly this is because so many Americans do not yet feel, as some day they may, the gravity of what we are facing.

Three years on, that is where we stand: our strategy shiftless, reactive, irrelevantly grandiose; our war aims undefined; our preparations insufficient; our civil defense neglected; our polity divided into support for either a hapless and incompetent administration that in a parliamentary system would have been turned out long ago, or an opposition so used to appeasement of America's rivals, critics, and enemies that they cannot even do a credible job of pretending to be resolute.

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1 September 2004

Ranked: This is cool: Number 25. Played there as a kid; coached there in college. Their recognition is long overdue, given that the school has played in 10 consecutive state championship games.

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29 August 2004

It's About Networks: Foreign Policy discusses The Rise of Complex Terrorism.

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