Archive for December, 2008

Good to See: Arab Leaders Criticize Hamas

Via Taranto (third item) comes the welcome word that some Arab leaders understand the cause of the Gaza conflict better than the Episcopal Presiding Bishop does:

Nimr Hammad, an adviser to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, told a Lebanese paper, “The one responsible for the massacres is Hamas, and not the Zionist entity, which in its own view reacted to the firing of Palestinian missiles. Hamas needs to stop treating the blood of Palestinians lightly. They should not give the Israelis a pretext.” Hammad also urged Hamas to cease “operations which reflect recklessness, such as the firing of missiles.”

The quote isn’t exactly cheerleading for the “Zionist entity,” and Taranto points out that the PA and Hamas are rivals for Palestinian leadership. Still, it’s the most pro-Israel statement I can ever remember seeing from a Palestinian leader in the context of hostilities. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak also is said to be “very angry with Hamas.”

Quick Takes on Gaza & Hamas

Wired magazine’s Danger Room defense blog is covering the Gaza conflict — today comes the grim news that Hamas has obtained Chinese rockets with a range of 22 miles, doubling the terrorists’ reach into Israel. The rockets are also deadlier and more accurate (not that Hamas is concerned about precision targeting). Thanks for nothing, China… (Photo: Defense Update via Wired)

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For six decades, the United Nations Relief & Works Agency (UNRWA) has been devoted exclusively to Palestinian refugees. (Surely there must be a UN agency devoted to the well-being of Israelis, right? Hello?) UNWRA said today that of the people killed in the ongoing Israeli offensive against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, at least 25% have been civilians.

The agency appears to mean this as a criticism of Israel. Personally I think it reflects well on Israel’s targeting ability if civilian casualties are so low, given the jihadists’ standard tactic of mingling terrorist personnel and infrastructure civilian population centers.

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Katharine Jefferts Schori is the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, and as an active Episcopalian I deeply respect her. So it pains me to see her focusing blame on Israel in the current conflict.

After a perfunctory call for an end to the Palestinian rocket attacks, she unleashes her passion to make clear where her sympathies lie:

“Innocent lives are being lost throughout the land we all call Holy, and as Christians remember the coming of the Prince of Peace, we ache for the absence of peace in the land of his birth,” Jefferts Schori said in her December 29 statement. “Immediate attention should focus on vital humanitarian assistance to the suffocating people of Gaza.”

Sorry, PB, but I believe your sympathies are misplaced. Somebody (apparently not de Tocqueville) said that in a democracy, the people get the government they deserve. The Palestinians, having been handed a democracy, elected a terrorist group to lead their government.

On either side, the deaths of children and noncombatants are tragic — but we can never lose sight of the fact that Israel tries to minimize civilian casualties, while Hamas tries to maximize them.

The Unholy Union of Automakers and Financing

Time to smack the auto industry and the UAW again. From a column in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

The collective bargaining agreement with the UAW is a heavily negotiated document the size of a small telephone book. It is virtually identical for each of the Detroit Three, owing to “pattern” bargaining, but it doesn’t exist at all in their U.S. competition, the nonunionized transplants. Not only work rules, but fundamental business decisions to sell, close or spin-off plants are forbidden without permission. That permission may come, but only at a price, since everything that affects the workplace must be negotiated. …

In an environment of downsizing, the problem is exacerbated, as the entrenched bargaining structure causes innumerable inefficiencies. Typically each plant or warehouse is a “bargaining unit” and has a union president, who has a staff. If the company consolidates facilities, there will be no need for two presidents and two staffs. Since neither president wants to play musical chairs, they will both point to the bargaining agreement and resist consolidation. As a result, unnecessary facilities are not sold, but kept open, lit and heated, just to preserve a redundant bargaining-unit president and his team.

Not exactly a nimble, streamlined organization designed to compete effectively in the rapidly evolving 21st Century marketplace.

Fortunately, the government has a solution: On top of the $17.4 billion in loans already pledged to keep GM and Chrysler out of their rightful place in bankruptcy court, let’s invest $6 billion of taxpayer money in auto finance company GMAC. That way, customers who are less credit-worthy can “afford” vehicles that are overpriced to sustain entrenched unions.

Over to you, Mr. Obama, and good luck.

I Stand With Israel

Spare me from listening to officials of the thugocracy-infested United Nations complaining that Israel’s assault against Hamas is “disproportionate.” Of course it is. It should be.

When a sovereign nation gets goaded into war by terrorist attacks upon civilians, its goal should be to destroy the terrorist infrastructure and kill as many terrorists as possible. The best way to do that is to attack with overwhelming force. Yes there will be civilian casualties, although Israel, like the United States, takes care to avoid excessive collateral damage (unlike the atrocity-seeking jihadists who deliberately target civilians, and who use their own people as human shields by mingling their fighters with civilians).

Civilians die in any war, and it’s tragic. But if Palestinians want to safeguard their civilian population, they need to start by taking control of their own territory and creating a government that will crush the terrorists, rather than a government operated by the terrorists.

A Golden Opportunity for a Higher Gas Tax

Charles Krauthammer burnishes his credentials as a member of the Pigou Club with a cover story in the January 5, 2009 edition of Weekly Standard, titled “The Net-Zero Gas Tax: A Once-in-a-Generation Chance.” (Hat tip: Jonah Goldberg.)

The Pigou Club Manifesto was Greg Mankiw’s call in October 2006 to increase the gasoline tax significantly, thereby encouraging more fuel-efficient cars, reducing pollution, reducing oil consumption, and reducing the amount of money we send every year to oil-producing countries that hate us. His specific idea was for a $1 gas tax phased in over a decade, which seemed radical then but now sounds like it would barely get anybody’s attention.

Krauthammer dispenses with the phase-in and calls for an immediate $1 a gallon gas tax increase, offset by reducing other taxes so that the overall effect is revenue-neutral (thus the Net-Zero in his headline). The beauty of a gas tax is its simplicity, although there might need to be various offsets and exceptions to make such a system palatable. Krauthammer:

But whatever one’s assumptions and choice of initial tax, the net-zero tax swap remains flexible, adjustable, testable, and nonbureaucratic. Behavior is changed, driving is curtailed, fuel efficiency is increased, without any of the arbitrary, shifting, often mindless mandates decreed by Congress.

This is a major benefit of the gas tax that is generally overlooked. It is not just an alternative to regulation; because it is so much more efficient, it is a killer of regulation. The most egregious of these regulations are the fleet fuel efficiency (CAFE) standards forced on auto companies. Rather than creating market conditions that encourage people to voluntarily buy greener cars, the CAFE standards simply impose them. And once the regulations are written–with their arbitrary miles-per-gallon numbers and target dates–they are not easily changed. If they are changed, moreover, they cause massive dislocation, and yet more inefficiency, in the auto industry.

CAFE standards have proven devastating to Detroit. When oil prices were relatively low, they forced U.S. auto companies to produce small cars that they could only sell at a loss. They were essentially making unsellable cars to fulfill mandated quotas, like steel producers in socialist countries meeting five-year plan production targets with equal disregard for demand.

As Krauthammer notes earlier in his article, the federal gasoline tax in America is 18.4 cents per gallon, while in England and much of Europe the gas tax approaches $4 per gallon. (Hmmm… I wonder why people drive smaller cars in Europe than in the U.S.?) A higher gas tax makes sense on so many levels. But given the car lust that seems to be part of the DNA of so many Americans, I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.

Conservative Peggy Noonan takes a step back from the gloomy economy and focuses on the big picture:

People are angry but don’t have a plan, and they’ll give the incoming president unprecedented latitude and sympathy, cheering him on. I told a friend it feels like a necessary patriotic act to be supportive of him, and she said, “Oh hell, it’s a necessary selfish act—I want him to do well so I survive. We all do!”

This is a good time to remember who we are, or rather just a few small facts of who we are. We are the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world, the leading industrial power of the world, and the wealthiest nation in the world. “There’s a lot of ruin in a nation,” said Adam Smith. There’s a lot of ruin in a great economy, too. We are the oldest continuing democracy in the world, operating, since March 4, 1789, under a vibrant and enduring constitution that was formed by geniuses and is revered, still, coast to coast. We don’t make refugees, we admit them. When the rich of the world get sick, they come here to be treated, and when their children come of age, they send them here to our universities. We have a supple political system open to reform, and a wildly diverse culture that has moments of stress but plenty of give.

The point is not to say rah-rah, paint our faces blue and bray “We’re No. 1.” The point is that while terrible challenges face us—improving a sick public education system, ending the easy-money culture, rebuilding the economy—we are building from an extraordinary, brilliant and enduring base.

In the second presidential debate, on October 7, it was already becoming clear that my candidate was going to be defeated. The next day I wrote, “I’m starting to get used to the idea of President Obama.” But while McCain was outmatched in that debate, he gave me one moment of inspiration:

I’ve heard a lot of criticism about America, and our national security policy, and all that, and much of that criticism is justified. But the fact is, America is the greatest force for good in the history of the world.

Yes. My preferred formulation has always been, “America is the greatest force for good in the world this side of the Almighty.” But McCain has a bigger soapbox and a far more noble resume — I’ll sign on to his version.

I mean no disrespect for any other country. About 9% of my readers come from outside the United States, according to the flag-bedecked widget in the right column. Just this morning I logged my first visitor (since installing the widget) from Slovenia — Dobrodošel! (That supposedly means “welcome!” in Slovenian.)

Other cultures are worthy of respect, and great people can emerge from any nation. But some people will always face greater challenges because of where they live. Those of us who have been born as American citizens need to remember from time to time that we hit the citizenship lottery.

Bush Punts Auto Bailout to Obama’s Team

Color me unsurprised.

The Bush administration said it would lend $17.4 billion to General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC, buying them a few weeks of financial relief but leaving the biggest decisions about the industry’s future to President-elect Barack Obama.

Another WSJ article suggests, contrary to the opinion flagged by my new BFF Mickey Kaus, that Ford can share in the upside without suffering from the downside.

As the lone Big Three auto maker passing on a federal bailout, Ford Motor Co. won’t have to undergo an intrusive government review of its books and its business plans to become a viable company in order to qualify for –and keep — the low-interest loans authorized by the Bush Administration Friday.At the same time, the Dearborn, Mich. car company is likely to benefit from many of the concessions that General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC exact from the suppliers, unions, dealers and debt holders shared by all three companies.

I’ve written so much about the auto industry lately that I feel like I ought to have more to say about yesterday’s development. But as the first excerpt above points out, all this does is buy the companies a few weeks of grace, with any longer-term resolution to be overseen by the Obama Administration. And so I’m like, whatever.

Besides, I have to go out now and chip and shovel the snow that turned to rain late yesterday before freezing solid overnight. I suppose I could have written (or shoveled!) last night, but I had to sit on the couch and watch the original Die Hard on DVD with the Web Goddess. It’s always something.

Minnesota: Not Heads or Tails, but Standing on Edge

Move over, Florida — Minnesota is making a strong bid for supremacy in the category of freakishly close electoral results.

CNN reports today that Sen. Norm Coleman’s unofficial lead over unfunnyman Al Franken has shrunk to a mere 5 votes, out of about 3 million cast. If that holds up — the state is continuing to analyze the ballots — that would be a margin of victory of about 0.00016%, or less than two ten-thousandths of one percent. Florida 2000 was a veritable landslide in comparison, with a final certified Bush margin of 0.009%, nearly one-hundredth of one percent, or 537 votes out of just under 6 million cast.

It’s hard to know what to do about a dead heat in a large election. An election that close is well within the measurement error of any method that could be used to count votes. In Minnesota as in Florida, we’ll never know which candidate actually received more votes. It’s tempting to provide for redoing the election if it’s within, say, 1% … but all that does is move the goalposts, so that the lawsuits and recounts attempt to prove that the margin was more or less than precisely 1%.

Florida 2000 was a national tragedy — not because of who won, but because the closeness inevitably called the legitimacy of the result into question. If the U.S. Supreme Court had voted 5-4 to declare Gore the winner, the bitter cries of “we wuz robbed” would have been coming from the other party.

Photo credit: Zeophoto’s Weblog

Sorry, No Tears Here for Madoff’s Clients

(After learning more about Madoff’s victims, I recanted in a later post — KP)

Apparently regulators ignored warning signs for more than a decade while Bernie Madoff stole and/or lost as much as $50 billion of his clients’ money. Holman Jenkins explains why we should not waste our sympathy on the clients:

There are costs and benefits to everything, including the cumbersome apparatus of firms that subject themselves to intrusive monitoring and conform to standards of transparency. Mr. Madoff’s clients chose to avoid those costs. For that matter, they chose to forgo lower but safer returns, as many rich people do, by entrusting their fortunes to T-bills.

The herding automatons of the media can never encounter lawbreaking in the financial markets without concluding that it demonstrates the necessity of more laws against lawbreaking. Congress, now in the process of convincing itself it should run the auto industry, no doubt will see in Mr. Madoff proof that Congress is needed to manage rich people’s money and ordinary people’s too. Then we’ll all be in the same position as Mr. Madoff’s clients.

I’ve never been burdened by great wealth. Hedge funds like those that invested with Mr. Madoff typically require $1 million or more to open an account — no danger for me! As a 50-year-old “thousandaire,” I probably don’t have to worry about what I would do with a million dollars in investable assets.

But it’s at least theoretically possible that I could strike it rich — by starting a successful business, say, or writing a bestselling book. If so, I’ll have to have quite a few “safe millions” in investments no riskier than an S&P 500 index fund before I’ll even think of risking a million dollars with a hedge fund.

Most of the investors who lost millions have other millions to fall back on. Somewhere there may be an investor who invested his only millions with a fund victimized by Mr. Madoff. If so… well… bummer. But no tears here.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally Enters the Twitterstream

To be precise, Mulally was Tweeting by proxy yesterday, via Scott Monty. It only lasted a few minutes, but it’s still fairly cool. No great revelations on weighty policy matters, but I learned that Mulally makes a point of driving a different auto every day, including competitor models, to stay close to the public experience of driving. Not earthshaking, but humanizing.

It’s notable that Mulally, a former Boeing exec, first started working for an auto company only two years ago. As I’ve written in previous posts, Ford is seeking to differentiate itself from the Big Other Two. It’s working for me.

Photo credit: Ford Motor Company

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