Archive for April, 2009

I’ve been arguing for months that the government should not throw more bailout money at GM and Chrysler, but rather let them work out their problems in bankruptcy court.  Filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would give the companies more leverage to modify gold-plated benefits and ruinous work rules that add approximately $2,000 in costs per car, compared with foreign automakers.

chrysler-logoChrysler filed for Chapter 11 today.  The government apparently has worked out a deal where the eventual result will be the UAW owns 55%, Fiat owns 35%, with the remaining 10% owned by some combination of the U.S. government and “secured” lenders.  Neither the UAW nor Fiat are putting any new capital into the deal, but the U.S. government is committing up to $8 billion in additional financing, on top of the $4 billion the U.S. already has loaned Chrysler.

So for up to $12 billion, some of which theoretically may be repaid, the government gets some portion of 10% of America’s least healthy automaker.  The eventual value of the government stake is anybody’s guess, but since it’s easy to mix up million-billion-trillion-zillion, let’s do an order of magnitude comparison. As of mid-day today, the stock market values Ford — America’s healthiest automaker, far larger than Chrysler, and the only one of the Big Three that has not taken government bailout money — at about $14 billion, for 100% of the company.

Meanwhile, the UAW, whose members have enjoyed unsustainably high wages and benefits for decades, will own 55% of the reorganized Chrysler.  Chrysler effectively will be a subsidiary of the UAW, which will sit on both sides of the table during future contract negotiations.

Mickey Kaus argues that this may be a good thing (he’s talking about GM, but the principal holds for Chrysler as well):

The union’s ownership so does not seem a problem. It seems a virtue. Let the UAW, as new owner of GM, pay the price for the overgrown work rules of its locals. Let the UAW demand above-market raises from itself. Let the UAW try to raise money from new lenders after the previous round of lenders has been royally screwed (thanks, in part, to the UAW). And then let the UAW try to sell the cars that result.

The most efficient way to balance competing interests, as Michael Kinsley noted years ago, isn’t an adverserial system where various singleminded interests duke it out–either in court or on picket lines–but in the head of a decisionmaker who will feel the relevant consequences. As long as the government steps out of the financing picture, the UAW will feel the consequences of its own excesses. Just don’t bail them out again!

That last sentence is where Mickey’s theory breaks down, I’m afraid.  (I call him Mickey because he linked to me once.) He mocks a column by the Wall Street Journal‘s Holman Jenkins, but I think Jenkins (who has never linked to me) has the better argument:

In a real bankruptcy, which is the natural fate of companies unable to meet their obligations, Chrysler and GM would be run (or liquidated) for the benefit of their creditors, not their workers. But, here, “pattern bargaining” will remain the law of the Detroit jungle. The UAW will continue to use its unnaturally augmented clout to extract uncompetitive pay and benefits (it can do no other given its internal incentives). As it has for 40 years, Washington will pitch in with one improvisation after another, disguised as energy policy, trade policy, health-care policy or environmental policy, to stop the rivets from popping off. Politics, especially Democratic electoral politics, will play a more dominant role than ever.

What about those creditors, who would be first in line in a “real bankruptcy”?  The big bondholders were all on  board, but some of Chrysler’s smaller “secured” creditors refused to accept a deal that would have kept the automaker out of bankruptcy court.   Theoretically, the “secured” creditors could hold out for a liquidation of Chrysler, which might be a better deal for those creditors.  The Automaker-in-Chief is aware of this, and Obama had this to say today:

While Obama voiced his support for Chrysler and the deal with Fiat, he was pointed in his criticism of the investors who did not agree to this deal.

“I don’t stand with them. I stand with Chrysler’s employees and their families and communities,” the president said. “I don’t stand with those who held out when everybody else is making sacrifices. That’s why I’m supporting Chrysler’s plans to use our bankruptcy laws to clear away its remaining obligations.”

Gulp.  This is why I use scare quotes around “secured” creditors.  Somehow I think the reluctant creditors will come around to seeing things Obama’s way.

Seaman Recruit Harry Petersen with his proud father, minutes after being sworn in.  (That's Harry on the left.)

Seaman Recruit Harry Petersen with his proud father, minutes after being sworn in.
(That’s Harry on the left.)

After two tentative reporting dates came and went, Harry shipped out today following a brief swearing-in ceremony at Fort Hamilton, near the base of the Verrazano Bridge in Brooklyn. Also there to see Harry off were the Web Goddess, who took the picture; as well as Harry’s mother, Debra; his brother, Kyle; and Brenda, a family friend since Harry was a toddler.

No photography was allowed during the ceremony itself, so I’m just going to have to remember the look on his face as he and about 20 other young men and women, headed for all of the armed services, pledged to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and to bear true faith and allegiance to the same.

It’s unlikely that Harry will see this until he graduates from boot camp in eight weeks, and I don’t have much to add to what I said in a previous post, so I’ll keep this brief.  Godspeed, son, and thank you for your service to our country.

Update: OK, to be precise, WE were not allowed to take photographs during the ceremony, but there was a photographer there for the photo service Getty Images who had special privileges.  Harry’s visible in a few shots out of a batch of about 50, and there are two showing him hugging the Web Goddess and me.  Here’s the better of them (did I mention that the photo is copyright Getty Images 2009?)

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Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?

The Washington Post offers the best argument I’ve seen for a bipartisan commission into the use of torture, or “torture” if you prefer, by Americans during the Bush Administration.  The editorial ends with this (emphasis added):

But a presidential commission could produce the fullest, least-heated account possible.

Once it did so, prosecutions would not be the only option. Based on what we know today, we do not believe they would be the best option. For reasons laid out at the beginning of this editorial, we would be extremely reluctant to go after lawyers and officials acting in what they believed to be the nation’s best interest at a time of grave danger. If laws were broken, Congress or the president can opt for amnesty. In gray areas, the government can exercise prosecutorial discretion. But the work of the commission should not be prejudged. And the prudence of not prosecuting, if that proves the wisest course, would earn more respect, here and abroad, if it followed a process of thorough review and calm deliberation.

And here are some of the “reasons laid out at the beginning of this editorial:

On one side, you have the sacred American tradition of peacefully transferring power from one party to another every four or eight years without cycles of revenge and criminal investigation. It’s one thing to investigate Richard Nixon for authorizing wiretaps and burglaries in secrecy, outside the normal channels of government, for personal political gain. It’s another to criminalize decisions authorized through all the proper channels, with congressional approval or at least awareness, for what everyone agrees to be the high purpose of keeping Americans safe from terrorist attack. Once you start down that road, where do you stop? Should Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger and their team have been held criminally or civilly liable for dereliction of duty 3,000 people died in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, given that they knowingly allowed Osama bin Laden to flee Sudan for sanctuary in Afghanistan? What if the next administration believes that Barack Obama is committing war crimes every time he allows the Air Force to fling missiles into Pakistan, killing innocent civilians in a country with which we are not at war?

In an Oval Office press availability after meeting with the king of Jordan last week, Obama said:

… this has been a difficult chapter in our history, and one of the tougher decisions that I’ve had to make as President. On the one hand, we have very real enemies out there. And we rely on some very courageous people, not just in our military but also in the Central Intelligence Agency, to help protect the American people. And they have to make some very difficult decisions because, as I mentioned yesterday, they are confronted with an enemy that doesn’t have scruples, that isn’t constrained by constitutions, aren’t constrained by legal niceties.

Having said that, the OLC memos that were released reflected, in my view, us losing our moral bearings.

Hawk though I am, Obama’s statements here work for me.  I voted for Bush in 2004, and would do so again today if he were running against Kerry.  Because of widespread Bush Derangement Syndrome in the media and the Democratic Party, my instinct is to defend Bush against almost any attack, at least in his role as commander-in-chief.

But regarding the torture issue, all I can say is I hope they saved a lot of American lives with whatever information they waterboarded out of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and whoever else, because the ramifications are going to continue for years. I’ve thought for some time that the best spin I can put on it is to say that “America” — I’ll not blame Bush alone, although it happened on his watch — abandoned the moral high ground on the issue of torture.  We should reclaim the moral high ground, and a fact-finding commission may be the best way to start.

Update: From this morning’s WaPo, a news article with a fairly balanced cost-benefit analysis of the torture/harsh interrogation program.  This part rings true to me:

The Obama administration’s top intelligence officer, Dennis C. Blair, has said the information obtained through the interrogation program was of “high value.” But he also concluded that those gains weren’t worth the cost.

“There is no way of knowing whether the same information could have been obtained through other means,” Blair said in a statement. “The bottom line is these techniques have hurt our image around the world, the damage they have done to our interests far outweighed whatever benefit they gave us and they are not essential to our national security.”

VDH Describes Our Topsy-Turvy Times

vdh1Victor Davis Hanson is one of my favorite political writers.  He brilliantly weaves together seemingly unrelated news events to describe patterns that others cannot yet see.  I wish I had been aware of him on September 11, 2001, because he went into overdrive, producing 38 outstanding essays before the end of the year about the new world we had entered and the enemies we faced.

The essays, for National Review Online and other outlets, are collected in his book An Autumn of War. They  hold up remarkably well — if I had read the essays at the time, I would have had a tremendous head start toward realizations and understandings that took me years to reach.

I’ve been a bit disappointed by him in more recent months — his antipathy to Barack Obama sometimes veers toward Obama Derangement Syndrome.  But his essay today on National Review Online has him in fine form, and not sparing the Republicans. An excerpt:

Nonsense is passed off as wisdom. Those who caused the financial meltdown walked away with millions in bonuses while taxpayers covered the debts they ran up. The big-spending government claims it may cut our annual $1.7 trillion deficit in half by 2012 — but only after piling up trillions more in national debt.

In our Orwellian world, borrowing to spend what we don’t have has been renamed “stimulus.” Those who pay no federal income taxes — almost half of Americans — can somehow be promised an income tax “cut.” In the new borrowing of trillions of dollars here and trillions there, billions of dollars now sounds like pocket change. …

Abroad, we thought piracy ended with the age of sail — only to learn that the world’s 21st-century navies either will not or cannot sink a few brigands in speedboats. Meanwhile, a U.N. conference against racism showcased Iranian president — and Holocaust-denier — Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spouting anti-Semitic hatred.

The old “bad” unilateral war in Iraq is now quiet; the once “good” multilateral effort in Afghanistan is not. We are warned that we must be careful not to explicitly associate the radical Islam that fueled the September 11 attacks with terrorism; yet, we are advised that we should worry about returning American veterans as potential terrorists.

You should, as the saying goes, read the whole thing.  But since you probably won’t, here’s the ominous punchline:

There have been a few crazy years like 2009 in American history — 1860, 1929, 1941, and 1968. And given what followed all of them, it might be wise to prepare for even crazier times for us ahead.

navy-seal-sniper

That SEALS it

Bill Gertz’s conservative credentials are pretty convincing.  He is a star reporter for the conservative Washington Times, an analyst with Fox News, and the author of the 2008 book The Failure Factory: How Unelected Bureaucrats, Liberal Democrats, and Big Government Republicans Are Undermining America’s Security and Leading Us to War.

Not a lefty.  Here’s the start of his report from this morning’s paper:

President Obama dispatched two separate teams of Navy commandos to carry out last week’s rescue of a merchant ship captain held hostage by Somali pirates but left the operational details and rules of engagement to military commanders, National Security Adviser James. L. Jones said Tuesday.

“I can tell you from a White House and presidential standpoint, there was no conflict, no gnashing of teeth, or excessive influence in trying to manage this thing,” Mr. Jones, a retired Marine Corps four-star general, told The Washington Times in an interview.

He and other military officials gave the most detailed account to date of how Navy SEAL forces were dispatched – first from a base in Africa and later from the United States – to carry out the mission, and how Pentagon officials communicated with the White House. They sought to dispel Internet reports that the military was delayed from taking action by indecision inside the White House.

“I don’t recognize” the information being circulated on the Internet, Mr. Jones said.

Two questions: 1) Can we now stop with the nonsense from some conservative sites about how Obama allegedly delayed the operation for days?

2) The report, based on an exclusive interview with Obama’s National Security Advisor, apparently was posted on the Washington Times site late last night, and yet Google News currently finds no trace of any followup from the major news outlets.  How is this not news?

As I wrote last week, I’m not saying it’s time to make room for Obama on Mount Rushmore.  I’m just saying that he handled his first high-profile military crisis well. He authorized decisive action and left the details to the on-scene commanders.  Sounds like a good job to me.

(Welcome, Social Media Today readers. While you’re here you might want to look at other posts under my Social Media tag.)

facebook_iq_challenge-markup

Several weeks ago, I wrote about having been taken in by an IQ test scam on Facebook.   Lots of other people have also written about that and other scams.  Somehow I naively thought that once Facebook realized it was enabling deception on its service, it would get rid of the scams.  But if anything, the scams have become more plentiful — and more disgraceful.

The image above is a screen shot, captured today, with my annotations in red. It’s an ad — but if Facebook permits advertisers to use Facebook blue and otherwise mimic Facebook’s look and feel, it thereby lends Facebook’s credibility to the ad.  So when the text falsely says “3 of your friends have challenged you to beat their IQ scores,” Facebook is lying to me.

As before, clicking to accept the challenge leads to a brief quiz with a few easy questions, which then leads to a screen asking me to enter my cell phone number to get the results:

iq_scam_-_large-copy

If I enter my cell phone number — as I was foolish enough to do before — I expect it will then give me a code and ask me to send it as a text on my cell phone.  Doing so will constitute a confirmation that I agree to their terms of service.

Now, let’s take a closer look at that page:

iq_scam-disclaimer

The barely readable diagonal blue text at right says “$9.99 Monthly Subscription.” The barely readable “Terms” link leads to a page with more than 9,000 words of dense legalese.  Somewhere therein it says that using the “service” constitutes agreeing with the terms.  Way at the bottom,  it states that the terms are $9.99 a month.

Facebook peddles plenty of other scams to its members as well, such as this:

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And this:

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And this:

message_center-copyThis one is particularly diabolical, as it has grabbed the name of one of my Facebook friends — a woman who, I am quite confident, has an IQ considerably higher than 106:

charlene_li-copyEach of these ads-that-look-like-Facebook-applications leads either to an IQ scam or some other “service” that will be billed to your cell phone.  For example, one of them led to this landing page, which is a model of transparency and rectitude by comparison:

crush_landing-copy

The eye is naturally drawn to the simple images in the center, but at least the text on the periphery (both at top and left) discloses the $9.99 monthly charge.  Try to navigate away from the page, however, and you’ll get this popup message:

crush_cancel-copy

It’s a standard Windows popup message, the text at top and bottom is generated by Windows.  The only customization is the text in the middle — which tries to keep you on the site by telling you that “Cancel” means the opposite of what it says on the line below.

Once you’ve “agreed” to the terms for one of these scams, you can get out of the charges by spending half an hour or so in voicemail hell with your phone company.  But how many teens and tweens have incurred the charges without realizing it, or without having the courage to tell Mom or Dad that there may be a problem on the cell phone account? The fact that there are competing scams says to me that it’s a business model that works for the scammers.

Facebook didn’t actually create these scummy scams.  It just knowingly profits by driving its 200 million members to them.  That is to say, it profits in the short run.  In the long run, it’s hard to believe that it is truly in Facebook’s best interest to participate in victimizing its members.

J’accuse, Zuckerberg.

Welcome, Maplewood Patch readers!  Feel free to check out the further adventures of the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM, or otherwise explore the musings of a red state voter in a deep-blue town and state.

blogolopolis
(See caption information at my new article on Maplewood Patch.)

Limbaugh offers snark and bile

Limbaugh offers snark and bile

Parts of the right-o-sphere are all aflutter, debating whether President Obama deserves any credit for the rescue of a maritime hero held by pirates.

It’s a reminder that Obama Derangement Syndrome is no more appropriate than its more wide-spread predecessor, Bush Derangement Syndrome.

In The Corner, Jonah Goldberg piped up promptly and congratulated the President for authorizing the mission.  Later he took incoming fire from his right, as it turned out the President may not have specifically authorized the mission, he may just have refrained from interfering.  Jonah stood firm:

But you know what? Congratulations anyway. It’s good news the captain was rescued; Obama is the commander-in-chief and this happened on his watch; if he were thoroughly Carteresque he would have ordered that the pirates not be harmed, and you can be sure some of the snark-and-bilers would be blaming Obama if this ended badly (and I might have been one of them).

Look, I think my credentials as a critic of Obama are pretty solid. But I find the idea that I have to be critical no matter what Obama does to be exhaustingly unappealing.

Hear, hear.  But Rush Limbaugh weighed in on the side of snark-and-bile, saying sarcastically, “I would like to not only jump on the bandwagon of praising President Obama for a brilliant rescue, not only a plan but its execution, I don’t think the Navy had that much to do with it.”  He went on to fantasize at great length about who would play Obama in the movie, settling on Will Smith as both the President AND the Navy SEALs commander who took the crucial shot.  He later speculated  that if this had happened in the previous administration, the headlines would have been along the lines of Bush Assassinates Three Black Teenagers.  Exhaustively unappealing, indeed.

Just before the inauguration, Limbaugh famously said “I hope Obama fails.”  He clarified:

I’ve been listening to Barack Obama for a year-and-a-half.  I know what his politics are.  I know what his plans are, as he has stated them.  I don’t want them to succeed.

But of course he knew what the sound bite would be.  I often tell my liberal friends, don’t blame me for Rush Limbaugh and I won’t blame you for Michael Moore.

Most conservative commentators I saw came down closer to Goldberg’s opinion.  Abe Greenwald at Commentary didn’t single out the President by name, but said:

Fantastic news all around. The U.S. did not dither with negotiations or treat this as a criminal matter. It acted unilaterally and with force to free a brave man.

National Review’s Andy McCarthy notes that conservatives might well have expected a different outcome, based on the President’s past rhetoric:

Obama’s posturing put the pieces in place for a disaster. When an American-flagged ship was besieged, the president might have been paralyzed by his solicitude for the Islamic world and his commitment against unilateral action. He might have subordinated the safety of Americans to the bridge-building he has dubiously claimed to be central to our security. As commander-in-chief, he could have handcuffed the Navy. But he didn’t. Whatever his predilections, Obama unleashed John Wayne when that’s what was needed. For that we should be pleased and acknowledge a job well done.

Even Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs offered unambiguous approval (some of his lizardoid commenters were predictably less gracious):

The US Navy did us proud today. And yes, I know we’re supposed to detest and mock everything President Obama does, on pain of excommunication, but as Commander in Chief he deserves congratulations for handling this one just right.

I cast my vote in the comments of my previous post on the topic — ” I don’t think he did anything heroic, but I think he handled it fine.”  I’ll stand by that, although I might phrase it a little more graciously.  It wasn’t on the scale of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the Commander in Chief did well in his first live-action military test.

It’s not over, of course.  Somali pirates hijacked more ships today — it’s a business model that works for them.  It will be interesting to see if they try to grab any more American ships.

jolly-rogerBest possible ending: Three dead pirates, no good guys hurt, one hero captain survives after winning his crew’s freedom by offering himself as a hostage.  On Easter Sunday, no less.  (I wish I had thought of Easter SEALs!)

Shades of United Airlines Flight 93, as the American crew apparently fought back and retook the Maersk Alabama from the armed pirates.

But there are still more than 200 hostages on other ships being held by Somali pirates, and the problem is not going to go away by itself.  “The pirates have a great business model that works for them: Seize ships, get ransom, make millions,” said Adm. Rick Gurnon, head of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where Captain Richard Phillips had trained.

Ultimately, the pirates will have to be defeated on shore.  It’s been done before — the Marine Corps and the United States Navy both fought pirates as one of their first missions, on (and off) a different coast of Africa.

Despite my son’s desire to have stories to tell his grandchildren, he probably won’t personally get a chance to fight pirates.  His enlistment got delayed again, but he now has written orders to report on April 28 to start basic training.  He’ll be in the Navy’s nuclear power school for a couple of years before serving on a nuclear submarine or aircraft carrier.

Obama’s Not-So-Invisible Hand

Now that the Automaker-in-Chief has fired the CEO of General Motors and instructed Chrysler to sell itself to Fiat by the end of April,  he’s turning his attention to a variety of other essential American industries, from blue jeans (“Levis yes; Wrangler no”) to toothpaste to ballpoint pens.  President Obama also graciously acknowledged the important consultative role played by former President Clinton.

(Ed. note: alas, the Saturday Night Live video clip originally displayed here is no longer posted anywhere I can find.  But here’s a transcript of the skit.)

Here’s hoping that the president’s next step will be to instruct corporate America to make greater use of independent consulting services.

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