May 31st, 2008 by Rightsideup

Obama finally has left the Church that’s been causing his campaign so many problems. Interestingly, despite all the problems with Jeremiah Wright, he didn’t feel the need to leave before now. Only when a second priest with extreme racist views showed up in the public consciousness did it become clear enough that the Church itself and not just one rogue cleric is the problem. Of course, if it isn’t just one rogue cleric, then it should have been clear to Obama long before it became clear to all the rest of us that this was not a good organization to be part of, and he should have left a long time ago.

You get the sense that he’s been trying to walk a fine line between appeasing those who agree with the teachings of the Church while not frightening off those who find its doctrines disturbing. And this is probably exactly what he has been doing. Will this lose him votes with the first group now? Does his making it clear that he’s really a mainstream politician and not a representative of the fringe that brings us Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton lose him votes? Or does the fact that he clearly has a tin ear to the negative impact of the kinds of things we’ve been hearing for months now cause problems for him with a different constituency? Will the press call him on any of it? Probably not. They more or less gave him a free pass when he gave the super-speech absolving himself of blame for Wright-gate and they’ll probably give him a free pass this time too, once again praising him for his eloquence along the way.

But with every event like this Obama becomes more damaged, and Hillary’s supporters have a little more weight behind their suggestion that it’s good for her to stay in the race.

May 28th, 2008 by Rightsideup

CNN (along with other major news outlets) has been trying to talk the US into a recession now for several years, and while the jury is still out on whether they’ve succeeded yet, they still aren’t letting up. Although this article has some admirable counter-points thrown in, it still relies mainly on anecdotal perceptions rather than the facts to examine the state of the economy.

The article also highlights one of the things which, as a Brit, I find most puzzling about American politics and economics – the definition of the “Middle Class” – which appears sometimes to include everyone except Bill Gates and Warren Buffett and at other times now includes apparently almost no-one because it is being “squeezed”. Where I come from, being Middle Class is about the kind of work you do – sitting in an office rather than working in a factory, for example – not about your level of income or what you can afford to buy with it.

At any rate, quoting from that article:

Only a few years ago, Americans who considered themselves middle class were scrimping to pay for their kids’ college education.

Now, many of them are struggling to cover far more basic needs – gas and groceries.

Take Stacy and Chuck Burris. The Pittsburgh, Pa., couple view themselves as solidly middle class. In recent months, however, they’ve felt anything but.

Burdened by high cost of food and fuel, they are having trouble balancing their budget even though Chuck Burris earns a “comfortable salary” as a software engineer. The parents of five children, three of whom are grown, have essentially stopped eating out and entertaining and are considering canceling the annual family vacation to Maine. They keep to a Spartan shopping list and have planted a larger garden. Instead of buying their 12-year-old daughter summer clothes, they are turning her pants into shorts by cutting off the legs and getting hand-me-downs from family.

Never before in previous recessions have they had to cut back like this.

Without wishing to belittle this or other families’ hardships, I find it hard to understand how current circumstances could be having such a significant impact on their financial status. The article says that:

Food prices, for instance, climbed 5.1% over the past 12 months and April’s 0.9% rise was the largest in 18 years, according to the Consumer Price Index. Gas, meanwhile, hit its highest recorded price of $3.937 on Monday, up nearly 21% from a year ago and 9.7% over the past month, according to AAA.

Well, assume the weekly grocery bill is $200 – not unreasonable, I would think – and the price has gone up by 5% – that would be a sum total of $10 per week extra, or $45 per month. If gas has gone up by 20%, perhaps the gas bill (assuming filling a 15-gallon tank once a week) has gone up by 20%, from $50 to $60, and that’s another $10 per week or $45 per month. Is there really a middle-class family that’s going to be pushed into cancelling its vacation by a $20 increase in spending per week? We’re never told what the household’s income actually is, but assume it’s $60,000 per year gross (which may be conservative since the salary is described as “comfortable”). That increase represents just 1.7% of gross income.

At the same time, the article says, housing prices are falling, but unless you’re actually trying to sell your house that shouldn’t really affect your current financial status. In fact, because the federal funds rate has fallen from 5.25% to around 2% in the last year many people’s mortgage payments should actually be falling during this time, probably by a rather greater amount than those small increases in food and gas payments.

My point here isn’t to argue the specifics of this case – because we’re not given them – but rather to suggest that it seems odd that truly middle class families should be suffering so badly because of the increases in gas and food prices, since these items are typically a small percentage of people’s incomes, especially in the middle class. And that makes this article feel more like further scaremongering from CNN than real reporting. How about emphasizing instead the factual evidence cited elsewhere in the article, and helping to turn around these perceptions, instead of leading with the perceptions and burying the facts halfway down the article and later? And how much are those poll results influenced by the fact that CNN’s been polling people about whether we’re in a recession for the last three years anyway?

May 27th, 2008 by Rightsideup

CNN reports that Bill Clinton has been talking up a conspiracy against his wife in the Democratic primary:

“I can’t believe it. It is just frantic the way they are trying to push and pressure and bully all these superdelegates to come out,” Clinton said at a South Dakota campaign stop Sunday, in remarks first reported by ABC News.

Clinton also suggested some were trying to “cover up” Sen. Clinton’s chances of winning in key states that Democrats will have to win in the general election.

” ‘Oh, this is so terrible: The people they want her. Oh, this is so terrible: She is winning the general election, and he is not. Oh my goodness, we have to cover this up.’ ”

Clinton did not expound on who he was accusing.

I love that last line – you can almost hear the sneer from CNN.

Apparently, whereas Hillary found a vast right-wing conspiracy against her husband, he’s now returning the favor and calling out a vast (presumably) left-wing conspiracy against her. He appears to have bought in (or is doing a credible job pretending to have bought in) to the nonsense the campaign has been clinging to about her winning the popular vote (which he bizarrely calls “winning the general election”) which is no longer true even if you include the currently excluded Florida and Michigan results.

Now, I’ve argued before that there are reasonable arguments for her staying in the race, and I do think the media loves to push a winner over the top – enjoying the power it’s so far been largely unable to display in this election cycle. But I don’t think anyone even in our Obama-phile media is covering anything up here. Facts are stubborn things and the way things are going at present it really does seem impossible for Hillary to win. And this just adds further fuel to the fire around Clinton’s personality as an increasingly angry and bitter man who is frustrated at his inability to get his wife elected.

May 23rd, 2008 by Rightsideup

I read the Freakonomics blog on the NYTimes.com website frequently, and recently came across this posting by Steven Dubner. In it, he recites some of the responses given by West Point cadets to the opening phrase, “war is…”:

    • Unfortunately war is necessary and has been for thousands of years.
    • War is a tragic and hopefully unnecessary part of life. I pray that militaries may become deterrent forces only.
    • War is a necessary evil.
    • While war may appear to be the least beneficial thing to mankind and society in general, there are numerous aspects of it which further our development. Whether it be the liberation of oppressed people or simply the cooperation of two very different peoples, which results in new friendships between cultures, many positives are found amongst the tragedies.
    • War is the most effective way to get things done.
    • War is about protecting the innocent and fighting so others don’t have to.
    • Fear leads to hatred and hatred leads to war.
    • It is a horrible and necessary thing. We may as well be the best at it.
    • I believe war is a necessary evil if there is a good enough reason (e.g., World War II).
    • War is that in which humans grow most.
    • I think war is a way to strengthen our country. It shows other countries that our country will not be stepped on and we will defend our country.
    • War is a failure of diplomacy. As soldiers and officers we will manage and control the application of violence in order to protect the United States.

      He goes on to say:

      The 12 answers reflect the thoughtful, varied, and independent mindset that I have always encountered when dealing with folks at West Point, properly known as the United States Military Academy. It is a truly remarkable institution, and I wish the rest of the world knew more about it.

      This echoes nicely the piece I wrote on John McCain’s views on war a while back. Both the speech that posting referred to and the quotes above do a good job of refuting this idea that soldiers and Republicans (presumably, especially Republican soldiers) are a bunch of warmongers. It’s refreshing to see this kind of accurate view of prospective officers’ sentiments on view out there in the open for people to see. Those who have fought or know they may be called upon to do so seem to develop a more nuanced view of war than those who sit on the sidelines, whether pacifists or warmongers. They realize the necessity of war but do not delight or glory in it. It’s ultimately a very realistic view of war and one more of us should adopt.

      May 15th, 2008 by Rightsideup

      CNN’s Jack Cafferty has a column looking at the option of lowering speed limits to bring down the price of gas. Here’s an excerpt:

      Cars are most fuel efficient when driven between 30 mph and 60 mph. Above 65 mph, mileage drops sharply. This isn’t rocket science. If drivers are forced to slow down, we would all use less gasoline. And if demand went down, prices might just follow.

      One expert says reducing highway speeds from 70 mph to 60 mph would reduce gasoline consumption between 2% and 3%. That could translate into a price reduction of as much as 10%. At today’s price, almost 38 cents a gallon.

      This is exactly what happened in 1974 during the Middle East oil embargo. President Nixon and Congress imposed a national speed limit of 55 mph. Congress repealed the national speed limit law in 1995, and today there are 32 states with speed limits of 70 mph or higher. In Texas, you can even drive 80 mph on some roads.

      Marvelous. Now we’re looking to the Carter era for solutions to our problems. Apparently the last 30 years were a big waste of time and there were no valuable lessons about government intervention in the economy worth remembering. So instead we’re taking our lessons from that fabulously successful Carter era of economic growth and prosperity.

      If people want to use less gas, then they’re presumably quite welcome to reduce their speed on highways to 60mph or lower. But re-introducing a federal speed limit, with no constitutional justification whatsoever, just in order to meddle in the oil market, is several steps too far. There are much bigger and more effective ways to impact the oil market, not least permitting more drilling and refining of oil domestically. Why is it that certain people’s instincts always go to increasing government limitations on freedom of behavior when it comes to solving problems? And how come our collective memories of the past results of such policies are so short?

      May 12th, 2008 by Rightsideup

      When there were still two Primary races, Romney was accused several times of lacking a principled core – something which voters could point to and know that it would determine his views on policies or specific situations he would encounter as president. His pragmatic approach – gathering lots of smart people and a truckload of data and working things through to their logical conclusion – was said to be less than inspiring.

      The irony, as I’ve come to realize in the last few days, is that Obama also lacks a principled core – but in his case it’s the very fact that he’s focusing on being inspiring that is masking this fact. Yes, he has a set of buzzwords which are the spine of his campaign – but they’re not about principles – they’re about abstract nouns: “change”, “hope”, “belief” etc. These are inspiring words indeed, but they tell us absolutely nothing about what moral, ethical or rational framework Obama would use to inform his policy decisions as president.

      Romney at least had a set of specific proposals and policy positions that people knew about and could weigh up. Those positions also signaled how he would approach other, related issues. But Obama doesn’t have any policy positions either. All he has are those empty words that lift the spirit but provide no guidance on how he would make decisions. And because he’s also relatively unknown as a personality, too, he doesn’t even have that to fall back on. Other than his tendency to speak in lofty terms and to claim (though not actually to follow through on the claim) that he is above the usual political tactics, there’s nothing to define Obama the man either.

      The comparison with Romney is an interesting one, but it’s not all that relevant at this point. What’s more relevant is to compare him with the other remaining candidates, and also to think about the implications if he does become president. McCain perhaps lacks an obvious principled core, too, but the force of his personality and his long service in the Senate give some pretty powerful pointers to how he would act as president. Hillary Clinton has less experience as a Senator, but has nonetheless been in the public eye for a long time and has a publicly perceived personality, and has also been much more specific about policy proposals than Obama. Both come off more favorably than Obama if you look at this particular issue (which not everyone is – so far the lack of substance hasn’t cost him too much).

      What does this mean for an Obama presidency? Well, Newt Gingrich has some interesting thoughts in the “letter” to Obama he wrote for Newsweek this week:

      The challenge you will face in the next few months is stark. Do you want to remain vague? You might win—but you might find that, in winning, you have a “victory of personality” with no real policy consequences. Or do you want to provide specifics? If so, your victory could be a clarion call from the American people to Congress to join you in achieving your goals.

      A downfall of this approach is that people have little to measure Obama against other than idealism (which is always going to be an impossible bar to measure up to), and little to vote for next time except the personality (which will inevitably have been tarnished by four years in the White House). It’s in his own long-term interest to provide more than just his airy rhetoric, even though it might appear in his short-term interest to stick to it and so avoid losing support by being specific enough to offend some people.

      May 9th, 2008 by Rightsideup

      CNN reports on a study done by the Project for Excellence in Journalism into the Daily Show. That anyone would waste time on a project like this seems pretty funny to begin with, and it’s also not entirely clear what the purpose of the study was: whether to assess bias in the show, or to determine whether people who watch the show get their news from it.

      At any rate, CNN reports the findings on bias as follows:

      While Stewart aims most of his firepower at Republicans, the show is actually pretty balanced in its bookings, the study noted. Of the clearly partisan, 15 guests were conservative and 18 were liberal. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee John McCain was a guest on Wednesday’s show.

      This appears to be an attempt to reduce bias to compliance with the Fairness Doctrine. If the Fairness Doctrine was the only measure of bias, then every news outlet could easily be exonerated of any bias. But we all know that the bias shows itself in many different ways. The questions asked of guests – whether softball or hardball questions, the views shared by anchors and commentators, the selection of news items to focus on etc. are all examples of bias which aren’t addressed by the Fairness Doctrine alone.

      In fact, the first sentence of the paragraph quoted above explicitly states Stewart’s bias against Republicans. That’s the problem, and it seems bizarre to have an entire article about the rest of the investigation with this throwaway remark at the end, which confirms the bias in the Daily Show that should have been the focus of the article.

      And it’s not just the opinion of the CNN journalist who wrote the article. That remark is based on one of the findings from the study itself:

      Republicans in 2007 tended to bear the brunt of ridicule from Stewart and his crew. From July 1 through November 1, Stewart’s humor targeted Republicans more than three times as often as Democrats. The Bush Administration alone was the focus of almost a quarter (22%) of the segments in this time period.

      Why wasn’t this the headline? Instead, the headline is about the fact that people don’t think the Daily Show is really a news show. Who knew?

      May 8th, 2008 by Rightsideup

      Another classic example of liberals’ one-way interpretation of free speech. Hot Air has covered an event which occurred at University of Wisconsin Stevens Point recently. Some pro-life activists had obtained permission from the University to put up a display of crosses on one of the lawns. Then, a pro-abortion individual came along and started pulling all the crosses down. His defense? Abortion is a constitutional right, so now you don’t have the right to challenge it.

      Why do liberals think free speech only goes one way? Why is only their speech protected? How do they justify this to themselves? In my experience, it’s often because they see themselves as believing the right things, and so believe that the field of acceptable opinions has them at its center, not at the left-most fringe. As a result, all conservatives and worse are in the unacceptable part of the spectrum. Free speech shouldn’t really protect all speech, just that speech which falls within the acceptable range. At any rate, not anything that’s likely to change soon.

      May 7th, 2008 by Rightsideup

      So, everyone wants Hillary to get out, and understandably so. She’s losing in such a way that it’s hard to see how she could come back. There are good arguments for dropping out now to allow the party to “heal” etc. But I think there are good reasons why she should stay in, which she could still deploy.

      Look at what’s happened these past few weeks, which wouldn’t have happened if the Democratic race was sewn up. Obama’s Wright problem has been highlighted. His Michelle Obama problem has been highlighted. His “bitterness” / elitism problem has been highlighted. His inability to stay on message when going off script has been highlighted. None of that would have happened these last few weeks if there hadn’t been an intense fight going on on the Democratic side.

      Why is that a good thing? Because all of these things would otherwise have come up in the general election. And why is that important? For two reasons. First, because these things coming up now means that our 24/7 news cycle burns them out as topics of conversation in a very short period. Yes, they’ll still be there to talk about later but they won’t have the same punch. And, if those concerns really are big, the Democrats get to really see them and chew them over while they still have a choice about whether he’s the candidate for them.

      McCain’s baggage and Clinton’s baggage has been out there for so long that this part of the process doesn’t make that much difference at this point. But Obama is so untested and so relatively unknown that it’s actually really important for the Democrats to have this time to get to know their (presumptive) candidate. So, for all the Hillary is supposedly preventing Obama from taking on McCain head to head, I think she’s actually doing the Democrats a lot of good, and they should actually in a perverse way be grateful that Hillary’s as sore a loser as she is.