Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Joining the YouTube Debate

Well, I'm a bit swamped at work, so my posting schedule will be a bit sporadic (there's a shock, huh?) but I've decided what it will be. Over the next few weeks, I will take the transcript of the Democrats' YouTube debate, chop it into manageable pieces, and both comment on the candidates' responses and - to the best of my ability - answer the questions myself.

Of course, I have the unfair advantage of all the research time I need and no Anderson Cooper cutting me off, but I figure that's balanced by the actual candidates' advantage of having a staff to prepare them for these things.

Should be interesting

Friday, July 06, 2007

A Moment of Clarity

Sorry for the long absence; life and work have a way of doing that to me. Oddly enough, I'm making my return to talk not about American politics but British politics, a subject I know almost nothing about.

But even knowing nothing about the details of particular parties or candidates (beyond the very broad brush strokes), following a link from a friend led me to a moment of absolute clarity as to the level of dirty tricks one English party is stooping to in a particular parliamentary race.

I wandered into this local political debate following a link a friend of mine mentioned in a discussion on the Dragonmount.com message boards; I had asked what people considered "required reading" - for me it's Michael J. Totten's eloquent, intelligent and thoroughly non-ideological independent reporting and analysis of events in the Middle East - and she came back with Iain Dale's blog, which I promptly checked out. When I did, this was the first post showing:
Tom Watson Sinks to the Depths (Again)
Am I alone in thinking that Tom Watson's* latest post on the Conservative Candidate in Ealing Southall is, well, borderline racist? It's also complete rubbish. He's no raising a canard about Tony Lit's directorships being registered at different addresses. Big ****ing deal. Mine probably are/were too. Ooooh. Big conspiracy. And maybe I may have registered one in the name of Iain Dale and one in the name of Iain Campbell** Dale. Obviously I am a criminal. . . .

Somewhat intrigued, I followed the link. Here's what I found.

Apparently, the Conservative Party candidate in the Ealing Southwall district is a man named Surinderpal Singh Lit, who has become somewhat of a celebrity businessman using the name "Tony Lit" - which is also the name he is running for election under. Members of the Labor Party did some basic opposition research and discovered that there was no "Tony Lit" registered to vote in the district, and rushed to the papers with the news, asking how a candidate could ask others to vote for him if he apparently never bothered to do so. Tom Watson - from what I can gather a Labor Party campaign manager ala Karl Rove - posted the news on his blog. The Conservative Party came back swinging, pointing out that Tony Lit was registered under his given name.

And that was the end of it, right? Wrong.

Instead of offering a simple apology (or even a non-apologetic "my mistake") or simply letting the subject drop, Watson opted to defend his initial charge that Tony Lit wasn't registered to vote. Here's the start of the post that got Dale all hot and bothered:

It remains the case, that there is no Tony Lit registered to vote in either Chiswick or Richmond (and certainly not in Ealing or Southall). It is true that a Surinderpal Singh Lit is registered to vote in Chiswick, just as he was previously in Richmond. Though not in Ealing or Southall. I do not think it unreasonable to have assumed that the man the Conservatives are telling the voters of Ealing Southall is Tony Lit is, in
fact, called Tony Lit.

The fact that “Tony Lit”’s six company directorships are not only held at three different addresses but in three different names does not add clarity to the questions I raised yesterday.

It appears that almost the only time that the Conservative candidate is Tony Lit is
when he is campaigning in Ealing and Southall. . .

Aside from the political idiocy of keeping the story alive (does Watson really think voters will be concerned by the fact that a candidate is running under a nickname? Maybe that is a big deal in England, though I can't see why it possibly could be), Watson's last quoted line rang several bells for me. From what I'd read in the comments section on Dale's blog (which was peopled by both Conservatives agreeing with Dale and Laborites disagreeing - more on that in a moment), one of the major points being raised against Lit was that he was a sort of Ealing-Southall version of Mike Bloomberg - a celebrity businessman who joined the Conservative party out of political opportunism rather than true belief in its ideology just a short time before being named the party's candidate. People were complaining that he was being run for his name recognition, not his political viewpoints. Which led me to believe that Watson's statement - that Tony Lit only goes by "Tony Lit" "when he is campaigning in Ealing and Southall" was thoroughly false.

A quick Google search confirmed it. Searching "Tony Lit" returns 45,000 hits, the first of which is a 2005 article referring to him as (shockingly) "Tony Lit." That Watson would stoop to such an obviously false assertion about an opposition candidate (in an attempt to defend a prior false claim about the candidate) pretty much clinched it for me. I know next to nothing about British politics - but I do know that were I a British voter I would be wary of any candidate Watson endorses.

But that's just Watson the politician; playing dirty politics, the politics of victory at any cost, but politics. Frankly, I'm already inclined to be wary of any candidate too enthusiastically pushed by party machinery, and as most people probably do, take anything said in a campaign by partisans of either side with a large grain of salt.

What really offends me is the actions of Watson the Blogger. After reading Watson's post and running my Google search, I posted a quick question to Watson asking how he could explain the discrepancy. From the comments section of Dale's blog, it's clear that several other skeptical individuals posted negative comments on Watson's blog. Care to guess how many appear in Watson's comments section?


The contrast with Dale's blog is unavoidable. On Dale's blog, Conservatives and Laborites debate (mostly by talking past each other, but that's a different issue) and both viewpoints are expressed and allowed to be seen. Dale is obviously a believer that the marketplace of ideas should be populated with different voices, and likely both reasonably confident that his viewpoint will prevail and interested in the ability to take in other viewpoints and perhaps alter his thinking on particular subjects to the extent that people with other views make good points.

Watson, quite clearly, is not; the only viewpoints that may be expressed on his blog are those that agree with him. Any other opinions are unwelcome, and will be deleted.

And, to get back to the politics, I don't think I could ever bring myself to vote for a party whose main operatives work like that, no matter what the political positions of the candidates. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a 1919 Supreme Court decision, "when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas...that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out." The belief in the marketplace of ideas is fundamental to good government; that Labor's primary election guru seems to lack that belief is profoundly troubling.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Candidate's Response

President Bush has just finished his latest address on Iraq, and Dick Durban has just delivered the Democrats' response. I know you're all dying for my take, and here it is:

President Bush's Speech

It should be no surprise that I approve of the bulk of what President Bush outlined. Pretty much as I suggested months ago, the U.S. is adopting a Baghdad-first strategy designed to take, clear, and most importantly hold Baghdad's neighborhoods, implementing the ink-spot approach that is one of the only proven counter-insurgency strategies.

My only quibble is the move to bring 20,000 more U.S. troops to Iraq to implement the plan; I think it will work but it's not necessary (internal redeployment of 20,000 troops already in Iraq would do the job as well, in my opinion), and is going to cause a real bare-knuckles political battle aimed more at the 2008 elections than fixing Iraq (Senate Democrats are already talking about bringing a non-binding resolution opposing the plan in order to get Republicans on record as supporting or opposing it). That naked political move drops my estimation of the Democrats a few notches; as low as my opinion of politicians already is, that's saying something.

Dick Durban's Response

Interestingly enough, the Democratic response did make a legitimate point: that Iraqis might take on more responsibility and fight harder to protect their own interests if they knew they could no longer count on an American bail-out. No less an authority on warfare than Sun-tzu wrote that a commander could drive his own army into hopeless situations or "fatal terrain" to make them fight harder, as they would be convinced that they could either fight or die.

But what I think the Democrats are overlooking is that the Iraqis already have more than enough incentive to fight for themselves. Iraq Body Count (a fairly credible source) puts the number of Iraqis killed in 2006 alone at roughly 24,000, close to double the 14,000 that died in 2005. With that type of death toll, it's unlikely Iraqis are relaxing while counting on American help to save them.

In fact, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has informed key political ally Moqtada al-Sadr that his militia will no longer receive political cover, and they can either disarm by choice or be disarmed by force.

Of course, all of this is just words. But for the first time in a while, people are saying the right ones.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

From the Department of Unintentional Irony

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, who recently blamed the rival Fatah party for an assassination attempt and whose Hamas party is engaged in an internecine shooting war with Fatah members, has rejected Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' call for early elections "because it . . . could cause tension among Palestinians."

'Nuff said.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Every Donkey Has Its Day

Well, the midterms came and went last week and - as predicted by pollsters and pundits - the Democrats have retaken the House and Senate. The question is what will they do with their new majorities?

Odds are the Senate will not be overly shaken up; a slim Republican majority is being replaced by a slim Democratic majority, and that Democratic majority is shaky, since it includes newly christened independent Joe Lieberman. Lieberman is a Democrat at heart - but he's always been unafraid to cross party lines when he believes its the right thing to do (his support for the war in Iraq, which is what pushed him out of the party by giving Ned Lamont the keys to Connecticut's Democratic primary, definitely qualifies), and given the Democrat's institutional support of Lamont in the election he's probably less likely than ever to buy into the whole "party discipline" idea. Throw in the fact that neither party has the votes to break a filibuster, and odds are that aside from a few cosmetic changes (committee chairmanships switching parties and Harry Reid settling into the majority leader's office) it will probably be business as usual in the upper house of Congress.

The House of Representatives, though? Well, that's a whole 'nother story, and it looks like its going to be a real bare knuckles throwdown. Putting on her moderate hat just before the election, new Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi pledged not to push impeachment, but the Congressman holding the gavel - newly minted chairman of the judiciary committee John Conyers - seems to agree with her now, though he wrote what many are calling the case for impeachment only a year ago. It will be interesting to see what position he takes a year from now, particularly if any other possible Constitutional issues come out. One of the war's (and the President's) most outspoken (and rude) critics, New York's own Charlie Rangel, is set to assume the chairman's seat in the Ways and Means committee, which puts him in position to block the administration's economic policy, beginning with his refusal to extend the Bush tax cuts past their current 2010 expiration date (and for the record, I think that's the right decision). As new Chairman of the Appropriations committee, Robert Byrd - who has been one of the most vocal critics of the Iraq war - could lead a charge to defund the war in Iraq (or at least squeeze the Pentagon to a very uncomfortable point). If he does that, American servicemen and women are going to be the biggest losers in what will likely devolve into a game of political chicken where the only people at risk of crashing are the ones not in control of the cars: Byrd could slice the budget, hoping the added risk to army personnel will force President Bush to end the war (which as Commander-in-chief is entirely at the President's discretion) and the White House could refuse to blink, hoping that an outcry at Byrd hurting the troops will force him to back off (and there's no question that Republican talk radio would do its part to whip up just such an outcry). And if we get into a real budget fight, Bush could always choose to veto the budget and allow a shut down of parts of the federal government, which is what Clinton did to Newt Gingrich way back when.

All in all, the next two years look like a gridlocked mess that may have us looking back on the last 6 years as an example of government running smoothely. And that, folks, is a frightening thought.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

New Jersey Gets It Right

In a landmark opinion delivered Wednesday, October 25, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that the New Jersey legislature must, within the next six months, enact a law providing "committed same sex couples" the same rights and benefits as married heterosexual couples. The Court left it up to the New Jersey legislature to determine what to call the scheme they will create - "marriage" or something else - but whatever the name, the rights must be the same. What makes this different than the Massachusetts decision from several years ago is that the New Jersey decision recognized that suits of this nature are really about two different things:
  1. The right to marriage; and
  2. The rights of marriage.

Here's the thing. As a religious jew, I believe that engaging in homosexual acts is a moral wrong. And as a religious jew, the word "marriage" defines a religious status afforded to a particular relationship between a man and a woman. But then again, in Judaism, the status of "marriage" - and the religious obligations and benefits conferred by that status - only applies to a jewish man and a jewish woman. Jewish law does not deal with the status of non-jews, and neither a civil marriage nor a clerical marriage would confer any status change in how jewish law applied to the couple. And, of course, Jewish law would not confer the religious status of "marriage" on a jewish couple married in a civil ceremony.

Why am I giving a seminar on Jewish marriage law? Because what should be obvious from this description is that what the word "marriage" means to me as a religious Jew has nothing at all to do with what the word "marriage" means to me as a matter of American law. American law confers marital status - and the rights and obligations that come with it under American law (which, needless to say, are different from those that come with "marriage" in Judaism) - on jews and non-jews equally, on couples married by clerics and judges equally.

And what the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled - correctly - is that there is no legitimate societal reason to deny those rights and privileges provided by the American law of marriage to homosexual couples who are willing to also take the burdens and obligations conferred by the American law of marriage.

What types of rights and privileges are we talking about? A few were listed in the Court's decision - eliminating the need to engage in lengthy and expensive legal processes of "cross-adopting" each other's children (a heterosexual who marries a spouse with children has no need legally adopt the children to have rights as a parent) or changing a last name, qualifying for benefits that employers must automatically provide for employee spouses, rights of inheritance, a family member's right to visit in the hospital, and others.

And the burdens? The requirement of financial support for a spouse and their children, the need for a divorce to dissolve the relationship and begin a new relationship with another individual, the alimony payments and financial unwinding that comes with it, and other of the legal consequences of marriage that can negatively impact one party or the other.

So long as homosexuals are willing to accept the burdens of marriage as well as the privileges, there is no legitimate societal interest in denying them the right to do so.

Now, the New Jersey case was somewhat unique, in that because New Jersey had already adopted a domestic partnership law providing homosexual couples some of the rights of heterosexual married couples, the state could not raise the usual rationales for denying homosexuals marital rights - (in the New jersey Supreme Court's words) "encouraging procreation" and "creating the optimal living environment for children" - because the domestic partnership law indicates that the legislature did not see that as a significant problem. But even without the domestic partnership law, those arguments don't make much sense. Homosexual couples exist with or without marital rights, and they are not going to procreate more or less because of marital rights. And homosexual couples already have children - as they are fully allowed to in every state in the nation - without marital rights.

In other words, if the argument for denying homosexuals marital rights hinges on procreation or preventing homosexuals from having or raising children, the fact is it hasn't worked. (It's also worth noting that the two arguments are inherently contradictory, since if granting homosexuals marriage will discourage procreation, then it could not simultaneously increase the incidence of "non-optimal living conditions for children", and vice versa). It's hard to justify refusing to grant homosexuals marital rights on the basis of alleged policy benefits that clearly haven't materialized.

That said, I also think that the Court got it right when they left it to the legislature to determine what to call the institution that will provide homosexuals with marital rights. (That issue, by the way, was the only disagreement among the Justices; while the decision is being reported as a 4-3 split, the Court ruled 7-0 that homosexuals were entitled to marital rights. The three dissenting Justices would have ruled that the institution must be called "marriage.") Why is that?

Because requiring that the institution be called "marriage" has nothing to do with providing equal rights for homosexuals. It has to do with providing for equal "perception" in the minds of others - something that, unfortunately, cannot be legislated. Requiring that the institution be termed "marriage" would be an attempt to legislate the private perceptions of individuals.

As for me, even if the legislature calls it a civil union or something other than "marriage", I'll refer to any homosexual couples who enter into the relationship defined by the statute the New Jersey legislature enacts as "married." Because all that english word means to me is "endowed with the rights and obligations of marriage" - and homosexual couples who "enter into civil unions" (if that's what they're called) will fit that definition just as much as heterosexual couples who "get married" - jewish or not, clerical or not.

New Jersey got it right - and, if elected, I'd push for applying the New Jersey paradigm across the country.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Black Gold, Colorado Tea, Part Deux

Back to the oil shale. Possibly the biggest obstacle to the full development of oil shale as an oil source is production cost. Oil shale is essentially rock that contains kerogen - a geological precursor of oil. Extracting usable oil from oil shale requires an extensive - and expensive - conversion process. Until very recently, the only way to extract oil from oil shale was to strip mine the rock and bring it to a processing plant, at a production cost of roughly $40/barrel. Shell recently announced that it had developed technology that could extract oil from oil shale in situ, causing far less environmental damage and at a production cost low enough to allow it to be competitive in the $30/barrel range.

In contrast, the worldwide average production cost for conventional oil is roughly $12/barrel. The problem is obvious - even at the lower cost-per-barrel Shell has reached, oil shale technology is only profitable in a world where oil prices are above $30 per barrel. Conventional oil will remain profitable even if the price tumbles below $30/barrel. That may be hard to contemplate in today's world of $70 a barrel oil, but as these graphs from WTRG Economics demonstrate, even counting the recent spike in oil prices the worldwide average for oil has stayed within the $20-25/barrel range for a century and a half.

So while it may make economic sense to exploit oil shale right now, when oil prices are high, in the ten years it will take to truly ramp up to meaningful production levels the price of oil may drop. Worse, whatever the price of oil does in the next ten years, the very act of producing large amounts of oil from oil shale will drive the worldwide oil price down; flooding the market with oil produced from oil shale - and the proven oil shale reserves of the United States alone are three times the size of Saudi Arabia's conventional oil reserves, so production would flood the market - would drastically alter the supply and demand equation that has oil priced as high as it is right now.

In other words, there are significant economic reasons why oil shale is not and likely will not be a significant feature of the oil economy in the near future. As increased supply drove worldwide oil prices down, oil shale oil producers would tighten production (and, if necessary, cease production entirely) as it became less profitable. The result would be the U.S. getting far less strategic benefit from oil shale oil production than it might otherwise be able to.

Which is why I would propose government intervention in the market - or, more accurately, government activity in the market. The U.S. government should (and if I were President, would) guarantee all oil shale producers a profit margin of 6% on all oil shale produced in the U.S. at a cost of $30/barrel or less, up to a total of 7.5 billion barrels per year (the total U.S. oil consumption for 2004 according to the department of energy). The 6% figure is a slight drop from the average oil industry profit margin for the third quarter of 2005, which was 8.2% according to Gravmag. The drop in profit margin makes sense because of the absence of risk that the government guarantee would entail. To encourage continued reduction in production costs, I would propose a 50/50 split of any production cost decreases - that is, if production costs decline from $30/barrel to $29/barrel, the profit margin would be calculated as though the production costs had only dropped from $30/barrel to $29.50/barrel - and therefore the nominal 6% profit margin would actually be incrementally greater.

Lets talk dollars and cents for a second. At a production cost of $30/barrel, a 6% profit would be $2.10, or a total sale price of $32.10/barrel. If the market price for oil remained above $32.10/barrel, the guarantee would be irrelevant and the U.S. government would pay nothing. If the market price for oil dipped below $32.10/barrel, the U.S. would purchase the oil directly and then either use it, resell it on the market at market price, or add it to the Strategic Oil Reserve, as it chose. At most - that is if the oil shale producers produced the full 7.5 billion barrels and the market price of oil dipped to $0 - the program would cost $240B, or 1/10 of the 2005 U.S. budget. Assuming oil stabilizes at $10/barrel, that cost would drop to $165B, and at $20/barrel, the cost would be $95B. And, that money would: (1) be taxable by the government, allowing it to recover several billion dollars directly; (2) support a massive increase in the domestic economy, as oil shale production would provide jobs and other influxes of cash to the Wyoming, Colorado and Utah economies (which would, of course, be taxable); and - if worldwide oil prices stayed high until oil shale production came on line - (3) lower the cost of goods by driving down the cost of oil either as a resource in production (such as plastics) or an addition to the costs of transportation (in the form of high gas prices).

More importantly, those are primarily economic assessments. As I mentioned in the first post, the real impact of oil shale production would be geopolitical - stemming the flow of petrodollars to regimes such as Iran, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, forever eliminating the threat of the "oil weapon" and dramatically reducing the influence of OPEC and its members on global policy issues. Looked at in that light, the funding for this initiative would be as much in America's national security interests as would any weapons development initiative put forward by the Pentagon.

This Brief Interruption Was Brought To You By

The Jewish holidays, a computer virus, and a summary judgment brief.

Or, as they are collectively known, "real life."

I'll try to keep it from bothering us too much more.