Saturday, November 29, 2008

Partners in Crime

Terry Barton, and not her former employer, the U.S. Forest Service, was solely responsible for starting the Hayman fire in 2002, a federal judge ruled this week. As a result, the agency can't be held liable for a blaze that scorched a vast swath of forest, and more than a hundred homes, in the mountains West of here. And this means certain lawyers can stop salivating.

But I wouldn't so easily let the agency off the hook on the question of what role it played in creating the explosive forest conditions that turned what should have been a manageable situation into a disaster. Barton struck the match, and she's done her time for that act of recklessness. Yet her former employer has dodged responsibility for decades of regulatory malpractice that contributed to the current forest health crisis, of which extreme wildfires are one symptom.

In that sense, the Forest Service is an accessory to Barton's crime. But Barton becomes a scapegoat while Smokey Bear gets away with criminal negligence.

Am I really blaming a cartoon character, who warned kids against playing with matches, for the forest health crisis we’re facing today? Yes, in part.

As the cartoon character at the top, the buck stops with Smokey. Playing with matches in the forest is unquestionably something to be discouraged. But it’s even more dangerous these days, thanks to the simplistic, anti-fire attitudes Smokey long personified, which mirrored a century of short-sighted fire suppression policies by the U.S. Forest Service. Fire is a natural and even beneficial part of the natural environment. But the natural fire cycle was dramatically disrupted in North American a century ago, when good old Smokey and his colleagues began systematically stamping-out every fire that flared up.

That institutionalized fire phobia helped create the forest health crisis we face today, yet neither Smokey nor the agency he represents have adequately atoned for this. They put the focus on blaming errant or stupid individuals who spark the blazes, but the tinderbox conditions were created on their watch.

Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt put it this way in the midst of the 2000 fire season. "These forests are too thick,” he said. “They are explosive, they are dangerous and the reason is that fire has been excluded for 100 years and there is too much fuel in the forests, too many trees." Babbitt called for an overhaul of federal fire policy, including taking a more enlightened view of fire’s role in the natural scheme of things.

But the first problem with that is that it’s risky reintroducing fire into an overfueled environment. The second problem with adopting a more hands-on approach is political and ideological. Active management doesn't sit well with green extremists, because it clashes with their non-interventionist ideas about nature -- their belief that man can do nothing but harm in the wild. Thinning the forests would mean cutting trees. And cutting trees, in the eyes of extremists, might reopen the forests to hated loggers and profiteers. Better to let the forests die and burn, according to this warped way of thinking, than to admit that man, having already altered the forest and disrupted the natural fire cycle, might be able to correct the problem by returning to active management.

Of late, agency insiders and environmental groups have been blurring the issue by blaming wildfires, the beetle blight and other elements of the crisis on -- what else? -- global warming. But not that long ago, before climate change became the explanation of first resort for every phenomenon, there was consensus that human factors and policy decisions played a large part in the present crisis. By making fire seem a healthy forest’s enemy, rather than its ally, Smokey was blowing smoke up the public’s behind. But like the bureaucracy he represents, he emerged from the resulting firestorm unscathed, when it all blew up in his face.

Terry Barton has been held accountable for recklessness and stupidity. When will the Forest Service be?

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Yeah, But Do They Have Any Common Sense?

“Forbes: Boulder is country's smartest town,” reads the rather triumphant headline in today’s Boulder Daily Camera. But all that concentrated gray matter didn’t trickle down to the copy desk.

What Forbes actually rated was the country’s “most educated" places, which is something different, since anyone who studies the top ten list, and is aware of how these “smart towns” operate, can see that the two don’t correlate. Any plodding dolt with perseverance, ambition and patient parents can get a masters or doctorate degree. And while some of these people certainly qualify as smart, in one sense, many are sorely lacking in common sense – and in many qualities that are far more important in making a well-rounded person and solid citizen, including the humility to know they don't know it all. But some among them actually believe that a PhD in biology or English lit or gender studies also makes them worldly and wise, when they’re frequently quite narrow, almost myopic, as a result of the ivory tower naval-gazing.

These are the "smart" places:

No. 1 Boulder
No. 2 Ann Arbor, Mich.
No. 3 Washington, D.C.
No. 4 San Jose, Calif.
No. 5 San Francisco
No. 6 Southern Connecticut
No. 7 Charlottesville, Va.
No. 8 Durham, N.C.
No. 9 Boston
No. 10 Fort Collins

These are the stupid zones

No. 1 Lake Havasu, Ariz.
No. 2 Vineland, N.J.
No. 3 Merced, Calif.
No. 4 Visalia, Calif.
No. 5 Houma, La.
No. 6 Yuma, Ariz.
No. 7 Bakersfield, Calif.
No. 8 Ottawa, Ill.
No. 9 Fort Smith, Ark.
No. 10 McAllen, Texas

But most of the places on the top list, from what I know, are common sense-free zones, where residents live and work in a bubble (or ivory tower, in the case of the college towns on the list). Academia has as tenuous a link to the real world as Washington does – which explains why so many of the policies that originate in these "smart" places, and are imposed on the dolts, turn out to be stupid in practice. Has all that education also made these people virtuous (an old-fashioned question, I know)? Not necessarily. They look out (or is it down?) on the rest of the country with hubris, rather than humility, and that's what makes them dangerous to the rest of us.

If Washingtonians are so smart, why's the country so screwed up?

For smart people, they’re also strangely (and stubbornly) susceptible to crackpot ideas that don’t work – socialism and Marxism, for example – and which, when put into action in their local government, turn some of these towns into hotbeds of elitism, central planning, political correctness, small-scale socialism and petty tyranny.

Tyranny in Boulder? Oppression in Ann Arbor? Yes and yes. Ask property owners. Ask business owners. Ask conservatives and libertarians who must live in the closet, afraid to contradict the hard left dogma that prevails, for fear of running afoul of the thought police. These towns may suit some people. But most freedom-loving Americans would suffocate there, or be driven mad, so they flee.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Would "Washington Motors" Do Better?

An excellent piece in today's Washington Post poses the question: Can the know-it-alls in Washington do a better job of building an innovative and profitable car company than can the panhandlers in pinstripes from Detroit? Washington seems to think so, judging from all the critiques auto company execs endured when they came grovelling, and all the conditions politicians want attached to any bailout money.

The short answer, of course, is that any car or car company designed according to Washington's specifications would be an Edsel -- just as everything else Washington touches becomes an Edsel. Hasn't anyone in Washington ever heard of the GAZ-M20 Pobeda, which was just one clunky and archaic result of Soviet central planning? And an argument might even be made that the meddling Washington's already done in the industry, in terms of the regulatory burdens and fuel economy and safety mandates it's imposed, contributed mightily to the uncompetitiveness of this American industry (a point made by Holman Jenkins in The Wall Street Journal).

But the long answer, for those who want it, is as follows:

The Car of the Future -- but at What Cost?

Hybrid Vehicles Are Popular, but Making Them Profitable Is a Challenge

By Steven Mufson

Many members of Congress believe they know what the car company of the future should look like.

"A business model based on gas -- a gas-guzzling past -- is unacceptable," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said last week. "We need a business model based on cars of the future, and we already know what that future is: the plug-in hybrid electric car."

But the car company Schumer and other lawmakers envision for the future could turn out to be a money-losing operation, not part of a "sustainable U.S. auto industry" that President-elect Barack Obama and most members of Congress say they want to create.

That's because car manufacturers still haven't figured out how to produce hybrid and plug-in vehicles cheaply enough to make money on them. After a decade of relative success with its hybrid Prius, Toyota has sold about a million of the cars and is still widely believed by analysts to be losing money on each one sold. General Motors has touted plans for a plug-in hybrid vehicle called the Volt, but the costly battery will prevent it from turning a profit on the vehicle for several years, at least.

"In 10 years are they [at GM] going to solve the technological problems with respect to the Volt? Sure," says Maryann Keller, an automotive analyst and author of a book on GM. "But are they going to be able to stake their survival, which is really more of a now to five-year proposition, on it? I'd say they can't. They have to stake their future on Malibus, the Chevy Cruze, and much more conventional technologies."

U.S. automakers faced a barrage of demands last week that they provide evidence and assurance that they would use federal bailout money to transform their companies to produce automobiles of the future, using advanced technologies and featuring hybrid or plug-in vehicles. And in his "60 Minutes" interview on Nov. 16, Obama said that before backing a big loan package he wanted to be sure "that we are creating a bridge loan to somewhere as opposed to a bridge loan to nowhere."

But there's no guarantee that the new business model would be any more viable than the current one. Automobile experts estimate that the battery in a plug-in vehicle could add at least $8,000 to the cost of a car, maybe considerably more. Most Americans will be unwilling to pay the extra price, especially if gasoline prices languish around $2 a gallon.

That's why one of the mysteries about GM's plans to introduce the Volt in 2010 is how much it will cost to buy one. "What's the Volt going to cost? I would be happy to answer that if you can tell me the price of oil in 2010," said Robert A. Kruse, GM's executive director of global vehicle engineering for hybrids, electric vehicles and batteries. "I can tell you to the penny what it will cost GM, but pricing is much more related to market conditions."

The hurdles ahead for the Volt and other cars with new technologies pose dilemmas for automakers trying to gauge a market that is still very young for cars that don't exist while trying to stay in business during a downturn.

"These are hard choices," said Toyota chief technology officer Bill Reinert, part of the Prius design team. "Do you bet on lighter, smaller, more fuel efficient but ultimately less profitable cars or do you hold back a little on technology development and look at new versions of existing cars."

Many experts say that gas guzzlers will not fade away as long as Congress fails to impose higher taxes on gasoline to steer people toward fuel-efficient cars.

"You'd think from reading the media that we have had a burial ceremony at Arlington cemetery for the last pickup truck," said James Womack, a management expert who has written about the automobile industry. "I can easily imagine three years from now when public is focused on a new set of priorities . . . that this whole thing would go poof."

Eager to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, Obama proposed a $7,500-a-vehicle tax credit for plug-in vehicles during his presidential campaign. Roughly half of Americans don't earn enough to take advantage of such a big tax credit. (A head of household would need to earn almost $50,000 to have a federal tax liability that large.) Many others don't have the cash to purchase an expensive vehicle then wait for a federal refund. To spur sales of new vehicles, the price must be reasonable at the point of sale, say many industry experts.

Womack warned that it takes time to design a new vehicle, change assembly lines and then turn a new product into a profitable one. "For anything that's really new it's still about four years," he said. "To get your money back, you need to make that product for eight to 10 years with only cosmetic changes."

Helping automakers over that hump may take more money and patience than Congress or its taxpaying constituents have.

The experience of Tesla Motors, a Silicon Valley sports car maker, illustrates the challenges of making a radically new automobile. Founded by a group of high-tech multimillionaires, Tesla has been trying to become the first new successful American car company since Chrysler, which was founded in 1925.

Tesla's founders set out to make all-electric vehicles. The company's first: an all-electric sports car with a price tag of $109,000 that can go from zero to 60 mph in a bracing 3.9 seconds. As of a week ago, only 63 had been delivered to customers; a couple of dozen were nearly ready and the company has about 1,200 back orders.

"The reason we started with a $100,000 sports car is that when technology is new it tends to be expensive," says Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal who is the chief executive of and a big investor in Tesla. "It just takes time to optimize the right design and work up to economies of scale. . . . Why we didn't start with a Honda Civic is that it would be a $70,000 to $80,000 Honda Civic."

With a chassis made by Lotus in England, body parts made by a French carbon fiber firm Sotira and battery parts from Taiwan, Tesla has had supply-chain problems ranging from customs delays to a fire in the tunnel that goes under the English Channel. Initially a two-speed vehicle, the early Teslas were rough on transmissions, which have been eliminated in new single-speed versions. Recently Musk has hired some veterans from the Detroit automakers to smooth out production problems.

"For sure, this game looks a lot easier than it really is," said Jon Lauckner, GM's vice president of global program management. "You've got to get 3,000 parts all together in one place to assemble a vehicle."

Tesla isn't any different from the Detroit Three in one regard: It too is looking for government assistance. Eager to make a luxury sedan as the next in what it hopes eventually will be a full line of electric vehicles, Tesla Motors has applied for $400 million in low-interest federal loans under the $25 billion loan package approved by Congress a year ago.

But GM and other car companies, while preparing plug-in vehicles, are more likely to live or die based on the sales of conventional cars that get better fuel efficiency through improved transmissions, reduced weight or hybrid technology. GM says it will offer nine hybrids for sale by the middle of next year. Reinert says that Toyota will eventually offer hybrid versions of all its car models.

Still, production of the new cars will be limited. GM, for instance, plans to produce only a little more than 10,000 Volts in the model's first year.

"People ask us when will we produce not just 10,000 but 50,000," said Frank Weber, GM's global vehicle line executive and chief engineer for E-flex systems. "I say when the battery and power train costs have come down significantly." Weber added: "We never said this program in the first generation was there to make money. You cannot expect this type of technology to make money from day one."

The economic downturn has also changed the equation.

"Will the U.S. auto industry ever be as profitable as it was from mid-90s to the early part of this decade?" asks automobile expert Keller. Those days were "magic. It was like printing money for everybody. Everybody from Toyota and GM to Ford and Nissan were feasting on our desire to drive around in those giant vehicles."

But the industry has gone from feast to famine. Auto industry experts say that the basic problem is that the U.S. industry geared up to make 18 million cars and light trucks a year and that it will be lucky to sell 11 million this year. How far sales will climb back -- and when -- is anybody's guess.

"There's fluff and there's reality," Keller said. "The fluff is the Chevy Volt . . . That's not going to save GM in the next five years. What will save GM is more small sedans and more crossovers. That's what people are going to be buying."

Monday, November 24, 2008

Sorry, Virginia; there is no Obama Claus

Americans once were content to elect mere presidents; in Barack Obama, they seem to think they have found an all-powerful savior, able to save the economy and planet simultaneously by bestowing Washington's blessings on the long list of supplicants making pilgrimages to his door. Every industry and special interest is sending its wish list off to Washington, as if it were the North Pole -- now even the ski industry -- while visions of sugar plums and subsidies dance in their heads. All expect that Obama Claus will reach into his sack and deliver the goodies.

But sorry, Virginia, there is no Obama Claus.

The president-elect is expected to boost the market, save people from home foreclosures, "create" jobs, bring peace, save the planet and, oh yes, get people out to the ski slopes -- all in the first 100 days, preferably. Maybe at the inauguration, he'll help the disabled to walk and the blind to see.

The old American ideals of limited government and self-reliance are slumbering, if not dead. And that's an alarming development, since American presidents aren't meant to have such powers. The stage is set for either a dangerous (and possibly unconstitutional) expansion of executive branch powers (here there really may be a parallel with FDR) , or, more likely, an upsurge of dismay and disappointment (maybe even rage) when it becomes clear that the next president isn't a super-hero or a saint, but a human being, with a limited capacity to deliver all that's promised.

This is the logical result of American political campaigns that have devolved into little more than a litany of expensive and unrealistic promises, about what Washington will do for you, do for us, when this person or that party is in charge. Neither candidate can win if he or she acknowledges the limitations of the office, or of Washington's capacity to cure all ills. So they spend the campaign writing checks they can't cash.

The presidency is a potent office; but no president does or should have the power to do all the things Barack Obama is saying he'll do; it's contrary to the system of limited government and checks and balances the founders handed down to us. And the sooner Obama acknowledges those limitations, the better off he and we will be -- since anyone who sets himself on such a high pedestal is bound to take a long and terrible fall.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Second "Pickens Plan" No Better Than the First

A sensible editorial in yesterday's Casper Star-Tribune, pasted below, explains why the proposed creation of a private wild horse refuge, while well-intended, just doesn't deal with the underlying problem. But you can bet papers on the East and West coasts, as disconnected as they are from the reality of such things, will be gushing over this "Pickens plan" even more than they gushed over the other one.

Public lands policy must be dictated by realism and rationality, not romanticism and emotionalism. But when and where nature and animals are concerned, the former fly out the window and the eco-emos (see responses below) rule.

Proposed horse refuge won't solve problems
Star-Tribune Editorial Board

It sounds like a solution to a costly federal problem: a privately financed wild horse refuge that will be home to excess animals from the Western range. A place where thousands of wild horses can live out their remaining days in relative peace.

But while it's commendable that Madeline Pickens, the wife of oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens, wants to foot the bill for a million-acre sanctuary, everyone needs to realize that her effort alone is not the answer.

The issue poses a public relations nightmare for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency in charge of wild horses and burros in 10 Western states, including Wyoming. The animals are protected under a 1971 law enacted by Congress, but as a last resort the BLM has the authority to kill or sell excess horses without restriction from slaughter.This week the agency considered euthanizing some of the wild horses, but fearing a huge public outcry, it decided to delay taking such action. Instead, it will reduce roundups and shuffle its budget to get through the current fiscal year.

It was a safe move politically, but eventually the agency will have to deal directly with the problem. Here's why:The BLM rounds up wild horses from herds that have grown too large to be sustained by the available forage, and makes them available for adoption by the public. But adoptions have significantly waned in recent years.Meanwhile, there are about 33,000 wild horses on public rangelands -- 4,500 in Wyoming -- and the BLM wants to cut the total to 27,000 so the herds can survive.

Another 30,000 wild horses and burros are now kept, at a huge cost, in short-term and long-term holding facilities across the country. A BLM facility at Rock Springs has a capacity of 600 animals. This year the agency will spend about $27 million -- about three-fourths of its wild horse and burro budget -- just to care for the animals. Some of the horses may spend 20 or more years in captivity. The Government Accountability Office estimated last week that continuing current practices would require a budget of $58 million next year, and up to $77 million in 2012.

Pickens says she loves seeing wild horses on the range and considers them part of our national heritage. So do many Americans who aren't as rich as her. Are they willing to adopt them so they won't be killed? The million acres Pickens wants to buy for her refuge may sound like a lot, but it won't begin to be enough to handle all of the animals now being held, the 6,000 the BLM needs to cull from the current herds, and future excess animals. Pickens says she will never turn down an animal, but at some point the refuge -- if it becomes a reality -- will simply run out of room.

The agency can't stall the inevitable. Americans need to understand that unless people agree to support the program and adopt more wild horses than ever before, logic and budget realities dictate that the BLM will be forced to sell some of the animals for humane slaughter. The public education process should begin now, so people will know precisely what's at stake and why.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Late Great United States

America's vaunted spy agencies were spectacularly wrong about, or surprised by, most major geopolitical developments in recent history, from the fall of the Soviet Union to Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. We can only hope they're spectacularly wrong on this assessment, too:

US clout down, risks up by 2025 -intel outlook

By Randall Mikkelsen

WASHINGTON, Nov 20 (Reuters) - U.S. economic and political clout will decline over the next two decades and the world will be more dangerous, with food and water scarce and advanced weapons plentiful, U.S. spy agencies projected on Thursday.

The National Intelligence Council analysis "Global Trends 2025" also said the current financial crisis on Wall Street is just the first phase of a global economic reordering.
The U.S. dollar's role as the world's major currency would weaken to become a "first among equals," the report said.

The outlook is intended to inform U.S. President-elect Barack Obama of factors that will influence global events. It is based on a year-long global survey of experts and trends by U.S. intelligence analysts.

"The next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks," said the report, which was more pessimistic about U.S. influence and the potential for conflict than the last outlook for 2020.

Thomas Fingar, chairman of the intelligence council and deputy national director of intelligence for analysis, said harmful outcomes were not inevitable.

"It is not beyond the mind of human beings, or political systems, (or) in some cases (the) working of market mechanisms to address and alleviate if not solve these problems," Fingar told reporters. "We could have a better world in 2025."

China and India, following a "state capitalism" economic model, were likely to join the United States atop a multipolar world and compete for influence, the report said. Russia's potential was less certain, depending on its energy wealth and internal investment. But Iran, Turkey and Indonesia were also seen gaining power.


A world with multiple power centers has been less stable than one with a single or two rival superpowers, and there was a growing potential for conflict, the report said.
Global warming will be felt, and water, food and energy constraints may fuel conflict over resources.

"Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments and technological innovation and acquisition, but we cannot rule out a 19th century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion and military rivalries," the report said.

"Types of conflict we have not seen for a while -- such as over resources -- could reemerge," it said.

Global wealth was seen shifting from the developed West to the energy-rich Gulf States and Russia, and to Asia, the rising center of manufacturing and some service industries.
Global rich-poor disparities would grow, leaving Africa vulnerable to increased instability.

A reordering of the world financial system was happening faster than the report's authors envisioned, Fingar said. Last weekend's Group of 20 summit of advanced and major developing countries in Washington showed work had begun, he said.

A shift away from an oil-based energy system will be underway or complete by 2025. Better renewable technologies such as solar and wind power offer the best opportunity for a quick and low-cost transition, the report said.

There was a greater, but still small, risk of nuclear attack, based on spreading technologies and the weakening of international nonproliferation systems. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, Fingar said, that could set off an arms race in the Middle East, which is considered in the report as an "arc of instability."

The risk that militant groups would use biological weapons was greater than the risk of nuclear terrorism, the report said.

The appeal of terrorism could decline over the next two decades, particularly if Middle Eastern countries provide productive education and opportunities for their young people, the report said. But with a growing population, the pool of potential terrorism recruits is likely to be larger, and access to dangerous weapons will rise.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Prince of Pork Dethroned by Earl of Earmarks

First the good news: 90-year-old West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd has been ousted from the chairmanship of the all-powerful Senate Appropriations committee, which gave him his own set of keys to the U.S. Treasury. Now the bad news: Byrd will be replaced by another geriatric, 84-year-old Hawaii Sen. Dan Inouye, whose been a worthy understudy in the art of pork-barrel pillaging.

Little changes, in short, except for matters of style. "Rather than give big speeches on the Senate floor or in committee hearings like his predecessor, the senior Hawaiian senator will strike a lot more deals in the backrooms," reports The Hill. And I'm not sure that's an improvement.

At least with Byrd, who fancies himself a historian, the banditry was accompanied by rambling, 10-hour discourses on the rise and fall of the Roman Empire (with the part about bread and circuses adroitly sanitized, lest the audience see any parallels). Inouye, though an old-school senator and a gentlemen, doesn't even bother entertaining you while he's picking your pockets.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Kristol does Krugman

Paul Krugman's regular column didn't appear in yesterday's New York Times. So William Kristol kindly wrote Krugman's column for him.

At least it seems as if the neocon Kristol is channeling the left-of-center Krugman when, toward the end of his column, he suggests that conservatives, if they want to claw their way back into power, will need to ditch their dogmatic attachment to free market ideas and adopt a more . . well, . . . pragmatic outlook.

Here's Kristol:

I don’t pretend to know just what has to be done. But I suspect that free-marketers need to be less doctrinaire and less simple-mindedly utility-maximizing, and that they should depend less on abstract econometric models. I think they’ll have to take much more seriously the task of thinking through what are the right rules of the road for both the private and public sectors.

They’ll have to figure out what institutional barriers and what monetary, fiscal and legal guardrails are needed for the accountability, transparency and responsibility that allow free markets to work.

And I don’t see why conservatives ought to defend a system that permits securitizing mortgages (or car loans) in a way that seems to make the lenders almost unaccountable for the risk while spreading it, toxically, everywhere else. I don’t see why a commitment to free markets requires permitting banks or bank-like institutions to leverage their assets at 30 to 1. There’s nothing conservative about letting free markets degenerate into something close to Karl Marx’s vision of an atomizing, irresponsible and self-devouring capitalism.

If conservatives do some difficult re-thinking in the field of political economy, they can come back. If they don’t — well, there were a lot of admirable conservative thinkers and writers, professors and novelists, from 1933 to 1980. But conservatives didn’t govern.

I'm not sure how many free-market conservatives have rushed to the defense of securitizing mortgages, or the leveraging of bank assets at 30 to 1, as Kristol claims. I've never once heard such practices even debated among conservatives, much less passionately defended. Being a defender of free enterprise, the profit motive and economic freedom, broadly speaking, doesn't make one an apologist of everything that companies and financial institution do with their economic freedom. Most conservatives I know are quick to point out that freedom must walk hand-in-hand with responsibility. We just believe that the market, if left to its own devices, will sooner or later punish bad practices and bad actors -- which it would be doing right now, if the pragmatists and market interventionists weren't coming to the rescue.

Government had a larger role in creating this crisis than free markets or deregulation did. Yet Kristol, rather than telling this uncomfortable truth and mounting a defense of free enterprise, at a moment when its enemies are on the attack, retreats, and asks colleagues on the right to do likewise by "re-thinking" their economic ideas and values in a bid to win elections. But that's where the neo-con in Kristol really comes through.

Perhaps it shouldn't be the aspiration of true conservatives "to govern," in Kristol's words, since the battle to downsize the federal government has been lost, as far as I can tell, and all governing really means in the contemporary context is harnessing the leviathan to do one's bidding, rather than taming it in order to set people free.

Monday, November 17, 2008

How Obama Bought the Bureaucrat Vote

Most of us understand that it's improper for federal employees to use "company time" or resources to engage in politicking, or to lobby politicians for legislative measures or larger budgets. But shouldn't there also be some limits on what politicians can do to woo government employees, since they now number in the millions and make up such a significant voting block?

Several news stories since election day indicate that worker bees inside the federal hive were buzzing with excitement over the outcome: federal workers and their unions were rooting for Obama, understanding that he, as a Democrat and unreconstructed liberal, is likely to grow their ranks and boost their regulatory power. Federal workers who felt unappreciated and constrained during the Bush years are looking to the chosen one, Barack Obama, to boost their morale and set them free.

But what wasn't known to the American people until now, weeks after election day, was Obama's campaign within a campaign, aimed at securing the bureaucrat vote by plying federal employees with promises that will be paid for with taxpayer money (and, in the regulatory realm, their freedoms). Perhaps it's time that some restrictions be placed on the lobbying of federal workers by politicians, not just the other way around.

Obama's back channel campaign, in addition to raising ethical questions, confirms that he's a throwback to the big government Democrats of old -- and that Bill Clinton was just joshing when he declared in 1996 that "the era of big government is over."

The Washington Post has the story today:

Obama Wrote Federal Staffers About His Goals

Workers at Seven Agencies Got Detailed Letters Before Election

By Carol D. Leonnig

Washington Post Staff WriterMonday, November 17, 2008; A01

In wooing federal employee votes on the eve of the election, Barack Obama wrote a series of letters to workers that offer detailed descriptions of how he intends to add muscle to specific government programs, give new power to bureaucrats and roll back some Bush administration policies.

The letters, sent to employees at seven agencies, describe Obama's intention to scale back on contracts to private firms doing government work, to remove censorship from scientific research, and to champion tougher industry regulation to protect workers and the environment. He made it clear that the Department of Housing and Urban Development would have an enhanced role in restoring public confidence in the housing market, shaken because of the ongoing mortgage crisis.

Using more specifics than he did on the campaign trail, Obama said he would add staff to erase the backlog of Social Security disability claims. He said he would help Transportation Security Administration officers obtain the same bargaining rights and workplace protections as other federal workers. He even expressed a desire to protect the Environmental Protection Agency's library system, which the Bush administration tried to eliminate.

"I asked him to put it in writing, something I could use with my members, and he didn't flinch," said John Gage, president of the 600,000-member American Federation of Government Employees, who requested that Obama write the letters, which were distributed through the union. "The fact that he's willing to put his name to it is a good sign."

The letters, all but one written Oct. 20, reveal a candidate adeptly tailoring his message to a federal audience and tapping into many workers' dismay at funding cuts and workforce downsizing in the Bush years. Many of Obama's promises would require additional funding, something he acknowledged would be difficult to achieve under the current economic conditions.

Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said the letters were intended to communicate to federal workers his position on their agencies.

In a letter to Labor Department employees, Obama wrote: "I believe that it's time we stopped talking about family values and start pursuing policies that truly value families, such as paid family leave, flexible work schedules, and telework, with the federal government leading by example."

Obama wrote to employees in the departments of Labor, Defense, Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, along with the TSA, the EPA and the Social Security Administration. Defense was the only area in which he did not make promises requiring additional spending, the letters show.

Some worry that Obama may have overpromised, with program changes and worker benefits that would be impossible to achieve. "That strikes me as smart politics," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. "We'll soon find out if he can deliver when he has to deliver his first budget."

Obama repeatedly echoed in his correspondence the longstanding lament of federal workers -- that the Bush administration starved their agencies of staff and money to the point where they could not do their jobs.

In his letter to Labor Department employees, Obama said Bush appointees had thwarted the agency's mission of keeping workers safe, especially in mines. "Our mine safety program will have the staffing . . . needed to get the job done," he wrote.

Obama lamented to EPA staffers that Americans' health and the planet have been "jeopardized outright" because of "inadequate funding" and "the failed leadership of the past eight years, despite the strong and ongoing commitment of the career individuals throughout this agency."

In his letter to Defense Department workers, Obama said he would examine flaws in pay and evaluation systems, but offered no high-cost initiatives.

Ruch said that if Obama cuts Pentagon spending, he will not have to work hard to help the other six agencies.

"These domestic discretionary programs are peanuts in the grand scale of things," Ruch said. "A small diversion from the Iraq conflict, if they were put into Interior, EPA or NASA, those agencies would be in their salad days. The National Park Service is laboring under a [maintenance] backlog that would be cured by a month and a half of Iraq expenditures."

While pledging money to some agencies, Obama also acknowledged that some cuts may be unavoidable. "Because of the fiscal mess left behind by the current Administration, we will need to look carefully at all departments and programs," he wrote to HUD workers.

Gage said Obama would cut deeply into agencies he finds lacking, and the National Taxpayers Union says there is plenty of opportunity for savings. Congress last year refused to consider a 25 percent cut for 220 federal programs the government rated as ineffective, passing up a savings of $17 billion a year. Obama did not vote on the measure while he was a senator from Illinois.

His letter to HUD employees suggests a resurgence of the huge housing agency. Obama insisted that "HUD must be part of the solution" to the housing crisis and to keeping an estimated 5.4 million more families from losing homes in foreclosure. Several HUD employees cheered Obama's letter, saying they hoped one particular line foreshadowed the end of political appointees who didn't care or know much about the agency's work.

"I am committed to appointing a Secretary, Deputy and Assistant Secretaries who are committed to HUD's mission and capable of executing it," Obama wrote.

Obama also took aim at the Bush administration's focus on privatization, with contractors hired to perform government jobs -- often at princely sums. He complained that a $1.2 billion contract to provide TSA with human resources support unfairly blocked federal employees from competing to do that work.

"We plan specifically to look at work that is being contracted out to ensure that it is fiscally responsible and effective," he told HUD workers. "It is dishonest to claim real savings by reducing the number of HUD employees overseeing a program but increase the real cost of the program by transferring oversight to contracts. I pledge to reverse this poor management practice."

Gage said he is not expecting every civil servant's wish to be granted but he is hopeful.
"I think Obama's going to be fair, he's going to take seriously the missions of these agencies, and he's going to respect federal employees," Gage said. "After the last eight years, that's good enough for me."

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Green Giant

Talk about high expectations.

Barack Obama graces the cover of this week's Time Magazine, not as the publication's Person of the Year (though that honor will be bestowed soon enough) but as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, complete with jaunty grin, jutting jaw and cigarette (which he'll have to disavow, of course). The cover carries the headline, "The New New Deal," and it isn't in jest. It's the most explicit reflection yet of the high hopes the Left has for the next president, who must save the economy and planet simultaneously. They see Obama as a Democrat icon in the making, who has the charisma and vision to realign policy and politics for decades to come.

It's largely based on revisionism, of course, and strained comparisons between the past and present. But this is the United States of Amnesia, so it just might fly.

It comes down to us as a cornerstone of left-wing mythology, and an article of faith, that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal saved the United States during the depths of the Great Depression, which was caused by the failures (and, yes, evils) of capitalism. Such beliefs are debatable, of course; many scholars and economists argue that Roosevelt’s policies and programs, far from saving America, deepened and prolonged the nation’s agonies and left behind, as a dark legacy, the gargantuan government we’re saddled with today.

A lot of what's backward in the United States today – our 1930s-era farm programs, for instance – is rooted in the New Deal. But no amount of arguing or reason or evidence will prevent some Americans from swooning when they hear of FDR and his New Deal. Socialists and their fellow travelers look on it as a golden age, which made American what it is today. But for those of us who value economic and political liberty, and look back on the old New Deal as a curse rather than a blessing, the prospect of a New New Deal evokes fear rather than hope.

Now a new golden age is promised by true believers; something they're calling the "Green New Deal" or "Global Green New Deal." (Why they aren't marketing it as the "Green Great Society" is curious, but perhaps that effort's failures are too fresh in peoples' minds to be similarly romanticized.) The idea originated with the United Nations Environment Programme, but has quickly been seized-on by politicians, environmental groups and the alternative energy industry. The concept will get a lot of play at the G20 summit this weekend.

And it will almost certainly be co-opted (even if by some other name) by the next president, who seems to believe the concept's core tenet -- that make-work programs for windmill builders, solar panel installers and ethanol plant operators, and massive federal manipulations of energy markets, will do for America now what the New Deal did for America back then.

This so-called “new energy economy” can’t be born on its own, of course, since the left is also pushing the myth that our current economic woes stem from “market failure” and the corrupting excesses of capitalism. Markets can't get us there, or get us there fast enough. This will require massive government intervention in the economy, on a scale not seen since the Great Depression. If Roosevelt’s New Deal moved us half way to socialism, the Green New Deal, combined with federal "greenhouse gas" controls, will get us the rest of the way there. Economic central planning is the inevitable endpoint of the path we're walking. And we'll get there with a clean conscience, and clean hands, since we’ll be saving the planet even as we correct capitalism’s ills.

This idea, since we're coining new phrases for new times, might be called eco-socialism.

A Green New Deal is a two-fer for eco-socialists; it marries their messianic mission of "saving the planet" with their belief that capitalism, markets and profits are destroying the environment. Al Gore, writing in the New York Times Nov. 9, pointed out that "the bold steps that are needed to solve the climate crisis are exactly the same steps that ought to be taken in order to solve the economic crisis and the energy security crisis."

Keynesians love it because it requires massive government "investment" in "green" industries and green infrastructure as an economic stimulus. And liberals of all stripes, after a long period on the defensive, see it as something that can put them on the top again, much as as the old New Deal secured their political dominance for decades afterward.

A glimpse at below-the-slogans agenda can be seen in the statements and proposals put forth by Gary Gardner and Michael Renner of the Worldwatch Institute, in anticipation of the G20 meeting. Here's what they said:

"The challenge for global political leadership, including U.S. President-elect [Barack] Obama, is not merely to kickstart the global economy, but to do so in a way that creates jobs and stabilizes climate, increases food output using less water and pesticides, and generates prosperity with greater equality of incomes. This broad approach will require a conceptual blueprint evocative of America's 1930s New Deal, but more audacious in scope and vision."

But here's where the eco-socialism becomes overt:

"This historic moment calls for not merely repairs to our hyper-productive, yet ailing, economy, but for a new approach suited to the realities of a heavily populated and environmentally stressed world - a Global Green Deal that shifts the focus from growth to development, and that is geared less to providing consumerist superfluities than to ensuring that nobody's true needs go unmet."

We need to impose a new economic model, in short, that conforms to the "realities" of an environmentally stressed planet -- something famously advocated by Al Gore in his book, Earth in the Balance. The "hyper-productivity"and "consumerist superfluities" that have characterized market economies must take a backseat to "ensuring that nobody's true needs go unmet."

This isn't just a plan to boost renewable energy use and kick-start the economy, obviously; the theme, if not overtly socialist, is unmistakably anti-capitalist. It's an overhaul of industrial and post-industrial society that's being advocated, not through incremental steps and voluntary action but through economic upheaval and government coercion. And it's an alarming invitation to totalitarian government control of the economy, and of our lives, in the eyes of people like myself.

Like the old New Deal (but on steroids), it will greatly expand government power and control over every facet of our lives. Like the old New Deal, it will create new generations of government dependents; wind and solar farmers, this time, instead of dirt farmers. And it will, like the old New Deal and the Great Society, have unfortunate unforeseen consequences and create more problems than it solves.

It will be a great "deal" for some people, no doubt -- the green industries that will rely on government mandates, subsidies and giveaways to exist -- but a raw deal for most Americans, who will be paying more for virtually everything, and living in a world of diminished expectations, in order to bankroll this massive expansion of government and make the sacrifices that will be demanded in the name of "saving the planet"

The eco-socialists are hoping to tap into this misplaced nostalgia when they try to sell Americans on the necessity of a “Green New Deal.” But what they really are after is a complete economic and social overhaul -- a remaking of the American economy and society along environmentally-correct lines. The costs and consequences of such a revolution -- the toll it may take on our quality of life and personal freedoms -- are of tertiary concern to plan proponents.

They are Utopians, on a mission to "save the planet." Any means necessary can and will be justified.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Joke's on Obama, Part 2

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson today takes up the topic of whether the next president's racial identity and political leanings will give him a pass with certain comedians, as I theorized in a previous blog post. And the early evidence is that it might, at least initially.

Robinson reports that Don Rickles bombed with a joke about Barack Obama on The David Letterman show the other night, and actually ended-up apologizing for it. The fact that basketball was part of the premise may account for the lack of laughs, according to Robinson. It just evokes too many stereotypes. And that may explain it.

But a lot of comedy plays on (or off) stereotypes: at best it shatters them; at worse it reinforces them. And the question is, will the nation's first black president -- and its first truly liberal president in recent times -- be subject to the same sort of lampooning at the hands of left-leaning comics as right-of-center politicos have been? Or will he, as I suspect, enjoy an extended honeymoon, simply because he's black, liberal and the object of so much adulation?

Robinson thinks Obama might be (and should be) cut some slack, at least initially. But in time, he says, comedians will learn to "safely skewer" the new president. At the moment, audiences seem to feel "protective" of Obama. But they'll lighten up in time.

But what if that protectiveness lasts for years? Obama, after all, seems on the verge of building his own Kennedy cult (and, come to think of it, when was the last time anyone heard a Kennedy other than Teddy poked fun at?). The phrase "safely skewer" suggests that comedians may even then have to tread lightly, as if picking their way through a mine field, lest they cross some ill-defined line that bring charges of "racism." That may serve as a deterrent to all but the most risk-taking entertainers, but also give a creative edge to Black comedians --Robinson mentions Dave Chappelle -- since they can be accused of bad taste but not racism.

One wonders what sort of advantage this double standard might confer on Obama as his tenure unfolds, since the popular culture has become such a significant shaper of public opinion, especially among the young. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.

Here's Robinson's piece:

Comedy Tomorrow, History Tonight

Barack Obama's election victory may have been good for the country, but it's been awful for comedians. Just ask poor Don Rickles.

He was absolutely killing the audience on David Letterman's show the other night with his trademark scorched-earth put-downs. Rickles seemed at the top of his game -- until he tried to tell a joke about the new president-elect. Not even a well-timed rimshot from the band could have saved him.

It was just a quick bit in which he imagined Obama, faced with his first international crisis, telling his advisers he couldn't be interrupted because he was busy playing basketball. The joke bombed.

Rickles's attempts to save the gag only made things worse, and he quickly moved on after pointing out that it was just a basketball joke "that I should have never done."

As I said, poor Don Rickles. After all, he practically invented the in-your-face, politically incorrect style of humor that is so many comedians' meal tickets these days. It must have been galling to have to sheepishly disavow a joke that was so inoffensive compared with the rest of his oeuvre.

And what was wrong with the joke, anyway? "Wrong" is too strong a word; "anachronistic" and "off-center" might be closer to the mark. It is a fact that Obama (like George W. Bush) is something of a gym rat, and it is a fact that Obama (unlike Bush) likes to spend his time in the gym playing basketball. His sinking a three-pointer during his trip to Kuwait was one of the indelible moments of the long campaign.

So why didn't the audience laugh? The main reason, I think, is that "black men playing basketball" is a stereotype, and the audience probably felt this was an inappropriate way to talk about the first black president-elect. Even though, as I noted, he does love to play basketball. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

I'm not mad at 82-year-old Don Rickles, who owes his long career to the artful exploitation of stereotypes. But I do think I'm going to enjoy watching and commenting on the cultural attitude adjustments made necessary by this first-in-history presidency.

As the Obama family settles into the White House, popular culture will probably have a string of awkward encounters with stereotypes. I'm going to enjoy this because, in the end, what will be lost is the ability to paint "African American culture" with a broad brush. To the extent that the Obama family's tastes or habits seem in any way distinctive, they will have to be seen as the Obama family's specific tastes and habits -- attributable not to a group but to a set of individuals. The idea that "all black people" are like this or like that has always been absurd, and this absurdity becomes inescapable when a black person occupies the singular position of head of state.

Conversely, every first family has the unique ability to share its interests and enthusiasms with the nation. If, for example, it turns out that the Obamas have a knowledgeable appreciation of African American history and culture, many people might come to realize that "black history" is really just American history -- and that it's profoundly relevant all year round, not just in February.

All of which is admirable and high-minded, but not very funny. I wouldn't worry, though. Soon enough, comedians will find a way to safely skewer the new president.

Right now, it's not at all safe -- and that's understandable. Americans are rightly proud of the historic advance that Obama's election represents. Our nation's struggle with race and racism goes back nearly 400 years; we can afford to take a few weeks or months to savor this moment. Those people in David Letterman's audience were feeling a little protective of the president-elect. They weren't quite ready for him to be turned into a borscht belt punch line.

But the afterglow won't last forever. Making fun of our political leaders is encoded in our national DNA, and this trait will inevitably express itself. Eventually, some comic will come up with a spot-on Obama impression, the way Vaughn Meader did with JFK. Eventually, audiences will revert to irreverence. Eventually, perhaps, Dave Chappelle might even bring his comic genius out of mothballs.

President-elect Obama should enjoy this honeymoon from late-night ridicule. It won't last forever.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The "Colorado Model" Moves to Michigan

If you have friends or loved ones in Michigan (which I do, since it's my home state), please forward them this post. They need to know that there's a conspiracy afoot to turn their state into the political pawn of radical millionaires and billionaires. Looking to Colorado, which has moved from red to blue in the 6 short years I've lived here, will confirm how effective such efforts can be. Michigan already is reliably blue, it's true, so the conspirators have less work to do than they did in relatively conservative Colorado. But the surreptitious nature of both efforts ought to alarm folks.

In-the-know Coloradoans are by now aware that the state's lurch from red to blue wasn't just happenstance, but the result of a behind-the-scenes effort bankrolled by a cadre of wealthy liberals, including billionaires Tim Gill, Pat Stryker and Rutt Bridges. The veil has been lifted a bit on their "Colorado model" thanks to some solid reporting by The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, as well as some more recent digging by The Denver Post -- here, here, here, and here -- into the shadowy doings of the innocuously named Colorado Democracy Alliance, which uses a network of 501 c3s and 501 c4s to advance its agenda.

Now, it seems, "The Colorado Model" has become "The Michigan Model," which, according to a report in Friday's Detroit News, is being bankrolled by another Stryker -- "reclusive Kalamazoo billionaire Jon Stryker." He's the bother of "Colorado Plan" architect Pat Stryker. And what he's doing in Michigan sounds eerily similar to what his sister and a few allies has been doing in Colorado, if you simply switch the name "Coalition for Progress" with "Colorado Democracy Alliance."

Here's The Detroit News article in full:

Coalition's help gives a boost to Democrats

Five candidates for state House got nearly $1M from group funded by Kalamazoo tycoon.

Gary Heinlein / Detroit News Lansing Bureau

LANSING -- The Michigan Coalition for Progress provided almost $1 million worth of cable TV ads, mailers, phone calls and canvassing help to five of the nine Democratic candidates winning state House seats in what had been Republican legislative districts.

The group is bankrolled by reclusive Kalamazoo billionaire Jon Stryker. Michigan campaign finance reports indicate Stryker provided a major boost to campaigns that this week increased the Democratic House majority from 58-52 today to 67-43 in January.

Stryker poured $3.8 million into the coalition, an independent political action committee whose aim is to elected "progressive" candidates. Beyond $250,000 from Kenneth and Jeanne Levy-Church, trustees of the New York-based JEHT Foundation, Stryker's contributions accounted for nearly all the coalition's campaign budget for this election.

Republicans have complained Stryker's largess is unduly influencing elections. His donations this year topped $4 million, including money given directly to candidates and support for Proposal 2, the stem call ballot proposal.

That's more than was raised by either major state political party.

But coalition Executive Director Ben Miller said Stryker's contributions simply offset the tens of millions that Republicans traditionally have received from "soft" sources not subject to public disclosure. "The coalition is just leveling the playing field," Miller said.

Stryker gave $5 million to the Coalition for Progress for the 2006 election, when Democrats captured six seats to create their current majority in the House, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

Rich Robinson, head of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the Republicans' and
Democrats' campaign funding arms also dumped $1.9 million into the House races, most of it late in the game. That included $110,000 in an unsuccessful effort to prevent Northport attorney Dan Scripps, a Democrat, from winning a northwest Michigan Republican seat.

Traditional sources as unions, Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club also gave tens of thousands to the candidates. As an independent expenditure committee, the coalition is not limited by campaign finance law and can accept and spend unlimited amounts. Independent expenditures are made on behalf of candidates but candidates have no control over them.

The Democratic candidates who benefited from heavy coalition spending:

• Wayne State professor Tim Bledsoe of Grosse Pointe, elected to succeed term-limited Rep. Ed Gaffney, R-Grosse Pointe.

• Canton Township respiratory therapist Dian Slavens, chosen to replace term-limited Rep. Philip LaJoy, R-Canton.

• West Bloomfield Realtor Lisa Brown, who'll replace Rep. David Law, R-Commerce Township. • Calhoun County Commissioner Kate Segal of Battle Creek, who'll succeed Rep. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek.

Scripps, who'll replace Rep. David Palsrok, R-Manistee.

The coalition also spent on behalf of Rep. Mary Valentine, D-Muskegon, who retained her seat.

It put $71,000 into the pre-primary election campaign of Macomb County Commissioner Sarah Roberts, who was elected to succeed Rep. Jack Brandenburg, R-Harrison Township.

It wasn't 100 percent successful. The group bankrolled ads and materials for four Democrats who lost.

The "Colorado Plan" wasn't 100 percent successful either, at first. But Colorado's rapid political transformation attests to the influence the Strykers, their super-wealthy and super-liberal friends, and the front groups they support can have, while operating below the radar screen of average people.

Michiganders and Coloradans need to wake up to the undue influence these "reclusive" but radical individuals are exercising in their state, insist that media watchdogs peel away the veneer behind which they operate, and begin asking hard questions about the agenda being pushed.

The Denver Post did a bit of this in the months leading up to the election, but the digging shouldn't end now. I, for one, have been a bit frustrated with the coverage. The Post refrained from naming more than a few of the organizations in the Colorado network. Most Coloradans already understood that The Bighorn Center isn't really a "think tank," but just a vehicle for advancing Rutt Bridges' political ambitions and agenda. But we're also curious to learn -- to confirm, actually -- what other "non-partisan" groups do the bidding of Tim Gill, Pat Stryker, Doug Phelps, Bruce Oreck, Linda Shoemaker, Tom Congdon and the other puppet masters.

Of special interest, for instance, is their connection, if any, to Colorado Media Matters and The
Colorado Independent (formerly Colorado Confidential), which obviously carry water for the Democrat Party while posing as a media watchdog group and news site, respectively. While both organizations routinely attack the integrity, motives and credibility of the state's legitimate media outlets, and of conservatives, their own sources of support and political agendas remain shrouded.

Human events did a write up on the Michigan situation here, but we all need to know more.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Joke's on Obama

On Wednesday I predicted the quick demise of The Daily Show and the Colbert Report once their favorite target, President George W. Bush, falls off the national radar screen, and now that Republicans have reduced themselves to a political footnote. I argued that the left-leaning shows would lose their relevance and their audience, and quickly run low on material, once humorless liberals were in power. I wondered whether Bush-bashing comedians and pundits can adapt to the Obama era, when Americans seem to want a Messiah more than they want a president, and whether the president's race would insulate him from the kind of scalding ridicule conservatives routinely suffer.

Maybe I'll be proven wrong.

Yesterday appeared this story, indicating that left-leaning comedians are eager to be rid of an easy target like Bush and ready to take on the much tougher challenge of tackling Obama, which gives me hope that the media honeymoon for Obama will last less than 8 years.

I stand by my prediction, but with a tad less confidence.

Here's the story:

US comedians sharpen claws for Obama presidency

They love him now, but America's razor-tongued, left-leaning comedians say president-elect Barack Obama will soon be the butt of jokes.

Satirical cartoonist Ted Rall said he couldn't wait to move on from Republican President George W. Bush. "Making fun of George Bush is so easy -- it's just kindergarten stuff," Rall complained at a post-election comedy discussion panel Wednesday. "Doing Obama is going to be so much more fun."

Political humor enjoys something of a golden age in the United States after a presidential campaign where TV shows like Saturday Night Live not only made fun of news, but made news.
Most comedians are strongly Democratic and their juiciest targets were Republicans, especially Sarah Palin, the Alaskan "ice hockey mom" chosen as vice president on John McCain's defeated ticket.

Now Obama, who takes office in January, is in the firing line.

"Obama is so stiff and uptight, he's just asking for it," said Rall, who proudly proclaims his liberal credentials. "I'm going to be fascinated."

Stand-up comedian Roseanne Barr said the coming Obama presidency -- already burdened by huge expectations and vast challenges -- would provide rich material and "raise the intelligence of the jokes."

The discussion, held in Manhattan at the opening of the New York Comedy Festival, soon gave a foretaste of the edginess likely in wisecracks about Obama, the country's first black president-elect.

When Barr innocently predicted "very pointed jokes, tip of the spear jokes," fellow comedian Robert George, who is black, asked in mock shock: "Did you say tip of the SPEAR jokes about a black man?"

For now, most comedians, including the panel on Wednesday, seem to be holding back from making fun of an election victory they all wanted.

Rather un-comic passions exploded during a row between the comedians and one of the panel's two lone conservative guests, Monica Crowley from the right-leaning Fox News channel.

"This is getting out of control," Crowley muttered during a shouting match about Iraq and McCain's negative campaign ads.

But satirical newspaper The Onion is already plunging ahead into the era of Obama humor.
The latest issue carries this story under the headline "Black Man Given Nation's Worst Job."
"African-American man Barack Obama, 47, was given the least-desirable job in the entire country Tuesday when he was elected president of the United States of America....
"As part of his duties, the black man will have to spend four to eight years cleaning up the messes other people left behind."

One thing that's sure, comedian Lizz Winstead told the discussion panel, is that the jokes will get close to the bone.

"Basically, it's going to be about how he handles power. Is he going to blow it? Will he become an egomaniac?" she asked.

To which Rall responded: "Of course he'll blow it -- they always do!"

Obama's First Test?

"Many Americans seem convinced, based on scanty evidence, that Barack Obama is the better choice for managing the economy. Maybe they also think he has the right stuff to manage the next arms race, and can handle a showdown with a snarling Russian bear, emerging from hibernation."

That's an excerpt from my blog post one week ago.

Here's an excerpt from a Washington Post story published Wednesday:

Russian President Sharply Criticizes U.S. on Missile Defense

Medvedev Threatens to Deploy Tactical Missiles Near Poland if U.S. Pursues Shield in Europe

By Philip P. Pan

MOSCOW, Nov. 5 -- Sharply criticizing the United States while offering to rebuild relations with its new leader, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned in a nationally televised address Wednesday that he would deploy short-range missiles near Poland if the Obama administration pressed ahead with plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe.

Kremlin officials have threatened before to target Poland by moving tactical missiles into the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad, most recently after Poland agreed in August to host a U.S. interceptor base. But Medvedev's threat "to neutralize, when necessary" the American installation was the most explicit and public endorsement of the plan by a top Russian leader yet.

The warning appeared intended to signal the Kremlin's priorities to the new American president-elect and could serve as an early foreign policy test for Obama, who has said he supports missile defenses against Iran and North Korea but has also criticized the Bush administration for failing to consult with allies about the shield, exaggerating its capabilities and rushing deployment for political purposes.

Medvedev's remarks came in his first state of the nation address since taking office in May, a wide-ranging speech in which he held out little hope for democratic reforms and also proposed amending the Russian constitution to lengthen the presidential term to six years -- a move condemned by critics as part of a plan to allow his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, to return to office.

Medvedev emphasized that Russia remained ready to work with the United States if it abandoned its "mistaken, egotistical and sometimes simply dangerous" policies.
"It is true that these relations are not going through the easiest period today," he said. "But I would like to stress that we have no problems with the American people. We have no inherent anti-Americanism."

Russia's finance minister suggested Obama's election would give a boost to the global economy, and the Russian ambassador to NATO said he expected Obama to improve the alliance's relationship with Moscow and lift the limits on cooperation imposed after Russia's war with Georgia.

"I think the emergence of the new U.S. president, the young, energetic black leader, can lead to those bans imposed by the previous U.S. administration between Russia and NATO being lifted," said the ambassador, Dmitry Rogozin.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Quantum of Solace

Today's a day to search out silver linings, and for taking a quantum of solace (to appropriate the title of the new James Bond flick) where it can be found. And I've hit on at least one bright spot.

Barack Obama's victory almost certainly marks the beginning of the end for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, as well as The Colbert Report, since both shows primarily appeal to Bush-haters and neither will dare heap similar scorn on the new president, or on Congressional Democrats, with whom the "talent" and staff have such an affinity. The Bush-bashing networks of CNN and MSNBC (especially) face similar challenges adapting to the new political landscape, unless they can retain what audience loyalty they have by consistently genuflecting before the Messiah.

I predict, therefore, that both Comedy Central shows will be off the air within a year. That's little consolation, I know, if the ship of state strikes a reef with Obama at the helm. But at this point, I can live with the country's further decline easier than I can stand a few more years of The Daily Show schtick.

Without President Bush to kick around, and with Republicans reduced to footnote status in Congress, much of The Daily Show's source material immediately goes away, leaving a huge void. Republicans, while they clung to power, made ideal punching bags. But will the punches be pulled now that the people in power are of the same political persuasion as the folks writing the jokes? And how much edginess and appeal will such shows lose when they turn from cynics into sycophants?

Obama's honeymoon will last two or three years, and possibly longer, depending on how long the new president and his followers can blame the intransigence of certain problems on "the Bush years." It may be years before the Messiah's acolytes are willing to concede he's only human; and years more, perhaps, before he's seen as fallible enough to become the butt of jokes. Self-righteousness numbs the funny bone, which is why the left is notoriously loath to laugh at itself. Stewart won't be inclined to rain on Obama's parade, having done so much to smooth his path to power.

Can one really imagine Stewart, who takes such glee in mimicking the current dunderhead-in-chief, similarly mocking Obama, without running the risk of coming off as a modern-day Al Jolson? Will The Daily Show's audience hoot as loudly when the object of all their political fantasies is savaged or lampooned, assuming Stewart & Co. have to courage to do this? Will Michelle Obama receive the same scathing treatment that Republican first ladies have on Saturday Night Live and other shows?

I'm guessing a double standard will be in force, probably for years to come, while the left tries turning Barack Obama into the black JFK. Obama's race will to some extent Teflon-coat him against such mockery, since comedians and other critics must tread lightly, lest their jokes and critiques come off as racially-charged.

America will know it's overcome its race hang-ups not when it elects a black president, but when it rejects a black president -- when it holds Obama to the same standard of performance, and treats him as irreverently, as it has white presidents. But I suspect that this president's skin color will intimidate comedians and insulate him from criticism.

To some extent, at least initially, an Obama double standard could be beneficial, since I think some Americans take an unhealthy glee in chopping presidents down to size. Although I may differ with him on ideological grounds, I would take no satisfaction in seeing Obama, as the president, destroyed or humiliated. Republicans blew it and Democrats deserve a chance to see if they can do better. Republicans have had a grip on power for so long that many Americans have forgotten how bad the alternative can be. The repudiation of Obama's ideas will come in time, stemming from their unpopular or unfortunate consequences.

But if, on the other hand, we see a personality cult developing, in which one man's charisma blinds Americans to the flawed or dangerous nature of his policy decisions, and all objectivity is lost and criticism muted, for fear of knocking an icon off its pedestal, that too is unhealthy -- and potentially threatening to free discourse and democratic institutions. Obama deserves his shot at success, and greatness. But it will be interesting to see how his worshipful followers respond when it becomes clear that, like most mortals and all past presidents, he turns out to have feet of clay.