Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Student Loan Savings? We Don't Get It

We're not positive, but presently we have a what we think is a pretty clear understanding that the so-called savings from the elimination of subsidies to banks for originating federally guaranteed student loans is bogus.

As we see it, and subject to revision if we learn otherwise:
  • Up until the recently signed bill changed it, the federal government paid banks a subsidy to make loans to students. Payments were not "profits for middlemen" but guarantees to cushion the banks from the risk that the loans would default. In essence, the feds paid the difference to the bank between the interest rate that the students pay and the rate that the market would set based on the actual risk of default. (Banks have been leaving the business anyway, as even with the subsidies it didn't yield much.)
  • Now the feds will no longer pay banks subsidies. They'll still pay third parties to administer the loans, but they won't pay a bank the difference between the student's interest rate and the actual cost of loaning the dough. They're loaning the money themselves.
  • That means that the federal government will now assume the risk of the borrower's default directly.
  • And because the risk of default hasn't changed, it'll cost the government just as much money to loan directly as it did for banks. A default still has to be covered. Now the government will have to cover the defaults made to itself, not the banks.
  • In fact, it may well cost the government more. Banks have an incentive to get borrowers to pay up, but the government has an incentive to be nice to voters. We can probably expect more defaults when the feds run the whole show, so costs will be higher.
So what of the $67 billion that "over time" (how much time?) will be saved by eliminating the subsidies? We assume that most of it will actually be lost to loan defaults. And in the meantime, the feds will have distributed that money to students through increased Pell Grants and generous loan forgiveness terms (generous for public employees, that is, particularly those generously remunerated through contracts negotiated by the NEA, AFT, SEIU, AFSCME, etc., as the present administration continues to operate on the notion that working for the government is morally superior to working in the private sector). In fact, the plan is to spend $10 billion more than the amount saved, even when the savings are illusory.

So no savings, y'all. The money is being counted twice--once to cover loan defaults and another to be spent on more direct student aid.

It'll take every bit of Paul Volker's smarts to direct Tim Geither in a way that will staunch the inflation that has to come from this kind of unlimited giveaway.

On the way out, we feel compelled to complain about two loosely related matters:
  • It's time to quit acting like Manicheans who think that all the light is in government and nonprofits and all the darkness is in for-profit business. There's no inherent reason why the government should be a cheaper or better provider of healthcare or student loans or lots of other stuff that people have provided for a profit for a long time.
  • It's time to quit acting like "the richest country in the world" can afford to do everything at once. As a SWNIDish friend who manages other people's money often tells his clients, "You can be rich enough to have anything you want, but you'll never be rich enough to have everything you want." We seem to have some confusion about the indefinite pronouns since a year ago last November.

The Art of Incoherent Noncompromise

There are many ways to criticize the present administration's signature accomplishment: the passage of ObamaCare. To wit: it is expensive, ineffective, self-contradictory, and hyper-complex.

Such characteristics can prospectively be boiled down to a single failing, however: the triumph of special-interest politics over skilled policy-making. ObamaCare dragged across the proverbial finish line having started as a series of concessions to special interests (organized labor in particular) and having accumulated support with an explosion of add-ons, each aimed at nothing more than adding a few additional Congressional votes.

Though politics is the art of compromise and of the possible, there are reasonable boundaries to the pursuit of compromise and possibility. At some point the advocates of change must make the case for the specific change they advocate and stop adding or deleting elements to make folks happy. Without such boundaries, the result (notice we didn't redundantly write the redundancy "end result") is a pastiche, a wish list, a blown budget, a law that simultaneously works both sides of the equation against each other. That is, 2400-plus pages of laws that no one has read, no one can make sense of, and no one can even begin to correct with regulations or additional legislation.

So today's announcement that we will open portions of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico to oil drilling but continue a moratorium on the Pacific fits the same incoherent paradigm. Why drilling should be environmentally safe in one ocean and not another might have to do with subtle geological and ecological analysis. Or it might just be a way of trying to say yes to both sides at once. Pro-oil folk get a bone thrown their way; anti-oil folk get a bone too.

But why this particular arrangement? We note that the map of opened areas happens to situate alongside states that are deeply red or purple-turning-red: Virginia, the Carolinas, Georgia, Florida, and Alaska (the state that would be excluded from the union if the anti-Palinites had their deepest dreams fulfilled, and which also gets its nose tweaked with one coast opened and another closed). The solid-blue Left Coast keeps its sunsets free from additional silhouettes of derricks. Coincidence? Who knows?

In any case, the claim that this drilling will make the United States less dependent of foreign oil is weak at best. From what we've read so far, the amount of oil prospectively contributed by this drilling will be the equivalent of trying to make the mortgage payment by searching the upholstery for lost coins. While journalists, ever the zero-sum dualists, see the allowance of any drilling as potentially assuaging Obama's opponents while angering his core constituency, this proposal offers so little oil and includes so much delay that it will assuage no one. Further, any anger that this provokes will be short-lived, as this proposal is almost certain to be followed with the Next Big Thing: the cap-and-tax proposal to that promises to hamshackle the economy in the name of avoiding Climate Change, now the Official Religion of the Environment.

We're waiting for any explanation of this mess that (a) cogently explains why the Atlantic and Pacific get different treatment; (b) acknowledges how little oil this drilling will yield--and how late; (c) doesn't move immediately to the claim that this ought to be enough to establish "bipartisanship," like promising to "look into" tort reform was bipartisanship before; (d) admits that this leaves the Republic no closer to a coherent "energy policy" than it was before--and further away, if anything.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On the Efficiency of Stereotypes

We come to analyze rednecks, not to praise them.

In a culture that lauds multiculturalism, one culture remains not just vulnerable to but overtly sentenced to negative stereotyping. Call these folks Cletus and Brandy Mae--the trailer-trash, redneck, hillbilly, rural-pale folk whose church is a gun show, whose national anthem is by Lee Greenwood, whose symbol of attainment is moving the double-wide to forty acres in Idaho, and whose diet would make Dr. Atkins' arteries harden in an instant.

Disclaimer: Our formative experience of multiculturalism was coming of age in a 7-12 high school that was roughly 3/4 rural whites and 1/4 suburban whites. As the skinny kid who wore turtlenecks, packed lunches with whole grains, played in the youth symphony and actually understood Milton and Euclid, we were . . . well . . . noticed . . . with such things as basketballs heaved into our ear while swimming in phys ed and compound-participle epithets articulated in our direction as we walked through the halls or sat on the bus.

In a culture increasingly urban, nonwhite and globally savvy, redbilly trash are increasingly at the margins. They can therefore be caricatured with impunity. Too few to respond in force, too scorned to be championed by others, too distasteful in their speech and dress and habitat and entertainments, redbilly trash are the Philistines against whom all other subgroups can unite as the Chosen People. They're the easy objects of disdain for those restrained from expressing their disdain for other groups.

So yesterday's raid on a "Christian militia" group presently numbered at nine members can soon epitomize all the disgust that sophisticates (and that includes just about everyone except members of the aforementioned subculture) feel for redbilly trash. The raid is an "I told you so" moment for an administration led by someone who has remarked that such folk cling to guns and religion when frustrated. That moment is shared by folk who want permission to ridicule such people or even to fear them.

So nine "working class whites" with a ramshackle trailer, fanciful names for their "organization" and its "ranks," illegitimate appropriation of religious symbols, and a nutty notion of their future are in the news. What to do with that?

First, don't defend them. They're kooks. The world has its share in all demographics. Nobody's kooks are better or worse, fewer or more. By definition, kooks don't belong. They aren't "created" by someone non-kook's actions. There are plenty of people with pickups and trailers and guns and extensive country music collections and right-wing political views who raise their kids and pay their taxes and help their neighbors and make it from cradle to grave without upsetting the social order or even committing a misdemeanor, let alone a felony.

Second, don't fear them. They're so marginal and impotent that they can't even organize a cleanup of their trailer lot. One photo is all one needs to see that.

Third, don't use them as a symbol of victimization to shame the administration or a symbol of irrationality to vilify its opponents. For some reason, folks agree that the trust-fund babies who spend their time flying around the world to economic summits to riot in favor of anti-trade anarchy are not effective symbols of the left. These folks aren't effective symbols of the right, either. Extremes meet somewhere about 180 degrees removed from the political center, in a fantasy world inhabited by Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, Dennis Kucinich and other failed politicians who hold onto a rabid niche of demographic marginalization. Let 'em all stay there, while we carry on the fruitful conversation someplace else.

Finally, Christians ought not complain about the media's leading with the ersatz religious affiliation of these folk. Get used to it, believers: such false characterizations are pretty ancient in the narrative of our faith. The best and only response is to follow the advice of 1 Peter--living cross-shaped lives that over time expose the lies that mischaracterize the faith. This is no more the opening salvo in the Left's War Against Christians than was the Branch Davidian raid of the previous Democratic President's administration. The real apocalyptic war is fought on other fronts--and has been for centuries.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Uncle Sugar to Sell Citibank Stake for Big Profit

Our federal government is preparing to sell its stake in Citibank, and it stands to make a tidy profit in so doing.

This is, of course, good news. Bailing out the big banks maintained enough liquidity and credibility in the financial markets to keep money flowing, albeit irregularly, through the worst of the financial crisis. Uncle Sugar took a risk in shoring up Citibank and others--the risk of being stuck long term with penny stock that remained worth pennies.

But now that the sale is being prepared, the government is set to make tens of billions.

We note the following about this:

  • We'll be told that the money is being made by "taxpayers," that we're being "paid back" for what we put in. The truth is that the government borrowed the money to make this purchase, and the money will not be returned to the taxpayers but will marginally reduce the money being borrowed presently for the Christmas wish-list that our Santa-in-Chief continues to fulfill.
  • We'll be reminded what a brilliant move of Obama's the purchase was, forgetting Hank Paulson's (and by extension Dubya's) role in 2008 in initiating the emergency moves on liquidity.
  • Ignored will be GM and Chrysler, apparently set to be wards of the state for the foreseeable future. As we have noted repeatedly, it's one thing to preserve giant financial institutions as a means of keeping money flowing through the economy, and it's quite another to put a manufacturing company with inherent competitive disadvantages on life support.
So we celebrate the end of government ownership of Citibank even as we decry the ongoing pillaging and ponziing that pressure the populace with the potential for pauperization.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Law of Unintended Consequences

CNBC's Dennis Kneale has a nice compendium of unintended consequence of ObamaCare. Some have been asked many times; others are strikingly fresh.

On the fresh side:

  • If most still uninsured when this is over are undocumented aliens, and if we enact immigration reform, what happens to cost?
  • Will we begin denying coverage for conditions brought on by moral failings: e.g. alcohol-related illnesses and accidents, obesity, STDs?
  • Will keeping kids on the parents' policy extend extended adolescence further?
Lurking behind everything is the Big Question: "Just how do you propose to pay for this giveaway?"

Another Dumb Policy Labeled a "Win"

The new treaty with Russia to reduce nuclear warheads is pointless and dumb.

For more on that, see the blog entry by Jamie Fly, exec direc of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Russia is reducing nukes anyway, because Russia is broke. In this process, the US may further restrict itself from providing it and its allies antimissle protection. The general messing over of loyal democracies and advocates of democracy (Czech Republic, Poland, Israel, the Dalai Lama) continues apace in the Obama White House as BHO tries to prove the contrarian notion that you can win peace by being the Anti-Bush, charming bad guys while dissing your friends.

The whole Obama nuclear policy is a utopian joke. Per BHO, bad guys want nukes because the US has nukes. Per SWNID, bad guys want nukes because nukes kill lots of people at once, whether the US has them or not, and so provide the Ultimate Threat needed to make the masses cower before the Supreme Leader (e.g. Saddam was willing to risk his rule to perpetuate the lie that he had WMD, so necessary was the threat of their use to his hold on power). As thoughtful people have noted since the rise of the Nazis, the military strength of democracies doesn't induce totalitarians to badness. It restrains them from acting on their badness.

Just as you can't bend a cost curve downward by increasing demand with third-party payers, so you can't have a world without nuclear weapons once the knowledge of nuclear physics exists. Baroness Thatcher observed decades ago that if we abolished nukes, at the first sign of war nations would rush to build nukes ASAP, a more dangerously unstable situation than exists when democratic governments possess sufficient nuclear weapons to assure the destruction of any regime that would use its nukes.

Just as you can't pacify a dictator or terrorist with appeasement, so you can't with moral example. He who bears the sword bears it not in vain.

Obama would be better off focusing on practical means of nonproliferation than pursing utopian visions heralded by empty treaties that only make it harder for friends to stay friendly. Please.

An Era Ends, Except for Possible Surprise Endings

24 is over. Season eight is season last. So say the most officious 24-officials.

Wow! We didn't see that coming at all.

But like Star Trek, this franchise may not be done. There's talk of a movie set in Europe. We think in a few years it'll be time for prequels, with a new actor playing Young Jack Bauer making enemies in the Balkans.

And maybe a "Next Generation" series, with Chloe and Morris's kids running super-duper-high-tech data-gathering programs to lead Kim's daughter through crises involving space-based laser weapons and federal-spending-induced hyperinflation. Dystopic 24 of the Future--can't wait.

When did 24 jump the shark? We nominate Jack's second resurrection, the one deliberately induced to free him from arrest. Others may pick earlier moments.

Nevertheless, the show remains entertaining for us this season as TV is most often entertaining--for the social interaction it provokes more than its pure narrative art. Sharing with dwindling millions not just the watching of the the show but the simultaneous blogging and Facebooking, mostly ridiculing repetitive motifs and silly plots while lauding Jack's comic-book superhero behavior--that's what made 24 the best TV show since Adam West retired as Batman.

SWNID out. Gotta go set up a perimeter.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday Pique: Celebrity Christians Exploit False Choices to Roil Subcultures

SWNID has had it. SWNID is not taking it any more.

NPR today dutifully carries out the semiannual media-nod-to-God by noting the controversy [deliberately] stirred up by Brian McLaren's latest, A New Kind of Christianity. On the opposite side, doing some stirring of his own, is Southern Baptist potentate Al Mohler.

The controversy concerns the meaning of the cross, and for that NPR quotes McLaren as follows:

The view of the cross that I was given growing up, in a sense, has a God who needs blood in order to be appeased. If this God doesn't see blood, God can't forgive. . . .

God revealed in Christ crucified shows us a vision of God that identifies with the victim rather than the perpetrator, identifies with the one suffering rather than the one inflicting suffering.

Mohler's quoted response:

Did Jesus go to the cross as a mere victim? If so, then we have no Gospel, we have no hope of everlasting life. Did Jesus go merely as a political prisoner, executed because he had offended the regime? Well, if so, that's a very interesting chapter of human history, but I'm not going to stake my life on it, much less my hope for eternity.

This is extremely a non-argument prompted by both spotlight-hungry individuals having employed a false choice as a means of pandering to their core audiences, which constitute specific demographics hungering for the red meat of polemics.

McLaren is the super-guru of young evangelicals who resent the megachurch, religious-right Christianity of their parents or who, being older, want to identify with such youthful rebels as a way of certifying their cool credentials. So he takes aim at a decidedly repulsive image (blood for propitiation), identifies with a righteously rebellious political position (social justice in place of market economics), and sets up a means of providing a comfortable escape for an awkward dilemma (no one enjoys God condemning non-Christians).

So no substitutionary atonement for McLaren. Jesus dies to show solidarity with the suffering. Only! That includes just about everyone except rich Christians.

Mohler is the super-pastor for traditional evangelicals, especially resurgent Calvinists who are attracted to the stubborn Puritan counterculture. Identifying as fatal theological flaws the departures that others make from his own sectarian orthodoxy is mother's milk for him. It is also his means of staying in print, on the air, and flush with cash at his seminary. Any move in any direction away from Mohler is for Mohler a sign that someone is not to be trusted.

Before we engage in more of the preceding characterization of the persons, we now reveal the essential theological problem: the biblical witness--in nearly every book of the New Testament and thematically grounded in the Hebrew Bible--is to both these interpretations of the cross. These are not mutually exclusive positions. They are as complementary as they can be. It takes a theological numbskull not to figure this out, if we may be so bold as to say so.

As to the biblical witness, one need simply note the way that all discussions of the cross sooner or later get to these ideas. Jesus dies fundamentally and foundationally for others. He takes what we deserve. Call that the Isaiah 53 perspective on the cross: "He was bruised for our transgressions." At the same time, Jesus dies as the victim of victims, the one who experiences exactly what the suffering people of God have always experienced. Call this the Psalm 22 perspective on the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Now, there's no reason we can't have both of these, right? Must the cross only be one of them? That answer is obvious. What ought not be missed, however, is that these ideas must coexist for the sake of the coherence of either. If Jesus dies as something other than "one of us," he is no fit substitute (St. Anselm, developing ideas in Hebrews, stated this classically). If Jesus dies not as our substitute, it's difficult to see any point in his identifying with us.

We therefore blast McLaren for pursuing the false choice that provides a nasty, narrow caricature of substitutionary notions on the way to promoting something cool.

We therefore blast Mohler for his telling and tendentious use of "mere(ly)," which like its cousin "just" (in the sense of "limited to," not in the sense of "right before the law") does massive theological and rhetorical mischief.

The truth is that McLaren may well acknowledge the substitutionary nature of the cross somewhere in his book. We don't know, because we don't have time to spend reading McLaren's book, which doubtless offers nothing genuinely "new" that could be genuine "Christianity."

The truth is that Mohler probably sometime has acknowledged that Jesus identifies with victims in his death. We don't know because we don't find Mohler to be someone who offers anything resembling exceptional insights into the historic Christian faith, just loud insistence that his sub-version of it is the only valid one.

The bitter truth is that without pushing false choices and narrow characterizations of opponents, neither McLaren nor Mohler can function as a celebrity controversialist. Each gains prominence by dividing his disciples from others' disciples.


God save us all from self-promotion that relies on hyped up sectarianism. For the good of the Body of Christ, gentle readers, ignore these guys.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What to Do with All the Pens: Parliamentarian Sends Bill Back to House

While America slept, one citizen stood up for the rule of law instead of the rule of (wo)men.

Alan Frumin is today every thoughtful citizen's hero. The Senate Parliamentarian agreed that at least two provisions of ObamaCare violate rules on reconciliation. Hence, the bill, once finished again in the Senate, must be voted again in the House.

Not that it's in danger of not passing, of course. However, as Senate Rs carpet bomb the capitol with amendments, including such cleverness as forbidding payment for ED drugs for sex offenders (with Coburn dryly suggesting that doing so would save about a quarter of a billion dollars, a made-up figure worthy of what this debate has become), it now becomes all rather more likely that Rs can corral some wayward Dems to risk a "yes" on some amendments (as in: After all, the House has to vote again anyway). The farcical theater continues, playing 20 hours a day in Washington, D.C.

So what's a person to do if s/he attended the raucous, profanity-laced signing party and got one of the twenty-two pens (surely the clearest of metaphors for the bill's excesses) used by BHO to sign the original measure? Are they now like a souvenir football, carried across the goal line in a big game but with the touchdown called back for a holding penalty?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Early Opinions on Passage

Just our luck: in January, we finally got a health insurance plan that we really like, and in March the federal government outlaws it.*

That's the kind of thing we expect folks to start waking up to in the weeks to come. From today's WSJ, here's a first-returns summary:

Mr. Obama and the Democrats have sold this takeover by promising that multiple benefits will follow: huge new subsidies for the middle class; lower insurance premiums for consumers, especially those in the individual market; vast reductions in the federal budget deficit and in overall health-care spending; a more competitive U.S. economy as business health-care costs decline; no reductions in Medicare benefits; and above all, in Mr. Obama's words, that "if you like your health-care plan, you keep your health-care plan."

We think all of this except the subsidies will turn out to be illusory, as most of the American public seems intuitively to understand. As recently as Friday, Caterpillar Inc. announced that ObamaCare will increase its health-care costs by $100 million in the first year alone, due to a stray provision about the tax treatment of retiree benefits. This will not be the only such unhappy surprise.

While the subsidies don't start until 2014, many of the new taxes and insurance mandates will take effect within six months. The first result will be turmoil in the insurance industry, as small insurers in particular find it impossible to make money under the new rules. A wave of consolidation is likely, and so are higher premiums as insurers absorb the cost of new benefits and the mandate to take all comers.

Liberals will try to blame insurers once again, but the public shouldn't be fooled. WellPoint, Aetna and the rest are from now on going to be public utilities, essentially creatures of Congress and the Health and Human Services Department. When prices rise and quality and choice suffer, the fault will lie with ObamaCare. . . .

We fought this bill so vigorously because we have studied government health care in other countries, and the results include much higher taxes, slower economic growth and worse medical care.

History and economics tell us this is a bad, bad thing that's happened. So, we guess that makes it "historic."
*Explanation: (a) our new plan has a high deductible and a Health Savings Account, which we like for its focus on protecting us from big expenses while allowing us to use our own money (before taxes!) for little expenses; (b) ObamaCare mandates "first dollar" coverage, which means that Uncle Sugar will pay the little expenses but tell us what we can and can't have; (c) while existing plans are grandfathered in (BHO: "If you like your current plan, you can keep it"), they'll last only as long as insurers decide there's money in them, as opposed to their new game of footsie with the feds.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Treasurys No Longer Safest?

Bloomberg notes that the yield on bonds from fabled investment company Berkshire Hathaway now have a lower yield than Treasury notes of similar maturity.

For the uninitiated, this means that global investors figure it's more likely that the US Government will default on its debts than Warren Buffet.

A consequence of runaway spending and the piling on of debt, this episode surely, surely will be reversed when the deficit-reducing power of ObamaCare kicks in.

Alexander Hamilton, we are so sorry for what we have done!

SWNIDish Quiz

Time for some trivia, gentle readers!

Who famously remarked, " If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free"?

The impatient can see the answer here.

Dems, Operating on Principle, Look Set to Defy Mathematics

Stupak is in, reports The Politico.

It's probably over now. America will have a health care plan that combines the worst features of all plans presently available globally.

Except that this bill will now become the defining political division for the next generation. As was Roe v. Wade, so will be ObamaCare. It will be litigated, debated, revised, campaigned, demagogued and modified endlessly.

How much of this "bill" will be overturned by courts, repealed or never funded by future Congresses, pushed back for fiscal reasons, or further decorated with additional "fixes" that never address the core problem remains to be seen. But, stung by the reminder that we ought not speak about the future with confidence, we this afternoon express considerable confidence that this sucker won't live long in its present form.

On such, we offer this reminder about the rhetoric supporting ObamaCare. We have been told endlessly what great triumphs of governmental service are Social Security and Medicare. Fair enough: most Americans want to continue these programs. But if we were starting them today, would they look like they do, funded by a declining percentage of workers to benefit an increasing percentage of pensioners? The answer is as obvious as it can be.

Yet ObamaCare doesn't correct this misdirection but compounds it.

So be it, Pelosi/Reid/Obama/Democrats. If the sky now falls, don't say you haven't been warned, and don't blame the people who warned you, the Party of Know.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sunday Vote, But What Sunday?

The Big Vote to Make History ("history" restored to the rhetoric immediately after the SWNIDish note calling attention to its absence) is scheduled for Sunday.

We don't think it'll be this Sunday. And if it is, it'll be no.


Henry Waxman (D-Beverley Hills, and we're not making that up) says there'll be no deal with abortion foes. As everyone knows Waxman to be a less well turned out version of Nancy Pelosi, the statement is authoritative. There will be no reclaiming those votes.

The astute John Fund notes that some forty House Dems who voted yes last year are now explicitly undecided. There aren't enough favors in the world to satisfy all forty, as each will need one more favor than the previous received in exchange for a yes. As there's obviously no need to play this for suspense, we take it that these holdouts are largely still in play.

WSJ also notes that last-minute horse trading is slowing stuff down. Any deals that affect the bottom line might be held up further for checks with the now-exhausted CBO, whose director has complained publicly about his staff's 100-hour work weeks of late.

But isn't everyone treating this deadline as if it's certain, and isn't it obvious that Pelosi wouldn't announce a deadline without the votes? Yes, except that this isn't the first deadline missed, though it could prove to be the last. Yes, except that Pelosi has misoverestimated her ability to gather votes before. We note that even the very-pro-Obama AP is now hedging its reports about ObamaCare certitude, albeit with Obama still cast as Statesmanlike Hero.

Along the way, don't miss this remark by the astute and polite Peggy Noonan:

Excuse me, but it is embarrassing--really, embarrassing to our country--that the president of the United States has again put off a state visit to Australia and Indonesia because he's having trouble passing a piece of domestic legislation he's been promising for a year will be passed next week. What an air of chaos this signals to the world. And to do this to Australia of all countries, a nation that has always had America's back and been America's friend.*

Obama's cancellation of this major trip is akin to Carter's infamously impotent pledge not to leave the White House until the Iran hostages were free. Obama's pledge is a little different: instead of visiting key allies in a suit, he's going to basketball arenas in rolled-up shirtsleeves. Now the trip will be in June, but we wager that there will be no ObamaCare deal by then, either.

Noonan notes as well the President's pledge on Fox to "post" the bill so that everyone can read it before voting. We doubt that such can be done when the bill doesn't exist on Saturday but will be voted "up or down" on Sunday. That is, if there's anything voted: who knows what the House Rules Committee will concoct today?**

Either Sunday's vote will be no or Sunday's vote won't happen this Sunday. This stinker is dead, but they just won't bury it.

P.S. We draw attention to our breaking a SWNIDish rule in all this. We studiously avoid making statements about what will happen in the future, as the future is so heavily contingent on unpredictable stuff. In this case, we are willing to make an exception, both for the monstrous momentousness of what's happening and for its resonance with so many other episodes of our experience in which bad ideas have traveled through similar stages of anxiety only to end with a pathetic whimper.
*SWNIDish reminder: Australia is the only nation to have fought alongside this Republic in all its 20th century wars.

**We take the "deem and pass" strategy not to be a means of avoiding a direct vote on the stinker bill but a means to assure skeptical House Dems that they are indeed going to get a vote on the amendments to the Senate bill that they demand. A two-stage vote would leave those members without the assurance that they'd get what they need to pass the Senate bill, as they could be double-crossed by leaders or by other members who would vote down the amendments. Suspicions between the chambers and within the Democratic caucus are doubtless greater than animosities between the parties.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

No-Bipartisanship Counterexample

A jobs bill has passed the Senate and is headed to the President's desk.

It passed 68-29. That means that at least ten Evil Republicans broke ranks with the Prince of Darkness to support it.

Our guess is that the bill will prove impotent, as it's extremely similar to something that failed in Carter's time. Yet we rejoice that this vote is a sufficient counterexample to disprove the assertion that bipartisanship is impossible presently. As this bill is only mildly stupid, not profoundly so like ObamaCare, it can pass handily.

Permanent reductions in the rate of corporate and individual income taxes would provide more assurance to employers to up their payrolls than do temporary tax breaks for specific behaviors, in our view. But that's another matter for another time. Just note that the Senate isn't broken.

Liberals Versus America, Or What Should Driehaus Do? Or the Disappearance of "History"

The Democrats' dilemma in passing or not passing their healthcare Christmas tree now comes down to this.

For some Dems on the far left (Dennis Kucinich now not among them, at a price that one can only imagine), the bill doesn't go far enough. For many on the left, it's as good as they can get. For the center-left, the true center and everyone to the right, it is far, far too expensive, ineffective, counterproductive, unfocused, utopian, centrally planned, pointlessly complex, economically uninformed, and unresponsive to real needs.

This reality is reflected in two related observations. One is that Steny Hoyer continues to obfuscate on whether his majority party has the votes to pass its signature legislation. The other is that polling continues to show that Americans at large are engaged on the issue and decisively dislike this legislation.

These two issues are related, of course, in that Democrats don't know whether their political future is best served by eating this dog's breakfast or spitting it out. If they eat, they fire up their opposition, cede the middle, and lose swing districts and states in 2010. If they spit, they alienate their activist base, as even the far left that dislikes this bill is unlikely to get active campaigning for a party that fails to pass a bill this year. Either way, they lose in November.

Put this in the microcosmic perspective of one Steve Driehaus, Congressman from the First District of Ohio, SWNID's own.

Driehaus is ostensibly a pro-life, fiscally conservative Democrat, i.e. the kind that many Democrats fantasize as the true heart and soul of their party--or at least a tolerable alternative to crass Republican right-wing hypocrites. Driehaus presently represents a district that has mostly been controlled by Republicans, with the locally esteemed Steve Chabot (R-Combover) having held the seat for several consecutive terms. Driehaus beat Chabot in 2008 thanks to exceptional Democratic turnout in a district with a large number of African-American voters, turnout driven by a charismatic figure at the head of the ticket.

Driehaus's odds of holding his seat in the off year have always depended on matching turnout from 2008, a longshot given the district's demographics and the larger history of off-year elections. As an incumbent, he could conceivably win over former Chabot voters by hewing a principled line of fiscal conservatism and pro-life principles. But doing so risks alienating the small but powerful liberal base of his district, the people like the SEIU and who control the fund-raising and retail politics of his party.

And now those stakes have been raised by a power of ten that matches the factor needed to describe in scientific notation the number of pages in the ObamaCare bill. Choose your poison, Congressman: alienate your base or alienate your district's modal voter.

We figure that Driehaus is being offered a deal, much as the hapless Kucinich undoubtedly was. For Driehaus we figure it's the guarantee of a comfortable sinecure after he is drummed out of office in November. There's been a lot of that kind of thing in Ohio lately

Among political pundits, various hypotheses abound concerning the Democratic leadership's political motives for this mess. One is that it's worth a short-term loss of power to establish another universal entitlement, thereby further empowering over the long term the party of patron-client relationships over the party of yeoman citizenry. We find that cogent, though perhaps not entirely persuasive.

Another is that Ds don't expect to pass this bill at all but want to run again against Republicans as the party of no in November. We also find this cogent, though not entirely persuasive.

At this point, we're inclined to see a third hypothesis as the primary explanation for this mess: that it is the result of a long series of significant miscalculations, powered by beholdenness to organized labor and related special interests and enabled by post-election hubris. We'll note the following as a way of describing that.

Remember when the Ds invoked "history" as justification for their passage of the health bill? "History" here referred, of course, not to the past but to the general direction toward which Democrats divine human events to be moving (note the relationship between such thinking and the quaint notions of such 19th century thinkers as Marx, but note as well that those who think this way aren't necessarily Marxists, just as sloppy in their thinking as Marx). On the one occasion when the Ds got a positive vote from an R(INO), Senator Snowe said momentously, "When history calls, history calls." Words to live by!

Well, we haven't heard much about history lately have we? History ended in November. Now we hear justification du jour: people will like it when they get it (or can even read it: there's still no language to be voted on), Republicans act this way all the time (never mind that Republicans, when they act this way are evil: "Mom, Dad, everyone does it!"), we can't afford not to act (even if we know we're doing much more harm than good and will spend more than we save), we'll never have this chance again (as if "history" can't come around to something better), and other proposals won't work (where "work" is defined as "boil the ocean instantly").

With all this, we remain convinced that nothing will happen on March 18 or March 21 or April 1 or any other date final set by the Democratic leadership. The chaos will not abate.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Maybe the Best Really Is the Best?

Inside Higher Ed has reprised its annual feature that works out the NCAA men's college basketball tournament on the NCAA's academic progress rate for each institution. Note that this is not a measure of the relative academic rigor of different colleges but of their success in getting their athletes through college.

This year's and last year's outcomes either say something about academic progress in major college sports or about the ability of major programs to game the data. Last year's winner was North Carolina, who went on to win the actual tournament. This year's winner is overall number 1 seed Kansas.

For our readers, we note that in the academic hoops tournament, Kentucky and Ohio State are eliminated in the second round.

As an academic administrator, we often wonder whether a true partnership between academics and athletics is possible. Outcomes like this suggest that it just might be.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Again: A Primer on Effective Health Insurance Reform

Under the heading "Things SWNID Will Never Get Used To," the first item will be, "People don't learn something the first time SWNID enlightens them."

So yet again, we offer a link to something that aptly describes what really ails health insurance in our Republic. Today it is Joseph Rago's review of Health Care Turning Point by Cornell Professor Emeritus of Economics Roger Battistella. Like everyone SWNID has linked with approval (e.g., Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, Harvard Med School chief Jeffrey Flier, Atlantic contributor David Goldhill, Atlantic economics editor Meg McArdle, Senators Wyden [D-Oregon] and Bennett [R-Utah]), author Battistella and reviewer Rago know that the best monitors of health care quality are patients and the best way to empower patients is by having them, not a third party, make the choice of insurance plans and pay the first-dollar costs.

So with the standard imperative (seldom obeyed?) to read the entire review, we offer some choice quotations:

"Because most consumers of health care are largely insulated from directly paying for the services they use, health care is generally perceived as an unlimited free good. . . . Wants and needs become insatiable when care is believed to be free." . . .

Mr. Battistella begins with the original sin of modern American health care: the government's World War II-era decision that gave businesses tax incentives to sponsor insurance for their workers but that did not extend the same dispensation to individuals. Since third parties were paying most of the bills--employers at first and eventually, with the creation of Medicare in 1965, the government as well-- no one had any reason to be assiduous about controlling the cost of care. Patients always seemed to be spending someone else's money. . . .

The solution, Mr. Battistella argues, is the "hidden pragmatism of market competition." In a competitive environment, he says, the "prosperity and survival" of caregivers would depend on "outperforming one's rivals." Meanwhile buyers--that is, patients--would be motivated to inform themselves and to "obtain the best service at the lowest price." It sounds elementary, except that in American health care it has never been tried. What would it look like? Mr. Battistella imagines individuals free to buy a wide variety of insurance coverage and choosing providers on the basis of transparent data about price, quality and value. There would be a transition, but it could be as smooth as the shift from defined-benefit pensions to 401(k)s. . . .

Mr. Battistella discounts the many ways in which our mix of private- and government-paid health insurance suits members of the political class: They always have a handy villain to blame (e.g., private insurance companies) when something goes wrong—even if the government is already calling most of the shots (e.g., archaic regulations) and even if the actual source of the trouble is the same central planning that distorts single-payer systems (e.g., Medicare's price controls).

Meanwhile, the Democratic leadership now believes that it can pass the Senate bill in the House without the Stupak twelve, even though with Stupak's anti-abortion votes they could only pass a previous bill by five votes, and some from their margin are now dead or resigned. Of course, doing the math on this issue has never been the strong suit of Obama/Pelosi/Reid.

Also the deadline for this vital legislative process has been moved back for the gazillionth time, delaying BHO's trip to Indonesia. Like after fifteen months an extra three days will do the trick. We've supervised thesis students with the same concept of time as an unlimited resource. Today, they don't have master's degrees.

Enough ink has been spilled on the chess metaphor of "endgame" to provide a different metaphor: stalemate. As gentle readers who play the Game of Kings know, "endgame" refers to that portion of the game (following the mysteriously named "opening" and "middle game") when, with few pieces on the board, one player presses the other toward checkmate. However, in a game played more or less evenly, the endgame can yield stalemate, in which neither player has enough of an advantage to bring the other to defeat or, more embarrassingly, the player with the superior and sufficient power misplays his pieces so as to allow no legal moves by his opponent or simply dithers away with pointless moves until the limits of identical board positions or game timing are reached.

Stalemate is a tie, but a moral victory for the weaker player and a defeat for the stronger. In the highest levels of chess, if one plays with the black pieces, which have the disadvantage of moving second, and plays to stalemate (or a draw, both players agreeing that the game will likely end in stalemate), one has scored the equivalent of a victory.

Democrats started with a massive political advantage, like playing white and black not having a queen on the board. Since then, they've blown all their advantages with incautious, over-aggressive tactics and now sit at a board where they have only a king and a knight while the Republicans have only a king. By definition, that's stalemate: the Dems have more material but not enough to deliver checkmate. But the Dems, blind to reality, insist on moving their pieces forever, hoping to find a miraculous way to check the black king even though they have insufficient material to do so.

In an actual chess tournament, the game would be called and the board reset, with the Rs taking the white pieces. In a democratic republic, we have elections that often do the same thing.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Emerging Consciousness of "Emerging Adulthood"

Behavioral scientist Jeffrey Arnett here offers an explanation for what a lot of us have been noticing for awhile: that it takes longer to grow up than it used to.

A Conversation with Jeffrey Arnett PhD. on Emerging Adulthood from Family Resiliency on Vimeo.

We commend this to fellow parents, to fellow educators, to everyone between the ages of 18 and 29, to everyone who knows someone between the ages of 18 and 29, and to everyone who hopes to become someone between the ages of 18 and 29.

As Ohio, So the Republic

The RCP poll average shows Kasich leading Strickland for governor of Ohio. Likewise, Portman leads Fisher for US Senate from Ohio.

We interpret such numbers presently, before any real debate or advertising, as a referendum on the national parties. Rs have very little positive stuff presently, but Ds have so much negative that their guys are at a severe disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Missouri US Senate candidate Robin Carnahan (a magic name in MO), having issued a statement criticizing the Obamanoids, deliberately went to Washington for today, where she doesn't work yet, while BHO heads to St. Louis for another shirtsleeves exercise in the false-choice rhetorical trope.

We figure that if Obama were accompanied by wingpersons Pelosi and Reid, much of Missouri would take a road trip elsewhere.

And meanwhile, in his Gray Lady blog, pomo icon Stanley Fish cries that Bush is no longer foul. The estimable Dr. Fish suggests that a surprising number of citizens now answer in the affirmative to the question, "Miss me yet?"

Back to Ohio. Ds nearly ran the table in 2006 running against Bob Taft (rhymes with "graft") and Dubya. No can do now.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Obama on the Stump, Or the Definition of Insanity

BHO was stumping for ObamaCare today in PA. Tomorrow, we hear he's going to St. Louis for still more faux populist bashing of insurance companies (who will receive an estimated $330 billion in federal payments from ObamaCare) and their Republican allies.

Here's the video, for those with the time and inclination.

We note with some surprise that a video of the POTUS gets to run more than five times beyond the normal YouTube limit of ten minutes. Not that we live in an authoritarian state or anything.

To those nervous conservatives who worry that Obama just might get the country moving in his direction again, we simply note that this is exactly what he's been doing since November's shellacking, and it's only made matters worse for his cause. For once, we think that people understand that what they're being promised simply doesn't add up.

As to why, the examples are so cautionary. The formidable James Taranto today collates some tragic stories about the failure of centralized healthcare among our Anglo cousins to the north and east (read down to the third heading).

To our Democrat friends (we know you're out there, and we don't blame you for keeping quiet), we urge the larger lesson not to nominate someone who has never shepherded legislation through a legislature. Mr. Obama was criticized for his lack of executive experience, but the fact that he had even a little legislative experience with nothing by way of bills sponsored and passed is enormously telling. He may admire LBJ, but that master of the Congress he certainly is not.

Mr. Obama now is campaigning, the one thing he does well. But it won't get his bill passed. Time for a new act.

Why 2010 Politics Reminds SWNID of 1979

This video clip featuring St. Milton Friedman and a once-famous interviewer is a reminder that (a) fashion in 1979 was awful; (b) bad ideas endure forever while good ideas have to be repeated constantly.

So, younger gentle readers, we remind you of what we all learned back then but many have since forgotten:

Dr. Krauthammer Adopts SWNIDish View

Awhile back we argued that the latest Obama/Pelosi/Reid move to force ObamaCare through their reduced-majority Congress via reconciliation was nothing more than an attempt to label the GOP as obstructionists for the November elections. As the bill can't even pass at a simple-majority with Democrats, who remain in the majority, its only real purpose is to blame Republicans for what Democrats can't do.*

Apparently, Charles Krauthammer read that post, as this brief exchange indicates:

We think it won't work very well. Let's see if Krauthammer says that when he gets the chance to elaborate.

*We expect to hear more of what center-left pundits are complaining about these days, namely government is broken (text), and it's the fault of Republicans (subtext). This somehow explains why Democrats can't pass a bill when they don't need Republicans. Moral: if all the world were Democrats, Republicans would still be to blame for the world's problems, simply because they, like dinosaurs, once roamed the earth.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Mosab Hassan Yousef: Iconic Figure, To Be Exploited?

We urge gentle readers not to miss the gripping interview in today's WSJ with Mosab Hassan Yousef, son of a Hamas founder, turned spy for Israel's Shin Bet intelligence services, turned evangelical Christian.

The interview is filled with amazing, provocative, and even disturbing revelations. None is more powerful than this declaration of Yousef's near the end of the piece:

"The problem is not in Muslims," he continues. "The problem is with their God. They need to be liberated from their God. He is their biggest enemy. It has been 1,400 years they have been lied to."

Mr. Yousef's story is the stuff of espionage thrillers and revival testimonies. We hope, for his sake, that it becomes neither.

Of course, there's already a book, and with a book come all the publicity and interviews and opportunities for people to latch onto the newly minted celebrity for their own aggrandizement. Having seen far too many notable Christian converts exploited by the so-called Christian media and its many for-profit and non-profit auxiliaries and wannabes, we hope that one so vulnerable and potentially controversial will be largely left alone.

We urge gentle readers as well to realize what we guess will be the complications of holding up Yousef as an icon. His conversion to Christianity is impressive, and we have every reason to think it is deep and sincere (anyone who talks about being impressed with the love, grace and humility of Jesus has in the SWNIDish view identified the very best reason to confess Christianity). But his situation is complicated by his involvement with Shin Bet.

We do not object to Yousef's work with the Israelis. Were we in the middle of the middle of the Middle East, trapped between Muslim terrorism and Zionist nationalism, we would find common cause with the Zionists, who despite their many terrible actions nevertheless show markedly greater restraint than their enemies.

We simply note that any political alignment of an iconic religious figure makes that figure problematic as an icon. Why is Graham successful as an evangelist and Robertson unsuccessful? For many reasons, of course, but high on the list is Graham's studied nonpartisanship.

If SWNID were a Muslim, our question about Yousef would be, Do Christians have to align politically with Israel? Sadly, too many Christians act as if doing so is a biblical obligation, and are more than ready to condemn anyone who suggests that the present issues of the Middle East are more complex than the straightforward fulfillment of an unconditional biblical promise.

So in the end, the warning is not simply to resist the notion that the key to evangelism is exposing notable converts to constant publicity. It is also to be sure to know what the true gospel really is and to articulate it simply, without the distortions that are either theologically or politically sectarian.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Midweek Potpourri, Or When Math Is Irrelevant

There's a thread here, if you pick at it hard enough, but these are our seemingly unrelated observations at midweek:

  • Jim Bunning's little escapade was a delightful piece of political theater that will have at worst an inconveniencing effect on a few people. For the record, we note that Bunning, not always the most Senatorial of Senators, was simply asking Democrats to do what they claim to do, which is operate on "Pay-Go" rules (a miserable expression, which sounds like etiquette at a convenience store) by which new spending must be matched with commensurate new revenue or budget cuts. Asking that the Ds simply release some of their "stimulus" slush fund for what would clearly fit the purpose of the so-called stimulus bill was hardly unreasonable. It must be noted that at any point Reid could have invoked cloture and got the 60 votes to end Bunning's objection to unanimous consent. He didn't because Ds wanted to characterize Republicans as heartless illegitimate children via Bunning's move.
  • Meanwhile, Ds continue to talk about passing ObamaCare via reconciliation, pretending that doing so is in keeping with the best traditions of social legislation and the use of reconciliation since its introduction in the 1970s. Our friends at WSJ expose the hypocrisy of that appeal to history. Prior social legislation has passed with massive bipartisan majorities, while reconciliation, intended to facilitate budgetary discipline, has never been employed for something so comprehensive.
  • Meanwhile, BHO is attaching "Republican ideas" to ObamaCare, presumably to be considered as amendments in the reconciliation process. These concessions are so insignificant and shallow as to defy labeling as empty tokens. Rs are for Obama merely a less significant special-interest group than labor unions, Louisiana or Nebraska. Willie Nelson offered more common ground to his estranged partner in "You Were Always on My Mind" than Obama does to Rs. Meanwhile, the essential illogic of ObamaCare--bending the cost curve downward by offering more generous first-dollar subsidies for everyone--continues apace. Crumbling at its foundation, ObamaCare will now be decorated with two or three tiny bits of faux Republican graffiti.
  • And locally, Cincinnati is debating where the new train station ought to be, while some fret that indecision will mean that Our Fair City will be left out of the grand, high-speed rail line that will connect Cincinnati to Columbus and Cleveland.*
And so it's time to consider the comparisons between BHO's ObamaCare and LBJ's Great Society, the comparisons in which BHO, Pelosi and Reid seem to take so much delight. We recommend reviewing LBJ's speeches as he was introducing Great Society legislation in 1965. For access, the sublime American Experience programs on LBJ are simply the best. In those speeches, one will note a disturbing undercurrent of fiscal hubris: the notion that Our Republic had become rich enough to fund absolutely anything we put our mind to.

As a case in point, we note the recent confession of Joseph Califano, an assistant in LBJ's White House who later served as Carter's Health and Human Services Secretary. Califano on NPR confessed that in studying healthcare patterns in the run-up to Medicare, he discovered that America's docs were providing a great deal of pro bono service to America's senior citizens. So when those same docs (who by nature tend to be libertarian, at least about docs) objected to Medicare, LBJ bought them by promising to pay for every procedure they performed.

Of course, such a move was ridiculously expensive. Why pay for something that you're already getting for free? But it made sense at the time because Johnson believed he was at a unique nexus of history: where money was no longer an object.

Vietnam destroyed LBJ's fantasy faster than anyone could have imagined. But the unpleasant lessons of history are hard to remember.

Obama/Pelosi/Reid is (use the singular verb with a singular subject) now LBJ on steroids plus LSD plus crack. Shall we spend anything and everything to get universal health care? Yes, indeed! Shall we spend anything and everything to have high speed rail (just like Europe and Japan, the only justification besides weakly argued "green" concerns offered for this boondoggle), even in areas that totally lack the population density and public-transportation infrastructure to support such rail projects, and where travel times will still be greater than a trip in a car on the expressway? Why not? Shall we do this without out the votes or the public support? You betcha! Shall we do all of this while invoking history, even though we have to distort history to do it? Absolutely!

Why? This is a time like no other, and we are under the call of history (not God, we hasten to add) to act. We don't need to add up the numbers, whether the numbers represent dollars, Congressmen, or voters. Math has been suspended for the moment. We live in a singularity, like the Big Bang. Call it the Big Barack.

And if it all fails, we'll call the other guys heartless illegitimate children yet again and try once again after the election.

*Non-bold prediction: the Cincinnati-Columbus-Cleveland train will not run in the lifetime of this blogger or any gentle reader.

SWNID Seminar Question

We offer this clip from what we understand, never having seen this gentleman's program, is a feature on MSNBC, asking the question, Who is the problem in this conversation, and why?

We apologize to gentle readers for asking questions with obvious answers.