Your Lying Eyes

Dedicated to uncovering the truth that stands naked before your lying eyes.

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29 March 2008

When Columnists Get It Wrong - Immediately

Pundits are never punished for getting it wrong - i.e., when unfolding events prove them to be utter fools or worse. But what about when they're proven wrong even before they write their columns - is there no editorial check whatsoever on columnists' pronouncements?

NYT columnist Gail Collins is certain John McCain is making a big mistake in denouncing bailouts for failed mortgages, taking what is clearly an unduly harsh position that flies in the face of the will of the people.
I don’t see how anybody could deny that John McCain is a straight-talker. The country is terrified of economic collapse and he’s been sounding like Mr. Potter, the banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” You can’t get more forthright than that...Now, the Democrats are terrified that McCain will have months and months to raise money and ingratiate himself with the American people...Fortunately for the quivering Democrats, McCain has also felt compelled to speak about the mortgage crisis. His economic thinking...harks back to the time when Republicans all seemed to be elderly rich guys who muttered a lot about bonded indebtedness. The public’s deep lack of enthusiasm for this worldview was what encouraged Reagan to change the subject to optimism and abortion...The theme for his mortgage speech this week was basically McCain to Homeowners: Drop Dead. It was, he said sternly, “not the duty of the government to bail out and reward those who act irresponsibly”...while everybody else is “working a second job, skipping a vacation and managing their budgets” the way Countrywide Financial intended them to...It was not exactly a rallying cry for the masses.
So this column is released today, March 29. On Wednesday, the 27th, i.e. before Collins's column even came out, we have this release from Rasmussen Reports:
Most Americans Oppose Federal Bailout for Homeowners.Fifty-three percent (53%) of Americans say that the federal government should not help out homeowners who borrowed more than they could afford. A Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 29% disagreed and believed that federal action is appropriate. Seventeen percent (17%) are not sure.
Yeah, McCain is really out of touch with the American people on that one.

28 March 2008

The Long, Hard Slog Slogs On

The current Iraqi-led offensive against militias in Basra has stalled, and appears to be failing. Prime Minister Maliki billed the offensive as an effort to disarm criminal elements, but appears to be aimed primarily at the government's main opposition, the Mahdi militia of firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr. Al-Sadr's forces are particularly strong in the southern oil city of Basra, where British forces have been stationed but had withdrawn to bases last summer. However, the offensive only appears to be strengthening the Mahdi army's position. From the NYT article linked above:
Estimates by Basra residents of how much of the city is in the Mahdi Army’s hands ranged from 50 percent to much higher. “We have soldiers in Basra, and they are doing fine,” said a militiaman in Baghdad named Abu Ali, who identified himself as a division commander for the Mahdi Army. “They are in full control.”
Iraqi Army forces appear incapable of making any headway in the city.
Mahdi checkpoints were highly visible, often consisting of at least half a dozen fighters armed with weapons like rocket-propelled grenades. “The gunmen are not allowing any military convoys to pass near the area,” said Ameen Ali Sakran, a Hayaniya resident. Alaa Abdul Samad, an educational supervisor who lives in the Mahdi-controlled Kibla neighborhood a couple of miles south of the city center, said he had not seen any official army vehicles during the assault. “The gunmen have controlled even the Kibla police station and taken all its weapons,” Mr. Samad said. “The area is now in the hands of the militias, and there is no army except some of the helicopters that fly around.”
So what happened? When the British decided to pull their troops from the streets of Basra last summer, the new Iraqi commander in the region, General Mohan al-Furayji, got a lot of credit for reducing the level of violence in the city (at least from the British - his name is seldom mentioned in the American press). The British are quite high on him, which appears to really annoy many in the governing coalition. According to the UK's Independent:
It is difficult to overstate the faith placed in Lt-Gen Mohan by the British. His name has become almost a mantra among officials, who have been heard to say "General Mohan will sort this out" or "General Mohan has decided this." Lt-Gen Mohan was appointed on a rolling three-month contract last July. According to Iraqi sources, the so-called "Iranian faction" surrounding Prime Minister Maliki would not give an 18-month contract to an avowedly secular commander in Basra. His current tenure runs out on 19 April. Mr Maliki is under pressure from those opposed to Lt-Gen Mohan to recall him to Baghdad at that time.
Being a competent commander, or even just being perceived as such, is not a way to win friends inside the Iraqi power structure. The most powerful party in the Iraqi government is the Islamic Supreme Council, which has its own militia, the Badr Bridade.
The Supreme Council’s armed wing, the Badr Organization, is one of the most powerful rivals of the Mahdi Army in Basra, where Shiite militias have been fighting among themselves for years to control neighborhoods, oil revenues, electricity access, the ports and even the local universities.
General Mohan's plan to spend a few months preparing for the offensive was undercut by the ruling council.
According to senior sources, the offensive was launched three months before Lt-Gen Mohan had wanted it to, and despite him warning that going in too early would result in the fighting spreading to other Shia strongholds. It was not the first time the general had been at odds with the Baghdad government. Mr Maliki had considered removing him from his post four weeks ago, but desisted after lobbying by the British.
Had General Mohan's plan succeeded, the resulting recognition would have significantly raised his profile and threatened the Islamists in the governing coalition. Instead, we have this hastily drawn up offensive being "personally directed" by Prime Minister Maliki, that will most likely fail, break the cease fire, and require direct involvement of American troops to pacify the country (i.e., defeat the Mahdi army) and preserve the Maliki government while bolstering the position of the Iranian-backed Islamists in the government. Nice to see the most powerful military force the world has ever seen being used so cleverly by a gang of conniving Mohammedans.

Think about how confusing this all is. We have one Shiite faction (the Mahdi Army) being led by a Muslim extremist named Al-Sadr who is opposed by another Shiite (and Iranian-allied) faction called the Badr Brigade who supports the Shiite Prime Minister Al-Maliki who is attempting to marginalize a secular Shiite general named Mohan Al-something or other. In the meantime, in the north and west the U.S. is making deals and alliances with all kinds of Sunni tribal chiefs who are in a power struggle with elements of Al-Qaeda. With all these names sounding similar to American ears*, and the USG going on about Iran supplying the militias, it's awfully hard to keep track. Now of course there's not the remotest chance that Joe Sixpack has any patience to make any sense of this. But think about Washington - all the people in the White House working on policy, the policy makers in the Pentagon and State, the aides to Senators on the Foreign Relations committees and the advisers to the presidential candidates - how many people are we talking about involved in setting policy and making decisions - 1,000? How many of them are on top of all this - maybe 10? 5? 2?

27 March 2008

Are Asinine Environmental Laws in Our Near Future

With a new Democrat president this fall and both houses of Congress likely to become even more Democratic, our Puritanical overlords will have a field day implementing their myriad pet projects. Among these are silly environmentalist schemes that make them feel superior to the slobs in their midst but merely make the rest of us miserable. Congress has already put through a ban on incandescent light bulbs starting in 2012.

NPR, Brahmin central command, has a series this week on recycling which would be rather funny if it were a MAD TV skit. This morning they covered San Francisco's courageous ban on plastic shopping bags. Nowhere is it even remotely suggested how silly this is* - plastic shopping bags weigh nothing and pose no threat to the environment - particularly in landfills where they won't see the light of day for 10,000 years. They're instrumental in providing dog owners a handy means to pick up their pets' solid waste, which of course poses an actual environmental threat.

Yesterday they covered the scourge of un-recycled electronics. Host Renee Montagne described the searing guilt she felt when tossing an old cell phone in the garbage - a confession that sounds all the more comical when spoken in her perfectly tuned female public radio cadence.

There simply is no end to the extent that these people wish to control our lives. I live in a state that is as activist as any when it comes to this - the New Jersey legislature simply cannot fathom an activity which they cannot outlaw. No social transgression is too trivial that it can't be solved by police action. They haven't gotten around to plastic bags yet - that one might finally wake the populous up - my advice on that would be to let sleeping dogs lie.

Unfortunately, with the sorry performance of the Republican party over the prior 6 years in failing to implement a single small-government initiative other than tax cuts, we conservatives have little credibility in the public arena to complain about anything Democrats might do.

* To be fair, host Steve Inskeep, if you listen to the audio, does attempt to provide some irony in his intro, remarking on how hard times haven't kept local governments from telling us "what to do."

25 March 2008

NOW it's About the Oil

Could this be the beginning of the end game in Iraq? It's a country, and someone's going to take over - someone always does. Countries don't just continue in chaos indefinitely - sooner or later someone will prevail. And in a country with massive supplies of oil under ground, you can be sure someone will take charge. Muqtada Al Sadr seems to have decided this might be the time for a little putsch.
Heavy fighting broke out Tuesday in two of Iraq’s largest cities, as Iraqi ground forces and helicopters mounted a huge operation to break the grip of the Shiite militias controlling Basra, and Iraqi forces clashed with militias in Baghdad. The fighting threatened to destabilize a long-term truce that had helped reduce the level of violence in the five-year-old Iraq war.
I won't hold my breath waiting for the Iraqi army to prove itself as a fighting force, but perhaps someone in the command structure has figured out that if he can control Basra and Baghdad, there could be a nice little $100 billion bonus waiting down the line. Al Sadr has certainly figured that out, and after a year of rebuilding his forces, appears to be geared up for a good hard fight.

The man in charge of Iraqi forces in southern Iraq is Mohan al-Furayji. British portraits of the man from last fall paint him as the second coming of the Duke of Wellington (or of Saddam, at least), crediting him with allowing British troops in Basra to recede from active fighting. He does at least appear serious about this latest offensive. Interestingly, while Mohan was credited with being in charge a few days ago, news reports are now suggesting that Prime Minister al-Maliki is "directing the fighting." Hard to tell if this should be seen as suggesting confidence in the Iraqi forces (else Maliki would be scrambling to avoid too close an association with the offensive) or suggestive of an impending power struggle should the offensive succeed, or both.

24 March 2008

Democracy Not a Birthright

The Christian Science Monitor has a rather pathetic op-ed by a disillusioned liberal (Tim Hackler) bemoaning the failure of democracy to take root across the globe. Don't get me wrong - he deserves props for recognizing this stubborn fact of life, but he's still trying to vainly have it align with his world view, and it doesn't fit.

The Iraq war is opening many eyes - not just those of conservatives' - by the base nature of its savage conflicts. It's opened his eyes:
I think most of us have moved at least slightly toward Hamilton's darker view of human nature. Can we still believe, for example, that Jeffersonian democracy will one day arrive and then survive throughout Africa and the Middle East? The painful failures of the Iraq war have sowed substantial doubts: "Looking back, I felt secure in the knowledge that all who yearn for freedom, once free, would use it well," wrote Danielle Pletka in The New York Times recently. "I was wrong. There is no freedom gene...."
He takes this insight one step further:
History suggests that culture, not genetics, determines fitness for democracy. And history suggests we can pinpoint what kind of culture is required – a culture of the Enlightenment.
Well, maybe it's just culture and maybe not - the evidence is a little more mixed than he thinks. He's really twisting Occam's razor here:
Here is a thought experiment to put things in perspective. Imagine a map of the world in 1800. Color in all the countries that took part in or were directly influenced by the Enlightenment (let us say, England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, the US, Canada, and the Scandinavian countries). Now jump forward two centuries and color in all the countries with working democracies...It is virtually the same map. And how many countries have a fully functional democracy but were not among, or did not spring from, those 22 countries? Just one – Japan.
Wouldn't it be a lot easier to say "let's look at all the countries with fully functioning democracies - with one exception, they are all Western European or settled by Western Europeans"? Or perhaps he could note that when you look closer at these countries and note which ones have had the least trouble with their democracies over the last 60 years, democracy appears to be generally more stable as you move north (Portugal, Spain, and Greece were all ruled by juntas into the seventies, and Italy turns over her government every two years). Wouldn't that suggest genes could be a factor?

And what does the Enlightenment have to do with it? Sure, the ideals promoted by the America's Founding Father's owed a great deal to John Locke, but the revolution itself was really just an exercise in militant home-rule combined with anti-monarchism. What about Germany, that land of composers, poets, and philosophers? There wan't a trace of functioning democracy there until their nation was nearly wiped off the map 63 years ago. That finally convinced them to try something different. (The same thing happened across the globe in Japan, of course.) Austria - the Austro-Hungarian Empire ring a bell? That was just 90 years ago. France? The home of Mr. Enlightenment himself, J.J. Rousseau - need we go into the bloody details of how democracy fared in that enlightened land?

No, democracy was not the product of the Enlightenment. It was (with the isolated exception of Switzerland and perhaps Iceland) the product of England, nurtured over the course of 500 years under a constitutional monarchy, before it took root firmly in its erstwhile colony across the Atlantic as well as on its own soil in the 18th century. It spread from there across Europe (much like the Industrial Revolution, but much less evenly and firmly), but did not predominate until it was imposed on the razed continent by the victorious Anglosphere powers after WWII (in the West, that is - in the East the other winner imposed its own brand of "democratic" government).

Hackler then reveals the real target of his despondent anger - the true enemy of democracy in the world today - Republicans!
Why do I take a darker view than I did 16 years ago? Today, we have a coarser public discourse and lower standards, and we have suffered the consequences of a political party that quite openly set about to divide Americans into hostile camps because it believed that strategy would give them a narrow electoral advantage. The result is an atmosphere in which it is almost impossible to have a mature, adult, logical national debate about important issues.
He has a real knack for spotting a problem and looking at it from exactly the wrong vantage point. There's another significant quality Hackler failed to notice among his list of democracies - they all represent one people under one flag - with one significant exception: Belgium, which is even now considering splitting up. The U.S. now has two significant minorities (one of them growing rapidly) recognized as such by federal law (Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act) - not a pattern conducive to effective democratic government. Granted, today's Republican Party rhetoric is not going to be confused with the Federalist Papers, but is Hackler blind to the growing factionalism at large in the public arena? Was he out of the country during the Jena 6/Columbia Noose farces? Anyway, it's good to see a liberal get hit with a bad case of pessimism (the essence of conservatism), even if he does completely misdiagnose it.

19 March 2008

Why Did We Invade?

Five long years ago President Bush gave the go ahead for the Iraq invasion. Why, oh why, did he do that? While the President defended his decision today, there are few who now agree, even among those of us who supported the invasion at the time. Indeed, in hindsight, it's hard to imagine how this could ever have seemed a sensible thing to do - perhaps even downright insane, as in Greg Cochran's immortal tale, "The Death March of the Penguins":
If the President had decided (because of a stroke with truly interesting side effects) that we could no longer stand idly by in the eternal conflict between penguins and skuas ( penguins = Good, skuas = Evil) and sent an expeditionary force to Antarctica, an expedition in which a thousand soldiers froze to death and ten thousand others lost limbs to frostbite - an expedition that cost one hundred billion dollars, a conflict in which the skuas and blizzards left the issue in doubt, one in which we discovered that penguins are thoroughly unlikable when you get to know them better - if he had done this instead of invading Iraq, the country would be substantially better off than it is today.
So how did this happen? Ah, there are many theories. One complication in trying to pinpoint the cause is that the enterprise has been so ineffective and costly that no justification could seem to have been worth it. That doesn't mean that we must ignore the actual course of the war in judging its antecedents - we must to some extent weigh the judgemntal faculties of its potential sponsors in assessing their complicity. If an uninsured house burns to the ground - an outcome no one could wish for - would we judge the father smoking a pipe as suspiciously as the child playing with matches? Again, there are lots of suspects, and no doubt plenty of co-conspirators and accessories after the fact - but who or what was the main culprit, the sine qua non, the determining factor in whether or not this war ever took place?

Surely the favorite is that it was all about oil. Obviously, the oil angle hasn't really worked out too well - nothing has worked out too well. But mightn't this have been the casus belli nevertheless? I don't think so because oil men are too smart for this. Any oilman would have counseled a conciliatory approach to Saddam. The Butcher of Baghdad was a beaten man in 2003 - he wished for little more than to hold on to his little Iraqi fiefdom. He'd have jumped at the chance for a little more sovereignty in exchange for a few $billion more in oil revenues. What oil executive would have risked his future supplies for something as risky as a war? None - no oil man would have wanted that. I can't find any record of any big oil people pushing us into the war. Notably, Jim Baker, G.H.W. Bush's longtime crony and oil industry lawyer, was decidedly cool about the invasion in 2002. Reading this account of Baker's advice gives a good idea about how uncontroversial military action against Iraq was in late summer 2002 - there seemed to be little doubt that it would happen, just a lot of questions about how it would happen.

Then there is the military-industrial-complex theory of the war. This one centers around Dick Cheney and his Halliburton contacts. The Iraq war has no doubt been a financial boon for a number of firms supplying the war effort, and it would be naive to think lobbyists representing "war profiteers" didn't push hard for the invasion. Just supplying bullets alone has to have generated some serious profits to several arms manufacturers. But as enthusiastically as the defense industry might have supported it, I don't see them being the prime movers behind the war.

The other credible theory is the Neocon-plot origin of the war. If we look at the most vocal cheerleaders ante-bellum, they were the neocons. Kristol, Krauthammer, Fred Barnes, Mark Steyn - they were beating the drums pretty hard in the run-up, eager to topple the evil Baathist empire and witness the founding of the Baghdad House of Burgesses. Within the administration, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith led the hawk faction in pushing for the war. Yet these guys were ready to attack anyone remotely associated with terrorism. Most of the neocons were clearly motivated by our "special relationship" with Israel and a desire to eliminate overtly hostile regimes. I have no doubt that the influence of neocons in the administration had a powerful effect in not only pushing us towards war but also in gaining widespread support in the halls of power for the war effort. But I don't think we have a smoking gun here.

I don't think we need to consider the ostensible rationales behind the war. I do think it's plausible that the administration sincerely believed Saddam possessed WMD - but this "belief" was never based on objectively derived facts - it was based on wishful thinking and bolstered by a steadfast refusal to look into the matter with any seriousness of purpose. If David Kay indicated otherwise, he must be a dupe or some kind of pacifist, or Saddam must be hiding them somewhere. Nevertheless, such willful blindness to reality could not drive us to war - it must instead be a symptom of something else. The same with all the other rationalizations put forth at the time.

On the eve of the Iraq war, we were now in our 11th year of the Gulf War cease-fire. Every other week, it seemed, American jets were firing on Iraqi aircraft violating either the Northern or Southern no-fly zones. The oil-for-food program was notoriously rife with corruption, and no full accounting had ever been done of Iraq's chemical weapons programs. The horror of 9/11 still had most of us angry and impatient for revenge. Our victory in Afghanistan appeared to be a triumph of determination and competence, as what appeared to be a carefully crafted campaign came to fruition with few casualties and general approval. Meanwhile more and more horror stories of Saddam's brutality - of his and his sons' insanity - made us wonder why do we need to put up with this madman any longer. My feeling at the time was that an invasion would be a quick fix to what seemed like an otherwise interminable situation. We invade, we topple Saddam, we take the sword from whichever competent and unrelated-to-Saddam Iraqi general we could find, leave him in charge, set up cordial relations, and help them transition to a Pakistani-style military-constitutional government. What's the problem?

The problem started to become clear just a few weeks in when Iraqi cities started burning not from street-to-street fighting or American bombs but from Iraqi citizens on a looting spree. There would be no Iraqi general to hand over his sword - there wasn't even a constabulary police force left standing. There appeared to be not a shred of executive authority operating anywhere in the entire country. The place was complete chaos, with no trace of civil order in the souls of its citizens. Good move - now what?

I think what confuses people about the war is the question of who's really in charge in the executive branch. Because Bush isn't particularly knowledgeable or diligent or effective as a communicator (to say the least), everyone assumes he must not really be calling the shots. But I think this greatly underestimates him. On the contrary, an intellectually curious, hard-working, articulate man would no doubt be more inclined to work to build consensus, solicit competing viewpoints, and get to the bottom of things before committing the nation to a such a high-risk endeavor as invading another country. But a stubborn, ignorant, petty man is just the type to engage the nation in such a poorly-considered escapade.

A decade earlier his father had helmed a triumphant victory in Iraq, but one which was soured in many minds by his refusal to go after the criminal despot himself. Instead, in what in hindsight (in 2002) appeared to be a lack of will, President G.H.W. Bush (and his Defense Secretary Cheney!)had let the bastard off the hook, withdrew our troops, and imposed a set of conditions that the dictator must abide by - which conditions the Butcher of Baghdad would proceed to thumb his nose at for the next 10 years.

This bothered the younger Bush enormously, and he no doubt felt a strong need to avenge his father's "humiliation." He also saw what this hollow victory meant to his legacy - nothing, as Bush Sr. was soon to be turned out of office. Bush has been quoted as hoping (in 1999) for an opportunity to become a successful Commander-in-Chief and build his legacy off of that. After 9/11, there was a general feeling in the administration that we had to strike out at all troublesome spots, Iraq being top of the list after Afghanistan. In "Plan of Attack," Woodward leaves little doubt that Bush wanted to go into Iraq, and had (secretly) told Rumsfeld to begin preparations for military action.

Securing some of the world's richest oil fields; enriching Halliburton and other defense contractors; securing Israel's future; sending an unmistakable signal to terrorists and terrorist sponsors everywhere that the U.S. means business; eliminating a threat to peace and stability and a source of WMD in the Middle East - all these motivations - however fanciful or venal they might have been - no doubt played some role in pushing us towards war. But the fundamental drive to war lay in the heart and soul of the man in charge. He pushed for it, he insisted on it, he executed it. Our country has paid the price and will continue to do so for years to come.

What Do Those Commas Mean?!

The SC debated the Second Amendment today. Amendment Deux is by far the worst-written part of the Constitution. It is simply ungrammatical. The problem is very basic: if you're going to insert two commas around a clause inside a sentence, the rest of the sentence outside the commas must be read as a complete sentence on its own. But this doesn't work here.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.
No good. You can't very well say "A well regulated militia the right of the people..." It just don't parse! But grammar aside, it's really hard to tell what the authors were trying to get at exactly. It's all complicated by the fact that the Bill of Rights were intended to apply to the federal government only, but over the course of the 20th century this distinction went out the window. The most obvious meaning of the amendment is that states have broad powers to regulate firearms within their jurisdiction while the federal government has no proper role in this business whatever.

Based on this reading of it I'd say a reasonable 2nd Amendment ruling in this case would be that the District of Columbia (here being treated as if it were a state) has every right to implement whatever insane gun control measure it wishes. People who don't like it are free to move (and well advised to, at that). That's how federalism is supposed to work. But since a) the Bill of Rights are expected to apply equally to the federal and state governments and b)some regulation of firearms is expected at each level of government then we can expect a ruling that will give a fairly broad individual right to own and possess functional firearms while allowing governments to impose "reasonable" restrictions based on local circumstances. And that would pretty much describe the current situation across the country outside of the nation's capital.

18 March 2008

NY's New Guv Had Affairs

New York's new governor admitted that he had a string of extra-marital affairs several years back. Isn't it an unwritten rule that a blind guy pretty much gets a free pass on this kind of thing?

Live Blogging Idol

After yesterday's depressing post on our imploding economy, I need some real fluff, and where better to find it than American Idol. This week they're doing the Beatles again. Technically, last week was just Lennon-McCartney, so now this week is dedicated to The Beatles generally, meaning I guess that now the repertory is expanded to include "Something" and Carl Perkins, as well.

This spells trouble for favorite David Archuletta who royally screwed up last week by not only doing a middling version of "We Can Work it Out" but forgetting the words as well. Unfortunately for the poor kid, he doesn't know any Beatles songs apparently.

Biker-chick Amanda Overmeyer is doing Back in the U.S.S.R. It's a good rocker, but it doesn't have alot of range, so she's not getting much of a chance to show off. Why not pick something like "Oh Darlin'!" or "Don't Let Me Down", where she could let her Joplinesque vocals run free? Not a bad job, came in strong at the end, but not real exciting. Randy and Paula are a bit cool on it - Simon is frying her - she's becoming predictable! McCartney pulled this one off effortlessly, of course, but like Lennon, McCartney had perfect rhythm and could sing any rock'n'roll like he was saying Good Morning, a skill they honed through weeks of 7 hour shows in Hamburg bars.

Kristie Lee Cook is singing "Hide Your Love Away". Kristie is in trouble, so she needs to come through here. Like many Idol contestants, her range is limited - you hear it on the lower nights - the voice loses power. There's something very unexciting about her style - she can hit the high notes great, but she has a bland approach. She may stick around since she's the only blonde country-oriented singer left in the competition, but she won't be around much longer. Simon is frying her.

Archuletta is giving a run at "Long and Winding Road". He's singing it straight, with just slight phrasing variations - good move - not a melody one is likely to improve on much. He's pitch-perfect, his voice rings true. Little bit of melody change at the end, some "soul" notes, but pretty impressive vocal work. Randy says take liberties with songs like that, but I think that's bull - there's some melodies you can fool with, but not a classic like this. Simon is full of praise. He nailed it.

Michael Johns is going to speed thru A Day in the Life. So far, pretty good - a bit crusty delivering "house of Lords" - a bit inexact on a few notes in the bridge. He has a terrific voice - but he screwed up the words! Must be tough for these kids, not having grown up with these songs. Too difficult a song to sing. Another bad song choice! Why aren't people advising these kids better on what to sing?! There's 200 Beatles songs, is it so hard to find one they can sing?

Blond, folksy Brooke White is up next. She kind of reminds me of a character who might have been in "A Mighty Wind" - you know, a sweet innocent type who's a closet sex-addict. "Here Comes the Sun" is her choice. She does well with the low notes. The song is a bit dull though, stripped of the Beatles arrangement - twelve-string guitars and synthesizers - and its pivotal role in Abbey Road. A nice job, but pretty unexciting. She'll stick around awhile because she's so blond and so thin. Paula agrees with me on the low notes, but the judges generally agree it was not a winning performance.

Bluesy David Cook up next. He did great last week. But this week he's doing Day Tripper - another tough song. Let's see. Pitch-perfect so far, and playing his own licks (on a left-handed ax!). Uh-oh - he's doing the voice-box thing - bit distracting. He has some kind of voice, though. He handled it pretty damn well. Simon is taking him down a peg.

Irish-chick Carly Smithson will sing "Blackbird". Her voice has depth, raspiness, and soul. She might have had a bit of trouble remembering the words there for a second - but she's giving the song a unique and charming performance. Another excellent job. Her low notes are throaty and strong - a sign of a good range. They all can hit the high notes - but are they getting there by sacrificing the low notes - that's the question. So if they struggle low, their range is limited. By the way, Carly is very representative of real Irish girls looks-wise - she's ok, but there's something just a bit off. Most American guys only see part-Irish girls, and expect that's what they're going to see when they visit the Emerald Isle and are sorely disappointed when they find it's not really a land overrun from Ulster to Munster with Shannen Dohertys (who is apparently also half-Irish as her mother's name was Rosa).

Now dreadlocked Jason Castro is singing Michelle. Nice enough, but his flow seems a bit rushed - there's a time limit, so they are rushed, but you need to appear unrushed. One thing McCartney had, even when his voice warbled a bit, was absolutely perfect rhythm, so these shortcomings can be glaring in comparison to the original.

Sayesha chooses Yesterday. It's tough to add anything new here - it's one of the most performed songs of all time. Boring - heard the song 10,000 times, didn't need to hear it again. Simon thinks she'll stick around, but I don't know - she's kind of boring and I'm not sure how big the Idol constituency is for pretty black girls (vs. her main competition at this point - the pretty blond Kristie). She's better than Kristie, but maybe not better enough.

Now Chickezie - singing a soulful "I've Just Seen a Face". Interesting take on what is essentially a folk-ballad. Now he's rockin' out - on the second verse, complete with blues harp, with bluegrass beat, and growling vocal. Very nice - it's good to hear a real different version of such a familiar song. Simon called it gimmicky - good point, but at this point in the competition they're just trying to stay in the game and be remembered, which I think he succeeded at with this effort.

Now the Asian Ramiele Malubay will sing "I Should've Known Better". Again trouble with the low notes - it's amazing how much trouble these singers are having with their ranges singing Beatles songs - it's not like the Beatles had trouble with them. Nice job - but, eh, not real inspiring. A very poppy song - you need to have a bit of gravitas in this contest, and songs like this don't bring that sense. Does she have the votes among Idol's Asian watchers to stay in?

I predict that Kristie Lee Cook be the one to go down tomorrow night (and this is one competition where going down can't help you!).

17 March 2008

And The Bailouts Continue

The Fed is guaranteeing a $30b loan to provide an incentive for JP Morgan to buy out the effectively bankrupt Bear-Sterns. Granted, Bear-Sterns is getting hit hard nevertheless, but still this doesn't seem to have an end, does it. The problem is that these firms make money - I don't mean as in making a profit, but they literally make money like they have a printing press. So if Bear's assets disappear there's a whole lot more money out there that will go poof as well. They have us over a barrel, Wall St. does, and there's nothing we can do about it.

There's just no built in checks and balances to control reckless financial behavior under our current regime. Management has no incentive to avoid risky investments since it's not really their own money they're playing with. To some extent there's a disincentive, as in the collapse of share prices. But how much did Bear's management make in the years leading up to the crash compared to how much they've lost over the past few months? Was is it all worth it? This is the most extreme case so far, but I bet even here it was worth it.

So the solution is more regulation, but this is a farce because the government can neither keep up with the speed of innovation in financial products nor predict where the next problem will be. Sarbanes-Oxley hasn't done us much good here, has it? Of course not, because Sarbanes-Oxley was inspired by the Enron debacle, and didn't really address the basic problem there anyway. Sarbanes-Oxley lives in the fantasy world where strict financial controls are supposed to keep crooks and liars from fleecing their own shareholders.

Obviously, with the dollar in free-fall, our monetary policy is utterly ruinous. The Fed is supposed to be the guardian of our money, but instead it is debasing it at every turn, churning out an extra hundreds of billions with every stroke of its bail-out baton. But what is the root cause of all this?

Clearly, our trade policy. We have been on a binge the likes of which has never been seen. Trade once meant that one country might send another shipments of grain in exchange for silk. Even though it might have been mediated in currency or gold, real goods would be exchanged. Well the U.S. has been getting tons of shipments from abroad for the last 20-some years, and has been exporting dollar bills in return. Dollars mean nothing more ultimately than a coupon to purchase one-dollar's worth of American assets. Back in ancient times, a backward place like Gaul would trade slaves for spices and pottery - we're not literally trading slaves, but we're selling our birthright for cheap air-conditioners.

The cheap dollar should be growing our exports, but can our economy really respond that flexibly? Factories are closing and being torn down left-and-right - can we just suddenly turn around and start manufacturing exportable goods in the midst of our fevered de-industrialization? And our economic woes will not be good news for the 40 million immigrants in this troubled economy. With the construction business flattened, our maniacal eating-out binge will surely come to an abrupt end soon, leaving many of our guests - invited or otherwise - with little to do. The biggest myth of all is the "global economy." There is no true "global" economy - there is the U.S. economy, which is stretched out globally. I actually recall last summer thinking that my portfolio was diversified because I had money in "global" funds - what a fool. The source for profits in India, China, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. is the same as it is for G.E. - U.S. consumers. We go down, they go down, period.

What we as a nation need to do is shore up our financial system and rebuild our industrial base. That means no more bailouts. The Fed needs to pull in the reins on the money supply, and let interest float where they may. We should implement an across the board 10% (or whatever %) tariff on all imported goods and a surtax on all foreign services. A consumption tax to cut down on spending should be implemented to offset a $20k exemption for investment income to encourage saving. We're going to get hit hard here someway, somehow - let's decide ourselves how it's going to go down. It's far preferable to bite the bullet ourselves, and force ourselves to reduce our standard of living in exchange for greater savings and investment - than to have the rest of the world start redeeming their 4 trillion little coupons.

12 March 2008

So Is It a Bailout or Not?

I really don't understand exactly what it is the Fed did yesterday that got the Stock Markets all giddy (though I'm happy for anything that gives me even temporary relief that my life savings are not doomed). According to the Times
the central bank offered to let the biggest investment banks on Wall Street borrow up to $200 billion in Treasury securities in exchange for hard-to-sell mortgage-backed securities as collateral. And the Fed made clear that it was prepared to do more as needed.
If these CDO's are being accepted as collateral, doesn't that imply they are being effectively guaranteed? Isn't that a bail-out? If nothing bad happens to the loans, then nothing will come of it, so perhaps it's just balance-sheet relief. But if it should come to the point that the Fed effectively assumes these securities, then won't there be enormous pressure to bail out the actual borrowers themselves?

Paul Craig Roberts has proposed simply suspending the mark-to-market requirement for these assets, allowing firms to value them at, say, 85% of book value for a year or two until the market can sort out the actual valuations. This would seem to provide the balance-sheet relief the Fed's action seems intended to provide, without the harmful side-effects that a bailout entails. But then again Roberts is a far-right, conspiracy-theory-promoting kook, so he can't possibly be right.

11 March 2008

Eliot Spitzer Goes Down!

And hard. It's hard to feel sympathy for someone so relentlessly self-righteous. But I wonder if it's possible he could have been a victim of Bush's warrantless wiretapping?