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« February 2009 | Main | April 2009 »

March 31, 2009

Blog Talk Radio

Join us tonight on Blog Talk Radio as we talk about the latest economic intrusions and boondoggles. We'll also be talking aith Republican Secretary of State candidate Nancy Doty, currenty Arapahoe County Clerk & Recorder, about her upcoming race. And with University of Denver law professor Robert Hardaway about the (un)constitutionality of the proposed change to the way Colorado chooses its electoral votes.

Lawlessness Under Cover of Law - II

Turns out if you work at a company that's taken federal money, the government's going to save you having to wait until your company derives your new pay scale from what they can pay the CIO this month.

But now, in a little-noticed move, the House Financial Services Committee, led by chairman Barney Frank, has approved a measure that would, in some key ways, go beyond the most draconian features of the original AIG bill. The new legislation, the "Pay for Performance Act of 2009," would impose government controls on the pay of all employees -- not just top executives -- of companies that have received a capital investment from the U.S. government. It would, like the tax measure, be retroactive, changing the terms of compensation agreements already in place. And it would give Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner extraordinary power to determine the pay of thousands of employees of American companies.

...That includes regular pay, bonuses -- everything -- paid to employees of companies in whom the government has a capital stake, including those that have received funds through the Troubled Assets Relief Program, or TARP, as well as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The measure is not limited just to those firms that received the largest sums of money, or just to the top 25 or 50 executives of those companies. It applies to all employees of all companies involved, for as long as the government is invested. And it would not only apply going forward, but also retroactively to existing contracts and pay arrangements of institutions that have already received funds. (emphasis added -ed.)

On Backbone Radio a couple of weeks ago, my colleague Matt Dunn and I disagreed on whether or not the government should try to claw back the AIG bonuses.  I didn't think so, but could see there was an argument in using AIG as a cautionary tale to keep others from taking the bait in the first place.  Matt was wondering why the Republicans weren't making a bigger issue of this.

Turns out we were both operating under the delusion that there were still rules.

Readings of the Commerce Clause have been increasingly detached from reality for the last 70 years, beginning with a decision that selling corn within the borders of Indiana somehow constituted interstate commerce, because corn is fungible.  This was followed by a decision that a company was engaged in interstate commerce because its suppliers' suppliers moved products across state lines.

Since the government hasn't provided any exit strategies for these, ah, "investments," this amounts to a perpetual pay schedule.  And you thought that post-graduate degree was going to open the door to someone more than a GS-8.

In fact, Treasury is considering dispensing with the requirement that you have received Federal money, requiring only that you be publicly traded.  Given the open-ended nature of this commitment, it's only a matter of time before the employees of these companies demand that their competitors be held to the same standard.

After all, it's only fair.

March 29, 2009

Freddie and Fannie, Together Again

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama Administration now wants to use Fannie and Freddie as a source of warehouse capital for small mortgage banks.

The regulator has asked representatives of mortgage banks, including the Mortgage Bankers Association, to come up with a detailed plan for Fannie and Freddie to help mortgage banks get credit. John Courson, chief executive officer of the association, said in an interview that the plan should be ready to be presented to the regulator within about a week. One possibility is that Fannie and Freddie will guarantee debt issued by warehouse lenders, making it easier for them to provide financing to mortgage banks.


Mortgage banks typically are small, family-owned companies. Unlike commercial banks or thrifts, they aren't licensed to take deposits and so don't have that source of money for their loans. Instead, they borrow money from warehouse lenders, which often are units of larger banking companies. The mortgage banks use the short-term credit to provide loans to their customers and then pay back the warehouse lenders after selling the loans to bigger banks or to investors such as Fannie or Freddie.  (emphasis added -ed.)

In short, the mortgage banks were one of the prime sources of securitization.  Properly done, securitization is a good thing, and if the buyers, rather than the sellers, assess the risks, then there's some chance it could work again.  But it's far from clear that the mechanisms are in place for banks to assess these risks.  The lack of warehouse capital itself should be a sign that those funders don't believe there are buyers yet for mortgage-backed securities.

So, rather than let that market re-develop on a sounder basis, the Obama Administration plans to lend the mortgage banks the money to originate the loans which it then plans to buy itself.

The Administration apparently has tired of even trying to conceal the financial shell games it's playing.

Lawlessness Under Cover of Law

I know this piece from the New York Times is over a week old, but thus far, I haven't seen any evidence that the report has hit Barack Obama's expiration date:

Depending on the outcome of the discussions, the administration could seek to put the changes into effect through regulations rather than through legislation.

One proposal could impose greater requirements on company boards to tie executive compensation more closely to corporate performance and to take other steps to ensure that compensation was aligned with the financial interest of the company.

The new rules will cover all financial institutions, including those not now covered by any pay rules because they are not receiving federal bailout money. Officials say the rules could also be applied more broadly to publicly traded companies, which already report about some executive pay practices to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

In the first place, every company already tries to align management interests with those of the company. Stock options were such an attempt, on the belief that the stock price was related to the company's success. Bonuses were such an attempt, on the belief that the board would best be able to determine how well management was performing.

There is exactly zero evidence that the government has any better idea of how to do this than companies.

But the really insidious part is the idea that the federal government - through regulation - can limit executive pay at private companies traded on a private stock exchange. Why only executive pay? In fact, such limitations would inevitably trickle down to workers at all levels, as each pay limit acted as a ceiling on the level below. And since doing business requires a state license, there's no reason in principle why such limits should be restricted to publicly-traded companies.

The government is slowly edging toward determining - or threatening to determine - your salary.

What's actually going on here is not-so-subtle extortion. NPR, the day after Obama's economic presser, pointed out that Michelle Obama had said that, in effect, if you play ball with us, we'll protect you. What you're allowed to get paid would now be dependent on how well-connected you were with the administration, likely proportional to how much of that money you were willing to turn over to its now-permanent political campaigns.

We ought not to have to rely on the current administration's political whims to protect our rights to set salaries in our own companies. That's what the Constitution is for.

This is, simply, lawlessness under cover of law.

Progressively more expensive. Progressively more restrictive. Progressively more intrusive.

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Periodically, we hear about events like this one, which are supposed to give us hope for the future:

The Palestinian youths from the tough West Bank refugee camp stood facing the elderly Holocaust survivors Wednesday, appearing somewhat defiant in a teenage sort of way. Then they began to sing.

The choir burst into songs for peace, bringing surprised smiles from the audience. But the event had another twist: Most of the Holocaust survivors did not know the youths were Palestinians from [Jenin], a rare sight in Israel these days. And the youths had no idea they were performing for people who lived through Nazi genocide - or even what the Holocaust was.


The event, held at the Holocaust Survivors Center in the tree-lined central Israeli town of Holon, was part of "Good Deeds Day," an annual event run by an organization connected to billionaire Shari Arison, Israel's richest woman.

So what was the Palestinian response to this event, in this new era of hope and US involvement in seeking peace?

They dismantled the youth group and banned the woman who orchestrated the performance.

The event drew strong condemnations from refugee camp leaders and political activists, who accused the organizers of exploiting the children for "political purposes."

Adnan al-Hinda, director of the Popular Committee for Services in the Jenin refugee camp, said that the participation of the children in the concert was a "dangerous matter" because it was directed against the cultural and national identity of the Palestinians.

He accused "suspicious elements" of being behind the Holon event, saying they were seeking to "impact the national culture of the young generation and cast doubt about the heroism and resistance of the residents of the camp during the Israeli invasion in April 2002."

The "leaders" also leafleted Jenin, threatening those who might think about perpetrating such events in the future.

One hardly knows where to begin. Acknowledging the Holocaust undermines the "narrative" of the fight in Jenin in 2002? Having them play for old Jewish Holocaust survivors puts them in a "dangerous" situation?

As for using them for political purposes, I think the Palestinian Authority is just upset about their monopoly being broken.

Good luck with that persistence groveling, Mr. President.

March 15, 2009

More Constitutional Objections to HB1299

It turns out there's another potential Constitutional objection to the proposal to turn our electoral votes over to other states - vagueness. There's only a minimal definition of what the term "national popular vote" means, and even less of what criteria are used to determine it.

By turning Colorado's electoral votes over to California and New York, Lois Court has also voted to turn them over to processes not in control of Colorado voters. Neither state has any signification controls against voter fraud. There are no uniform standards, indeed, no real standards at all, to make sure that Colorado's votes aren't diluted by lax procedures in other states, thus the definition of "national popular vote" becomes, I believe, intolerably vague.

Inevitably, this is going to result in a call for a national election authority, fully nationalizing even state and local election laws. In the absence of such an authority, our only recourse would be to sue other states who we felt were guilty of vote fraud. Dangerously, the reverse is also true. If other states decide that our processes are too restrictive, they likely could also sue on that basis, forcing looser, less reliable standards on Colorado.

The bill also states that:

This article shall govern the appointment of Presidential Electors in each member state in any year in which this agreement is, on July 20, in effect in states cumulatively possessing a majority of the electoral votes.

Meaning that the bill could change the rules after the presidential nominating process is complete. If there are a number of states waiting to ratify, then that year's presidential nominating contests will be held without knowing the rules of the general election.

If Bush v. Gore meant anything, it meant that you can't change the rules in the middle of the game. Why do I suspect that it's that, more than anything else, that galls the sponsors of this bill?

March 13, 2009

Interstate Compacts...and Your Vote

Many pixels have been spilt, by Slaptick, Ross, and Amy Oliver (whose job I still want), about the end-run around the Constitution that is HB1299.

I won't bother to repeat their efforts to defend the Electoral College.

What strikes me is the irony of using the Electoral College and the Constitution to undermine them. HB1299 provides that the bill won't take effect until states with a combined Electoral College vote of 270 - enough to elect a President - approve it. The eleven largest states could decide that they want to change how a President is elected, without input from the other states. (In practice, Georgia and Texas, are unlikely to go along with this scheme, so the number of states needed would rise to 14 under current electoral count. Upcoming reapportionment might change it down to 13.) This reverses the Constitutional formula for amending the Constitution, with barely 1/4 of the states able to change things on their own.

When I pointed this out to the last political hack to try this stunt, Ken Gordon, on the air a couple of years ago, he retorted that this was only true because of the Electoral College itself, as those same states could elect a President. Of course, electing a President, who serves for four years, is a far less critical task than changing the Constitution, which changes will likely be with us forever.

The whole maneuver may not even be Constitutional. Article I, Section 10 reads, in part:

No State shall, without the Consent of Congress, ... enter into any Agreement or Compact with another State, or with a foreign Power, or engage in War, unless actually invaded, or in such imminent Danger as will not admit of delay.

There are numerous interstate compacts, dealing with law enforcement, sexual predators, water rights, and other topics. The Supreme Court has ruled that the State needn't get Congressional approval unless the compact would impinge on Federal jurisdiction, which is why it's located in Article I, legislative powers.

However, the Court also ruled that term limits were an additional requirement for office, and that since Congressmen were Federal officers, the states had no power to impose those eligibility requirements. I wonder if one could make a similar argument about electors. I also wonder if a state has the right to apportion its own electors as it chooses, but cannot sign away that right of selection to other states.

All the arguments about this being an urban power grab are true. What's also true is that it's an unholy mess, which because its effects take place catastrophically, rather than as the states adopt it, is likely to sneak up on us and be settled in court, where so many of our issues are decided, rather than in the legislatures, where the ought to be.

March 12, 2009

Bank Sale Rashomon

New Mexico based First States Bank is selling is Colorado banks, known as First Community, to South Dakota-based Great Western Bank, which itself is owned by National Australia Bank. Papers in all three states reported on the sale, but in very different ways. And each tells an important story larger than this sale.

The Las Cruces paper leads with the fact that First States is changing its mind about that TARP money, after all:

Albuquerque-based First State Bancorporation says the sale of its Colorado bank branches will improve its balance sheet enough to eliminate any need to accept federal bailout money.

First State, which does business as First Community Bank, will focus its attention on the New Mexico market, the Albuquerque Journal reported in a copyright story Thursday.


Stanford said availability and terms of the federal Troubled Asset Relief Program funding is too uncertain and that First State has withdrawn the application it submitted last October.

The bankers don't like the fact that, increasingly when doing business with the Federal government, a deal really isn't a deal, after all. So rather than get caught in that particular tarp, er, trap, they decided to raise their capitalizatino to 12% from 10% by selling off some of the bad loans.

Both of the Colorado reports, from the DenPo and the Denver Business Journal, mention that it was Bob Beauprez who sold the under-performing banks to First State in the first place. Bad news for an election run this cycle, I'd think.

But neither mentions why Great Western would want to take on this burden. Leave that to the Argus-Leader:

The acquisition involves the purchase of 20 branches and will allow Great Western to expand its small business and agriculture lending, said Jeff Erickson, president and chief executive at Great Western.

"The addition of these Colorado branches is consistent with our strategic growth plans and gives us the opportunity to expand particularly in the areas of small business and agricultural banking," Erickson said.

So it would appear that rather than beg for federal money with Lilliputian-quantity strings attached, a bad sold off an underperforming ball and chain to another bank who saw opportunity there instead.

I can't believe either presidential administration meant for it to work this way, but the raging uncertainly surrounding TARP may be forcing smaller banks to actually let the market operate.

It's Great Time To Raise Taxes

So say a majority of the Metro Mayors Caucus, who want to double the portion of the local RTD sales tax to make sure that the Great White Elephant of a light rail gets built on time and massively over budget.

We can't actually tell which mayors thought that raising taxes in the worst economy since the invention of money was a good idea, and which ones thought they should wait until next year, when all the people who had money to spend were out of work, because neither of the Post's two articles, nor the Caucus's page itself tell you. It's a good thing there are professional journalists around to keep us informed.

They estimate that this glorified Disney monorail is going to suck another $2.2 billion out of the regional economy over the next 8 years. In fact, as has repeatedly been shown, both the cost and revenue forecasts are little better than ouija boards. Denver had no idea well into the 4th quarter of last year how far south its sales tax revenues were headed, and budgeters missed both the commodity price decline of the T-Rex years and the jump in construction prices over the last couple of years.

There's no guarantee that even this amount will be enough, and if mirabile dictu, the thing somehow manages to come in under the excess projected, they'll find some other way to spend the money.

Here's a better idea. Make choices. Like the rest of us.

Jobless Rise Mirrors 2001

The Denver Post, in its report on the rise in Colorado's jobless rate, posted the following chart of the state's unemployment rate for the last 21 years:

Now look at the rise during the 2000-2001 recession. The curve just about mirrors this one. And yet, it topped out fairly shortly thereafter. I know these situations aren't identical, and that we now face some threats that we didn't before. But I remember the moment, I remember looking for work for several months in the summer of 2001, and I remember the sense that things were going south in a hurry.

Just remember, things can turn around just as quickly. No wonder they're in a hurry to "fundamentally transform" the country. In another few months, the crisis might not be there for them to waste.

What Does Lois Court Have Against Small Business?

Lois Court (D - Economic Cluenessness) joined all four Boulder Democrats in the State House yesterday in voting against Declaring March 9 - 13 Small Business Week. (By the way, Randy, Rep. Fischer from up there in Larimer County also dissed the bill. Raise an extra glass to the Maya Cove's owners next week, will ya?)

This is the sort of pro-forma measure that usually sail through by a combined 100-0, and if anyone pauses to comment, it's usually to sing the praises of whatever group is being honored.

Admittedly, there was a dig in there about the estate tax, but people die in Boulder and east Denver just like everywhere else. Stating that an estate tax can be a powerful disincentive is just stating an economic fact. It's like voting against a resolution honoring the astronauts because there's a clause in there stating that solid rocket fuel is dangerous and should be handled with care.

Maybe they didn't like the line about small business having a harder time getting credit, because it reminds people of all the money we're borrowing.

Maybe this is like voting against a Children's Day, because every day is Children's Day, and under the Dems, they want every business to be a small one.

I really have no idea. There are 59 Democrats up on Capitol Hill, and 48 of 'em were able to make their peace with this non-binding sense-of-the-legislature that wealth comes from entrepreneurial brains, rather than legislative luncheons.

March 10, 2009

Chas Freeman - Exit Stage Trap Door

Chas W. Freeman, President Obama's pick to chair the National Intelligence Council, has It's thoroughly understandable that an administration that denies the existence of a special relationship with Britain, seeing it as, "just another country," (what language do we speak, again, Mr. President?), would be happy appointing an avowed enemy of Israel to head up its intelligence council. What's less understandable is appointing someone on both the Saudi and Chinese payrolls, and who serves as an apologist for both governments.

Naturally, the only possible defense available to someone like that is that he was done in by those with a loyalty to a foreign government.

The possibility that someone who was disappointed that the Chinese government "had"
to resort to murder at Tienanmen Square because it didn't shut its people up earlier, and who considers the incoming Prime Minister of Israel to be a "right-wing yahoo," might not be the best person to be interpreting intelligence for the president apparently never crossed his mind. (Then again, it apparently never crossed Tim Geithner's mind that the Treasury Secretary should pay his taxes, either.)

For the record, we note that "A Chas W Freeman" is an anagram of both "Scares few: Haman," and "Hamas War Fence," and that he bit the dust on Purim.

Blog Talk Radio

Join us this week as we catch up with Dick Wadhams, current Chairman of the Colorado Republican party, who's running for re-election. We'll talk about the challenges he sees ahead for the party and his plans to meet them.

It'll be a counterpart to last week's discussion with Tom Stone, who announced his own candidacy for the state party lead a couple of weeks ago.

Our second guest will be Hassan Dai, who has written extensively about the Iranian Lobby - the Mad Mullahs' Lobby - here in the United States. An emissary of that lobby breezed through Denver and Boulder this week. Mr. Dai will provide the needed antidote.

8:30 Mountain Time, Archives are Forever.

March 6, 2009

Kudlow for Congress? - II

Civil Sense, he of the Colorado Index, doesn't like my dissing of CNBC business anchor Larry Kudlow, who's reportedly thinking of challenging Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Countrywide) in 2010.

First, while Kudlow may have used cocaine in the past, that is not an automatic disqualification for public office. Even President Obama admitted to using "a little blow" before.

Second, while Kudlow did not see the sky falling one year prior to the financial crisis, very few did. That said, he is not corrupt, unlike Sen. Dodd, so that would be an immediate improvement.

Third, because he is a broadcaster, he can communicate. After all, President Reagan was a baseball broadcaster early in his career. The Republicans have too many politicians who are philosophically correct yet cannot connect with the public e.g. Bobby Jindal. A trained broadcaster with a firm grasp of market economics may work wonders in educating the public and the fiscally illiterate members of the Senate.

I never said that prior cocaine use was a disqualifier. In fact, I pretty much went out of my way to avoid saying that. But these things are always held more against Republicans than Democrats, and you can be sure that it'll be used to color Kudlow out of the box.

Civ Sense nails Kudlow's biggest advantages: 1) he's not corrupt like Dodd, and 2) he can communicate business and economics on TV. How well that style translates to campaign speeches is as yet unknown. Giving interviews is very different from conducting them. And please, can we declare a moratorium on Reagan comparisons? Calling Reagan a sportscaster is like calling Eisenhower a football player. By the time he ran for governor of California, he was a little more than that.

(Sense's cutting Jindal is a little bizarre; given that he's actually been elected Governor of Louisiana, he clearly connected with over half the voters there; it's not as though the irresistible Louisiana Republican Machine put him in office.)

As for the tsunami, in fact, the Street was worried about this as far back as '06. I clearly remember sitting in meetings at the brokerage with our senior analyst and head trader remarking on the fragility of the mortgage credit market, and that these derivative had spread the risk around to the point where nobody knew who held what. Search Kudlow's columns for any unease in 2006 on that score.

Kudlow's in the position of a bridge player who's got almost all the high cards in one suit, and nothing in anything else. If the debate moves to something other than finance, he's screwed. If he can be shown not to be 200 times brighter than Dodd in that one suit, he's equally screwed. As late as December 2007, Kudlow was claiming that a few interest rate tweaks here and there, along with moving poor mortgage-holders into FHA loans, would be enough to right the ship with little pain. Not a great move for someone who's selling his deep understanding of money and markets.

Dodd may well be damaged enough goods that he can be taken in a Democrat state. I'm just not enthusiastic about Larry Kudlow as the man to do it.

March 5, 2009

Kudlow for Congress?

Even for Senate. Hot Air is reporting that Larry Kudlow is taking a long, hard look at running for the seat of hopelessly corrupt Connecticut Senator Chris Dodd.

I wish I were as thrilled about this idea as they are. I've never been a huge Kudlow-as-TV-talking-head fan, and I'm even less of a Kudlow-as-Senate-candidate fan.

First, while the Republicans may want the 2010 election to be about economics and finances, there's no guarantee that will happen. I'm not certain he's going to be interested in or capable of discussing those issues.

Second, the man's had a serious coke problem in the past. Not the diet sodas in aluminum cans that are starting to catch up with me. No, the little white powdery stuff. This isn't a secret and it's not all that recent. But to someone who's never heard it before it's as recent as today's left-wing echo-chamber headline. Does it really matter? Probably not, and my bringing it up may not be fair. But who would you rather have vetting our candidates? Ourselves or the Democrats?

Finally, Kudlow's prowess as an economics-and-business analyst leaves a lot to be desired. I've always thought he was more cheerleader than quarterback. As late as Summer 2007 he was on Hugh Hewitt's show, plugging the economy as the "Greatest Story Never Told," and predicting that the good times would keep on toinin'. He didn't see the iceberg coming any better than Dodd did.

Nah, we ought to be able to do better than this, and we ought to know not to fall in love with media stars.

March 4, 2009

Ideology is the New Race

Today on Facebook, I posted a line I've used before on the blog, and, judging from the reaction, will probably use again:

Joshua finds the Democrats progressive: progressively more intrusive, progressively more restrictive, progressively more expensive.

Which prompted my old MBA ethics professor, Buie Seawell, not coincidentally a former State Democratic Party Chairman, to reply: "Joshua, give it a break. Life right now is not about ideology."


First of all, Buie would never hold Obama to that kind of standard. We have a President who doesn't even know the definition of a P-E ratio, but we're supposed to believe he's reasoning things out from supply-demand curves and detailed studies of macroeconomics.

But hypocrisy is always an easy charge. Nobody, least of all politicians or even former politicians, are perfectly consistent. Ideology is our philosophy, it's what frames our world view. The idea that we throw that out when we need it the most is absurd.

No, the goal here isn't to put ideology aside; it's to see one ideology prevail
by demonizing the other one while denying the first even is in play. It's running as a post-ideological president claiming that your critics aare ideologues. Kind of like running as a post-racial candidate while branding your opponents as racist.

Like anyone could ever get elected President that way.


Power, Faith, and Fantasy

Six Days of War

An Army of Davids

Learning to Read Midrash

Size Matters

Deals From Hell

A War Like No Other


A Civil War

Supreme Command

The (Mis)Behavior of Markets

The Wisdom of Crowds

Inventing Money

When Genius Failed

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

Back in Action : An American Soldier's Story of Courage, Faith and Fortitude

How Would You Move Mt. Fuji?

Good to Great

Built to Last

Financial Fine Print

The Day the Universe Changed


The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East

The Case for Democracy

A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam

The Italians

Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory

Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures

Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud