Archive for July, 2015
The 1962 Mets were awful, going 40-120. They were so bad that Jimmy Breslin wrote a classic baseball book, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, describing manager Casey Stengel’s exasperation at his Amazin’ Mets. In New York Baseball terms, the Mets were the Stupid Team, committing 210 errors and giving up 948 runs, 137 of them unearned. The Yankees, by contrast, continued to be the Evil Team, winning another World Series, 4-3 over the Giants.
One gets the sense that, “Can’t anybody here play this game?” is the constant groan of the Republican managers in the stands of national politics these days. Obama continues to chug along, reinterpreting or flat-out ignoring the law, Congress seemingly powerless to stop him. Indeed, this Republican Congress seems to go along with his plans with dismaying regularity. It’s understood that it would require 2/3 vote to overcome a veto, but they could at least put the Democrats on record as opposing common-sense ideas, force them to take some uncomfortable votes, and set the table for the eventual nominee with some vetos to complain about. And confirming Loretta Lynch, on top of it.
Nevertheless, sometimes there’s more going on than a simple vote. Steve Heyward over at Powerline, in a couple of posts, nicely dissects Mitch McConnell’s strategy regarding the execrable Export-Import Bank. A powerful symbol of cronyism, it’s also know as the Bank of Boeing, since Boeing alone typically receives about 80% of its benefits. It wasn’t tied to any other funding legislation. It wasn’t a piece of some other appropriations or authorizations bill. Killing it didn’t require a special vote. It just required doing nothing. Which, shockingly, Congress did.
Killing it didn’t require a special vote. Keeping it alive did. And a special vote is just what Mitch McConnell organized, an amendment tacked onto an appropriations bill. It passed overwhelmingly, and was sent to the House, where Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California pronounced it DOA. The Senate will take up the House version of the appropriations bill after the August recess, without the ExIm Bank.
It should have been apparent that this was set up beforehand, in order to give cover to Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois. Boeing is headquartered in Chicago. Kirk will be in a tight re-election race, and it would be nice to keep the Senate. Nevertheless, the Republican grassroots, frustrated at so many other capitulations, screamed that McConnell was in the pocket of the cronies, and no better than the Democrats. In fact, he had just managed to kill the bank while letting a vulnerable Senator take credit for trying to save it. And yes, while people are aware of that, what would change the outcome is a change in the House, not the Senate, and there are probably few Republican pick-ups to be had in Chicago at this point.
Instead of recognizing that this was a win disguised as a loss, too many of the Republican peanut gallery assumed McConnell was actually trying to throw the game. Personally, I think McConnell and Boehner have been way too easy, and way less aggressive than they need to be. They’ve missed opportunities to pick winnable fights, put telegenic and capable spokesmen out there to make the case, and force the Democrats to take unpopular and irresponsible positions. And who knows but that the crying over the ExIm Bank doesn’t actually give additional cover to McConnell’s gambit.
But we should also look at the long game sometimes. McConnell didn’t get where he is by really being stupid. And people are only going to elect a Republican president if they think the party is serious about governing. (That last is why I would love to see Sen. Mike Lee of Utah be the Majority Leader in 2017.) There’s plenty of stuff going on at the committee level where the Democrats and Obama don’t get their way. Good luck, for instance, getting any more judges through. There won’t be any more major initiatives, at least not legal ones. And they are planning on passing a bill for Obama to veto that would start to reclaim some of the regulatory authority that Congress has given up over the years. Ultimately, though, this just emphasizes the need for a Republican president, and one who’s energetic, and willing to devolve power back to Congress and to the states, which won’t be an easy task.
Sometimes, it’s not the leadership, but the party they’re trying to lead, who can’t play this game.
In what has to be one of the worst misappropriations of public funds since that study about why lesbians are fat, Colorado is going to sponsor “affordable housing” (sic) for artists in rural communities:
Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the plan Monday at an artists’ community in Loveland. The governor says that the state will help sponsor a $50 million plan to create artist housing in nine rural communities, starting with Trinidad.
Why should Denver have all the bad public art?
The housing will have income caps. Artists who qualify for housing can’t make more than 60 percent of their area’s median income.
Well, at least we have some standards.
Private foundations are joining the effort. A state spokeswoman says it’s not clear how much of the $50 million will be paid by the government.
How about $0? Does $0 work for you?
The program will have a generous definition of “artist.” The program will accept architects, filmmakers – even beer and liquor makers.
Gotta get those creative juices flowing somehow.
The argument we hear from the Democrats all the time is, “We need to have a conversation about what we want the government to do, and then fund it appropriately.” This is the sort of nonsense you get when you start from that end of the deal. Of course when you start by asking, “What is it you want?” you end up with a wish list like me in a book store. The phrasing completely hides the fact that you’re actually making choices – either about what the government will do with its limited resources, or with what you can do with your own.
Try phrasing it differently: “We need to decide how much we really want to pay for government, and then use that money appropriately.” Aha, now it’s clear that there’s only so much money to go around, and if you want to spend your own money on this sort of thing, you’ll be paying for it before you fund your food, your mortgage, your kids’ education, and your retirement.
Naturally, the Democrats hate that part of the conversation, so much so that they try, every step of the way, not to let you have it. They want to have the “What do you want us to do for you?” part of the discussion, and then, once you’ve committed to buying Pierre the Failed Art Student his rent and bitters, tell you how much it costs. And when you decide maybe your dental bill is more important, they want to insist that, no, we’ve already decided that IPAs for Pierre are in the budget, and it’s no fair going back on that and changing the deal on poor Pierre, once he’s pulled up stakes and moved to Ouray.
It’s the main reason they hate TABOR so much. Unless it’s a really good budget year, and the government just happens to have money sitting around burning a hole in its pocket, TABOR makes them actually ask you whether or not you want to pay for Pierre’s studio loft.
The next time someone comes up with a harebrained idea like this, the first question should be: “Instead of what?”
Even as Colorado’s state public pensions seek to add risk to their portfolio, California CalPERS is seeking to reduce risk and volatility in its own plan. In doing so, it sends up a flare for other pension plans. It also confirms one of the key assertions of defined benefit plan critics: the aggressive return assumptions, combined with permissive discount rate assertions, in US public pension plans incentivize those plans to chase those returns, and add risk in doing so.
In a piece I wrote back in March for Watchdog Arena, I noted that Colorado PERA’s Board of Trustees had voted to shift several percentage points of investment from stocks and bonds into riskier alternative assets and real estate. This portfolio isn’t necessarily out of line with the majority of US public pension asset allocations, but it does represent adding risk – and therefore volatility – in an attempt to increase returns.
Yesterday, Pensions and Investments reported that CalPERS is looking at reducing its expected 7.5% rate of return to as low as 6.5%. Doing so, the plan says, would allow it to shift its investments out of stocks and alternative assets into more predictable, less volatile bonds.
“It is essential that we do this,” said California Controller Betty T. Yee in an interview with P&I. Ms. Yee added that if CalPERS does not reduce volatility, it could jeopardize its ability to pay retirees in the future….
Ms. Eason said lowering the rate of return would also enable officials to build a portfolio less vulnerable to market swings. The current 7.5% rate of return has a 12% volatility rate. Reducing the rate to 7%, as one scenario does, would translate to a 10% volatility rate. A 6.5% rate of return would equate to a volatility level of 8.5%, she said.
In doing so, CalPERS doesn’t implicitly accept the critics’ assertions – it explicitly accepts them. They would lower the expected rate of return specifically so they could “safely” move assets into less risky (albeit less remunerative) investments. Public pension officials in the US have long denied a linkage between the two, so it will be interesting to see how they react to this admission.
By most measures, CalPERS is better funded that Colorado PERA, although not particularly well-funded. It admits to a funding level of 77%, compared to PERA’s claimed funding level of 62%. These claims both discount the pension liabilities at 7.5%, the assumed rate of return. Lowering CalPERS’s expected rate of return to 6.5% would, correspondingly, lower its funded level by lowering its discount rate. A study by State Budget Solutions, however, using the states’ cost of borrowing as the discount rate, placed the funding levels at 39% and 32%, respectively.
Last night, NPR’s All Things Considered ran a report by Eleanor Beardsley about the eagerness of European businesses to get back into Iran after the lifting of sanctions. Such a story could and should have been reported without passing judgment on the merits of the agreement itself.
Instead, over a minute of the report is devoted to explaining that the deal is uncontroversial in France, that this is because it’s a strong deal, Iran “can’t even think about making a bomb for 15 years,” and that France deserves credit for helping to make it so. These assertions by the French Foreign Minister are simply accepted at face value. In fact, the assertions about the strength of the deal are demonstrably false; and so, therefore, and the claims that France extracted any worthwhile concessions from Iran during the negotiations. Left implied, but unasked, is the conclusion that if the agreement is solid because of French-demanded concessions, it have been weak and unverifiable had the US been left to negotiate on its own.
But the next quote is even worse, from Thierry Coville of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs:
Most of the newspapers consider it a good agreement, and it’s good for peace. But, let’s say you have some experts which are taking the Israeli line, criticizing Obama, but it’s a minority.
Coville, whose focus of studies is Iran’s economics, politics, and the historical interplay between the two, ghettoizes criticism of the deal into Israeli criticism of Obama. There’s no valid debate, no valid critique, and indeed, even though it was the French who allegedly gave the agreement its teeth, the criticism is of Obama.
Beardsley let this characterization go without objection.
Let’s review Beardsley’s options. She could have asked for another quote that didn’t take the discussion off into anti-Bibi Land. She could have continued the discussion with Coville until she got such a quote. She could have talked to another expert. She could have not used a quote at all, since she reads the French press and knows perfectly well what they’re saying about the deal. She could have not devoted 25% of her report to selling the deal to us in the first place.
Instead, she did none of those things, and let the words of an allegedly independent authority indict criticism of the deal as emanating from Jerusalem.
It would appear, then, that the editorial position of NPR is the same as that of Obama: opposition to the deal will come only from Israel and her lobbyists.
Your tax dollars at work.
The willful foolishness of our leaders and what passes for their foreign policy continues. Today, Reuters reports that the US is “disturbed” by Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s sermon on at Saturday’s “al-Quds Day” prayers.
“I don’t know how to interpret it at this point in time, except to take it at face value, that that’s his policy,” [Kerry] said in the interview with Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television.
“But I do know that often comments are made publicly and things can evolve that are different. If it is the policy, it’s very disturbing, it’s very troubling,” he added.
While a full translation of the sermon isn’t available, you can get the flavor of the remarks from Khameini’s official website. As you might imagine, if you weren’t living in a dream world of US-Mullah cooperation, there is only confrontation and aggression towards the US and Israel, and a reiteration of Iran’s regional ambitions.
The speech, given only days after the Vienna Agreement was announced, echo the victorious tone of Hitler’s speech at Saarbrücken, given on October 9, 1938, barely more than a week after Munich. (There’s a text of the speech available online, but I’m not comfortable linking to the site that has it. Google, if you like.) The New York Times gave the following assessment of that speech:
Those who had hoped that giving in to virtually all of Hitler’s demands at Munich would lead to European appeasement will find little consolation in the speech of the Fuehrer at Saarbruecken. The moral that Hitler draws from the events of the past few weeks is that only by military strength and threats of war can Germany get what she wants.
Since Kerry is having a hard time figuring out what’s going on here, let me help: the Ayatollah, as befits a man of the cloth, is a True Believer. That is, he really, truly believes in his cause, really truly believes that it is right, really truly believes that God is on his side, guiding history in his direction. Indeed, he may well believe that all of history up to this point is nothing more than prologue to Iran’s ascendancy.
From his point of view, the Western collapse in the face of Iranian resolve is nothing less than divine vindication. Yes, the West is weak, decadent, and lost. But it is materially and militarily strong. What else, other than Allah, could have prompted it to collapse so thoroughly, to accede on virtually every substantive point? What else, other than divine intervention, could have brought a President Obama, so friendly to the Iranian cause, to power just in time to rescue the regime from its own people?
To such a mind, the outcome of the talks is a ratification of his genocidal ideology, not a reason to modify it. It’s been disturbing and troubling for 35 years.
The first substantive debate of the Republican primary has broken out between Scott Walker and Jeb Bush, over the Iran Deal. Both Walker and Bush have denounced the deal, and called on Congress to reject it. Walker, however, has said that he would nullify the agreement “on day one.” Bush has called that position unrealistic, and arguing that a newly-sworn-in President wouldn’t be positioned to undertake such a potentially complex arrangement.
Bush has a point – the policy implications aren’t simple, and such a move would have to be part of a broader strategy. That said, there’s no reason that a President-elect couldn’t get that into place before January 20. He’ll have a good idea who his foreign policy team will be, and he’ll have been receiving intelligence briefings almost since election night. If he puts his foreign policy advisors on the job now, they should be able to come up with a strategy by then.
More than anything, this confirms my own fears about electing Jeb president. To be sure, Bush has a lot of assets as a potential president. Unlike some on the right, I’ve never considered Bush to be “progressive” or “lefty.” Anyone who paid the least bit of attention to how he governed in Florida would be hard-put to characterize him that way. His own experience as governor, as well as his discussions with both his father and brother about what it’s like to be president have prepared him better than almost anyone else in the field to serve in the Oval Office.
That said, the two most important qualifications for the White House are temperament and judgment. My own sense that Bush’s temperament, while it might have served well through the bulk of the 20th Century, is ill-suited the situation we find ourselves in.
In the past, periods of Progressive expansion have been followed by periods of consolidation. The changes effected had be largely popular, even if the Presidents implementing them had not. There was an incentive for the succeeding Republicans to be happy keeping things the way they were, and to execute the powers of the office in a relatively conservative way. Coolidge, Eisenhower, and Nixon all followed that pattern. Even Coolidge, who lowered taxes and reduced regulation, and referred to the more activist Hoover as “boy wonder,” didn’t succeed in legislatively rolling back any of Wilson’s 1913 “progress.”
Today, we don’t have that luxury – Obamacare will eat us alive, and our overseas situation will likely be the worst inherited by a President since at least 1981. The EPA has grown into an unelected super-government, and along with its partner in crime, the Department of Interior, is depriving millions of Americans of the ability to make a living, or to better their lives. Moreover, these changes are wildly unpopular. The Iran Deal flies in the face of public opinion; Obamacare was the prime mover in the 2010 elections, and will only become more hated as tens of millions of Americans are forced onto Medicaid.
A Republican president will almost certainly have the backing of a strongly Republican House and Senate. He will likely find state governments that remain overwhelmingly Republican. It’s hard to imagine a better situation in which to devolve power back to the states and away from the executive.
The American people may be exhausted of drama, ready for a period of quietly being able to get on with their lives. What they don’t realize is that neither our enemies abroad, nor our bureaucracy at home, are willing to grant us that.
Bush’s comments suggest that, rather than confront this opportunity head-on, he would maneuver cautiously, and likely end up ratifying most of Obama’s changes. His temperament is one of caution, rather than boldness, at a time when boldness is called for.
Which is why judgment is temperament’s partner.