November 30, 2004

Cliff May Speaks

I had a chance to hear Clifford May, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies speak this evening, and the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado's annual Men's Event fundraiser. (Yes, there's a women's event, too, but I don't get to go to that.) He's an eloquent speaker in defense of the notion that freedom is the best antidote, or even prophylactic, for terror.

For someone who follows the war in all its phases fairly closely, he probably added little directly, but that doesn't mean it wasn't worth hearing. For instance, the most alarming part of his speech was in Arabic: captioned videotapes of Hezbollah propaganda, now airing in France courtesy of that country's government.

In the event that anyone thinks anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, and anti-Semitism aren't inextricably linked, one of the videos literally showed a rotating coin, with engravings of President Bush and Prime Minister Sharon on opposite faces. Another juxtaposed President Bush and Adolf Hitler, and WWII footage with stock images of the US military in desert action. "History Repeats," says the closing caption, an irony coming people who have found inspiration in the Nazis.

May was in Moscow in 1978 to cover Anatoly (now Natan) Scharansky's trial, and stated that his new book, The Case For Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, organizes and restates many of the ideas that power the Bush Administration's radical foreign policy. Stability can always be temporarily bought, but only free societies can produce a broadly stable society. The struggle is between what free societies, and "fear societies." (Those aren't scare quotes, they're attribution.)

Towards the end, he also made the point that while Islamofascists have a foundational and historical militarism to draw on, Islam doesn't have to be violent or terrorist. My poor digital recorder wasn't able to pick up all the names of those trying to fix Islam and the Muslim world, but you can see some of them here.

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This Era's Esau

Mixing religion and politics for this one. Jews divide up the Five Books of Moses into weekly readings, or "Parshas", and we complete all five books each year. These do not correspond to the chapter numbers you may be used to; those were added by later Christian commentators, and it's interesting to see where they differ. Often one line that marks the beginning of a numbered chapter is actually the last line of a Parsha. At some points, I'll probably post something a little more extensive on those differences.

This past week's Parsha has something particularly relevant to Israel's situation today.

The reading is called "Vayishlach," after the first distinctive word in the section, and comes from Genesis. It's the section where Jacob, having married, is getting ready to head back to Canaan. Later on, during the night before his meeting with his estranged brother Esau, Jacob wrestles with an angel. The match is inconclusive, although Jacob's survival is considered something of a victory.

One particular interpretation of the events is striking. Jacob asks the Angel his name, and the Angel refuses to answer. In fact, tradition has it that the angel is the Satan, or accuser, the eternal enemy of the Jewish people. (Satan acquires other characteristics later on, in Christian theology, but those obviously don't concern us now.)

When Jacob is asking for the Angel's name, he's really asking for some hint as to his identity, his mission, and how he might defeat him. The Angel, by refusing to answer, is saying, "it doesn't matter." And the fact is, anti-Semitism has taken all sorts of forms, embedded in all sorts of religious and political ideologies, having in common only their anti-semitism.

The trick, the problem, is in recognizing the current threat. Now it's Islamofascism, but the institutions, and the "community leaders" are often slow to pick up on this, feeling more comfortable instead in confronting threats that they're already familiar with.

A case in point. The local head of the ADL out here wrote a letter to the local Jewish newspaper warning us to be on the lookout for a regional Nazi organization with delusions of grandeur, including plans to infiltrate the political parties and local governments.

Mr. DeBoskey seems to have missed the fact that anti-Semitism has already found a home in one of the major political parties, and that it comes not from the Right, but from the Left. In the meantime, we've got radical Muslims prowling the streets of Gaza and the West Bank, being funded from Riyadh, armed from Cairo, and called heroes in Turtle Bay.

There's a war on. It's a shame Mr. DeBoskey insists on fighting the last one.

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November 29, 2004

Speeches to Exercise By

The Ashbrook Center has a fairly extensive audio archive of speeches online. As some of you know, I've been exercising recently, and after a lapse because of the end of the Jewish Holiday season, have picked it back up again in recent weeks. During the lacuna in my employment, I've been back up to an hour a day. I had been listening to the Teaching Company's CDs, but the current set is American Literature, and since I hadn't been able to keep up with the reading, I've been putting off the CDs.

The speeches, many of them evidently delivered to a dinner audience, demands just the right level of engagement.

WARNING: if you're a Leftist, or if you have seriously considered leaving the country or leading a secession movement in recent weeks, do not listen to these tapes while engaged in strenuous physical exercise. Better yet, do.

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The Name of the Rose

I'm not a big fiction-reader. Yes, I understand the uses of literature, but with so much to understand about the world, I don't have much time left over for novels. I re-read Orwell's Coming Up For Air every spring for a few years. As a kid, and later as an adult, I loved the Foundation Trilogy, before Asimov killed it through absolutism. Science Fiction was a fiction with ideas, and the fact that those three books worked for me at both ages shows the importance of plot, as well as "substance." (Short stories are different. Part of the reason I like Joseph Epstein's short stories is that they read like his essays.(

Which brings us to The Name of the Rose.

Let's face it, the Middle Ages are cool. And Eco, for all of his weird politics later on, let you inhabit them the way you, as a reader, would want - with other readers. Europe never really stood still, of course, be here's that last gasp of tranquility and misery, just before everything started to change.

Eco clearly admires Roger Bacon, an English monk with a scientific bent. He's looking forward to the scientific revolution (a revolution that the late Norman Cantor suggests was cut short by the plague). He fills the book with ideas - life in a medieval monastery, Artistotle, the destructive power of humor, superstition - but keeps the plot moving along at a brisk pace.

Eco is, in fact, one of the authors who helped revive plot, when it looked like novels were headed for permanent prison in their characters' inner lives. He discusses both plot and plotting in a slim little volume, Postscript to the Name of the Rose, which came out several years after the original. If you can get your hands on it, it's worth reading.

You read Name of the Rose once for the mystery, and again for the texture. A great novel, indeed.

There are more reviews here, but they're all non-fiction.

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A New Commerce Secretary

The Wall Street Journal reports that President Bush has chosen Carlos Gutierrez, chairman and CEO of Kellogg, to be his new Commerce Secretary. Gutierrez's family managed to escape Cuba in 1960, before Castro started strafing people in rafts. Cuba also produced another great CEO, Robert Goizueta, of Coca-Cola. Those who consider Castro a hero to the Cuban people might consider the talent he drove away, and how much better-off that island would be under a different regime and ideology.

is known as a charismatic and approachable executive, widely admired in business circles for reviving a flagging company. Mr. Gutierrez joined Kellogg in 1975, beginning his career in Mexico City as a sales and marketing trainee for the Battle Creek, Mich., cereal giant. Mr. Gutierrez subsequently held a number of jobs at headquarters and ran Kellogg's Canadian and Asian Pacific operations before being named president and then chairman and CEO.

He took over four years ago when Kellogg's cereal sales were sagging and soon acquired Keebler Foods to diversify and boost profits. He also put together an international top management team, which includes an Indonesian, an Italian and two Australians, as well as Americans.

So for those who think that Bush is reaching out to an already-safe Hispanic constituency, Cubans, note that Gutierrez knows a little something about Mexico, too. Gutierrez's management team underscores the international nature of business today - it's not Americans giving orders to docile overseas subsidiaries. Smart corporations have been incorporating foreign operations into management for some time now. Operating on a global scale doesn't imply an imperialist attitude.

This is a terrific choice in another way. Kellogg has done extremely well at a time when the economy was recovering, but their industry sector was struggling, according to the Strib (9/27/04):

Analysts say Kellogg's chief executive, Carlos Gutierrez, has delivered through a strategy of making money with higher-priced products. At the same time, the Battle Creek, Mich., company is reinvesting those profits into brand marketing, innovation and increased productivity.

Sounds like a good plan, but most companies would claim to have those same strategies. The difference is old-fashioned execution, analysts say. Kellogg actually is doing what it says, and in a difficult competitive environment, said Eric Larson, an analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co. in Minneapolis.

"They have found a sweet spot," Larson said. "Having the right products and the right marketing programs can overcome low-carb diets and commodity costs. ... [Gutierrez] is the real deal. He is very methodical, and runs the business for the right reasons. You got to give him credit."

Gutierrez has strong ties to the Republican Party, having been one of the sponsors of the Gran Fiesta Hispana at the RNC in NYC this summer.

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November 28, 2004

New Book Review

A new Book Review up, about Virginia Postrel's The Future and Its Enemies. The book's a little old, from 1998, but the ideas are still timely, as we debate letting people make decisions about investing their own money, for instance.

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Rising Chinese Expectation

The Washington Post reports from the Chinese provinces that once-docile workers, merely happy for wages, are now unhappy. If this is representative of larger demonstrations, it could be the end of the beginning for China's rise to great power status.

This spring, a large number of factories faced informal but organized labor action, protesting wages that hadn't kept pace with inflation. That dissatisfaction, combined with the urgings of human rights groups, have encouraged these wildcat actions. (The Communist Party sponsors the only legal labor union, news that should come as a surprise only to those who went to sleep sometime in the 19th Century and are only now waking up.) What's given the workers the leverage to call these actions is the first appearance of labor shortages in these regions.

Looking at these things one at a time, we begin to see some of the choices and binds facing the Chinese government. In the first place, remember that the yuan has been pegged to the dollar, falling as the dollar falls. The Chinese manufacturing economy is probably more dependent on commodities than is ours, so is also being squeezed by the run-up in commodity prices.

Combine that with possible over-building in response to government pressure to grow at 8% a year, and you've got too many suppliers, most not making a profit, being squeezed by their purchasers in the US, and in turn squeezing their employees. The falling yuan may bother Europe because it makes the Chinese more competitive, but with so much domestic competition, there may not be room for them to raise prices.

Look for Wal-Mart to get blamed here. The company is the single biggest importer of Chinese goods to the US. It's got a reputation for leaning on its suppliers, since it competes almost exclusively on price. Wal-Mart has always allowed unions, if workers vote for them, but the Chinese government has trumpeted a public repetition of that policy as a major breakthrough. The goal, of course, is to introduce the official union into Wal Mart, giving the government, although not the workers, leverage with the company.

As for unions, it's a sign of the bankruptcy of the US labor movement that it's NGOs, not unions, that are stirring the kettle overseas. Time was, US labor unions strongly supported overseas organizing, even in the face of foreign government opposition. (Ronald Reagan was able to join with the AFL-CIO in supporting Solidarity, for instance.) Unions ought to see that worker leverage overseas helps their employees here at home.

Instead, they push for regulation by treaty, oppose liberalizing trade agreements, and support tariffs and quotas, thereby becoming one of the most reactionary voices around. Instead of supporting their natural allies in other countries, their policies would depress production, increase costs without increasing benefits, and keep those Third World economies from developing into places where workers can earn a decent living.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Communist Party is starting to run up against the limits of trying to control everything. It is the only legal political party, so it runs the government as an arm. It runs the only legal labor union. The local governments have become investors in business operations, so the Party is both labor and management. With inherent conflicts of interest, the government can't play its Western role as honest broker between business and labor.

No matter what it does, the Party will get the blame. Workers already see a replay of the last chapters of Animal Farm. With the more alarmist views of China as a bottomless job sponge starting to hit up against reality, the Party will also be under pressure from domestic business. But with foreign consumers still driving the Chinese economy, and expansion being the Party's main goal, it's hard to see where they have much room for maneuver.

None of this is to forsee doom, of course. The Chinese have been able to trade off false promises for decades, and with the conventional wisdom being that the 21st Century will be Beijing's. foreign business may yet talk itself into paying higher prices now for tomorrow's illusory profits. Or, they may start to look at other countries with too much labor and not enough capital.

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November 25, 2004

Happy Thanksgiving!

There's a principle in Judaism that we don't celebrate holidays with origins in other religions.

Fortunately, Thanksgiving makes the cut. (For those of you interested in a Halachic discussion of the matter, it can be found here.)

Make no mistake, it's a seriously religious holiday. But it's one that deliberately doesn't restrict itself to any one religion.

Look at Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation. (Go ahead. I have time.) It's clearly a religious document. Blessings, like rights, flow from God, not from the government. But Washington is careful not to specify which God he's talking about. The next year, in his famous Reply to the Newport Congregation, he wrote:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

Lincoln's Thanksgiving was proclaimed in a moment of dark crisis, but has the same flavor.

Equality, not tolerance. We do have social toleration; most Americans are Christian. We do not have official toleration, since neither the government nor the state is Christian.

Christmas is different. Christmas is one of the defining holidays of another religion. People lump them together because both days feature football and cold weather, but they're entirely different days. I kinda like Christmas: the lights, the music are guilty pleasures.

Now, I've never had Christmas forced down my throat. Once, in school, I did have to avoid having it forced back out. The fourth-grade music class devoted a session to Christmas carols, and excused me to the library for the hour. I accepted it then, but it really wasn't right. (Although my parents also considered sending me to a Catholic high school for the academics, confident that my Judaism would survive.)

One other time, I worked in a secure environment. We were concerned that the bad guys might "listen" to our conversations by bouncing laser beams off the windows and reconstructing our words. Talking vibrates the windows, and the laser beam acts like an ear. So we played music over an intercom to add interference. The gals at the front desk ran the CD player, and from the Monday after Thanksgiving to New Year's, it was wall-to-wall Bing Crosby, Chipmunks, and Perry Como, but for some reason, not Stan Freberg.

Europe dealt with the problem of churches and states mutually corrupting each other by secularizing. America took a healthier route - it's just nonsectarian.

No holiday better exemplifies the sort of acceptance that could only have happened in America. It is home, in the way that Europe could never be, and never tried to be. That alone is ample reason to give thanks.

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November 24, 2004

SusPension of Disbelief

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that, "the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the quasi-government agency that insures private pension plans, announced a record deficit of $23.3 billion." They compare it to another S&L crisis in the making, and they're probably right. The S&L crisis was born of government insurance of an industry prevented by regulation from competing effectively.

Not only does this have immediate implications for the taxpayers, it could also help derail Social Security reform past its window of opportunity.

The proposal's immediate boost came in allowing companies to continue using an index of corporate bonds, instead of 30-year Treasuries, to discount pension liabilities. Since rates on corporate bonds are higher than Treasuries, liabilities appear to be lower and funding appears plumper.

A word on how this works. Treasury securities are assumed to be risk-free. That is, there is no doubt that the government will be able to pay its debts. Despite what you may have heard about the Federal deficit, this continues to be an excellent bet. Corporations, however, regularly go bankrupt. Even ones with excellent credit ratings have to reschedule their debts from time to time. Because of the added risk, companies have to pay a higher interest rate to attract investors.

"Discounting" is a means of determining how much today's money will be tomorrow. If I can use a higher interest rate to discount, I am assuming that I will be able to get a better return. Since a pension fund knows what its obligations will be, say, 10 years from now, using a higher interest rate means that I can claim that I'll be able to cover that same obligation then, with less money now.

Basically, the short-term fix proposed here is bookkeeping, to keep companies from drawing on the PBGC's resources if they don't need to.

The long-term fix would have required companies to match discount rates to the terms of liabilities, introduce more transparency in funding and stop underfunded companies from improving pension benefits.

This builds on the above explanation. If I know I have an obligation 10 years from now, I should use the current 10-year interest rate in discounting this particular obligation. Since short-term interest rates are typically lower than long-term interest rates, short-term obligations will need more money to be fully funded. Greater transparency subjects the pension fund managers to greater scrutiny; sort of the equivalent of having bloggers looking over Dan Rather's shoulder.

And if you're already underfunded, if you already can't fulfill your promises, you shouldn't be allowed to promise even more, just to keep your union from walking out on you. Supposedly, we learned this lesson with steel.

Naturally, Congress tried to revoke the long-term fix proposed by the President, while sweetening the short-term fix even further.

The problem in a nutshell, is that there's no incentive for companies to fully fund their plans. They pay a premium for belonging to this insurance system, but the premiums don't cover the long-term costs. Since the government has contracted this obligation, the taxpayers will get stuck with the bill for all these bad debts.

One popular solution is to raise the premiums paid by companies -- which haven't been increased since 1994 -- along with adjusting those premiums for risk. But a premium increase would make it more likely that healthy companies will drop out of the system, and risk-adjusted premiums give those financially fragile companies a strong incentive to terminate their plans.

There's actually a fairly simple solution - relieve fund managers of the burden of trying to beat the market. (While government pensions funds aren't covered by the plan, they're directly using public money, and have a horrid record recently.) Fund managers can restrict themselves to investing in bonds, where they can match the incoming cash flows to their obligations.

They can even, with periodic rebalancing, inoculate themselves against interest rate changes. Generally bond prices fall when interest rates rise, since new issues will pay a higher interest rate and be more attractive. But remember, you get to reinvest your payouts at that higher interest rate. Some fairly simple calculations will allow fund managers to match those investments against what they know they'll have to pay out.

This will disappoint a lot of fund managers, who want to earn their stripes before moving on to the big-leagues. Too bad. The state and city pension funds are one public trust. Poorly run corporate funds abuse another, while lying to their employees.

The good news is that even if nothing changes, the system won't go belly-up for about 16 years. The bad news is that if it isn't fixed, the papers will discover the problem just in time to discredit Social Security reform.

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Sarboxed In

Sarbanes-Oxley was passed in the wake of the corporate accounting scandals. Two of the bill's provisions have gained the most attention. One holds corporate officers personally responsible for the accuracy of the financial statements and annual report. The other requires that all of a company's internal processes be auditable.

Today, Holman Jenkins takes on the costs of these provisions, and their presumed benefits ("Thinking Outside the Sarbox", registration required):


Unprecedented and little appreciated is the extent to which the Big Four have been handed vast and sweeping new powers over companies and their managements.

Take the approaching deadline for many companies to implement the law's Section 404, whose 169 words require that an auditor attest to the adequacy of a company's internal controls over financial data. ... By and large, it's the accounting firms who decide, not only telling companies what they must do to meet the law's requirements, but frequently selling them the software and expertise to comply.

What's more, each of the Big Four is free pretty much to interpret Section 404 by its own whimsical lights, acting as judge and jury, with the accountants' dominant incentive being to protect their own posteriors with paperwork lest they be targeted in a shareholder lawsuit next time one of their clients goes bust.

...

Sarbox, rather, is the last gasp of a corporate governance kludge in which auditors became, in the public's eye, something they've never been in their own eyes: namely proof against fraud. In the audit industry's eyes (or at least in its behavior), the mandatory audit is a welcome gravy train that has gradually revealed an unwelcome Faustian caboose. Whenever a company blows itself up in an accounting scandal, the accountants pay for their gravy train by serving as an additional set of deep pockets for trial lawyers to sue.

Sarbox's "internal processes" bring to mind "insider trading." Oh, you think you know what insider trading is? Perhaps you'd like to send your suggestion to the SEC or to Eliot Spitzer, because in fact, there's no definition written into the law. George Mason's Henry Manne has made an academic career trying to show that there's no logical place to draw the line.

"Internal processes" suffer from more or less the same problem. For most companies, it means tracking not only dollars but product, all the way through the system. Good companies have always tracked this sort of thing. But what's different about Sarbox is the legal aspect.

Jenkins accurately notes the control that this give the Big Four accounting firms over internal accounting practices. But by implication, it gives them control over internal processes. There is no doubt that companies will begin, perhaps have already begun, to make business decisions based on the effects they'll have on their accounting. There's some evidence that this is already happening:

...The number of companies alerting the SEC that their latest financial reports will be late doubled last quarter, adding to a backlog of late filers that recently topped 600. One strategic-investor type who sits on the boards of a number of companies called a few weeks back to gripe in detail about what all this was costing the economy. Under the SOX regime, something as slight as an anonymous letter alleging accounting irregularities can effectively deliver a company entirely into the control of outside auditors. Directors, so fearful about their own liability that they stop thinking about what's good for the business and worry only about securing their own alibis, write a blank check with shareholders' money to do whatever the auditor dictates.

There's a secondary effect here, as well. The financial markets rely on timely information to make investment decisions. Sarbox, while doing little to improve that information, seems perfectly capable of delaying it. As the backlog increases, this will make it increasingly difficult for fundamental analysts to make informed judgments. It will place a higher premium on insider information, encourage rumor, increase market "surprises." Even technical analysts will have a harder time assuming that the market already has assimilated available information. In an era marked by stunning increases in market efficiency and responsiveness, Sarbox represents the first tangible step backwards in decades.

As much as this is costing big companies, consider the cost to small companies trying to gain access to the markets:

No wonder that the annual bill for Sarbox is going through the roof, with the latest estimates being about $6 billion for the Fortune 1000 alone. One investment banker estimates that a small company nowadays would have to generate $150,000 in free cash annually just to cover the additional paperwork before it can even consider going public. Then there's upwards of $100,000 each to insure all who sit on its board, if any can be found. Oh yes, and the fact that audit fees, for the average company, have risen about 50% in a single year.

Access to markets means access to capital. Access to capital is the means for competition, innovation, and for getting that innovation to the consumer. While large companies might be willing to pay for protection against new competition, it's hard to see why consumers, or even investors, would.

Sarbox is a bad law. It's vague, overly-intrusive, non-responsive, and will eventually subject even routine operational decisions to outside scrutiny of the most conservative and least dynamic kind. And it doesn't even fix the problems that inspired it.

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November 23, 2004

Ironies Abound

So, as I'm sitting the Social Security office for 90 minutes, waiting for a 5-minute transaction of getting a replacement card, what's on TV but Fox News? Fox News in a bureaucratic office?

Neil Cavuto is on. It's roundtable time, mostly about the declining dollar. Isn't that, why, yes, it's Trapper John. Or rather, it's Wayne Rogers. The former star of that liberal icon M*A*S*H, is now a financial contributor to Fox News.

Eat your heart out, Mike Farrell.

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CAIR Package

David Frum has decided to fight likely libel charges against him by the Council for American-Islamic Relations by discussing the organization's origins and sordid history. These recent press releases indicate that the Council remains implacably hostile to both the United States and to Israel.

When Arafat recently assumed stable condition, CAIR issued the following press release:

CAIR offers it sincere condolences to the Palestinian people on the death of President Yasser Arafat. We come from God and to God we return.

President Arafat was the embodiment of the Palestinian struggle for justice and freedom. His death should prompt all parties to the Middle East conflict to reinvigorate any efforts that could lead to peace with justice in the region. In particular, the United States must reexamine its Middle Eastern policy and refocus on helping to free the Palestinian people from Israeli occupation.

As many objective observers have stated, the United States' seeming indifference to the plight of the Palestinian people is one of the main causes for anti-American feeling in the Muslim world. A just resolution to the Middle East conflict would be a key factor in winning the war on terror. It is in America's interest to promote freedom for all people, including the Palestinians.

The release isn't entirely dishonest. Sadly, Arafat did come to embody the Palestinian struggle - and to corrupt that effort with the worst elements of humanity. Somehow, though, I'm not certain that's what they meant.

Virtually no serious "objective" observer really believes that Arab concern for the Palestinians is sincere. For the rulers, it's a means of distracting their people from their own failures. For the people, it's a way of rationalizing the dysfunction of their societies.

And for an organization that opposed the liberation of Iraq

Naturally, having opposed a "rush to judgment" about one of the world's most corrupt, dangerous, tyrannical, and murderous regimes, they're perfectly happy to blame US soldiers on the flimsiest of evidence.

As the Professor says, they're not anti-war, they're just on the other side.

Hat Tip: Powerline

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Jason Whitlock's Courage

You think you know where the Kansas City Star's Jason Whitlock is going with this column (free registration required). Stern's protecting his league, the style of play stinks, he's sending a message. Whitlock's a good writer, but this looks a little like a style-over-substance column, something he's writing about because he has to, and he just wants to write about it better. Then, like a blindside tackle, this hits you:


In this column, I am calling on my peers in the media to level with NBA players (and all professional athletes) and tell them what's really going on.

American sports fans, particularly those who consistently shell out the hundreds of dollars it takes to attend a professional game, are fed up with black professional basketball players in particular and black professional athletes to a lesser degree.



Yeah, let's cut through all the garbage and get to the real issue. The people paying the bills don't like the product, don't like the attitude, don't like the showboating and don't like the flamboyance. The NBA, which relies heavily on African-American players, is at the forefront of fan backlash. Stern realizes this, and that's why, spurred on by the Detroit brawl, he is reacting decisively.

What the players must come to grips with is that just because race is an element in the backlash, that doesn't mean the backlash is fueled by racism.

We're witnessing a clash of cultures. A predominately white fan base is rejecting a predominately black style of play and sportsmanship.

Who is on the right side of this argument? The group that is always right in a capitalistic society. The customer.

...

We, black people, begged for integration. We demanded the right to play in the major leagues, the NBA, the NFL, the NHL. These leagues accommodate a white audience. As long as the customer base is white, the standard for appropriate sportsmanship, style of play and appearance should be set by white people.

This is fair, particularly when the athletes/employees earn millions of dollars and have the freedom to do whatever ó and I mean whatever ó they want when they're not playing or practicing.

If African-American players are unwilling to accept this reality, NBA owners will speed up the internationalization of their team's rosters. Many African-American players with NBA-quality skill will soon find themselves circling the country playing basketball with Hot Sauce and the And 1 Tour while Yao Nowitzki collects a $10 million NBA check.

The black players will have no one to blame but themselves.

(emphasis added)

To quote Ron Artest, "that's like, 'wow.'"

I've always like Whitlock on the Sports Reporters. He doesn't deny who he is, he just doesn't think that every black athlete is a hero or gets a break, and every criticism of blacks is racist. That's the difference between him and, say, Bill Rhoden of the NYTM. Heck, that's the difference between him and Mike Lupica, who works himself up into self-righteous liberal indignation every other show.

There are some racists out there who will use Whitlock's column as self-defense. Well, there are immature athletes who've been using the power of crying, "racist" as cover for this kind of garbage for far too long. Whitlock has the sense to distinguish between race and racism, the understanding that actual racism is a tiny fraction of what it used to be, and the courage to brave being called all sorts of names by black "leaders" who don't get it. I'm sure that not a few emails to Mr. Whitlock were addressed to "Uncle Tom" Whitlock this morning.

Racism isn't when blacks are held to a "white" standard because they're people. Racism is when they're held to a different standard because they're black.

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That Wacky Federal Government

It's about time I replaced my Social Security card. To find out how to do that, I went to - where else? - www.socialsecurity.gov. How do I prove I'm me?

Identity: ...The identity document must be of recent issuance so that we can determine your continued existence.

Who says government officials don't have a sense of humor?

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November 22, 2004

Red/Blue ACT

The guys at Powerline are engaged in a takedown of Jim Holt's denigration of the Red States. It includes the following statement:

Next, Holt says that the states vary in the "value they place on education." That's certainly true. The effect can be measured in a number of ways. One of the most basic is to look at high school students' test scores. Look here, for example, where average ACT scores are compiled by state. As of 2004, the average ACT score in America was 20.9. Presumably if the blue states are far ahead of the reds in their concern for education, the red states should be clustered well below the average. Right, Mr. Holt? Sure. Well, let's check the actual data. Among the red states showing better than average achievement for their high school students are Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, and Wyoming. So one half of the states that voted for President Bush have school systems turning out above-average scholastic achievement tests.

Sounds random to me.

Unfortunately, the data does seem to indicate a difference in ACT scores among those tested. Looking at the data more closely does seem to indicate the dangers of eyeballing patterns, and seeing if the data "looks" random.

Warning! Serious Statistical Geekery Ahead! If you want the conclusions, skip to the last paragraph.

I ran three different statistical tests. The first was a simple correlation between the ACT scores and Red/Blue status, signified by a 1 (red) or a 0 (blue):

  Total English Math Reading Science
r -0.439 -0.410 -0.482 -0.409 -0.346

For a sample size of 51, a correlation of 0.14 (or -0.14) would be considered significant, as a rule of thumb. All of these are significant.

Next, I used something call the Mann-Whitney U-Test. Bsaically, you rank all the scores, assigning 1 to the lowest, all the way to 51 for the highest. Ties are averaged. The test statistic is a z. In this case, the higher score, the stronger the chance that the two sets of rankings are different.

  Total English Math Reading Science
z -3.887 -3.608 -4.196 -3.318 -3.203

These are huge z-scores. The Messiah comes at z = 4.0. We can state with near-certainty that the ACT scores of red states rank lower than those of blue states.

Finally, I directly compared the average ACTs. This is a two-part test. The first part showed that the variances of the two samples could be treated as the same. That made the second part a simple t-test. Since there are 31 red states, and 20 blue ones (including DC), there were 19 degrees of freedom. The 90% confidence threshhold for 19 degrees of freedom is 1.33:

  Total English Math Reading Science
t 1.364 1.373 1.321 1.363 1.407

All of these are significant, too, with the base exception of the math scores.

Here's my Excel file.

So what? Well, we can say that the ACT scores in red states are almost certainly lower than those in blue states. Since some states test only a few percent of students using the ACT, it's hard to tell how that affects scores. It's possible that some states' scores are dragged down by broader participation.

It's also possible that some states have such low participation that their ACT scores aren't representative of their school systems. A cursory correlation suggests that about 30% of the scores' declines are explained by higher participation, and that red states are more likely to have higher participation rates, with a correlation of 0.52.

They may have stronger teachers' unions, stronger bureaucracies, fewer private schools, higher SAT participation.

In any case, there's nothing in the data presented to indicate that Holt's sneering thesis about red-staters caring less about education is true.

Posted by joshuasharf at 11:14 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Europe Starts to Wake Up?

The Wall Street Journal carries a long article today about how the murder of Theo Van Gogh has apparently awakened Dutch authorities to the fact that yes, Virginia, there really is a problem with Muslim extremism.


"We have to fight terrorism," says Hans Luiten, a 39-year-old socialist alderman who sends his young son to school with mostly Muslim pupils and decorates his office with pictures of mosques. "The war on this small group of terrorists has to be very severe."

Mr. Luiten's resolve follows the murder early this month of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh, who was shot, stabbed and slashed across the throat by a suspected Islamic radical. The killing set off a wave of attacks on mosques. It also triggered a surprising shift in a country where, like elsewhere across much of Western Europe, America's "war on terror" has often been derided as too crude and too brutal.

"People here thought that terrorism was for other countries, not for the Netherlands," says Stef Blok, a member of parliament and chairman of a commission that reviewed policy toward immigrants. "This is a rude awakening."

Alarm over terrorism hasn't halted European public opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But just as happened in the U.S. after Sept. 11, the political debate in the Old World is being reshaped here by growing evidence of an Islamist terrorist network that sees Europe not only as a base, but also as a target. In March, Muslim radicals killed 191 people in bomb attacks on Madrid's commuter trains. Police in France and Britain say they have since foiled several terrorist plots aimed at the local population.

The soul-searching has challenged a belief at the core of Europe's liberal political consensus since World War II: that violence and other crimes flow from poverty, discrimination and similar ills. Europe isn't about to ditch a wide, if increasingly frayed, social welfare net. But it is doubting whether a system built after 1945 in part to blunt the appeal of communism can help block Islamic extremism.

The article details the steps that the traditionally tolerant, and recently unconfident Europeans, are taking.


Since the van Gogh murder, the Dutch government has announced plans to boost funding for the security service, known as the AIVD; to close radical mosques that disrupt public order; and to make it easier to detain terror suspects. Some politicians want to ban foreign preachers and put mosques under state supervision -- a modern replay of old battles between European rulers and the Catholic Church.

Other European countries are also taking a tougher approach in recent days. In Berlin, for example, the head of a city district this month declared multiculturalism dead, asserting that excessive tolerance had led to the creation of parallel societies. Prominent German politicians have called for rules requiring that imams preach in German, not Turkish or Arabic, so that society can monitor radicalism. Britain's home secretary said yesterday the government is considering setting up special terrorism courts without juries and allowing wiretap transcripts to be used as evidence.

Belgium, meanwhile, has said it will crack down on Arabic-language radio stations and Web sites accused of spreading anti-Semitic and anti-Western views. The country's justice minister has been given round-the-clock protection after she received a letter threatening her and two colleagues. A Belgian senator critical of Islamic attitudes toward women went into hiding last week after a threat to "ritually slaughter" her. Police Friday said they had arrested a Belgian convert to Islam for the threat. And mosques have also been attacked over the past two weeks in Belgium and Germany.

The Journal notes van Gogh's "many enemies." Apparently, though, only one of them decided to kill him:


Mr. van Gogh had many enemies. His poison pen led to a raft of defamation suits over the years. In writings and speeches he made crude jokes about Jews and riled Muslims with scatological insults. A few months before his murder, he attended a debate called "Happy Chaos" organized by students and a leftist magazine. It descended into rancorous chaos when Mr. van Gogh called a Muslim leader the "prophet's pimp." He often praised Pym Fortuyn, a hugely popular anti-immigration politician killed by an animal-rights activist in 2002.

The story is complete with the by-now-typical European bungling of a terror-related investigation and surveillance:


AIVD, the Dutch intelligence service, has been monitoring the mosque [Al-Tawheed] for several years. The security service, according to a report submitted recently to parliament, worried about the mosque's "ultra-orthodox message," which it judged in part responsible for a small but radical group of Dutch Muslims "who regard violent jihad sympathetically." But authorities shied away from firm action.

...

Mr. Bouyeri first came to the attention of Dutch antiterrorist officers in September 2002 when they noticed his name on an article in Over't Veld, a newsletter supported by local authorities. The article urged young people to behave better and struck a moderate tone. But it caught the eye of the AIVD security service because of its frequent references to the Quran, according to an AIVD official. Mr. Bouyeri wrote several more articles over the next six months, growing steadily more dogmatic.

AIVD also came across Mr. Bouyeri's name during an investigation into a Dutch-Moroccan man named Samir Azzouz, one of a pair of Dutch Islamists arrested in Ukraine en route to fight in Chechnya. After his return to the Netherlands, Mr. Azzouz was picked up by Dutch police last fall on suspicion of planning terrorism. He was released and then re-arrested after police searched his residence and found plans of Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, a nuclear-power station and buildings in The Hague. His lawyer declined to comment.

Mr. Azzouz, along with several other members of what police call the "Hofstad Group," made several visits to Mr. Bouyeri's ground-floor apartment in a sleepy residential area of Amsterdam. Neighbors remember Mr. Bouyeri as young man who kept to himself except for late night calls by bearded friends.

One such visitor, say Dutch authorities, was a 45-year-old Syrian preacher named Redouan al Issar, who has now vanished. He is wanted by security officials in both Holland and Germany, where he settled in 1995 and lived off monthly welfare payments, according to a German official. He was arrested last year in Germany for using a false passport. He was released and, say Dutch officials, then re-arrested in Holland later in the year for suspicion of planning bomb attacks. But he was released again and deported back to Germany.

Finally, the Journal notes that Van Gogh's killing, "set off outrage, introspection and a wave of further violence." While there appears to have been mutual violence, introspection only appears to be happening on one side. At least it's asking how far Europe has to go to stop extremism, and not how much it has to offer. In the meantime, there's no mention of any Muslim introspection about how their community spawned this monster.

Secondly, this seems to be a purely defensive Fortress Europe sort of strategy, not one that addresses the international sources of terrorism. In that sense, Europe is still where we were a few years before 9/11. Europe's complicity in Iran's nuclear program is evidence of that. Perhaps this is a necessary first step. A Europe that feels less beholden to extremist elements at home may believe it has a freer hand to address those elements abroad. If this truly is an awakening by the institutional left (as opposed to the Intellectual Left, which is beyond hope or help), Europe may be coming to realize it has more in common with us than it thought.

Posted by joshuasharf at 06:46 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Currency Markets and the Dollar

The latest Wall Street fixation is with the declining dollar. Make no mistake, the decline does carry some real risks, and not just that people won't be able to afford those trips to Paris they've stopped taking. The weaker dollar is partly and attempt to close the trade deficit, which clearly can't keep going at 5% of GDP forever. But both the trade deficit, by definition, and the budget deficit are being financed by foreign investors in the US economy, buying up government and corporate debt.

The potential problem is that a declining dollar makes those investments less attractive, since foreigners will be paid back in cheaper dollars, meaning they'll get less back of their own currency when they cash in. In order to continue to attract foreign investment at rates necessary to finance the deficits, the Fed may have to raise short-term interest rates, hurting the economic recovery and, incidentally, making investment in the US less attractive economically.

There's also a risk of inflation. Usually, this is cited as coming from more expensive imports, since it takes more dollars to buy those yen- and yuan-denominated goods. The other, possibly more important source of inflation would come from a loss of confidence in the dollar. If other countries see the dollar as weaker, they'll be less likely to use it as the international "reserve currency," or the currency that foreign treasuries hold in reserve in case theirs, or that of a major trading partner, hits a rough patch. If many foreign treasuries were to come to the conclusion that they needed to hedge their bets, they would sell dollars, increasing the number in circulation, raising the dollar money supply without increasing the amount of goods on the market. By definition, that would increase the number of dollars it took to buy something - inflation. For reasons discussed below, this is the more dangerous source of price increases.

The administration, despite its talk of a strong dollar policy, not only hasn't done much to stop its slide, there's probably not much that it can do aside from psychology. Trillions of dollars each day are traded on the world currency markets, and no country's treasury has enough money to keep buying high and selling low for very long. A currency panic, such as what happened to England when it was forced to abandon the European currency agreement, would be impossible to derail once it got going. (More troublingly, George Soros has demonstrated the market authority to help create, and the savvy to exploit such a crisis, which could certainly make life pretty miserable both for his adopted country and his nemesis, the President.)

On paragraph sticks out though:

Some European leaders sharply criticized the U.S. for failing to take action on the dollar - and cited that inaction as a reason why Europe wasn't moving as quickly at the U.S. would like to overhaul its labor and regulatory systems. "You can hardly demand from the Europeans to constantly carry out structural reforms - which we are doing - without addressing your own needs as quickly as, from our point of view, would be necessary," German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder said.

This is like the child who, having waited to get ready for the car trip until the last minute, suddenly says he needs to go to the bathroom. That the Europeans have dawdled on reform for decades, and are only now taking baby steps in that direction, takes some of the starch out of their complaints. There's no doubt that their exporters are being hurt by the same currency swings they once benefitted from. But European central bankers have a fixation of their own with budget deficits that has hampered their own reform, and their own economic growth. There's no doubt that one export they'd like to make to us is their own anemic GDP growth.

That said, the US economy has grown during strong and weak dollar periods, and can almost certainly handle and orderly decline. It's nowhere near all-time lows, and there's no sign of a panic that would send the currency into a tailspin. Markets almost always figure stuff out before governments do. So short-term interest rates have been rising in response to the Fed increases, long-term rates have barely budged. This suggests that investors haven't lost confidence in the dollar - they figure over the long term it's a strong currency, and will bubble back up just as it's drifting lower now.

Posted by joshuasharf at 06:31 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Gas Pains

Among the corporate accounting scandals that has gotten less attention has been the overvaluing of gas and oil reserves. This is probably less understood than it should be. The Journal explains:


resisting a push by the Securities and Exchange Commission in the wake of the Royal Dutch/Shell Group scandal to change its methodology for booking oil and natural-gas reserves.

The dispute puts the oil giant at odds with U.S. securities regulators over a rule that oil companies broadly dislike but are increasingly complying with, even at the cost of reductions in reserve counts.

At issue is an SEC requirement that oil companies use year-end commodity prices to calculate their annual reserves, a number watched by investors as a sign of a company's prospects. The roughly 50% jump in oil prices this year has given the issue more urgency.

Rather than year-end prices, many of the largest oil companies have traditionally estimated reserves on the basis of long-term "planning prices," which reduced the impact of the sometimes-large year-to-year swings in the volatile energy markets.

Typically, high oil prices are seen as a boon to oil companies. But under a sort of contract that is becoming more common in the industry, high prices can force a company to report lower production levels and reserves, even as profits rise.

...

Under contracts in the U.S., the U.K. and other conventional energy basins, higher prices usually result in bigger reserves, as more projects become economic. But under so-called production-sharing agreements, a government owns the resource and guarantees the company enough oil to cover its costs plus a percentage of the oil left after those costs. As the price of oil goes up, the volume a company gets under such an agreement declines.

Reserves show up on the balance sheet as a long-term asset. By forcing down those numbers, the SEC will end up increasing the apparent leverage of these companies (ratio of debt-to-assets), possibly raising borrowing costs. It will also force up the apparent return on assets, as well, enticing invertors. I don't know if this actually is a better rule, in the sense of more accurately reflecting the companies' actual financial health. What's scary is that I don't know if the SEC does, either.

Posted by joshuasharf at 06:19 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Regulation 'In Terrorem'

Eliot Spitzer, in his drive to become Governor of New York, has turned into a one-man regulatory dynamo. As Henry Manne puts it in a WSJ op-ed today (Regulation 'In Terrorem'),


In an era of general acceptance of deregulation and privatization, Mr. Spitzer has introduced the world to yet a new form of regulation, the use of the criminal law as an in terrorem weapon to force acceptance of industry-wide regulations. These rules are not vetted through normal authoritative channels, are not reviewable by any administrative process, and are not subject to even the minimal due-process requirements our courts require for normal administrative rule making. The whole process bears no resemblance to a rule of law; it is a reign of force. And to make matters worse, the regulatory remedies are usually vastly more costly to the public than the alleged evils.
...
Since Mr. Spitzer wins his cases in the media, where business is now all but defenseless, the best hope is for the American business community to develop its own public voice. The free-market scholarship needed for this purpose is available, though it is rarely availed of in these fights. Too often the corporate defenders conclude, out of ignorance to be sure, that the opposition really has the better case.

Spitzer's actions both mimic and take advantage of the kind of judicial legislation we've gotten used to over the last few decades. Its obvious personal political agenda makes it only slightly more odious. Spitzer may see himself as a latter-day Brandeis, but he's clearly capable of much more damage than Brandeis ever did.

Manne directly takes on Spitzer's takedown of Marsh & McLennan, which has not only cost thousands of people their jobs, but also probably helped make the insurance industry less efficient and competitive, raising your insurance rates, not lowering them:


But what if Mr. Spitzer is wrong, and what if none of the practices complained of was either unethical or anticompetitive? After all, Mr. Spitzer's case against certain practices in the mutual-fund industry relied heavily on one academic study claiming $5 billion a year losses to the investing public. The author of that study now admits that the figure -- in any event based on some very dubious suppositions -- should have been $2 billion rather than $5 billion. It is probably much less than that.
...
Let us suppose, for example, that Marsh & McLennan, in order to gain various efficiencies of integration, bought out numerous insurance companies and operated them as divisions of one company. We would call the resulting firm a multi-divisional, vertically integrated company, a perfectly legal way of doing business. There could then be no antitrust concerns about internal decisions to allocate business to one division or another or about allocating costs and revenues internally as they saw fit.

Now suppose that these same economies of integration could be obtained more cheaply by contract, or even by customary norms, rather than through expensive acquisitions and the administration of a larger organization. Certainly there could be no greater economic harm in the latter scenario than in the former. Yet the latter, which is the more likely explanation of what occurred in the insurance industry, is susceptible to easy misunderstanding. What in one case would be seen as internal cost and price management now looks like illegal bid rigging. Of course, it could be, but we cannot assume that from the facts we know. (emphasis added)

I would point out that Manne has, over the years, been a leading voice in opposition to insider trading laws on the basis that they decrease market efficiency while creating a set of vague and arbitrary trading rules. Whether or not this gives him Hillary Clinton's ear is another matter.

Still, Manne is right when he claims that the academic research is there to oppose Spitzer. But it's going to be a question of political will. The main opposition would have to come from someone like Governor Pataki, but he's shown no interest in spending his own political capital to preserve the country's economic capital. (Republicans should remember that in 2008.)

Since the major papers and networks are unlikely to take on their crusader-hero in a critical manner, this might be a place for blogs to try to influence the debate.

Posted by joshuasharf at 01:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 21, 2004

Mile High Fever Swamps

It's been noted here before that when the Denver Post discovers vote fraud, it tends to be of the kind that doesn't exist. Last week, they published an editorial calling for federal intervention to solve exactly the wrong problems. Now, the Post is on the verge of following up Florida 2000 with, Diebold 2004 ("Activists protest electronic voting"). Apparently, the presence of all of 200 people at the Coloado Capitol steps on Saturday rates a story with more words than participants it's covering.

"There's no reason that any reasonable person should have any confidence in this election," said Alan Gilbert, a political science professor at the University of Denver. "We voted on machines that were provided by a private company and were not subject to public review. This is a very, very serious thing."

The electronic voting machines, used by about one-third of Americans this year, don't leave a paper trail that can be accounted for. That could have made the difference during this year's election for Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry, said Gilbert, who said he once taught secretary of state nominee Condoleezza Rice.

President Bush's margin of victory was roughly 3.5 million votes.

In addition to protesting the new voting technology, the group said exit-poll data was off as much as six points from the official results in swing states, which could be a signal of voter fraud.

"Exit-poll data has never been inaccurate in the U.S.," Gilbert said. "This is a new level of unfairness in American elections."

Mark Blumenthal, a nationally recognized political pollster who created www.mysterypollster.com , urged patience on his website Friday for those criticizing early exit-poll data.

"We have not yet seen any empirical evidence in the exit polls to prove the existence of vote fraud, nor any evidence that the exit-poll discrepancy can be explained by any such fraud," Blumenthal said.

In the first place, Gilbert's quotes are accepted virtually uncritically. There are no specifics given, none of the theories which have already been disproven are mentioned. The easiest way to feed a fever-swamp is exactly this sort of vague, "we can't prove it, but we know what we know" sort of accusation.

The accusation seems to rest entirely on the discrepancy between exit-poll data, and actual election results. The accusers then go on to blame electronic voting machines for the discrepancy. The logical leaps here are obvious: there's no evidence that the discrepancies were any greater in places using electronic voting machines than anywhere else; exit-poll data was extremely limited in time and scope; it's automatically the voting, and not the exit-polls that were wrong, and so on.

These and other points have been covered in greater detail elsewhere.

The Post then goes on to quote Blumenthal in the least-damning way possible to those he actually opposes quite strongly. Here's a much fuller quote:


Had I written that better, I might have said: "So to summarize, if you want to explain the exit poll discrepancy, absent further data from NEP, you can choose to believe..." My point is that there are two competing theories for the discrepancy: The first is that the exit polls were slightly biased to Kerry due to a consistent pattern of what methodologists call "differential non-response" that has been evident in exit polls to a lesser degree for a dozen years (Republicans were more likely to refuse to fill out the exit poll than Democrats). The second theory is that systematic and consistent vote fraud occurred in almost every state and using every type of voting equipment. The first hypothesis seems plausible to me; the second wildly improbable.

Also, remember that Blumenthal is a pollster. He's much more concerned with trying to figure out why the exit polls were wrong than with trying to prove or disprove vote fraud.

As for Prof. Gilbert, the Post makes no mention of his own biases in the matter. Prof. Gilbert is indeed a political science professor at DU. He's also a Marxist ("power-rivalry and capitalism versus human rights and democracy"), anti-war activist, whose interest in free-speech and democracy apparently doesn't extend to those with whom he disagrees. Take a look at this past Summer's syllabus, for instance.

Now, being an anti-war activist is not, in and of itself evidence of bias. But in the course of that activism, he's ventured into conspiracy theory before:

You donít have to be too with it to see that Iraq had little to do with fighting Al Queda," said Alan Gilbert, John Evans Professor at the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Colorado at Denver and author of "Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?" "It isnít too hard to figure out that the oil White House and the Lockheed Martin White House are shooting for oil, not for inspections. The way it is presented, if it is your son or daughter who is being asked to fight a war on Iraq, are you going to feel good about this thing? Thatís the reason thereís a big anti-war movement." (emphasis added)

This in a story that also wildly overstates the opposition to the Iraq War, and predicts mass outpourings that never happened. As a gauge of actual public opinion, Mr. Gilbert's compass seems a few points left of true north. Of course, Marxists frequently have a hard time admitting publicly that most people don't agree with them. It would undermine the putsch. And let's just say that Marxist commitment to accurate vote-counting is somewhat tenuous.

So what we're left with is 350 words on 200 people who can't come to grips with the fact that they lost. Their flawed statistical arguments are mentioned, their leader's Marxism is unmentioned, and the one countervailing voice is watered-down.

Let's hope that the Post isn't getting ready to follow up Florida 2000 with Diebold 2004.

Posted by joshuasharf at 06:42 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 19, 2004

Here's Surprise

Does anyone still think we don't need to do something about Iran?

Posted by joshuasharf at 12:39 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

On Comments

Some of you have noticed the spam comments that have been appearing. No doubt, it's incredibly annoying to open a comment window, and be hit with an ad for online poker or unneeded contact lens supplies. Let me assure you that I'm more annoyed than you.

I've been doing everything I can, at this point, to erase the comments as quickly as I can, to ban the IPs from which they originate, and to complain to the FCC. Some of these folks have been using "hidden" registries, which makes it a little difficult to track them down directly, but I have been able to contact the hosting companies for others to complain, as well.

I am currently looking into easier-to-use spam-blocking software which will help me do all of this in one pass as soon as I can install it.

Until then, thanks for your forbearance.

Posted by joshuasharf at 12:10 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 18, 2004

Europe's Last Summer

One more review before turning in. With Veteran's Day, and my talk about WWI being under-appreciated by Americans, I've posted a review of David Fromkin superb diplomatic history of the 1914 crisis, Europe's Last Summer.

Posted by joshuasharf at 12:37 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 17, 2004

Bloggers on The West Wing

NBC paid homage to bloggers this evening on The West Wing, having Josh get caught on digicam plowing into a Prius with an SUV. He then calls the blogger in question and, despite warnings from the political officer that "he's not a journalist," proceeds to lead into him like Mike Tyson digging into a fresh ear. Naturally, even as he's on the phone, a post about the big-time addition to the blog's off-line comment section shows up.

This (probably unintentionally) points out a problem that bloggers are having to come to grips with - journalistic ethics. Bloggers, if they don't want to rely on newspapers for the sole source of news, will have to cultivate sources, and will find themselves having to play by rules that sources are used to playing by. It wouldn't surprise me if, in a couple of years, a blogger who abused a government official rather than cultivating the relationship was frowned on.

This may also have been a swipe at Wonkette for printing exit-poll data. Personally, I think it was horrifically irresponsible of both her and Drudge to do so. The reason the networks sit on that stuff is that it might influence voting. I remember a time when they didn't do so, and they were blamed for inflating both of Reagan's wins because of it. Regardless of the possibly-deliberate malice they showed in Florida 2000, it's a sound policy and there are sound reasons for it.

That said, it's also apparent that blogs work in a different medium from the MSM. Blogs can draw on a readership with expertise to move a story forward, and don't necessarily need "Sources" to do the kind of work they do. Look at the number of people who write into Instapundit or Powerline. Access to inside information is only one way to advance a story; knowledge of how the world works, or how specialized worlds work, is another.

Posted by joshuasharf at 11:54 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Outlaw Sea

New book review of William Langewiesche's The Outlaw Sea is up in the book review section.

I had posted it before, but it looked like it could used some work.

One of my jobs in a previous life involved writing some software to help track ship movements. I'm pretty sure most Americans, despite our being the maritime power, have no idea of how the sea works, or what kinds of threat it poses.

Posted by joshuasharf at 11:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Provisional Ballots Counted - Mostly

The Rocky is reporting that about 80% of provisional ballots cast in Denver will be counted, and that this "falls in line with other metro counties, which had provisional-ballot acceptance rates ranging from 76 percent to 85 percent, county clerks reported."

Meanwhile, the Post manages to turn this into reason to take to the barricades:

About 12,300 Coloradans voted in this month's election only to have their emergency ballots tossed aside.

Colorado's rejection rate for controversial "provisional" ballots was twice as high this year than in 2002.

"Voters are leaving polls with stickers saying 'I Voted,' but (a fourth) of those provisionals are being tossed away," said Mary Wickersham, who worked for the election monitoring group Fair Vote Colorado. "This difference between people who vote and those whose votes actually count runs contrary to the way Americans think their elections should work."

"Tossed aside." Yes, casually thrown away. Trashcan basketball, with county clerks pretending to be 'Melo, no doubt. If they even bothered to take them out of the envelopes. If not, they probably used them to play frisbee with their dogs.

De rigeur, the Post ignores Fair Vote Colorado's genealogy.

Try to get this straight, Ms. Wiskersham: just because a ballot is cast, doesn't mean it ought to be counted. Thank goodness this election wasn't close enough for these things to matter to people who actually have money to hire lawyers. Otherwise there'd be 24/7 street theater trying to count votes by people whose only residence here in Colorado is the hotel room the party bought for them.

When provisional ballots were used in 2002, about 12% were rejected. This year, about 24% were rejected. Part of this is because the new rules were implemented to prevent people from voting provisionally in Durango when they live in Ft. Morgan. But part of it is because election judges took the easy way out when they were stumped, handing out provisional ballots as they answer to any question.

I nearly got into a argument with the "experienced" election judge I was working with. When a couple came in, and it was apparent that they had moved into the precinct, but were still registered elsewhere in Denver, she insisted they get provos. Afterwards, I wasn't sure at all that his ballot was going to count, and I spent three phone calls to the clerk's office and about half an hour making sure that it would.

The precise reasons for each rejection have not been tallied by all election clerks, but the spike in discarded ballots raises questions about whether new laws meant to keep voters from being turned away are giving some Coloradans false confidence that their voices really are being heard, advocates said.

No, what's giving them false confidence isn't the spike in rejections, it's the advertisement beforehand. Election judges aren't supposed to be making decisions about what will count and what won't. So people are handed a ballot. That couple I mentioned before? The woman was perfectly willing to fill out a provo, even though she said to me, "oh, those are the ballots that they don't count, right?" I had to assure her that since she was registered, and I had verified her registration, that her ballot would count.

Election officials said there were several reasons for the large number of rejections, but ballots frequently were discarded because the voter was not registered in the county where he or she appeared to vote.

On Election Day, Ramon Rodriguez assumed his provisional ballot cast in Boulder would be routed to the right precinct in Denver.

Rodriguez, 19, had never voted before and told election judges he was in the wrong precinct, and even in the wrong county. Upon their instruction, he cast a provisional ballot - a vote he discovered later was not counted at all. Not even for president.

"I don't know how I can trust these people," he said after voting. "It's too late now."

Rodriguez was among 100 provisional voters in Boulder County and perhaps thousands across the state whose ballots didn't count because they voted in the wrong county. Two years ago, those votes would have counted. But another 296 provisional ballots cast in Boulder belonged to people not registered at all in Colorado. The county had almost 3,000 provisional ballots that did count.

If Mr. Rodriguez is quialified to vote, he could have read a newspaper sometime in the eight weeks leading up to the election and would have been well-informed that he needed to vote in the county he was registered in.

And throwing in people who weren't even registered to vote as victims borders on the insane. One gentleman and his wife walked in to vote. She was registered, even though she hadn't voted in a while, but he wasn't. Under the rules, if he had tried to register, and could tell me when and with what voter drive, he'd get a provo, and I'd pass that information along. I gave him three chances to tell me he'd tried to register, but he wouldn't lie, and I had to inform him that, while I'd give him a ballot, it probably wouldn't count since he wasn't a registered voter. Viewed in one light, it's a heartwarming tale of a gentleman who wouldn't lie just to be able to vote. But there's absolutely no reason to be handing out ballots to people who aren't registered.

Eight counties did not count half of their provisionals. Washington County rejected a state high of 72 percent of its provisional votes. Weld County did not count almost 57 percent. And 24 counties rejected at least a third of the votes cast provisionally.

Someone needs to get Susan Greene a textbook with a bookmark on the section describing "statistically significant." Washington County had 18 provisional ballots, and rejected 13 of them. Of the 24 counties with rejection rates of 1/3 or more, here are the total number of provisional ballots cast in 8 of them: 18, 26, 30, 25, 11, 21, 16, and 3. San Juan makes the cut because one of their three provisionals didn't make it.

"What the hell," said Jay Magness, who tried to vote at one downtown Denver precinct even though he's registered in New York City.

His vote likely didn't count.

It's nice to see citizens taking their civic responsibilities so seriously. I wonder if they bothered to ask if he had voted absentee in his home state.

New rules this year required provisional voters to fill out a lengthy - and, to some, confusing - affidavit, which, when not completed correctly, caused provisional votes not to count.

The affadavit was basically a name, address, birthdate form. If that's lengthy, God only knows how these people manage to fill out their taxes. Any additional information they could provide that would help identify them was encouraged but not required.

The Post saved the truly disturbing part for last:

Despite those rules, counties applied their own standards in some cases. Conejos County, for example, counted all the votes cast in wrong precincts, while other counties did not.

And as ballots were being accepted or rejected, it was difficult for reporters and other monitors to keep track of whether election clerks applied rules fairly or consistently. Some clerks refused to allow observers to hear the judges making final decisions on whether to accept ballots, and state law failed to require clerks to allow unobstructed observation.

This is a real problem. If county clerks can't be relied on to enforce the law properly, they need to be removed, possibly in irons. It's bad enough that this whole process has undermined public confidence in the elections process, and allowed attorneys to practice in front of mirrors for the next close election. If county clerks are making it up as they go along, they're going to deserve whatever grief they get. Even if we don't.

Did I say last? No, the last word goes to Pete Maysmith, whose role in exacerbating the controversy also goes unmentioned:

Said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Colorado Common Cause, "The process is crying out for reform."

Yes, Pete. But probably not the kind of reform you would endorse.

Posted by joshuasharf at 11:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Red Herrings in a Red State

The Denver Post isn't done with the election. Not the results, except for one excruciatingly close state House race. No, the Post has taken a look at the voting process, and doesn't like what it sees. Sadly, it's calling for solutions to problems that don't exist, and has no ideas for those that do.

While predictions of massive problems never materialized, this year's balloting demonstrated that U.S. election laws remain a muddle of federal, state and local rules that expand voter rights in some states while disenfranchising voters in others.

Congress needs to develop a rational, consistent set of rules for federal elections that are fair across the board. A judge in Ohio shouldn't give voters one set of rules while another judge interprets the law a different way in Colorado. Or Missouri.

There they go again. First, there was no evidence of disenfranchisement. There was evidence of people not following the rules, not being able to vote. Secondly, the Constitutions specifically reserves to the states the times, places, and manner of voting. The Post is calling for federal intrusion into a process where there's no evidence that the states are a problem. It's not like interstate commerce, where unified laws are necessary to a coherent economy. You can only vote in one state, just like when you get a driver's license, it's for one state.

Colorado's new rules said that voters who went to the wrong precinct had to fill out provisional ballots, not regular ballots, and that only their votes for president counted. Rules in other states sensibly allowed votes for federal and statewide offices to be counted.

Rules in Ohio said their ballots wouldn't count at all, yet somehow, that escaped the Post's notice. The fact is, the only reason that Secretary of State Davidson permitted Presidential votes to count was that she believed she had to. She never asked for the judge to rule on this, and Judge Hoffman didn't express an opinion. The 6th District Court of Appeals ruled that Ohio didn't have to, but their ruling isn't binding here. Somehow, I doubt that if Congress handed down a law consistent with Ohio's rules that the Post would be happy with uniformity.

The lack of federal guidance was exacerbated by the success of voter-registration drives. In many states, including Colorado, an unknown number of those registrations were never turned in, and voters didn't know until Nov. 2 if they were registered properly.

Actually, to the extent there was a problem, it was the voter-registration drives' lack of success in turning in registrations. Colorado tried to get rid of paid solicitations for voter registration drives, and the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. How Congress is supposed to solve this problem is beyond me. In any case, a simple call to the county Clerk's office, or if they had moved, to the clerk's office in their old county, should have sufficed.

Congress also needs to allocate the rest of the $4 billion authorized under HAVA for states to upgrade their equipment and develop the electronic voter databases mandated by federal law. So far, only about $1 billion has been allocated. Colorado is not among the 15 states that have a statewide database. Secretary of State Donetta Davidson says Colorado will have such a system in place by 2006, which should help avoid multiple registrations.

This is flatly untrue. Colorado is well ahead of the curve in getting a statewide list up and running. It's just that there's not a real-time turnaround, and we can't guarantee that the counties properly purge their roles. In any event we're not too good about purging dead people and those who have moved out of state, which seems to point to a need for a law directing the county clerks to do this more aggressively.

While an estimated 120 million voters went to the polls this year, more than any year since 1968, a huge number of people still don't vote. Government watchdog group Common Cause has raised the possibility of asking Congress to make Election Day a national holiday, possibly tied to Veterans Day, in an effort to increase voter participation. Many voters were late for work because of peak-hour congestion and long lines at the polls.

This is a red herring. The more marginal voters we register, the lower the percentage turnout will be, by definition. The reasons for voter apathy are legion, not the least of which is the sort of judicial, bureaucratic, and federal activism the Post is advocating here.

As for the "congestion," I didn't see it. There was a line at opening, but no one had to wait more than about 15 minutes. There was no line during lunch, and by closing the place was a mausaleum. Anyone who couldn't wait early had plenty of time in the evening. Over 40% of the precinct I worked at voted early or requested an absentee ballot.

The Post claims that a "good start" would be for Congress to mandate uniform rules. A better start would be for Congress to butt out, and for the state to tighten its ID requirement.

Posted by joshuasharf at 05:36 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Russia's New Missile - Speculation

The New York Times is reporting that Vladimir Putin has said that Russia is developing a new type of nuclear missle system.

I wonder if it has anything to do with this.

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November 16, 2004

More on State

Yesterday, I wrote that the choice for National Security Adviser and Deputy Secretary of State would tell us a lot about where the Administration was heading. Here's why.

The National Security Adviser's job, among other things, is to organize foreign policy options and initiatives to fit the President's rather busy schedule. This includes vetting and considering opposing views and alternatives. If the NSA has generally been supportive of Administration policy, he will continue to frame options in light of that policy, while still providing reasonable objections to, and defenses of those ideas.

An NSA who is unsure of himself, or of the Administration, may tend to either muddy the waters more than necessary, or may allow himself to be used as a back-channel to the President by dissenting voices. Barring a complete breakdown in policy or of the world situation, such a back-channel is more likely to be destructive than constructive.

It's important to remember the Miss Rice isn't going away - she'll still be a major part of the Preisdent's foreign policy team. But she won't necessarily be in the same day-to-day role that she had before. It's important that the President choose someone who can continue along the same lines.

As for the Deputy Secretary of State, that's critical, too. While the Secretary help set policy, the Deputy manages the Foreign Service and the career diplomatic corps, "Main State," or, "The Building," as it is known. Currently, that position is filled by Richard Armitage. Armitage isn't a bad guy, he's just a career diplomat who tends to encourage the Secretary to go native.

The Deputy can serve as a liaison between the Secretary and the careerists. He can act to enforce reform, or to undermine it. A weak Deputy, or one who sees himself as reporting to the diplomats rather than to the Secretary, can inhibit reform, embolden those who would use leaks and Congress to undermine the Administration, and distract the Secretary from the important business of actually conducting diplomacy.

For an introduction on how this is done, go rent "Yes, Minister." Seriously.

This last is going to be even more important in the President's second term than it was in his first. Careerists know they'll outlast whatever political appointees or elected officials are placed in their way. The opposition in Congress may or may not have learned the dangers of rooting for the enemy. While there may be a tendency for careerists to hedge their bets a little for a President who may be re-elected, they begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel fairly shortly into a second term.

The only way to combat this is to aggressively let it be known that there is no light. The President has made a good start. Now, we need to see if there's follow-through.

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Book Reviews

More or less completing the port from the old site, the Book Reviews are up.

Some of the reviews (and some of the books) are quite old, a fact which has not prevented me from linking to Amazon anyway.

As far behind as I am on my reading, I'm even further behind on my writing about my reading. (The reverse would be either science fiction or Lapham-eqsue.) I'll let you know when I put up a new review.

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November 15, 2004

Secretary of State Rice

President Bush with likely nominate Condoleeza Rice to be the next Secretary of State. This does seem to mean that Main State will finally have to put up with a Secretary who is more likely to expect State to follow the President's line. Of course, wuch will ride on who the next National Security Adviser is, and who the #2 person at State is.

The President is already engaged in a full-scale battle with a CIA that thinks it runs foreign policy. Is he ready for, or does he also feel the need for such a reform at State as well? State has many more tools at its disposal, should the diplomtic corps decide it wants to fight.

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Thinking Right Out of Action

Jim Cannon, proprietor of Thinking Right, and member of the Rocky Mountain Alliance of Blogs, is currently recovering in a nursing home, undergoing some physical therapy as part of his rehab. I stopped by to see him, and he's in good spirits, although he wishes he were back home and on line.

Take care, Jim, and we're all thinking of you.

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November 14, 2004

Keep Your Concerns Off My Returns

Several quarters ago, our global ethics class examined the issue of "social investing." It was presented almost as an unmixed good, self-evidently virtuous, and at little, if any cost. (The Wall Street Week clip we were shown quoted a very specific return on one fund for one year that beat the market, for instance.) This seemed, rather, self-evidently nonsense.

Social investing doesn't necessarily mean putting money into companies that have strong ties to their communities, or who treat their employees better, although it can. Social investing also seeks to reward or punish particular social policies. Funds may screen for tobacco, alcohol, or gambling, involvement in the defense industry, greenness (however one chooses to define that), particular products, or animal testing.

The minute you begin making investment decisions based on something other than return, you're going to do something other than maximize return. If this is so, then an honest appraisal requires knowing the costs of screening stocks according to your particular tastes. And it requires sharing those costs with potential customers. Or with employees whose 401(k) choices you are designing. How important would it be for them to know how much your virtue was costing them?

I decided to take an empircal look for myself. This posting is the first part of an ongoing examination.

Funds are organized by sector. This takes into account both the investment type (large-cap, small-cap, municipal bonds, etc.) and the goals (growth, steady income, capital preservation, etc.) Funds are ranked within their sector.

I used two types of readily-available information: quintile, and Lipper ratings. Quintile is a straight ranking of returns. There must be, by definition, 20% of funds in each quintile. Generally, the Year-to-Date, 1-Year, 3-Year, 5-Year, and 10-Year returns are used. Lipper rates funds on five criteria: Total Return, Consistency, Capital Preservation, Tax Efficiency, and Expenses. Again, these are organized into qunitiles.

I began by looking at perhaps the best-known family of social investment mutual funds, the Calvert Group. So far, I have looked at both quintiles, and at Lipper ratings.

The questions are: 1 ) Are Calvert Group funds more likely to provide above-average returns, or below average returns, or can't we say?, and 2) Are Calver Group funds more likely to have higher Lipper rankings, lower Lipper rankings, or can't we say?

For each test I used the same methodology. I used what's called a one-tailed Test for Proportions. Essentially, I'm asking in each case if the given population of funds, Calvert, has a higher proportion of its funds in the lowest 40%, or highest 40%, than the universe of funds as a whole. I can mix and match fund types this way, since each type of fund has its own set of quintiles.

Caution! Dry Statistical Terminology Ahead! If you can't stand this sort of thing, skip ahead two paragraphs! There will be no further warnings.

I used a 95% level of confidence, meaning that a statistically significant z-score is 1.65.

The z-scores that mattered:

- For 1-Year return, 2.22. (For 3-year return, the score was such that one more fund would have tipped it over; the z-score was 1.43)

- For expenses greater than average, 4.006! (I ran this again for expenses in the 80th percentile, and got a score of 5.37.)

Basically, this means that over the last year, we can state with 95% confidence that Calvert Funds return less than the fund universe, and with 90% confidence that this is true over the last 3 years. At the same time, we can state with practical certainty that they'll take more of your money in expenses.

When I expand the list of funds to include all those listed by SocialInvesting.org, things don't improve much. The 1-year and 3-year returns are lower with 95% confidence, and the 5-year returns are lower with 90% confidence. This implies that the lower returns are more likely systemic, and less likely the result of transient market conditions. This is verified by the only significant Lipper score, a z-score of 2.78 for the notion that Total Returns are in the lower 40%.

So much for the notion of a cost-free conscience.

I realize there's a lot of research out there on this topic already. But I wanted to do a little digging, based on the data that I have at my disposal. Further questions involve looking at volatilities and actual returns, comparing these results by the types of screens the funds employed, and expanding the list of funds involved to be more comprehensive, and reducing redundancy, where similar funds may skew the results. I may also used deciles rather than quintiles, to help start pinning down the actual investment costs of not defending the country, for instance.

Here's a spreadsheet with my original data and calculations. The data is from schwab.com, and was current as of the beginning of November, 2004.

Stay tuned.

Posted by joshuasharf at 10:46 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

"Neo-Progressives"

Michael O'Hanlon, a childhood friend of mine, hails from the Brookings Institution, and specializes in foreign and defense policy. While pretty much toeing a traditional liberal line, he's still one of the more thoughtful Democrats out there, not given to Red-State bashing. He really would like to see the party rejuvenate itself. O'Hanlon's latest Lesson for Democrats is a start, but it falls far short of what's needed.

O'Hanlon rightly credits big ideas with providing the intellectuel heft necessary to sustain a governing majority, even if he isn't exactly in love with the current governing ideas. He calls on Democrats to come up with their own "neo-progressive" movement, to produce their own big ideas. But the list he produces is disappointing:


  • A long-term strategy to win the war on terror. O'Hanlon calls, essentially, for more of the government-to-government pressure and welfare that has already failed. And linking of terrorism to economic, rather than political, freedom, isn't likely to produce either results or big ideas.
  • Energy policy. True "Energy independence" is an economic pipe-dream, and making this a major plank ignores the fact that our economy as a whole is less dependent on foreign oil than 25 years ago. How else could we sustain a recovery with $50 a barrel oil? And the true path to opportunity for 3rd world farmers isn't biomass fuels. It's the admission of high-yield GMO crops that the NGOs have been waging a propaganda war against.
  • Training and equipping African militaries to stop civil conflict Again, this is a pretty small big idea. In the absence of political reform, the mere maintaining of street order just makes it easier for corrupt dictatorships. A true "big idea" would be a comprehensive plan for Africa to join the 21st century.
  • A major child survival initiative Child survival rates are more closely linked to economic development than anything else. The "big idea" O'Hanlon is grasping for here is how to raise third-world living standards, not how to send more NGO doctors overseas.

Most of these ideas have already been tried, or really aren't very big. What conservatives have isn't a piecemeal set of projects and plans. They have a comprehensive ideology (economic growth, political freedom) that points the way to solve many of these issues. It's good to see someone trying, but if O'Hanlon is serious about a "neo-progressive" movement, he'll have to do better than this.

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November 12, 2004

What Went Wrong? - Part I

On November 2, Coloradoans voted to turn the state legislature, both houses, over to Democratic majorities. Aside from promoting Andrew Romanoff from House Minority Tsar to, well, Colorado House Tsar, this places the Governor squarely on the defensive with respect to some of the most important state-level issues, including TABOR and taxes.

The bad news is, these guys are well-funded, well-organized, have a plan, and have ideas...

The good news is, when they get away from state politics, they're complete raving lunatics.

The election was stolen, Michael Moore is still a hero. They compare the US forces heroically fighting in Fallujah to Syrian thugs. Homegrown thugs, of course, are getting their marching orders from Karl Rove. And, of course, these opponents of theocracy are big fans of a Boulder high-school group calling themselves the Taliband.

The RMPN is the website for the Four Millionaires who bankrolled the big Democrat gains this past year.

It's really hard to take these guys seriously.

And yet, for the next two years, anyway, we have to.

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Yasser "Called" a Terrorist

Knight-Ridder has a helpful graphic, showing eight of the terror organizations that Arafat was mixed up with, or founded, or competed with, during his long career. (Scroll Down to Bottom) Can you see what's missing:

Fatah: Founded by Arafat, aims to reclaim Palestinian land from Israel; military wing has attacked Israeli forces; several leaders have been assassinated by Israel.

PLO: Coalition of Palestinian nationalist groups; Fatah largest faction; Arafat was named chairman in 1968; national council is highest decision-making body of PLO, represents Palestinians worldwide.

Force 17: Security force for Arafat, other PLO leaders, Palestinian Authority; Israel says it has attacked Jewish settlers.

Palestinian Authority: Self government for Gaza Strip, West Bank set up by Palestinian-Israeli peace accord; Arafat served as president; 12-member cabinet; 88-member legislative council; most are PLO members

Tanzim: Armed grassroots militia born in refugee camps, connected to Fatah; Israel says it has major role in latest uprising, which began in September 2000

Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade: Israel links it to Tanzim and says its terrorist attacks have killed more than 100, injured 400.

It also lists the following "Rivals to Arafat":

Islamic Jihad: Began in Gaza Strip; loose group of factions that support Islamic Palestinian state, destruction of Israel; opposes Western secular influence; has carried out suicide bombing against Israel

Hamas: Radical Islamic fundamentalists; wants Islamic Palestinian state in place of Israel; provides social services to thousands of supporters; militant wing has conducted terrorist attacks against Israel, Palestinian rivals.

First of all, note the contrast between Arafat and his rivals. Arafat and his buddies are "accused," "Israel says," bad things about them, and "assassinates" their leaders. The rivals are unvarnished in their hatred for Israel. Even dead, Arafat is supposed to represent a better alternative to those really murderous groups.

A nice touch, by the way, that the "radical" Hamas has a "militant wing." As opposed to what, the radical sewing-circle they've set up to knit kaffiyahs for their brave boys? Spare me the hair-splitting. The social services act as intelligence and recruitment for the military wing. They're part of an organic whole, not separate business units.

As for Arafat's groups, how can an organization founded in 1957 aim to "reclaim Palestinian land from Israel?" Its military wing has attacked far more than just military targets, and it's not even clear that "assassination" is the right word here. Personally, "killed" is fine with me, but don't we usually reserve "assassinations" for government or religions officials?

Does the PLO represent "Palestinians worldwide?" I thought that the Palestinian Authority did that now. See the not-so-subtle merging of the Party and State.

Force 17 has been not a "security force," like the Secret Service, but a secret police, actively killing Palestinians whom Arafat or those in his organization didn't like. The fact that Hanan Ashrawi could say, as she did yesterday, that she could walk away from Arafat after disagreeing with him is a testament more to her stature than to his openness and tolerance of dissent.

It's not just Israel that claims the Tanzim and the Al Aqsa Martyrs have a major role - it's the groups themselves. There's no mention of the suicide bombings, shootings, or bus attacks carried out by these groups, either.

In an uprising that has claimed over 1000 Israeli lives, only 100 are accounted for. One needn't dispute Arafat's role in starting the thing to realize that he tried to ride it for all it was worth. Hey, either you're a leader or you're not, but the "Who, me?" game was over long ago.

Much becomes clear when you look at the sourcing: "Permanent Observor Mission of Palestine to the UN, Federation of American Scientists, BBC, Knight-Ridder Washington Bureau." Exempting Knight-Ridder from double-condemnation, at least two of the three remaining bodies there are of outright hostility at best. (The FAS maintains an interest in tracking terrorists organizations, but most of their information seems not to have been updated in a while.)

Cross-Posted at Oh, That Liberal Media!

Posted by joshuasharf at 01:54 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Terrorist Psycho-Babble

One of the less-attractive features of modern liberalism is the need to understand and sympathize with pretty much any form of evil. That this urge for understanding doesn't extend to conservatives should be instructive.

So it's interesting to see how the death of Arafat is being dealt with in the press. Aside from the Kofi Annan/Jimmy Carter/Jacques Chirac triumphirate, the most common observation seems to be of Arafat's weakness. Poor man, he just couldn't help himself.

Consider this Denver Post editorial:

History will have its hands full reaching a verdict on Yasser Arafat, who died Thursday at 75. During a long and complicated tenure as the face and the soul of Palestinian leadership, he was a hero to so many, and to others a bloody-handed terrorist.

In recent years he was an obstacle to peace and to statehood both. Whether out of weakness in his will or in his political position, he was unable to conclude the promise of his revolutionary goals.

Or E.J. Dionne, lamenting Lost Chances:

Yet Arafat was a failure. He could not make the leap from terrorist to national leader. He could not accept the cost of acknowledging the existence of the state of Israel. He put factional politics, the rhetoric of revolution and his control of the money coming into the Palestinian Authority over the less-glamorous goal of a normal Palestinian state with workaday politics.

The tragedy for the Middle East, for Palestinians and for Israel is that Arafat could never decide who he really was. His beginnings as a revolutionary and a terrorist were understandable, if despicable in so many ways. He had a cause and a people whose interests were not being attended to -- not by his fellow Arabs any more than by the rest of the world. He would bomb and kill and assassinate -- even young Israeli athletes -- so that attention would be paid.

He won recognition and a place at the table. He won visits to the White House and Camp David and a Nobel Peace Prize. He was on the verge of achieving the Palestinians' dream, a state of their own with passports of their own and a government of their own. A place to call home, an entity that would allow them to be referred to not as refugees but as citizens.

But he walked away.

Please. Spare me. When Arafat began his "career," Israeli Arabs weren't rebelling against the state, and the West Bank and Gaza, not to mention to Temple Mount, were in Arab hands. But Arafat set about killing Jews, not Jordanians or Egyptians. The Jordanians put up with him until 1970 when his predations became destabilizing to the East bank of the river, and they sent him to Lebanon.

As for the Post and their "weakness of will," is there nothing that can't be reduced to an international version of Weight Watchers? The west and Israel, under urging from Israel's "best friend," Bill Clinton did everything possible to prop him up, make concessions under the pretense that this would strengthen him internally. Dictators are always worried about their political positions. That's why they have things like Force 17, to make sure their enemies stay quiet.

If there's anything that Arafat didn't suffer from it was "weakness of will." Arafat had one of the strongest will around, outlasting Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Secretaries of State. When he famously walked out of three-way talks with the US and Israel, Madeline Albright went chasing him down the hallway, heel clicking, then calling to have the gates close. "Please, just tell us what you want."

What he wanted, what he never stopped wanting was dictatorial power over all of Mandatory Palestine, the end of Israel, and a chance to be treated and feted like Nasser.

It is in no way sad that he couldn't seize the moment, that he "wasn't able" to control himself just a little longer. The forces of Good have frequently benefitted from the impatience of Evil. Had Arafat signed the accord, had he been able to restrain himself just a little, how far would Clinton and the Europeans have pressed Israel to accomodate then?

The Jimmy Carters and Kofi Annans of the world gave him the latter. Thank God the Israelis were stopped from giving him the former.

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November 11, 2004

Red State Dependents

Lawrence O'Donnell, writer for The West Wing and newly-popular bomb-throwing talking head guest, has been pointing out that, as a whole, the Blue States pay more in federal taxes than they get back, while the Red States get more back. O'Donnell's point is that the Red States are somehow wards of the Blue States, not economically viable without the Blue State subsidies they receive.

The kind folks over at the Tax Foundation actually look at this sort of thing. Sometime when Mr. O'Donnell needs a break from writing about Congress ("Where the Wild Things Are"), he might take a look at their charts.

In the aggregate, he's right. No, he's not right that the Red States have "no wealth. None." He is right that most of the Blue States see money going out, while the Red ones see money coming in. But seven of the tax-loss states are Red, and six of the tax-gain states are Blue. Suddenly, things are starting to look a little purple.

If you look at the extremes, and include the 1996 results, things get more muddled. New Mexico is the champion tax-wangler, getting a whopping $1.99 for every tax dollar it sends to Washington. But it was blue in 96, and very nearly so this time. Likewise, New Hampshire, who really needs to find a good tax shelter ($0.64 back on the dollar), is only Blue this time because of the tax refugees from Massachusetts. This ignores the most Blue spot on the map - DC - which couldn't exist without federal taxes.

And things aren't so secure there at the top, either. Of the top 15 Blue sugar-daddy states, Wisconsin and Minnesota are in play, and Michigan would be, too, if it weren't for some hyperactive election clerks in Wayne County with access to blank absentee ballots.

So, what's O'Donnell getting at? If the Blue States decided to secede they'd take with them the country's economy? Or are the Red States supposed to be grateful to the Blue? Or maybe, the Blue States will really punish us and vote to lower taxes and take back their goodies. That'll show us.

Leave aside the fantastical notion that the Blue States really would secede and say, join Canada. Never mind that the western Canadian provinces would jump at the chance to apply for statehood, leaving the Northwest Territories as the only overland route from Minnesota to California.

Speaking as a resident of a Red State that's getting soaked like a Blue one, I'd personally like to see another tax revolt. But that's not going to happen, either. At least not at the instigation of Senators Clinton and Schumer.

Honestly, it sounds like more of the hysterical raving that started when he was on with John O'Neill. It's not enough that we're morons and Crusaders; we have to be welfare depdendents, too. When I hear conservatives talking about the "elites," it's clear that they mean a minority of even blue-state voters. Even a minority of liberals.

When I hear the Lawrence O'Donnells talk about Red State voters, I think that maybe we really do need to make Zoloft accessable at more affordable prices.

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Economy Picks Up

A while back, someone commented that the chip manufacturers were a leading indicator of rough economic waters ahead.

Well, Dell just showed a 25% profit growth on increased business buying. This despite a weaker quarter for government orders. Since profits are accounted for in dollars, the weaker currency also improved foreign sales. But isn't that what it's supposed to do?

Since we were all waiting on improved business investment, and consumer retail buying is now showing respectable, although slightly softer, year-over-year growth, it's safe to say that the Kerry Recovery is underway.

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A Vintage 1996 Column

In the course of researching that last post, I came across the following column from a young writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, see if you can guess who it is:

Good news: It's over. No more ads accusing Rep. Dedmeit of supporting the Gingrich-Hitler plan to grind Granny's bones into flour. No more radio campaigns accusing Sen. Pinquo of voting in favor of a nickel tax on penny candy.

Bad news: The mid-terms are coming up soon. As we speak, consultants are drawing up ads to attack politicians for votes they have not yet cast on bills no one has yet thought to write. What lessons from the last campaign will be evident in the next?

One: Invent a catchy demographic category. This year saw the birth of the hitherto undiscovered slice of the electorate known as Soccer Moms - beleaguered, tot-shuttling women who are too busy to have an informed opinion. They lean toward Clinton, perhaps because they hope one of those bridges he builds goes to Madison County.

Next time, we'll need a fresh category. Lacrosse Aunts or Bingo Grandpas. Or perhaps Bowling Uncles. Start with a headline: "Bowling Uncles see incumbents as a 4-10 split, don't know if they should aim ball left or right." Say it enough times, and commentators will be unable to bring up Bosnian policy without wondering how it will sit with the crucial Bowling Uncles.

Whatever group is next in line, it should be chosen for its ability to sit through four years of a presidential tenure and have no opinion on the matter whatsoever.

Two: Tailor your conventions for the intelligentsia. The political conventions this year were widely panned for being scripted, polished shows. As opposed to the anarchic, freewheeling, anything-can-happen spirit of, say, a Peter Jennings newscast.

The parties' sin, of course, was attempting to get people to watch. They did the math. Oprah: big ratings. Masterpiece Theater production of Walt Whitman's "I Hear the Paint Drying:" no ratings. Verdict: go Oprah.

Any grab for the common man's interest always provokes eye-rolling and gagging sounds from the rarefied overclass. The only way to satisfy the commentators and the groundlings is to stage it all like "Pulp Fiction": windy passages of tiresome, pretentious dialogue punctuated by extreme violence. Critics will love the hip verbiage; audiences will love the fancy gunplay. If Dole had worn sunglasses, waved a pistol and announced that "Bob Dole is gonna get medieval on Bill Clinton's butt" he would have had a 20-point lead.

Three: Pick an easy metaphor then beat it to death. Every Bill Clinton speech concluded with a reference to building a bridge to the future, a rosy place where everyone is happy and all the statutes of limitations on various Arkansas matters have expired.

The mention of The Bridge was the cue that the speech was over. Forget that stuff about it not being over until the fat lady sings; it ain't over 'til the Big Bubba Builds the Bridge. Suggestion for next election: more metaphors.

Four: Refrain from pointing out opponent's vulnerabilities. It's clear that attacking a candidate on events that have transpired during his term is now seen as a personal attack. And no insulting attack ever fed a hungry child, cured a sick person, built a bridge, put the 'boss' in the bossa nova, etc.

If this is the case, then sin boldly. Don't fire the travel office staff: Build a bonfire on the front lawn of the White House, and burn them at the stake. If your opponent complains, call it an insult, and point out that no insult ever changed a light bulb or balanced a checkbook. People will nod: He's right about that. Hell, the lightbulb went out when I was balancing the checkbook. He understands my life! And who's this guy who's insulting him?

That's the playbook for the next election season. Which, incidentally, began last Wednesday. Sick of it yet?

Yes, that's Lileks, James Lileks.

Posted by joshuasharf at 03:16 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bush Hatred Is Different

Remember when Jonathan Chait published his screed about why he hated Bush, prompting the first of Hugh's blog-seminars? One of the more cogent defenses of Bush-hysteria was that, well, the Republicans felt the same way about Clinton.

So I decided to go back and look at what the Republicans actually did say about Clinton in 1996, when he was re-elected.

Shocking, the hatred that poured forth from the pens of Republican columnists. For instance, Bill Safire had this to say:

Right-wingers can call Bill Clinton the first president elected by women; we can deride his inability to achieve a majority, despite the inflated poll predictions; we can thank him for depressing voter turnout and thereby becoming the first Democratic candidate since Al Smith to return a GOP Congress to power; and we can mutter that he won only because he adopted our principles of balanced budgets with tax cuts.

But the political fact is - he won. Re-won the presidency big, starting from flat on his back. That deserves a nongrudging respect, and it's why I'm telling myself to get over it.

How can you stand to read it?

Cal Thomas, that centrist, was even more bitter:

The main casualty in the 1996 election was not Bob Dole but ideas. Focus groups and constant polling ensured that no idea -- good or bad -- would go unpunished by demagogues seeking political advantage. So the voters were left to cast their ballots on "feelings." Even though most of them don't trust Bill Clinton, somehow he made a plurality feel good enough to re-elect him....

There are profound differences between the two parties. Democrats have been hiding or stealing their ideas. Republicans must remain steadfast in theirs.

The main message from the 1996 election? Liberalism is dead. Republicans need no longer negotiate with the vanquished.

Oh, the invective! Oh, the unrestrained passion!

Even George Will couldn't contain himself:

Pursing its lips austerely, the electorate saw its duty and did it pitilessly. Feeling inclined to extend the Clinton presidency, it did so in a deflating manner, making him a lame duck on a short leash held by a Congress that probably will be controlled by Republicans for the rest of his tenure. Which is why his postelection smile could be construed as an inverted grimace.

Fred Barnes pointed out in his Weekly Standard column that the press was likely to be less forgiving, something President Bush won't have to worry about. Krauthammer advised Dole not to go softly into that good Medicare Commissions, and reward Clinton for his demagoguing of the issue.

I looked through a variety of mainstream conservative columnists, and that's really about as bad as it got.

But the anti-Bush screeds are coming not merely from the online community, where little brackish backwaters of resentment and hatred haven't even been cleaned out by the stiff rain of electoral defeat. They're coming from Maureen Dowd, Thomas Friedman, Bob Herbert, and the pages of the Times. This is a one-to-one comparison - mainstream conseratives to mainstream liberals.

It's not something for liberalism to be proud of.

Krauthammer was right that many people considered the election of 2000 to have been unresolved. Toqueville wrote that an election resembles a national crisis, but that immediately afterwards, things are settled, and return to normal. If that never happened, if the national crisis persisted for 4+ years, it's no wonder that some people have gotten used to operating in crisis mode. But we need to get back to a point where we're adversaries, not enemies.

Look, it's easier to take being called morons and religious freaks when you win. Certainly it's less threatening. But it's not healthy under any circumstances. It leads to physical attacks, shootings at buildings, swastika-burning, you know, politics by other means. And it leads conservatives to feel marginalized, even while winning elections.

Posted by joshuasharf at 03:13 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Veterans' Day

This year, more than most years.

Veterans' Day started as Armistice Day, back before we started numbering the wars, as Col. Potter put it. WWII gets all the press, but WWI is where it started. I remember wandering around DC one Saturday afternoon, and coming across one of the more neglected memorials in town:

That's the DC WWI memorial. It has a plaque with the names of all the DC residents who died in that war. There doesn't seem to be a national WWI memorial. Probably because no one thought to write a book about their generation. And because they're almost all gone.

The closest we had in DC was this statue of John "Blackjack" Pershing:

It's in a little enclave at Pennsylvania Avenue ans 14th Street, called Pershing Park. The thing also has one of the more unusual memorials I've seen: colored maps of several WWI battles etched into black marble.

As for Denver, there's this WWI memorial in Fairmount Cemetery right near where I live:

but the best memorial is probably the Colorado Veterans Memorial on the Mall, between the State Capitol and the City & County Building:

Posted by joshuasharf at 02:20 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

A New Jewish Holiday

So it's afternoon, and I can finally have a drink.

Look, this was a horrible excuse for a human being. He began his career by trying to start a war, and he ended it at war. Along the way he murdered children in Maalot, American Diplomats in Sudan, American tourists at sea, and accomplished virtually nothing.

Virtually nothing. Yes, his people have a sense of identity. But is it an identity you'd wish on anyone? It's one of perpetual victim, whose most creative means of complaint is to use their children as living bombs. Despite all the carping, probably the only real injustice the Israelis inflicted on the Palestinians was bringing Arafat back from exile.

Everywhere he went, destruction followed. Jordan kicked him out after he created a mini terrorist state-within-a-state. Lebanon tried to do the same, but he was so deeply entrenched in southern Lebanon that the Israelis had to do the job. Cornered in Beirut, Arafat arranged to be sent to Tunis, under the watchful eye of the Tunisian authorities.

The only people who didn't kick him out where the Israelis, who weren't allowed to, and the French, who didn't have him that long. I'm sure that if he had recovered, within a couple of years he would have been smuggling arms into Marseilles and agitating for an independent Muslim state in the south of France.

The culture of death that has evolved on the West Bank and in Gaza won't dissipate with the passing of one man. And the BBC and AP seem determined to hold him up as a man that the Palestinians not only do revere, but should revere.

While Abbas and Qurei may indeed turn out to be men we can deal with, let's wait a little while and make sure they're actually in power in a year or so. Hamas still has its eye on power, and the various non-Islamic factions have been arming their members in anticipation of this day, too.

If the only unifying forces in Palestinian society remain hatred of Israel or Islamofascism, Israel would be ill-advised to make a deal right now. And they'd be particularly foolish make a deal with Abbas, only to find that Hamas was using land they had ceded to launch more attacks.

Certainly one argument sure to be made, if it hasn't already, is that Israel should make concessions to Abbas and Qurei to strengthen them internally. Note that it was only when Israel abandoned exactly that strategy that it managed to make any progress in its own war.

In the meantime, the speed with which the Europeans want to resume the dismemberment of Israel is a little - unseemly - don't you think? The abject faliure of European and Western meddling over the last 30 years has been a result, in no small part, of trying to force a settlement before one of the parties was ready for it. Let's have a little patience, see how it all plays out, and then see what to do next.

Posted by joshuasharf at 01:22 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

November 08, 2004

What Went Right?

So, why didn't Colorado run into vote fraud? I was certainly worried about it. The Secretary of State was worried about it. Eventually, the papers even worried about it.

So why didn't it happen?

Well, in the first place, the ID requirement tended to discourage a lot of people. We only had 9 provisional ballots, in a precinct with 524 registered voters. Also, Colorado has a history of clean elections at the administrative level, and assurances, unlike Detroit, of bipartisan poll-watching for the provisional and absentee ballots.

Also, Colorado has a law that voting can't begin unless two election judges, one from each of the major parties, are present. So there was no real way to gin up the machines ahead of time.

Combined, this means that any vote fraud would need to entail moving voters around, getting them to different precincts, and having them know addresses to use ahead of time. (I can say that in a precinct with 80% turnout, there wasn't a single case of somebody showing up and the register showing they'd already voted.)

When you do that, you need really good secrecy. I'm not saying it's impossible, especially in some of the rural areas. But it means a lot more work, and a lot greater risk of being detected. And the returns diminish, too.

We were also saved by the fact that the only really close race in the state was a state House race in District 23. With control of the House already settled, the only things riding on it are the political careers of a couple of local politicos with, um, limited legal budgets.

The facts remain, though, that the system still has holes. There are people who showed up to vote whose drivers' licenses didn't match their registration. They could have gone to vote in multiple precincts, in different counties, and it would have been almost impossible to catch them.

It also remains true that vote fraud is almost impossible to catch after the fact, since the nature of the crime precludes identifying the perpetrator.

Finally, the number of provisional ballots cast is disturbing. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of these in the future, and with early and absentee voting becoming more popular, the risk of errors will continue to grow.

Posted by joshuasharf at 11:03 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Simplicity

From a case study examining GE chairman Jack Welch:


For a large organization to be effective, it must be simple. For a large organization to be simple, its people must have self-confidence and intellectual self-assurance. Insecure managers create complexity. Frightened, nervous managers use thick, convoluted planning books and busy slides filled with everything they've know since childhood. Real leaders don't need clutter. People must have the self-confidence to be clear, precise, to be sure that every person in their organization - highest to lowest - understands what the business is trying to achieve. But it's not easy. You can't believe how hard it is for people to be simple, how much they fear being simple. They worry that if they're simple, people will think they're simpleminded. In reality, of course, it's just the reverse. Clear, tough-minded people are the most simple. (emphasis added - ed.)


Remind you of anyone you know?

If this doesn't exemplify the difference between the Kerry approach and the Bush approach, I don't know what does. Kerry is complicated, and anything but self-confident, when it comes to projecting the power and values of the United States. Kerry, who prides himself on his mastery of nuance, seemed terrified of being simple, for fear of being labeled "simpleminded."

Bush, on the other hand, is not only simple, he is villified as "simplisme." But everyone in that organization knows the purpose in Iraq, and in the war on terror. Rest assured, there's a lot of complex planning that going into a war, from the decision to go to the final execution. The trick is not to let the details obscure the purpose. Bush clears away that mental and moral brush, leaving a clear sense of mission.

It's one of his great failings that while the military and the executive follow so willingly, the President is so poor at articulating that mission to the American people at large. Still, they get it, and they get that he gets it.

Posted by joshuasharf at 04:40 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Welcome

Welcome to the new home of View From a Height. Blogspot was clearly beginning to shake and shiver under the weight of the election-blogging, and it was time to unify the jsharf stuff, anyway.

I figured the time to do it was after the election, when things had calmed down a little, rather than, um during the election.

The design's the same, so people shouldn't be too disoriented, except now you can see that Denver has trees.

I'm giving MovableType a try. I've used it for Oh That Liberal Media! for a while now, and I've been pretty impressed. We'll see how it goes here.

Changing blog locations is a bit like changing phone numbers - years later people will still be hitting the old site, finally getting around to listening to that last outgoing voice mail. I expect to lose a little readership in the transition, but the new site will also let me do a lot of non-blogging. The book reviews, for instance, will have a room of their own, with a little couch and a coffee machine.

Posted by joshuasharf at 08:34 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack