Monday, April 19, 2010

Frost At His Frostiest

The wise people who appoint themselves the guardians of the American soul have been telling us since the publication of Walden by Thoreau over 150 years ago, that materialism and mass production have doomed us. Like Thoreau they bring us the antidote of the spiritual Asian--Thoreau's Hindu meditator or today's idealized Tibetan Buddhists. Not to mention that the publishing industry often mass produces books called the Zen of this or the Zen of that.

Our most prominent American poet, Robert Frost dealt deftly and devilishly with the idea of Asian spiritual exceptionalism and American sin in an almost unknown poem from a 1947 collection. Some people have trouble grasping it, though it seems simple. First the poem, then my notes in case Frost is not clear.

An Importer

Mrs. Someone’s been to Asia,
What she brought back would amaze ye.
Bamboos, ivories, jades, and lacquers,
Devil-scaring firecrackers,
Recipes for tea with butter,
Sacred rigmaroles to mutter,
Subterfuge for saving faces,
A developed taste in vases,
Arguments too stale to mention
‘Gainst American intervention;
Most of all the mass production
Destined to prove our destruction.
What are telephones, skyscrapers,
Safety razors, Sunday papers,
But the silliest evasion
Of the truths we owe an Asian?
But the best of her exhibit
Was a prayer machine from Tibet
That by brook power in the garden
Kept repeating Pardon, pardon;
And as picturesque machinery
Beat a sundial in the scenery –
The most primitive of engines
Mass producing with a vengeance.
Teach those Asians mass production?
Teach your grandmother egg suction.

---------------------

If that was clear, read no farther because my notes are unnecessary prose.

The poem is easy enough to understand if you summarize the story:

--Back from Asia comes Mrs. Someone (not important enough to name, and like many unimportant thinkers)

--She has lots of "art" and a new criticism of America

--America, she says, has lost its soul to mass production while Asians express their souls in artful and personal handwork.

--Our spectacular displays of technology, from gadgets to skyscrapers are our way of avoiding the spiritual truths of Asia (sound somewhat like all the aficionados of Tibetan culture?)

--America has doomed its soul with such impersonal and material stuff

--to show Asian spirituality she has brought home a prayer wheel powered by the flow in her brook

--it uses a primitive engine to mass produce what--prayers!

--we have nothing to teach the Asians about mass production; they are ahead of us, having extended mechanical mass production to spirtual matters

Frost foresaw the Asian ability long before the Asians really got started in mass production for Nike and Walmart.

One might also note that while the decadent Americans were creating national parks and forests and preserving farmland, the more spiritual Asians of the Mongolian steppe and Tibetan highlands had devastated their environment by overgrazing and a classic demonstration of the 'tragedy of the commons'.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Justice Department Wants Mentally Retarded Lawyers--Really

Our government at work.

Under Eric Holder no holds barred in hiring for the Justice Department.

“The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division is seeking up to 10 experienced attorneys for the position of Trial Attorney in the Voting Section in Washington, D.C.”

“The Civil Rights Division encourages qualified applicants with targeted disabilities to apply. Targeted disabilities are deafness, blindness, missing extremities, partial or complete paralysis, convulsive disorder, mental retardation, mental illness, severe distortion of limbs and/or spine.”

For those who doubt that this is our government, see:

http://www.justice.gov/oarm/jobs/attorneyvotingoarm2010.htm

No word yet whether those outraged Democrats described as ‘retarded’ by Presidential assistant Rahm Emmanuel are appeased by this ad for their services.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Political Lynching of Harry Reid

When Barack Obama was neck-in-neck with Hillary Clinton racing for the Democratic nomination for president, one of his earliest supporters, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada said in a private conversation that Obama could win the presidency. One of his reasons was that Obama was “light skinned” and "with no Negro dialect unless he wanted to have one."


Political thunder rolled and lightning flashed as posses of liberals and conservatives threw their nooses around Reid's neck. Reid issued a quick and humble apology to the President. Democrats pardoned him. Republicans charged bigotry and double standard. Reid continued to grovel in public regret. Seldom have we been treated to such bipartisan demagoguery. Reid did nothing wrong. He was within his rights and he was right.


Pause to ask just where in his remarks he sinned.

Reid had the facts right: Obama, whose mother was white and father black, is light skinned. Second, he does not speak with any accent identified with black Americans. Can Obama use African American accents? Sure he can, and like all of us, he sometimes changes his vocabulary or pronunciation to fit in with friends or ‘the crowd’.

That leaves us to ask if Reid’s offense was implying that these qualities of Obama made him more acceptable than someone dark colored like Dr. Thomas Sowell the economist, Condaleeza Rice, or Smokin’ Joe Frazier the boxer. That suggestion could offend by suggesting t

hat Obama would receive votes because of accent and skin color, not by earning those votes. But don’t American blacks themselves talk about the advantage some have by being lighter skinned? Perhaps Reid offended black Americans who are darker and speak with pronunciation common if you listen to the Jeffersons or Sticky Fingaz or Magic Johnson or Al Sharpton.


Many claim the worst offense was the use of the word “Negro.” But it’s a word used by many black Americ

ans. It’s the customary word to describe the accent that Obama doesn’t have. Anybody he

ar of the United Negro College Fund? The only poor choice in

the phrase was dialect instead of accent, and that’s an ignorance of linguistics, not bigotry.

Or perhaps Reid offended the American public in general—implying that skin color and accent play a role in the public’s judgment of a candidate. They do, of course. Are we not allowed to say so? Aren’t we constantly told that racism is still alive in America?


Does anyone doubt that a significant number of votes are influenced by how a candidate talks and by skin color? Even Vice President Joe Biden opined that Barack Obama would win votes because he was “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."


But Reid didn’t apologize to all voters, or black Americans. He apologized to President Obama. Yet certainly the President, who had no record of big accomplishments in or out of politics, won a lot of votes by being articulate, easy to understand, and by not fitting the unfortunate stereotypes of black Americans. He also won a lot of votes because as Joe Biden suggested, many Americans (and most blacks) wanted a black president and he fit their comfort zone in most ways.


What we should lament most loudly is that when Harry Reid speaks a clear truth he has been pilloried by everyone, and that Republicans, acting like politically correct liberals, make Reid’s truth a bigger shame than his lies.


And even more important, when speaking the truth in a private conversation becomes a matter for public shaming and persecution, America is in deep doo doo. The Democrat pardon reinforces their role as self-appointed censors. If Republicans want to shame Reid, they should first support him for speaking the truth, then point out how he has turned the exercise of a fundamental right into the occasion for a groveling apology.



(Photo credit, noose copyright by Matthew Lee High: www.flickr.com/photos/ )matthigh/2772052540/

Saturday, January 2, 2010

When A Lot Of Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

Periodically we need to field test durable but competing visions of how the world works.

New Years Eve I saw the very learned and witty novelist Gore Vidal express the conventional wisdom that we need intelligent people as political leaders. By intelligent he meant “intellectual” as in people from Harvard and Yale, people who can quote from the classics and great books. He welcomed Obama as the only president in modern times who qualified as truly intelligent, although he cited no evidence. Vidal is a very learned and graceful writer whose books are worth reading, but who speaks in public as if his credentials absolve him from field testing the truth of his judgments on others. Suffice that they are sharp and witty.

His greatest intellectual rival had a different vision of intellect and government. He famously said, ““I’d rather be governed by the first 200 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard.” The author of that declaration was William Buckley—novelist, host of the TV debate Firing Line, and editor of National Review.
For our field test, however, let us avoid the controversial evaluation of presidents and members of Congress and look at the case of a mathematician turned investor and political activist.

Readers may have heard of the recent move by Senator Diane Feinstein of California to prevent the siting of a solar electric project on federal lands in the Mojave Desert. Her move provoked a fight with alternative energy champ and fellow liberal Democrat Robert Kennedy, JR. who said, “This is arguably the best solar land in the world, and Senator Feinstein shouldn’t be allowed to take this land off the table without a proper and scientific environmental review.”

This interesting dispute led me to look behind the scenes at the real estate and environmental dimensions of the land use dispute, and there I found our mathematician-investor-activist and a test of the Vidal-Buckley dispute. David Gelbaum studied math under a professor who devised a system that beat the Las Vegas blackjack dealers. Gelbaum went on to develop a mathematical model for predicting stock values. Managing his fund Quercus Trust he became a billionaire. Like other billionaires he became a political activist, pouring his money into the Sierra Club’s political efforts, Democratic campaigns, and the National Democratic Party, and over $30,000 directly to the Obama campaign.

He also joined these people in their often proclaimed belief that alternative energy and green technology are good for the economy and good for investors. He co-founded Wildlands Conservancy then bankrolled its purchase of Mojave lands for a natural preserve. The Conservancy made a sweetheart deal with Catellus Development to buy the land Catellus could not develop and set up Catellus for a tax deduction for presumably selling the land at less than market value.

Often such deals involve real below-market pricing by sellers, but very often conservation group and landowner collaborate to get an appraisal fraudulently far above the actual purchase price, and the seller deducts the “gift” from taxes as well as divests itself of unwanted or unusable land. Why should Catellus fight about desert rats and tortoises when it could exchange the land for a tax deduction?

Whether or not the Mojave-Catellus-Wildlands deal involved land price manipulation, Gelbaum has often been accused of stock manipulation and has barely escaped indictment. Consider him innocent until proven otherwise. Nevertheless, having made billions for himself and his causes, he lost billions for people who invested in the companies his Quercus Trust bought into with the announced intention of “helping” them out of difficulty.

That outraged legions of small and often idealistic investors. Then last year Gelbaum’s investments in “green companies” ended up gutting the budgets of his favorite causes—the Sierra Club to which he had secretly given $47 million and the ACLU to which he had contributed secretly a fourth of its budget, some $94 million. In December he tried to assure members and other donors that his withdrawal in no way signified disapproval of the organizations.

Why had he cut off the funds? “My investments in alternative, clean energy companies have placed me in a highly illiquid position as a result of the general credit crisis in the American and world financial systems."

No one can fault Mr. Gelbaum for having put his money where his mouth and his heart are, but the results are instructive. By abandoning his wildly successful logic and economic math, he has achieved the following:

A. Put two very large non-profits in the position of having too many eggs in one basket (a novice business mistake), then devastated the budgets of those charities by bad investing

B. Made a highly public case that green tech is not a good investment and job creator. That undermines a major policy claim of the Obama administration he supports.

C. By helping put millions of acres of California land off limits to solar energy, he may have destroyed the state’s ability to achieve its legislated goal of generating 33% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020.

This highly intelligent math genius and successful investor ended up making a cascade of stupid investment decisions and inflicting grave damage on his own favored causes. He began to making mistakes when his political goals started to command his intelligence, twist his logic, and veto his mathematics.

A committee of the first 200 names in the Boston phone book would not have made such a mistake. (Reminds me that the faculty of Harvard passively approved the policy our President’s chief economic adviser, Larry Summers, while president of Harvard. He set up its budget for a $1.8 billion loss, partly by investing in the complex debt instruments the Obama administration has blamed for much of the nation’s economic crisis.)

Moral of the story: alternative energy is the wave of the future just as oil and coal once saved the world from deforestation for fuel and for pastures to feed that engine of transportation and work—the horse. Our new transition, like our old transition, is inevitable, but relying on our intellectuals in government to choose how and when and through what companies or government dictates we should invest may be intellectual, but it is not intelligent.

So what is the equivalent of the first 200 names in the Boston phone book? The millions of average men and women who collectively are called “the market.”

Sunday, December 27, 2009

OBAMA BY HIS NUMBERS AND VISION

When a friend ended her holiday greeting with "and a prosperous new year--I hope," I was about to respond with an economic opinion. Opinions, however, abound so I thought the President and his numbers can speak for themselves. Here they are:

"I won't stand here and pretend that any of this will be easy - especially now. The cost of this economic crisis, and the cost of the war in Iraq, means that Washington will have to tighten its belt and put off spending on things we can afford to do without. . . . Barack Obama in Canton, Ohio, October 2008.

“As President, I will go through the federal budget, line-by-line, ending programs that we don’t need and making the ones we do need work better and cost less.” Nov. 2, 2008, election eve.

Presidential achievements and positions since taking office:

-- $787 billion stimulus

--$33 billion expansion of the child health program known as S-chip

--$410 billion omnibus appropriations spending bill

--$80 billion auto company bailout.

--$821 billion cap-and-trade bill through the House

--$1 trillion health-care bill.

--$400 billion Christmas eve package of emergency aid to failed government housing corporations. Fannie and Freddie will be on taxpayer support for at least 3 more years.

President Obama: “. . . it does offend our values when executives of big financial firms-firms that are struggling-pay themselves huge bonuses, even as they continue to rely on taxpayer assistance to stay afloat."

--$42 million in bonuses for top 12 executives of failed govt. housing corporations Fannie and Freddie

--budget plan for the next decade projected that revenues about 18% of GDP; spending up at 24% of GDP

--Annual deficits of about 6% of GDP for foreseeable future

In Jan. 2009 deficit for the year $422 billion.

Nov. 1, 2009, deficit for the year $1.42 trillion

Jan 2009, national debt $6.3 trillion

Nov. 1, 2009 national debt $7.5 trillion

Have a happy and prosperous new year.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Obama On Scientific Integrity

What was President Obama’s response to the revelation that many climate scientists whose reports shape world climate policy have been cooking their information, trying to suppress contrary opinion and data and embracing censorship of critics?


Read the President’s words:

MEMORANDUM FOR THE HEADS OF EXECUTIVE DEPARTMENTS AND AGENCIES

SUBJECT: Scientific Integrity

Science and the scientific process must inform and guide decisions of my Administration on a wide range of issues, including improvement of public health, protection of the environment, increased efficiency in the use of energy and other resources, mitigation of the threat of climate change, and protection of national security.

The public must be able to trust the science and scientific process informing public policy decisions. Political officials should not suppress or alter scientific or technological findings and conclusions. If scientific and technological information is developed and used by the Federal Government, it should ordinarily be made available to the public.

Sorry, that was what he said on March 9, 2009. He hasn’t said anything yet about the data and scientists who will have the biggest influence on talks in Denmark that could reshape climate policy and cost the economies of developed countries hundreds of billions of dollars.


To understand how an open minded scientist looks at evidence, please watch this video on the nature of climate change and some of the forces (including human) that act on it.


http://seekingalpha.com/article/175641-climategate-revolt-of-the-physicists?source=email

(Yes, this is on an investing site. Forget the surrounding text. Watch the video.)


(For the record, as the co-author of a book on America's beaches and as a science writer, I understand that we have lots of field data that result from warmer temperatures. Tundra, polar ice coverage, widespread glacial shrinkage, etc. These are the results of past warming. The direction, rate, and scale of future climate change and its causes is open to debate. Past events are not proof that humans are the critical element in climate change. And if we are the critical element, no one yet has proposed any measure that will significantly reduce projected temperature changes in the next 100 years or beyond.


As one of the scientists promoting global warming as a fact said in his e mail about variations on a time frame greater than 100 years, "We know with certainty that we know f***-all."


Given the other urgent needs of humankind and the natural environment, should any committed environmentalist be signing onto Kyoto, Copenhagen, and such schemes or cap and trade without proof that the results are worth the enormous costs?)

Monday, August 3, 2009

PRES. OBAMA'S USED CAR DEAL

I once mediated a dispute in which the owner of a wrecked old car happily pocketed $4,400 from an insurance company for a car he had futilely advertised to sell for $3,500. Silly insurance company. Not to be outdone, President Obama is demanding Congress accelerate a program that has already been paying about $20,000 for old cars that have a value of as little as $1,000wrecked Ford Focus.

Congress says the program has invested our money to pay “only” $4,500 per car in order to do two things:

1. stimulate new car buying (thus saving jobs and auto companies)

2. Take the most polluting cars off the road

For a moment let us set aside the ethics of a business owner forcing taxpayers to cough up a few billion to boost its sales. Let’s do the math that shows Congress and the President underestimate the cost by 450%. All the while they are declaring the program a wild success because it spent the first billion in a week instead of their estimated year, and they are pushing through several billion more in spending.

The car buying web site Edmunds.com estimates that every three months of this year Americans would normally trade in some 200,000 older cars without being paid to do it. Since the government will pay $3,500 to $4,500 per old car let’s say the average is $4,000.

So government is forced taxpayers to give $4,000 x 200,000, or $800 million to a few people who didn’t need it in the first place. The remaining $200 million paid for some 50,000 cars. In other words the only real result of $1 billion was removing an extra 50,000 cars. Cost? $20,000 per car.

But wait, it’s even more. Since Americans trade in some 200,000 cars every 3 months, many of the 50,000 cars would be traded in later this year without a subsidy. So the entire $1 billion was unnecessary if Congress could have waited 6 months.

Thus: $1 billion really bought us cars we never had to buy at all. It makes the infamous $5,000 hammer bought by the Defense Department seem like a deal. All the first billion did and all the next billions will do is speed up the trade ins by a few months.

But wait, aren’t there benefits like boosting new car sales and cleaning up the air? Yes. The new car sales, too, would have happened. Cars, like people, don’t run forever and in the recession many people postponed trading in old cars, creating a growing backlog and thus soon-to-be unleashed demand for new cars. Without government “help”.

The car company President Obama and Congress bought, however, is in bad need of money now. So they decided that after giving the company a few tens of billions of your money to keep it out of the hands of private buyers and to save union jobs, you wouldn’t miss another few billion.

Wasn’t this the President who said he would cut the budget by getting rid of programs that didn’t pay their own way? Now he is not only creating them, but hailing them as a success and demanding Congress act fast and give us more of that success.

As my own Congressman, Peter DeFazio says on his web site, “I am aware of the abuses to the earmark process and have serious concerns about some of the wasteful spending in Washington.” Just some of the wasteful spending?

Only politicians could conceive of good investing as spending billions of someone else's money on something that would happen anyway and declare the loss a success. No, wait, what was the name of that guy that kept losing other people's money and calling it success--Bernie Madoff?