Friday, September 30, 2011

The Last, Best Chance?

Newt Gingrich announced his 21st Century Contract With America, which will be the basis of his Presidential campaign. Listening to Newt in the long form reminded me of all of the reasons I thought he’d be a great President. No other candidate offers this combination of inspirational vision and detailed thought as to how to achieve it. You’re lucky to get just one of these from the existing roster of candidates. Indeed, several of them have neither quality.

The CSPAN video of his full presentation is embedded below, it’s terrific stuff. Included is a bracing description of the scale of the problems we face, and according to Gingrich (a former American history professor), it’s our biggest challenge as a nation since 1860. He also understands the imposing nature of the interest groups and institutional momentum that will try to maintain the status quo and has plans to confront them. Whether those plans survive first contact with the enemy is an open question, but he’s the only candidate who seems to understand the need to proactively organize to defeat them.

Most of his presentation deals with how to resolve the economic crisis we’re experiencing. As we’ve come to expect from him, Newt’s got an abundance of ideas and plans and details to throw at these problems. They include bold reforms for energy production, government regulation, health care, size of government, and federal income taxes. For good measure, he throws in some ideas to rebalance the power dynamic between the braches of government (increase legislative, decrease judicial) and also cure Alzheimer’s disease.

He conveys the proper sense of urgency as well. He’s got a initiative called “On Day One” where he promises to sign between 50 and 200 executive orders right after being inaugurated, to immediately begin righting the ship and detaching ourselves from the Obama agenda. His plan is to have them all posted by October of next year, so voters will know exactly what they’re buying. He’s got a few of them up on his website already and he’s taking suggestions for more. The ones posted are rather underwhelming, but there’s only so much you can do via executive order. For the bigger reforms, Gingrich emphasis that his administration will return to the regular order of legislation, with subcommittee hearings and mark-ups and time for deliberation and discussion before voting - another refreshing change from the current atmosphere of rushed midnight votes on massive legislation that no one has read.

I admit, a few of his ideas seem to be out of left field, for example, his emphasis on funding research on “brain science” (the phrasing of which has a distinctly Bush-like quality). And he’s too easy on entitlement spending, which he doesn’t even mention (other than lowering Medicare costs by curing Alzheimer’s disease via brain science). But even these aspects strike me more as overly ambitious flights of fancy than as flawed reasoning or ideology.

The overall impressions you’re left with from his 21st Century Contract with America is, ironically enough, hope. There actually is a way to get the budget into balance, to pay off the Chinese, to eliminate unsustainable spending imbalances for the long term, and all via hard work and innovation, two things Americans excel at. That’s the kind of message that can fire the imagination of the voters, far more than any vague bloviating about hope and change and fairness and sticking it to the rich

If Gingrich does get the chance to run against Obama, you’ve also got to love his idea for debates. No more journalists setting the agenda of what will be discussed. Instead, he’d challenge Obama to seven “Lincoln-Douglass style debates” of 3 hours each with no moderator. If Obama would accept the terms, what a clear and informed choice the voters would be presented with and what great TV that would be.

For now, we just have Newt in a monolog, which is still pretty good. Watch the video below and I defy you to tell me that Mitt Romney or Rick Perry or Herman Cain would make a better candidate, or better President.

Beer of the Week (Vol. CXVII)

Another edition of Beer of the Week brought to you by the sharp crew at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help you find the diamonds in the rough when it comes to wine, whiskey, and beer.

This week, I was fortunate enough to spend a couple of days in San Diego on a business trip. Unfortunately, my time there was consumed only entirely with business and I had scant opportunity to enjoy the pleasures the area offers. But if you do have to spend your days in meetings and your nights at business events, there are certainly worse places you could be than San Diego, especially when you’re “stuck” on Coronado Island.

Considering it’s temperate climate and generally laid back attitude, it’s somewhat surprising that San Diego features a diverse and well-established craft brewing scene. The list of breweries in and around the city is notable both for its quantity and quality. With my limited free time on this trip, I wasn’t able to enjoy any local brews other than Amber Lager from the Karl Strauss Brewing Company which became my go to beer (and the only craft offering) at our company events.

The good news is that you don’t have to go to San Diego to get your grubby paws on the excellent selection of beers made by Stone Brewing Company. Stone (like Minnesota’s Surly) is a brewery with a reputation for producing aggressive beers that push the envelope with rich flavors that aren’t for the faint of heart.

This week we continue to focus on heavily-hopped India Pale Ales (known as double or Imperial IPAs) with Stone’s Ruination IPA:

So called because of the "ruinous" effect on your palate! This massive hop monster has a wonderfully delicious and intensely bitter flavor on a refreshing malt base. One taste and you can easily see why we call this brew "a liquid poem to the glory of the hop!" Those who seek, crave and rejoice in beers with big, bold, bitter character will find true nirvana in Stone Ruination IPA!

22oz brown bomber bottle that goes for $6.99. Etched label features the usual Stone gargoyle.


Alcohol by Volume: 7.7%

COLOR (0-2): Golden brown and rather cloudy. 2

AROMA (0-2): Pine and citrus with a little grass. 2

HEAD (0-2): Bright white colors, big bubbles, and good lacing. 2

TASTE (0-5): A wallop of hops with strong pine and citrus flavors with more muted malt. Noticeably bitter and you can feel the heat. Mouthfeel is a little watery with a heavy body. Not especially drinkable, one to savor rather than slam. 4

AFTERTASTE (0-2): Lingering bitterness. 2

OVERALL (0-6): If you love hops, you’re going to love this beer. And it is quite tasty. My only qualm is that it’s so heavily tilted toward the hops that it lacks some of the balance that helps round out the overall flavor profile. The edges are a tad rough and sharp. Still, Ruination IPA is a very good beer that follows Stone’s precedent of not holding back. 5

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 17

Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Business of America

Interesting local angle in Daniel Henninger's piece in today's WSJ called Taking Cain Seriously:

In the late 1970s, Mr. Cain was recruited from Coca-Cola in Atlanta, his first job in business, to work for Pillsbury in Minneapolis. His rise was rapid and well-regarded. He joined the company's restaurant and foods group in 1978 as director of business analysis. In the early 1980s, Pillsbury sent him to learn the hamburger business at a Burger King in Hopkins, Minn. Then they assigned him, at age 36, to revive Pillsbury's stumbling, franchise Burger King business in the Philadelphia region. He succeeded. According to a 1987 account in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Pillsbury's then-president Win Wallin said: "He was an excellent bet. Herman always seemed to have his act together."

Herman Cain probably learned more about the realities of the world during his stint running a Burger King in Hopkins (or Hopkin as Atomizer calls it) than Barack Obama ever did during his days as a community organizer. Henninger's point is that it seems silly to discount Cain's candidacy because of lack of political experience given his extensive business background especially when just that sort of experience is Mitt Romney’s chief selling point. For the last three years, we’ve been lead by a president steeped in politics from an early age with precious little experience in or understanding of business and capitalism. Given what career politicians have wrought for the country of late, instead of seeing Cain’s lack of political experience as a detriment we should rightly view it as an asset.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

I Thought Failure Was an Orphan?

It’s been a tough week for Jim Oberstar.

He was the leader of the
Catholic Democrats in Congress back in 2010, when ObamaCare was ram-rodded through the House. His vote was critical to its passing, and it came with the calming assurance there would be nothing to worry about for those adhering to the Catholic confession. Now, as Chad noted, information is emerging that the religious conscience protections contained in the ObamaCare legislation are as flimsy as the Solyndra business plan.

Another foundation of the Oberstar legacy is the Safe Routes to Schools bill, which attempted to facilitate children walking to school in order to improve their health. He’s got more than his fingerprints on this one, his very DNA is all over it:

Father of 'Safe Routes', Congressman Jim Oberstar, visits a local school

Congressman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), the man whose vision back in 1998 led to the national Safe Routes to Schools program … After seeding several pilot programs in 1998, he helped pass federal legislation for Safe Routes to School to the tune of over $600 million. Today, over 7,000 schools in America benefit from that program.

It all seemed so right at the time. Sure, it cost a few hundred million in 2005 when it was passed. But those were the go-go Bush years of positive economic growth and only half trillion dollar annual deficits. Besides, it was an investment in the children. Anyone who disagreed with this obviously had no heart. Thousands of schools were helped and legions of children are now strolling safely to school, thanks to father Oberstar.

Six years later, that money has been spent. But about those children it was supposed to help? The Pioneer Press provides an update:

… after spending $820 million to promote walking to school and reducing childhood obesity, there is no sign the program has actually added any walkers at all.

Interesting that the cost increased by a couple of hundred million dollars between those two reports, but the number of kids helped has stayed the same. And at the nice round number of zero.

In 1969, 42 percent of children walked or biked to school, according to the Safe Routes to School National Partnership in North Carolina.

By 2001, that number had plummeted to 13 percent. Eight years later, after the program was 4 years old, the number was unchanged.

Compelling evidence of all of that money and effort, wasted. It should be
devastating news for the people responsible. But never underestimate the ability of a bureaucrat to polish a gold-plated turd. About that zero percent growth ...

"We take that to be good news," said partnership director Deb Hubsmith, because the decline has been halted.

It’s not the increase in the number of walkers that matters, it’s the number of walkers who have been created or saved. That excuse for zero growth seems to be getting awfully popular during the Obama era.

The PiPress provides some additional background on the program:

It was created by former Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar in 2000. Oberstar was appalled at the steep increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

At the same time, he learned that 75 percent of children's trips away from home were in motor vehicles, up from 40 percent in the 1960s. "We have a generation of mobility-challenged children," he said.

The solution? The Safe Routes to School program.
From 2005 through 2010, it was funded for $820 million. Safe Routes gives grants for anything that encourages walking or biking to school - mostly sidewalks, safer street crossings and education. The grants have gone to 11,000 schools in all 50 states.

In other words, a powerful member of the House Transportation Committee takes two disparate data points (rate of diabetes and preferred method of getting to school), concocts a causal relationship between them, and gets busy finding a way to spend nearly a billion dollars on a program to fix it.

No mention is made of any attempt to gather data as to whether this cause and effect relationship exists. Or to analyze whether or not his proposed remedy would work. No, they just went ahead and spent the money on the faith of Oberstar’s convictions. Talk about anti-science.

Alas, now that the money has been spent, information is emerging about the efficacy of Dr. Oberstar’s prescription:

Parents say the approach is wrong. They say their children don't walk because of fear of crime, Minnesota's harsh winters, and laziness. Parents like to pamper their kids by driving them. And many schools are built to discourage walking. So all the sidewalks in the world wouldn't make any difference, said Barbara Smith of Woodbury. (…)

Such fears are a reality of modern life, said Gary Dechaine, transportation director for South Washington County Schools, and he wondered if any federal program could change that. "No parent today would ever have their kid walk six blocks," Dechaine said.

So, it turns out that having a safe route has little to do with kids walking to school. (Let alone whether or not walking to school would lower obesity and diabetes rates.) It’s these types of little details that would be nice to cover BEFORE we agree to borrow $800 million from the Chinese in order to build sidewalks to schools for the purpose of lowering childhood obesity and diabetes rates.

I suppose any parent has a hard time facing the failures of their children. Jim Oberstar is no exception:

Oberstar, the father of the program, acknowledges these objections. But he said his program is making steady progress in wearing down the nation's unhealthy, antiwalking biases.

"We are changing habits of an entire generation," said Oberstar. "It is going to take time - but it is happening."

That sounds exciting, but to put it into context, here are some other things Jim Oberstar is expecting to happen, any time now:

-- early return of Haley's comet
-- Minnesota Vikings win Super Bowl
-- Chaz Bono wins Miss Congeniality award on Dancing with the Stars
-- John Huntsman captures imagination of GOP electorate

If past precedent for government programs is any guide, I predict that after another 10 years of no kids walking to school, Oberstar will break down and admit that the program can't work ... because it's under funded. Another $820 million or so might have done the trick.

Little Known Congressional District Facts

I’m sure you’ll agree that congressional district trivia is endlessly fascinating. As an example, let’s look at the two congressional districts that rank as the poorest in the United States.

The poorest congressional district in the nation is New York-16 with a median income of $23,270. The district is located in the Bronx and is represented by Jose Serrano. In addition to being the poorest of our 435 congressional districts, NY-16 is also the most Democrat (Cook rating D+41). It is also the LEAST white congressional district in the United States (2.3% White, 28.2% Black, 66.4% Hispanic, 1.7% Asian).

But before we start drawing too many conclusions on racism in America, let’s look at the second poorest congressional district in the nation: Kentucky-5 with a median income $27,731. The district is located in the Appalachia region of eastern Kentucky and is represented by Republican Hal Rogers. While the district is not the most Republican in the nation, it has a solid R+16 Cook rating. In addition to being the second poorest of our 435 congressional districts, KY-5 is the MOST white congressional district in the United States (96.5% White, 1.4% Black, 0.8% Hispanic, 0.4% Asian).

CONCLUSION: None really, that is why we call it trivia. But it would seem that it is best to avoid the extremes.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Conscience Call

An insert appeared in parish bulletins across the country this weekend with a call to action from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops:

In implementing the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the new health care reform law), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recently issued a rule requiring almost all private health plans to cover contraception and sterilization as “preventive services” for women. The mandate even forces individuals and groups with religious or moral objections to purchase and provide such coverage if they are to receive or provide health coverage at all. This poses an unprecedented threat to individual and institutional religious freedom.

The rule includes a religious exemption so extremely narrow that it protects almost no one. It covers only a “religious employer” that has the “inculcation of religious values” as its purpose, primarily employs and serves persons who share its religious tenets, and is a church organization under two narrow provisions of the tax code. A great many religious organizations -- including Catholic colleges and universities, as well as hospitals and charitable institutions that serve the public -- will be ineligible. Individuals and religiously affiliated health insurers will not qualify for the exemption.

The new rule would force insurance plans to cover “all Food and Drug Administration approved contraceptive methods, sterilization procedures, and patient education and counseling for all women with reproductive capacity.” Never before has the federal government required private health plans to include such coverage. The FDA-approved “emergency contraception” (EC) drugs that are covered by this mandate can work by interfering with implantation of a newly conceived human being. Also, the drug the FDA most recently approved for EC, "Ella,” a close analogue to the abortion drug RU-486, has been shown in animal tests to cause abortion. Thus, the mandate includes drugs that may cause an abortion both before and after implantation.

Wait a minute. What about all those Catholic Democrats who voted for Obamacare who assured us that protections were in place in the legislation to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening? Are you telling me they were wrong? Or maybe they were simply not being truthful.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

HWX, with Ralph Peters

The latest edition of the Hinderaker-Ward Experience (HWX) podcast is now up on Ricochet.

After a rare and well-deserved break of about a month, John Hinderaker and I get the band back together for a fresh discussion of world events. In particular, we share our thoughts on the falling stars of Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, the potential inevitability of Mitt Romney, and keep hope alive for Newt Gingrich.

Our special guest is author and former NY Post columnist Ralph Peters. The occasion of his visit is the publication of his 28th(!) book, Lines of Fire. It's a compilation of his writings on foreign policy and war over the past 20 years. He comes from a unique perspective in the pundit world (career military man, US Army intelligence) and always produces provocative and unorthodox analyses. We also discuss his next book, a Civil war historical novel coming in February, called Cain at Gettysburg. As we discuss, it attempts to present the real story of humans at war in the setting of Gettysburg, including (but not limited to) the bathroom habits of the Union Army (talk about provocative!).

Also Loon of the Week (a triple shot of liberal threats of violence and crises, featuring Michael Moore and Tom Harkin) and This Week in Gate Keeping (getting Sir Mix-a-Lot titles wrong and checking The Fact Checker in the Washington Post).

Many ways to hear the podcast, including over on the mothership at Ricochet. You can also be sure to never miss an episode, by subscribing via iTunes or Feedburner. Or get the stream for your mobile device on Sticher. Or just use the player embedded in the upper right hand corner of the Fraters Libertas main page. If all of these fail, send me an email and I'll come to your house and read from the written transcript. Enjoy.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Make It Real

Michael Baruzzini on Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost:

Looking to the concrete helps us discover the Christian notion of sacramentality. It is in water that we are born again; it is with bread and wine that we encounter Christ in the flesh in today’s world. It is these things that make our Christianity more than an academic exercise. So Percy would answer Barrett’s question by saying: just do it. It is Wednesday afternoon and you are a Christian: sing a song of praise, or go to Mass and eat God’s flesh. You are a loving husband, so kiss your wife. You are a father: play catch with your son or help him with his homework. You are a man at the end of a day of work: make a cocktail. If you want to be these things—a husband, a father, a son of God—there are things to do to make it real.

Beer of the Week (Vol. CXVI)

Another edition of Beer of the Week brought to you by the clean cut crew at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help you break away from the pack and discover the finer things in the world of wine, whiskey, and beer. And remember that when it comes to beer, Mark is the store’s official hophead.

This week we feature another offering from the Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s called Myrcenary:

Named for Myrcene, a component of essential oils in the hop flower, Myrcenary Double IPA is our tribute to those who revere the illustrious hop, and their unyielding exploit to craft hop forward beers. Brewed with a blend of hops containing the highest levels of Myrcene, this double IPA prevails with a tropical fruit-like flavor, a pungent floral aroma, and a clean getaway.

Hmmm...sounds delicious. I wonder where else you can find this myrcene stuff? Partial list of the plants that contain myrcene:

As mentioned above, many plants contain myrcene, sometimes in very large amounts.

• Houttuynia
• Mangoes
• Cannabis spp.
• Hops
• Lemon grass
• West Indian Bay Tree
• Verbena
• Mercia

Enough said. Let’s get on to the beer.

12oz brown bottle with etching. Tan label with the usual Odell paper feel features a motorcycle with a sidecar loaded with hops making a quick escape.


Alcohol by Volume: 9.3%

COLOR (0-2): Golden and somewhat foggy. 2

AROMA (0-2): Pineapple and grapefruit with some pine. 2

HEAD (0-2): Bright white color, moderate volume, fluffy with good lacing. 2

TASTE (0-5): Like the aroma with even stronger flavors of pine, grapefruit, and floral hops. Some nice sweet malt too and a touch of sugar. Despite all the hop flavors, it’s not overly bitter. You can definitely feel the heat, but it’s not overpowering. The mouthfeel is somewhat creamy and the body is medium to heavy. It’s actually fairly drinkable considering the strong flavors and alcohol content. 5

AFTERTASTE (0-2): Smooth and rich. 2

OVERALL (0-6): Wow. This is a damn fine beer and a great example of a double IPA done the right way. It packs tons of hoppy flavors, but doesn’t go overboard with the bitterness as some double IPAs do. There’s also a unique flavor in the beer (the myrcene perhaps?) that I can’t quite put my finger on that really helps this one stand out. Odell’s Myrcenary Double IPA is among the best beers in the land. For now, I’m going to rate it just a notch below Bell’s Hopslam Ale and Surly’s Abrasive Ale. At $8.99 a four-pack it’s a great value and it’s a beer that I’m definitely going to revisit. 5

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 18

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The World Is Run By Those Who Show Up

The historical context Chad provides below really emphasizes how hasty Pawlenty's departure may have been from the GOP race. He bailed months before the first vote in the first primary will be cast. Yet, besides for Romney, voters hadn't fully formed impressions of any of the candidates. Pawlenty's primary reason for leaving was his belief that he couldn't win the one state he had to win (Iowa) because of Michele Bachmann's popularity. But, as she's proven in the past few weeks (and over her career), she's highly susceptible to falling into some controversy that would eliminate her from serious consideration by most voters. That controversy may be unfair to her, or a product of media frenzy, but a fatal controversy to her candidacy, none the less.

Pawlenty's potential was illustrated in February by Nate Silver. His graphical representation of the GOP field at the time shows where candidates fell on two of the most important variables for this year's primary electorate, establishment vs. insurgent and moderate vs. conservative. At that time Pawlenty occupied kind of a sweet spot. Not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

He updated this chart post-Iowa straw poll and with the announced candidacy of Rick Perry (represented by the large dotted line circle). It shows Pawlenty still well positioned, but with Perry as a more conservative and less establishment oriented candidate.

I think the jury's still out as to whether the electorate will ultimately consider Perry to be either more conservative or less establishment than Tim Pawlenty. Widespread coverage of his past flirtations with government mandates and enabling illegal immigration, not to mention supporting Al Gore, could certainly move his impression upward and to the left on this chart. If that's the case, he shifts towards Romney territory. And if those two are fighting for the more moderate and establishment wing of the GOP primary electorate. Left up for grabs is the large, and perhaps decisive, vote of the tea party wing. Assuming a broad coalition will never form for Bachmann, Paul, or Cain, Tim Pawlenty could have been in prime position to pick that up, especially in Iowa, if here were still in the race.

Perspective and Patience

Karl Rove has a piece in today's WSJ on Handicapping the GOP Debate that helps put things in perspective:

At this point four years ago, Rudy Giuliani led the GOP field with 28%, trailed by former Sen. Fred Thompson at 23% and John McCain at 15%, with everyone else in single digits. When the dust finally cleared, neither Messrs. Giuliani nor Thompson was a serious contender—and Govs. Romney and Mike Huckabee pressed Mr. McCain hard before he prevailed. All of which means the 2012 Republican sweepstakes is far from over.

At times, there seems to such a rush to "narrow the field" and get down to the "real contenders" that it's easy to forget that even though the campaign for the GOP nomination has been going on for some time, there's still a long way to go and a lot that can happen. If such winnowing calls were heeded in 2008, we'd have been down to two candidates, neither of whom it turned out had the requisite fires in their bellies. Today, it might look like it's Perry and Romney and everybody else, but we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that current will continue. And we should still keep an open mind to other candidates who may yet surprise us.

It also raises the question that Saint Paul asked last week of whether Pawlenty withdrew too hastily. While the lifeblood of any campaign is money and you can understand why the underfunded Pawlenty didn’t want to continue, it seems likely that if he were still in the race there might be an opening for him right now. If we really are down to a choice between Perry and Romney, I think a lot of Republicans will opt for the one they view as least offensive. Pawlenty doesn’t have near the baggage from his days as governor that Perry and Romney do and he would likely be the most electable among the rest of the Republican field. Voters may never had become particularly passionate about Pawlenty, but those who have problems with both Romney and Perry could have opted for him as a safe alternative.

As Karl Rove says, the race for the 2012 GOP nomination is far from over and the eventual victor may not be one of the "real contenders" today. One thing we know for sure is that it won’t be Tim Pawlenty.

Let Them Eat Carp?

Whenever we hear talk of poverty or hunger in America, it's always important to keep the perspective that what we're talking about is relative to the overall conditions in the country. Illinois launches Asian carp anti-hunger program:

Starting Thursday, the department launches a campaign to change the fish's image and demonstrate how to work with the ultra-bony meat. Officials have enlisted Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, who's become a national advocate for the fish he calls silverfin. He plans to fry up the fish that tastes something like mahi mahi, so audience members can taste samples.

Getting carp to soup kitchens and food pantries is months off, said Tracy Smith, a director for Feeding Illinois, which supplies food banks and is helping on the project.

The idea is modeled after a state program that lets hunters donate deer meat to be ground and distributed to food pantries. But there's no system in place for netting Asian carp in large amounts and cleaning and distributing the fish. And state officials don't know the most feasible way to dole out the carp: minced or as boneless fillets, for example.

While eating Asian carp isn't new — it's consumed in China and high-end restaurants, among other places — the first step to get it to the American masses is countering the yuck factor.

Illinois officials appear to have their work cut out for them; recent visitors to Our Lady of Grace Food Pantry in Chicago were skeptical. The pantry puts canned goods, meat and bread in the plastic food bags it gives out. If carp were to make its way there, workers would include it with the meat, leaving people to figure out how to cook the fish on their own.

"I wouldn't eat it," Vincent Williams, 49, an unemployed former bank worker, said with a look of disgust on his face.

"Ugh, I don't know. I might," said Christopher Cain, 25, a former moving company worker.

This make you wonder if the definition of hunger in America needs to be amended. Is it really a question in most cases of people not having ANY food to eat? These examples of people willing to look a gift carp in the mouth certainly would raise doubts about that. I don't mean to diminish the problems of poverty and want here in the United States, but I gotta think that in much of the world you wouldn't have to sell a government program that provided people with free fish.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Terrible Toll (III)

Here's a follow up to yesterday's post on the book post on the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder and the disparate attention given to the roles that the Nazis and Soviets played in the bloodletting. Round Two from the Crazy Uke:

The problem with this book for the Left is that it objectively and historically puts both dictators on an equal footing. In turn, this thesis neuters and disarms the Left’s campaign to demonize the right by labeling them as Nazi’s (national SOCIALISTS, right?!?!) and then effectively demonstrates that the Marxist-leftist Soviet paradigm was EVEN MORE EVIL!!!

The ignorance of history, and the willful (intentional?) shuttering of intellectual inquiry regarding this “inter-war” period is most distressing and disappointing, specially given my parochial (Ukrainian) interests. The exigencies of a World at War, and the “Romanization” of American actions and intentions, completely overshadow the historical fact that Stalin and Hitler jointly started World War II with their jointly coordinated invasion of Poland. The dictators also jointly conspired to divide the “Spoils of War’ (i.e. Poland) under the terms of a secret (Molotov-Ribbentrop) Pact. That’s NOT the history of Uncle Joe Stalin we all remember, or were taught.

Soviet cooperation with their Nazi brethren post-Kristallnacht, (see J. Goldberg - “brown on the outside, red on the inside”) included significant amounts of the raw materials needed to feed and grow Germany’s armies. Ironically enough, this economic collusion enabled Hitler’s invasion (via Ukraine) of the USSR. Stalin was so into his new BFF Hitler, that he intentionally decimated the Soviet Army General Officer Corp via purges, literally on the eve of Operation Barbarossa. The largest military defeat in history; the encirclement, surrender and death of over 700,000 Soviet soldiers at Kiev, Ukraine can be laid directly at Stalin’s feet. Again, in war as in peace, both of these depraved demons disregarded human decency and somewhere between 90-95% of both German and Soviet held POW’s died in captivity, due to disease, deprivation, deportation or starvation.

Genocidal habits die hard apparently. Witness Hitler’s order for the Final Solution, which continued operating with brutal efficiency even as Germany was being defeated. Or Stalin’s treatment of a half-million (forcibly!) repatriated Soviet citizens – post-war survivors of slave laborer, conscription, POW’s, refugees, etc., virtually all of whom where eradicated in the Gulag. Last but not least, the fight against “Cosmopolitism”, the purge which was being prepared by Stalin in 1952-53, (history suggests a possible anti-Semitic theme, i.e. the ‘Doctor’s Plot”) just before his untimely expiration.

Sounds like this is a book I should read.

It's a book that a lot of people--especially those with short or selective memories--should read.

Freedoms or Fears?

David Harsanyi says Let’s Eat the Rich:

Some wiseguys at the Economic Freedom Network just released a survey alleging that the United States has fallen from the sixth-freest economy in the world to the 10th-freest. The survey is based on four foundations of a healthy capitalist society: “personal choice, voluntary exchange coordinated by markets, freedom to enter and compete in markets, and protection of persons and their property from aggression by others.”

Or what progressives might call greed, racism, unfairness and immorality.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Terrible Toll (II)

Last month, I had a post on the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder. One of the questions that the book raises is why we hear so little of the horrors imposed on the peoples of this area of Europe by Stalin’s USSR compared to those of Hitler’s Nazi Germany? In order to get some perspective on the matter I turned to a man with unique expertise on the region, Fraters own infrequent rare Haley’s Comet like contributor The Crazy Uke. Here’s Round One:

I haven’t read the book, but did run across a review of it in Salon (of all places). I ended up spending most of that night in the comments section, full of deniers, skeptics, apologists, relativists, “pure” ideologues or “pure” communists, or both. In truth, if I understood the intent of the book’s author, it was to put Hitler’s depredations in historical context and identify then as equal too, or on par with, Stalin’s precedent.

Unfortunately, the reviewer (stalwart lefty that he is) while sympathetic to the thesis, soft pedals the analysis as a potentially doctrinaire dispute between competing theories of historical interpretation. Moreover while struck by the enormity and scale of the forced Ukrainian Famine-Genocide, and emotionally flayed by explicit and retching descriptions of wide-spread cannibalism, the reviewer devolves into a discourse on the depth of depravity to which mankind can descend, rather than focusing on the inconceivable hell-on-earth created and caused by Stalin and his committed, kulak killing and collectivizing cadres.

The sheer scope of this modern-day horror is absolutely staggering. Leave aside the mass deportations, mass purges and mass executions; targeting clerics, educators, intellectuals – the leaders of the Ukrainian nation. At Stalin’s command, the borders of Ukraine were closed, and hundreds of thousands of party activists decamped to Ukraine’s villages (in the “Bread Basket of Europe) and forcibly removed all food, food stuffs and seed grains, resulting in death by forced starvation of five to seven million people. Ukraine’s “death-toll” caused by the glories of Communism may total as much as seven to ten million lives. Tens of millions of sheep, goats, pigs, cows, horses and other livestock greatly exacerbated and extended the suffering and loss of life.

There is no question that this was planned and predetermined. 97%-98% of these fatalities occurred in 1932-1933, and 90-95% of all deaths within the ethnographic boundaries of Ukraine.

I have always equated Hitler’s relationship with Stalin to that of mentor and protégé’. Hitler literally followed Lenin’s roadmap for immediate establishment of a Secret Police, the State’s mechanisms of terror and concentration camps. First by targeting and destroying his political allies, then political his opponents, and finally moving on to the class and race enemies. It’s still genocide, no matter the ideological justification.

And most of all, the one thing I always come back to. The Holocaust never happened! If not for Eisenhower, if not for the timing of the war’s end, Hitler would have succeeded in copying Stalin once more.

To this day, (see Salon article above) apologists, fellow travelers and ideologues continue to maintain that any “famine” is exaggerated, that other individuals or factors other than Stalin (nee Hitler) are responsible for whatever degradation occurred, that there are no written orders as evidence, and certainly with the park like settings of Treblinka and Sobibor, no physical evidence would exist of the attempt to liquidate European Jewry. (or the Ukrainian people).

While Stalin, by and large, actually succeeded (in large measure aided and abetted by Walter Duranty, the NYT and Roosevelt’s “communists in the government” third column) in white-washing history and hiding a Holocaust of his own making, from the eyes of the world and the conscience of history.

Thanks to Robert Conquest and individuals like the author of Bloodlands, one of the largest mass-murders in history, and the genocide he perpetrated on the Ukrainian people, is finally seeing the light of day.

Seventy-five years is not too long to wait.

Round Two tomorrow.

Gotta Go

Andrew Ferguson writes on the national media's current "go to guy" for all things economic in a piece at Commentary called Press Man: The Prisoner of Zandi:

In a news story about Obama’s plans for a big spending bill, in December 2008, the New York Times identified him as a “Republican economist advising Democrats.” In reality, he was a Democratic economist who’d just got done advising a Republican, and “advising” is (probably) not the right word. In any case, the Times was right about one thing: Zandi was very busy advising Democrats, helping to write the stimulus bill, and Capitol Hill Democrats embraced him as warmly as reporters did. In speeches on the House and Senate floors they quoted “the noted conservative economist” and “Republican economist” saying things that any good liberal would agree with. He became a recurring character on the business and news shows on cable TV, filling the role of Reasonable Republican, identified as “an adviser to John McCain” or “an economist who has advised both Democrats and Republicans,” a real pro who had set aside partisanship to endorse President Obama’s common-sense solutions. Nancy Pelosi repeated his name as if it had the power of an incantation.

Zandi had long been an advocate of stimulus, any stimulus, whether its provenance was Republican or Democratic. When President Bush proposed a $150 billion stimulus in the summer of 2008, Zandi said it “was big enough to provide a meaningful economic boost.” In September, when Bush was lamenting he had to violate his free-market principles to save them, Zandi was much more enthusiastic: “Make no mistake: what the government has done will sew [sic] the seeds for I think a very, very sharp recovery.” (A man who says “make no mistake” is always making one.)

You will notice that these statements share two prominent features. First, they’re predictions and, second, they’re wrong. More frequently than most go-to guys, Zandi volunteers not merely subtly shaded opinions, not merely Ornsteinian “context” and Brinklean “perspective,” but bald predictions about how matters will lie a year or two or three from now. Over time, Zandi’s predictions are tested by reality. In August 2006, he told Newsweek that housing prices would bottom out in August 2007. In October 2007, he told the National Association of Home Builders that the bottom would come in late 2008. In April 2009, he told Time magazine that housing prices would bottom out by the end of the year. (“I feel very confident about this,” he said.) Three months later, he told NPR that “by this time next year, the market will have hit bottom.” The market is still looking for its bottom, and so is Zandi, with both hands.

The beauty of being one of these "go to guys" is that having a dismal track record when it comes to predictions doesn't matter. No one is ever going to go back to one of these guys with a follow up on why their projections proved so miserably wrong. As long as they say the right things (from a left-wing perspective) and can make a claim to being objective (however baseless), the media will keep beating a path to their door for their latest and greatest words of wisdom on events of the day.

A perfect example of this on the local scene is how often Larry Jacobs name comes up in media accounts of Minnesota politics. He's our own version of the "go to guy."

Separated at Birth?

Former leader of the United States of America Jimmy Carter and...

..current leader of Time Warner Jeff Bewkes?

(In the interests of disclosure, I do not own any Time Warner stock, but if I did I might be thinking of getting out before the malaise really sets in.)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Plateau Not Peak

You hear a lot these days about the theory of “peak oil.” How we’re on—or soon will be--the down slope of global oil reserves and how it’s only a matter of time before our seemingly insatiable demand will eat up all our reserves and we’ll be looking at the end of the oil era. Marion King Hubbert was the forefather of the peak oil movement and created some of the models that are still used today to estimate oil reserves. In Saturday’s WSJ, Daniel Yergin had an article called What’s Wrong With Peak Oil (sub req) that examined some problems with Hubberts’ approach:

Hubbert used a statistical approach to project the kind of decline curve that one might encounter in some—but not all—oil fields, and he assumed that the U.S. was one giant oil field. His followers have adopted the same approach to assess global supplies.

Hubbert's original projection for U.S. production was bold and, at least superficially, accurate. His modern-day adherents insist that U.S. output has "continued to follow Hubbert's curve with only minor deviations."

But it all comes down to how one defines "minor." Hubbert got the date exactly right, but his projection on supply was far off. He greatly underestimated the amount of oil that would be found—and produced— in the U.S.

By 2010, U.S. oil production was 3½ times higher than Hubbert had estimated: 5.5 million barrels per day versus Hubbert's 1971 estimate of no more than 1.5 million barrels per day. Hardly a "minor deviation."

"Hubbert was imaginative and innovative," recalled Peter Rose, who was Hubbert's boss at the U.S. Geological Survey. But he had "no concept of technological change, economics or how new resource plays evolve. It was a very static view of the world." Hubbert also assumed that there could be an accurate estimate of ultimately recoverable resources, when in fact it is a constantly moving target.

Hubbert insisted that price didn't matter. Economics—the forces of supply and demand—were, he maintained, irrelevant to the finite physical cache of oil in the earth. But why would price—with all the messages that it sends to people about allocating resources and developing new technologies—apply in so many other realms but not in oil and gas production? Activity goes up when prices go up; activity goes down when prices go down. Higher prices stimulate innovation and encourage people to figure out ingenious new ways to increase supply.

Hubbert’s flawed view of oil reserves as being static and not related to economic factors is one that you often find with those who predict decline and doom in various areas. If nothing changes and we keep heading in this direction then ____. But of course things always change and the direction we’re headed tomorrow may be completely unimaginable today.

Instead of viewing global oil reserves reaching a “peak,” Yergin says we should consider it more as a plateau.

But there is another way to visualize the future availability of oil: as a "plateau."

In this view, the world has decades of further growth in production before flattening out into a plateau—perhaps sometime around midcentury—at which time a more gradual decline will begin. And that decline may well come not from a scarcity of resources but from greater efficiency, which will slacken global demand.

One of the false choices often presented in energy discussions is between supply and efficiency. But there’s not necessarily any reason that we have to choose one and exclude the other. We can continue to explore for and recover new oil reserves in areas previously ignored using new technology and new methods. At the same time, we can become increasingly efficient in how we use the oil so that the same amount will yield greater energy output in the future. Oil is going to be part of our energy future for a long time to come as we settle into a plateau instead of tumbling off a peak.

The New Cool

Roger L. Simon on the Death of the Cool:

This is just because cool depended on a hive mind in the first place. It was little more than fad. We are well rid of it.

And in part because cool is gone, the remaining liberals are the new reactionaries. They are the ones trapped in the past, the enemies of the future.

Not that there are so many liberals anymore, outside the media. I spotted a new Prius today in a tony L.A. neighborhood sporting a pristine “Romney in 2012″ bumper sticker. Such a thing would have been incongruous, maybe even unheard of, four years ago. But cool is dead. You’re free to do what you want.

And make no mistake about it — cool was oppressive. It told you how to be and what to be. In some ways cool was the inverse of itself. It was the enemy of freedom while pretending to be its apostle. Nowadays there is nothing more square than to be cool. So feel free to be whatever you want to be.

You may even be cool again. In a new way.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Faint Praise

After spending the first three-quarters of her weekly column detailing the extent of the trouble that President Obama is in, Peggy Noonan--once quite smitten by the charms and firmly under the swoon of the promise of Obama herself--tries to finish by finding something positive to say about the president:

This is all so dire and critical that I will swerve and end with three things I've admired about the president since he entered the White House.

The first is that he has an intact, multigenerational family, a wife and kids and mother-in-law all living together in that big house. This is no doubt a source of strength for him, but it's also moving and impressive to see in a country ravaged by family breakup and fatherless—and sometimes motherless—children. It is a needed example. As nothing human stays intact without great effort, all credit to him, and them.

The second is that he isn't mean. His staffers do snark and push-back, but they don't do targeted abuse, they don't seem to try to take down foes in a personal way, as administrations before them have. Credit goes to the president because it's always the boss who sets the tone.

The third has been a relative absence of deep political scandal. It's been good not to have a Watergate, a Whitewater. But there are signs this week that could change with the Solyndra loan scandal. The White House apparently tried to rush almost half a billion dollars of taxpayer loans to a solar panel manufacturer that later went belly up and took a thousand jobs with it. The reason for the rush: The awarding of the loan would make good PR. This looks bad, and if it's true, heads should quickly roll. It's one thing to be branded as "out of your depth but not corrupt," quite another when it's "out of your depth and corrupt." That is much worse.

Well, his family seems nice. And he has a decent personality. And he hasn't gotten into a major scandal. Yet. Faint praise indeed.

I Only Watch Television for the Commercials

In addition to the State Farm 9/11 ad referenced below, a few other TV commercials have caught my eye recently.

I love this Heineken ad that was in heavy rotation on the cable channels a few months back. It plops you right in the middle of the coolest party on the planet, just as the coolest guy in town makes his fashionably late entrance. Maybe I love it because it's an uncanny resemblance to my arrivals at Keegan's Pub for Thursday Trivia Nights all those years ago.

That rarest of commodities, an ad that leaves you wanting more. In all likelihood, whatever program you were watching when this ad came on was not as interesting as what is happening here.

Fortunately, there is more to the story. A three minute version of this ad exists on YouTube and it may be the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life. Although most of the Heineken content is stripped out and its more of a video for the group singing the song than an ad. Nothing wrong with that though, the song ("The Golden Age") and especially the singer of the group (The Asteroids Galaxy Tour) is a big part of the appeal of this video. And I like how they work in a flute solo for the cool guy at the end, another remarkable resemblance to my weekly stroll into Keegan's.

The Galaxy Asteroids Tour is a band from Denmark. How they remain virtually unknown to the world, while Danish compatriots Aqua ruled the pop universe with Barbie Girl is a crime against humanity.

TGAT did enjoy some limited notoriety via another ad, their song "Around the Bend" was featured in a commercial for the iPod Touch. And I see they recently released a cover of a song that demanded to be reinterpreted for this generation - Safety Dance, by Men Without Hats. So maybe their ascendancy to super stardom is still in the cards.

If you like little wispy Euro-blondes covering 80's pop schlock (and who doesn't?), here's another recent ad which is an exemplar of the genre. It's a commercial for the Lincoln MKZ that was running earlier this year, featuring a cover of Major Tom (I'm Coming Home) originally by Peter Schilling.

Can't wait to see what one of these bands does next with Wang Chung.

The band for this ad is Shiny Toy Guns, out of Los Angeles. Lincoln liked them so much, they gave them another ad too, one that is even better, featuring a cover of "Burnin' for You" originally by Blue Oyster Cult. The cold, electronic interpretation of this song, along with the blue neon Tron-like visuals is killer.

Did that whet your appetite for more? Good news, a four minute version exists on YouTube as well.

Two other Lincoln ads of note, one featuring David Bowie's Space Oddity (by Cat Power) and Under the Milky Way by The Church (and covered by somebody named Sia).

I like these ads so much I may just have to consider a Lincoln. I guess I missed the point of these ads, since I still consider it to be a successful gramps retirement car. But when I retire at 65 (checks recent 401k statement), make that 85, I’ll be the coolest octogenarian on the block.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Doing the Right Thing

One of the best 9/11 tributes I saw this past weekend was the State Farm commercial running during the NFL games on Sunday. No, it was not a message on the importance of whole life insurance (though that could be the subtext). It was a simple tribute to New York City and its fire department, featuring the kids of New York serenading them with a wistful little number:

For those of you not cognizant of the cutting edge urban scene, that song is Empire State of Mind by Jay Z. As I've always said, you strip the rappin' out of it and that Jay Z music can be kind of entertaining.

Turns out that commercial was directed by Spike Lee. Say what you will about his politics, the guy is a talented director and always makes interesting movies.

Here's a short behind-the-scenes "making of" video for the commercial. It's compelling stuff, especially with the kids talking about what's great about New York, and what they mention are the chances for opportunity and importance of individual effort. Then the part where the fireman is rapid-fire putting names to the faces on the pictures of the 9/11 deceased from his firehouse, as the lilting melody plays underneath, is very effective.

Elevation, baby.

Beer of the Week (Vol. CXV)

Another edition of Beer of the Week brought to you by the festive folks at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help you roll out the barrel of fun with the perfect wine, whiskey, or beer for any occasion.

While it still technically may have a few days of life left, it’s become quite apparent that summer is now officially dead. At least in these parts. Its last gasp was likely on Monday when temperatures approached ninety degrees and air conditioners were humming. By Wednesday, the situation had changed enough to necessitate that furnaces be fired up for the first time in months. Yes, it’s clear that the fall season is now upon us.

And with the change in weather comes a change in the seasonal beers. The predominate beers of fall are varieties of Oktoberfest offerings. While I don’t mind quaffing an Oktoberfest or two on occasion (and wearing lederhosen and making plans to conquer the world), it’s not one of my favorite beer styles. So when fall rolls around I’m more inclined to go with beers such as Sierra Nevada’s Tumbler Brown Ale (tastes like fall) or Surly’s Fest (despite the name it’s definitely not your father’s Oktoberfest beer) or any Alt that I can get my grubby paws on.

However, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the importance that Oktoberfest has on the fall beer scene. And so this week’s beer will be a nod to all those Oktoberfest fans out there. Cleveland’s Great Lakes Brewing Company is another well-regarded craft brewer whose offerings have recently become available at Glen Lake Wine and Spirits. Their Oktoberfest is our featured beer.

12oz brown bottle. Simple label design with black and white background that features a traditional Oktoberfest scene.

STYLE: Oktoberfest

Alcohol by Volume: 6.5%

COLOR (0-2): Light brown and mostly clear. 2

AROMA (0-2): Sweet malt. 2

HEAD (0-2): Off-white color, decent volume, laces the glass well. 2

TASTE (0-5): Again mostly sweet malt caramel flavors with some bread, a little spice and just a touch of bitter hops. Good carbonation. Smooth and slightly creamy mouthfeel, medium-bodied. Very drinkable and the heat is almost invisible. 3

AFTERTASTE (0-2): Clean and crisp finish. 1

OVERALL (0-6): While I’m not a huge of Oktoberfest beers in general, I can understand their appeal and can appreciate when they’re brewed right. And Great Lakes Oktoberfest most definitely is. This is a well-put together beer that features clean flavors and good balance. Despite having a pretty decent ABV, it’s quite drinkable and refreshing. If all Oktoberfest bees tasted like this I might have to reconsider my interest in the style. 4

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 14

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Forgive and Forget

We've all heard a lot of preposterous ideas of how to stimulate the economy lately (see Jobs Plan: Obama's), but this one--brought to my attention in an e-mail from someone named Robert Applebaum in the name be the most ridiculous:

Forgiving the student loan debt of all Americans will have an immediate stimulative effect on our economy. With the stroke of the President's pen, millions of Americans would suddenly have hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of extra dollars in their pockets each and every month to spend on ailing sectors of the economy.

As consumer spending increases, businesses will begin to hire, jobs will be created, and a new era of innovation, entrepreneurship, and prosperity will be ushered in for all. A rising tide does, in fact, lift all boats—forgiving student loan debt, rather than tax cuts for corporations, millionaires and billionaires, has a MUCH greater chance of helping to raise that tide in a MUCH shorter time-frame.

The future economic success of this country is wholly dependent upon a well-educated, prosperous middle class. Instead of saddling entire generations with debt from which there is no escape, let's empower the American people to grow this economy on their own!

That's why I created a petition on, calling on President Obama and Congress to support legislation seeking student loan forgiveness as a means of economic stimulus.

I love the line about "saddling entire generations with debt from which there is no escape." Exactly who do you think will end up paying for this loan forgiveness anyway? Tooth fairy? Easter bunny? Nope. Our children and their children will as it will become just another layer in the mountain of debt that we're heaping upon them. By the way, unlike those who FREELY CHOSE to take out loans to pay for their college, there's no option for future taxpayers when it comes to taking on this debt.

I also love how this plan specifically benefits a large special interest group (college graduates with debt) while being sold as a tonic for the economy writ large. I’m sure that blue collar workers struggling to get by will have no problem signing on for a program to transfer wealth to those poor middle-class college graduates who VOLUNTARILY assumed debt that they no longer feel like paying back. Or people like my wife and I who both took out student loans to pay for college and spent a good part of our early careers working to pay back those loans. Yeah, we’d be happy to pay more so that millions of others could have their student loan debt erased at the drop of a hat. After all, obligations are for suckers, right?

Since it seems like anybody and everybody is backing their trucks up to Uncle Sam’s back door to get their load of the ever diminishing loot, I have another special interest group that wants to be rewarded. We’re the ones with jobs who pay our taxes. We pay our mortgages too. And our student loans. And any other debt that we happen to occur. We don’t get in over our heads and then expect someone else to bail us out. We give our time and money to charity because we believe that’s’ a more effective way to help those truly in need. We accept and assume the responsibilities to take of our families ourselves. We do the right things.

The good news is that we really don’t want anything more than to be left alone. Quit telling us what to do and quit asking us to pay for the irresponsibility of others.

Case Closed

Remember when smoking bans were being imposed a few years back and one of the justifications that proponents used was that cities that had smoking bans had lower rates of heart attacks? Well, like so many of the other "public health" claims used to stifle freedom in recent years, it turns out to be bunk. Steve from Grand Forks e-mails to bring our attention to a story from Reason Magazoine that Another Multi-City Study Finds No Link Between Smoking Bans and Heart Attack Rates:

Two weeks ago (while I was camping in Colorado), Michael Siegel highlighted a study presented at the American Heart Association's annual meeting that further undermines widely publicized claims that smoking bans lead to immediate, dramatic reductions in heart attack rates. As I have been saying since anti-tobacco activists began making these claims in 2003, hundreds of jurisdictions have smoking bans, and you would expect heart attack rates to decline in some of them purely by chance while rising or remaining essentially unchanged in others. If you focus only on the jurisdictions where heart attacks happen to fall substantially—such as Helena, Montana, or Pueblo, Colorado—it is not hard to create a misleading impression. But as Siegel notes, "The studies which have systematically examined the effect of smoking bans on heart attacks in all cities across the country that have implemented such bans have found that while heart attacks have declined in many cities, they have increased in others. The overall effect is nil, or very close to it." The new study (PDF), by Robin Mathews of the Duke Clinical Research Institute, fits this pattern.

So in light of this new evidence is it tooo late to go back and reconsider the wisdom of smoking bans? Yes, of course it is. Like taxes, once regulations and restrictions are in place they are almost impossible to overturn. Which is why they must be fought tooth-and-nail when they are first proposed. Keep that in mind next time.

SP BREAKS NEWS: Rick Perry has just released a statement about Minnesota's smoking ban:

At the end of the day, you may criticize them about the way that they went about it, but at the end of the day, they erred on the side of life. And that's what this is really all about for me.

According to sources, Perry's campaign will next be releasing a statement advocating mandataory monthly colorectal exams for all citizens and compulsory helmet use for any persons not laying flat on the floor in a spread eagle position.

Under the Table on the Label

Interesting article about alcohol content being available on beer labels at DRAFT Magazine:

Whether you aim to drink moderately or immoderately, there are few bits of information handier than how much alcohol is in your beer. Planning to drive home later? Maybe that 12%-ABV barleywine isn’t the savvy choice. Looking to drown your woes and pass out on the couch? A low-calorie 3.2% lager may not yield the best results.

Odd, then, that this information is not always there. In some states, on some labels, hunting for that magic number can be fruitless. New York, for example, bans that information from labels on beer sold there. On the other hand, North Carolina requires it—but only for beers stronger than 6% ABV. In New Hampshire, the threshold is 12%.

Generally, most states leave it up to the breweries to decide whether or not to put the alcohol strength on the label. Often that decision depends on whether disclosing the alcohol content might help or hinder sales. Hence, drinkers of the country’s most popular light lagers—Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light—don’t always know that their beverage of choice is typically 4.2% ABV.

It’s definitely a piece of information that I consider useful. Many craft brewers do list the ABV on their label, but there are also quite a few who don’t. It turns out that this is another area where brewers and beer drinkers are still being impacted by arcane alcohol laws passed in the wake of Prohibition’s repeal.

So, why hasn’t the federal government just gone ahead and required that useful piece of information across the board? The Treasury Department is considering whether to do just that. But for now, many regulations are based on another way of thinking: Under this older, post-Prohibition regime, sharing that information with consumers might be a bad idea.

In 1935, Congress passed a law prohibiting the disclosure of alcohol content on beer packaging. Why hide this information from the consumer? Basically, the fear was that consumers would opt for beers with more alcohol, and that brewers would compete for that demand by engaging in “strength wars”—a hypothetical public health problem. (Never mind the possibility that adults might make their own informed, responsible decisions. It’s a notion that rarely gets much traction in the world of liquor laws.)

That regime held sway until 1995, when the Supreme Court upheld the First Amendment right of Coors to print alcohol content on its packaging—unless state law otherwise forbids it. In a concurring opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said that while Congress has the authority to preserve health by directly limiting alcohol content, it “may not seek to accomplish the same purpose through a policy of consumer ignorance. … [T]his statutory provision is nothing more than an attempt to blindfold the public.”

That court decision is now 16 years old, but the post-Prohibition attempt to “blindfold the public” for its own good still casts a shadow on the patchwork of state and federal labeling laws. For now, a state like New York can prohibit alcohol content on beer labels, and in most other places a brewery can choose to omit it.

Whether a brewer should be required to include the beer’s ABV on the label is up to debate. While in principle it might sound like a worthy requirement so that consumers can make better informed choices, all too often in practice such regulations have proven to be overbearing and have had unforeseen consequences on businesses usually leading to higher prices for consumers. But brewers should certainly not be barred by state law from listing their ABV if they so choose. States that prohibit it aren’t doing their citizens any favors as the benefits of transparency and disclosure should far outweigh any concerns about consumers seeking out higher alcohol beers to the detriment of their health. If all they’re after is more alcohol, they’re going to find a way to get it whether they know it’s in the beer or not.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Bar None

Today's WSJ reports on changes afot in the world of the Hotel Minibar (sub req):

Dissatisfied with tepid sales or fed up with arguing over disputed charges, hotels world-wide are overhauling their minibar offerings, moving tempting items out into open view, or just leaving fridges empty for guests to use.

The moves aim to ease the headaches of operating the Lilliputian appliances. Traditional minibars need to be checked and replenished by employees daily. Unsold items expire. Bottles of beer disappear.

Paying $8 for the same bottle of water that costs $2 at the corner store may mystify guests, but hotels say they need to charge high prices.

"People think the hotels are trying to gouge them, but actually [minibars] are loss-leaders," says Beth Scott, vice president, food and beverage strategy, at Hilton Worldwide, which has been phasing out stocked minibars at some hotels.

Theft and billing problems can eat into minibar income. Hilton loses 5% to 20% of minibar revenue to "quote-unquote breakage," says Ms. Scott.

While some decry hotel minibars as rip-offs designed to prey on the weak of will, I actually find them useful especially on international trips. After you’ve spent the better part of a day traveling, when you finally get into your hotel room late at night it’s nice to have a supply of snacks and beverages at easy disposal. In those situations, I’ll usually knock back a few beers and scarf down some chips or peanuts to help unwind before drifting off to sleep (and a little alcohol increases the effectiveness of sleeping pills as well). Are the prices outrageous? Absolutely, but for the convenience offered they're ones I’m usually willing to pay.

Gordon Scott, who travels for business about twice a month, steers clear of minibars—except to keep his own drinks cool. "They're overpriced, there's nothing good in them and I'm not a big drinker, especially when I'm alone in a hotel," says Mr. Scott, a partner in a hedge fund from Northfield, Ill.

Really? From my perspective, being alone in a hotel room seems like a most apt occasion to enjoy a drink or two. However, I do appreciate Mr. Scott’s approach to putting the hotel minibar to use for your own needs. If I’m going to be hunkered down for more than a few days, I’ll do the same thing and clear out the hotel’s stock and replace it with my own beer, juice, and water.

To cut costs and keep better track of sales, more hoteliers are installing automated minibars equipped with sensors that know when an item has been removed, immediately charging a guest's bill.

Hotels and minibar manufacturers say these can cut labor costs since employees only have to check the roughly 25%-30% of rooms that use the minibar on a given day. Software can track how long items have been sitting in the minibar, cutting down on the problem of expired snacks.

But automated minibars cause problems of their own. If you take out an item and put it back, you might be charged, though most hotels give a grace period of about 40 seconds. And forget replacing a minibar's high-priced sodas with your own snacks.

This would definitely be a move in the wrong direction. I’d rather have hotels simply provide refrigerators that we can fill ourselves.

Hyatt Hotels & Resorts is eliminating stocked minibars from some of its convention hotels, leaving empty refrigerators for guests to use for their own items. It is adding stores selling snacks and fresh foods in many lobbies. Hilton and Omni are making similar moves.

This obviously works better in some locations than in others. If you’re in the US and you have a car, it’s usually quite easy to find a nearby store to pick up your supplies. All US hotel rooms should have a refrigerator. It can be much more difficult in foreign locales, especially since hotels are often located in complexes not convenient for shopping. In those cases, I would prefer the option of having a traditional minibar available.

Some hotels have been driven to pull booze completely from their minibars.

"The reality of minibars is that you drink the whiskey and put tea in the bottle; you drink the vodka and put water in there," says Gordon Slatford, general manager of the Tides Inn in Irvington, Va. In January, the Tides removed alcohol and started charging a flat $2 for sodas and snacks. "Disputes disappeared," Mr. Slatford says.

Really people? I’m shocked and ashamed for my fellow travelers (no pun intended). Yes, the whisky and vodka in minibars is overpriced, but it is really that bad that you go to such lengths to commit fraud and steal what you refuse to pay for? If you drink it, at least have the decency to pay for it. Otherwise, your loutish behavior ends up punishing the rest of us. Let’s keep the bar in the minibar.