Thursday, May 31, 2012

The "C" Word

Victor Davis Hanson explains Why Bonn Is Not Athens:

So Switzerland supposedly has everything going against it, and yet it is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Why and how?

To answer that is also to learn why roughly 82 million Germans produce almost as much national wealth as do 130 million Greeks, Portuguese, Italians, and Spaniards. Yet the climate of Germany is also somewhat harsh; it too has no oil or gas. By 1945, German cities lay in ruins, while Detroit and Cleveland were booming. The Roman historian Tacitus remarked that pre-civilized Germany was a bleak land of cold weather, with little natural wealth and inhabited by tribal savages. Race does not explain present-day national wealth. From 500 B.C. to A.D. 1300, Switzerland and Germany were considered brutal and backward in comparison to classical Greece and Rome, and later, to Renaissance Venice and Florence.

Instead, culture explains far more — a seemingly taboo topic when economists nonchalantly suggest that contemporary export-minded Germans simply need to spend and relax like laid-back southern Mediterraneans, and that the latter borrowers should save and produce like workaholic Germans to even the playing field of the European Union.

But government-driven efforts to change national behavior often ignore stubborn cultural differences that reflect centuries of complex history as well as ancient habits and adaptations to geography and climate. Greeks can no more easily give up siestas than the Swiss can mandate two-hour afternoon naps. If tax cheating is a national pastime in Palermo, by comparison it is difficult along the Rhine.

This also explains why conservatives get so worked up by what we view as America's cultural decline. Because a country's culture has far more to do with its long-term success than its resources or infrastructure.

We'll Make More

The latest example of the follies of the government trying to pick winners and losers instead of letting the market sort such matters out comes in the area of batteries for electric cars. As reported in today’s WSJ, the efforts of Uncle Sugar to spur the battery market forward have largely come to naught:

Since 2009, the Obama administration has awarded more than $1 billion to American companies to make advanced batteries for electric vehicles. Halfway to a six-year goal of producing one million electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, auto makers are barely at 50,000 cars.

The money funded nine battery plants—scattered across the U.S. from Michigan to Pennsylvania and Florida—that have few customers, operate well below capacity and, so far, have created less than a third of the jobs promised by 2015. Customers including start-up Fisker Automotive Inc. and auto makers like General Motors Co. that urged the funding have struggled to produce and sell battery-powered cars, though they insist a market is coming.

President Obama heralded the "birth of an entire new industry" during the ceremonial opening of A123 Systems Inc.'s production plant in 2010. The president's 2013 budget proposal asks for an increase in tax credits to car buyers to amp sales.

Getting to that electric-car nirvana is proving more difficult. A123 is scrambling to stanch losses and raise new money to stabilize its finances. Rival Johnson Controls Inc. used government grants to build a battery plant in Holland, Mich., but that facility is nearly idled now after its main customer went bankrupt. Korea's LG Chem built a plant in Michigan to supply General Motors, but that plant, which employs 220 people, hasn't yet begun production, a company spokesman confirmed.

What happened? The U.S. provided grants that tied the battery makers to aggressive timetables, requiring each to achieve production and staffing targets that would supply tens of thousands of vehicles a year. But those production timetables weren't linked to market demand, leading to a shakeout among suppliers.

Yes, that old pesky market demand side of the equation again. Reading about the government’s aggressive production timetables and staffing targets is remindful of the five year plans that the Soviets were so found of. We will bury you with our production. Whether or not anyone actually wanted what was being produced was entirely beside the point.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Will the Wolf Survive?

Planned Wolf Hunting Stirs Passions in Midwest:

Hunters in the Upper Midwest are gearing up for the region's first-ever wolf-hunting season this fall, the latest sign of the comeback of an apex predator on the verge of being wiped out in the U.S. when it was placed under federal protection nearly four decades ago.

But animal-rights groups that have blocked such moves in the past could still sue to try to scuttle the plans. Critics also raise concerns about the potential cruelty of the hunt in Wisconsin, which is to allow hunting at night and the use of dogs.

For some, particularly farmers concerned about attacks on cattle and hunters who say wolves have reduced the number of deer, the hunt is long overdue.

Wolf hunts here in the Midwest? But aren’t wolves like you know, endangered or something?

The gray wolf, a pack hunter weighing up to 130 pounds that rarely attacks humans, was exterminated in most of the contiguous 48 states by the 1950s, but a few survived in heavily forested northern Minnesota. After wolves were placed under federal protection in 1974, the population slowly increased and spread into Wisconsin and Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The recovery of the wolf population in the lower forty-eight is one of the great conservation success stories. In fact, it’s actually been too successful:

There are about 3,000 wolves in Minnesota, 800 in Wisconsin and 700 in Michigan—far above the federal goals for sustainable populations of 1,400 in Minnesota and 100 in Wisconsin and Michigan combined.

So we actually have around three times the number of wolves in these parts than the government thinks we should? It shows how difficult it is for anyone to predict with any accuracy how things will play out in the natural world. It also shows that for all the doom and gloom we hear from environmentalists, trends don’t only go in on direction and depleted natural resources can be recovered.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Beer-Swilling Illiterate Peasant of the Week

I’m not sure which of the Fraters Libertas Vox Day was referring to when he dedicated this post to us.   For the record, I personally have not devoted a weekly post to the greater glories of beer for the past few years.

By holding a beer, by drinking beer, by even being credibly identified as a beer drinker, a man is signifying that he is an illiterate peasant, of solid, but hearty stock, the sort of man thick-waisted farm girls with red faces and ankles the size and shape of overstuffed German sausages expect to meet out behind the haystacks.
… if you are at a bar with a group of men and you are the only one to ask for a glass of cabernet, syrah, or pinot noir instead of a "heinie" or a "bud" - notice how even the names of the hops-related beverages are declasse - some modern version of an agricultural helot is bound to make a comment on the order of "well, la di dah". This only shows that he is cognizant of your social superiority, as well as the likelihood that you are, unlike him, wearing clean underwear.
 … Don't be surprised if people look at you strangely. Men will wonder if you've come into an inheritance. Women will find themselves contemplating when you became so stylish. Attractive women whose names you do not know will attempt to press their lips against you. And in time, you, too, will learn to develop a healthy aristocratic contempt for the beer-swilling masses. My point, in case it has escaped your hops-addled mind, is that if you're utilizing the beer shield, the shield is arguably the least of your self-inflicted handicaps.

Hard to argue with that.  And this further validates my decision of a few years ago to give up alcohol entirely and limit myself at social events to exclusively sniffing glue.  

Take The Good With The Bad

The good news? Manufacturing jobs are returning to the United States.

The bad news? Many of these jobs aren't paying what they used to.

Flat U.S. Wages Help Fuel Rebound in Manufacturing:

The celebrated revival of U.S. manufacturing employment has been accompanied by a less-lauded fact: Wages for many manufacturing workers aren't keeping up with inflation.

The wage lag is a key factor contributing to the rebounding competitiveness of U.S. industry. A recent uptick in factory employment and the return of some production to U.S. shores from abroad both added jobs that probably otherwise wouldn't exist. But sluggish wages also are squeezing workers' incomes and spending. That, in turn, hurts retailers who target middle-income earners and restrains the vigor of the economic recovery.

"The U.S. has held manufacturing wages in check while there has been strong wage growth in China and moderate wage growth in Mexico," says economist Gordon Hanson of the University of California, San Diego, referring to two of the U.S.'s biggest lower-wage competitors.

This is a situation with few options to remedy. Lower labor costs are one of key reasons why companies are adding more jobs in the US and in some cases bringing jobs back that had been moved offshore. If those costs increase, that job growth would likely be stunted. Since lower paying jobs are better than no jobs, it's something that we're likely going to have to live with. The new normal if you will.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Show Him the Money

Gary Larson notes that the candidate carrying the Democratic recall banner against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin has a something of a history of standing with powerful interest groups and against the little guy. His piece at America Thinker is called Barrett and the Ho-Chunks:

As a congressman (1993-2003), Rep. Barrett behind the scenes also supported wealthy Wisconsin tribes -- by lobbying a government agency in 1995 against three impoverished Wisconsin tribes seeking a casino of their own in Hudson, Wisconsin, a border town next to Minnesota's populous Twin Cities' market.

Three dirt-poor tribes, bands of the Lake Superior Ojibwe, aligned with a dog track owner to remake his failing track into a casino under provisions of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. They followed all the rules. Then wealthy tribes from Wisconsin and Minnesota, jealous of their shared monopoly with one-armed bandits, ganged up on them and lobbied hard and dirty to block that would-be rival casino at St. Croix Meadows Race Track, just 30 miles from downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. Theirs was a textbook case in successful lobbying to rub out competition.

Led by the powerful Shakopee (Minnesota) Sioux of Minnesota and the Turtle Lake Band of Ojibwe in western Wisconsin, a consortium of tribal governments, all with existing casinos of their own, hired an army of well-connected lobbyists to deny their poor Indian brethren a casino of their own in Hudson.

Newly affluent Indians got their way when Secretary Bruce Babbitt's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) shot down the poor Indians' petition for a Hudson casino. They did so by getting to Democrats in Congress, including liberal Congressmen Barrett and firebrand David Obey from Wisconsin, plus Rep. James Oberstar and the late and seemingly saintly Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, among others now retired or also deceased.

Protecting the nouveau riche tribes' de facto casino monopoly was all-important to these limo liberals, and who cares about those impoverished Indians, anyhow?

After shooting down the Hudson deal, donations from the rich, favored tribes in the decision to deny competition poured in to the Democrat National Committee (DNC), headed by Daniel Fowler, and to individual Democrats' campaigns. It was like manna from heaven.

In the past, it was the rich tribes. Now, it’s the teachers unions. Barrett has shown himself more than willing to protect special interests against the public interest.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Slow But Steady Wins the Race

The Dream: The government can either compel through regulation or incentivize through subsidy consumers and businesses to make the transition to “cleaner” and “greener” sources of energy.

The Reality: Unless there is an underlying market drive to push to such a transition, government efforts are almost guaranteed to fail to deliver as promised.

Case in point is natural gas powered vehicles in the United States. After years of various plans being tossed around, some actually enacted, to encourage the conversion of vehicles to natural gas, it’s now actually starting to happen. But the transition is not occurring because of any government subsidy. It’s being driven by the simple fact that it now makes sense based on the current market cost differences between diesel and natural gas as fuel options. Will Truckers Ditch Diesel for Natural Gas? (WSJ-sub req):

Rising diesel costs last year forced Waste Management Inc. WM to charge customers an extra $169 million, just to keep its garbage trucks fueled. This year, the nation's biggest trash hauler has a new defensive strategy: it is buying trucks that will run on cheaper natural gas.

In fact, the company says 80% of the trucks it purchases during the next five years will be fueled by natural gas. Though the vehicles cost about $30,000 more than conventional diesel models, each will save $27,000-a-year or more in fuel, says Eric Woods, head of fleet logistics for Waste Management. By 2017, the company expects to burn more natural gas than diesel.

"The economics favoring natural gas are overwhelming," says Scott Perry, a vice president at Ryder Systems Inc.,one of the nation's largest truck-leasing companies and a transporter for the grocery, automotive, electronics and retail industries.
The shale gas revolution, which cut the price of natural gas by about 45% over the past year, already has triggered a shift by the utility industry to natural gas from coal. Vast amounts of natural gas in shale rock formations have been unlocked by improved drilling techniques, making the fuel cheap and plentiful across the U.S.

Now the shale-gas boom is rippling through transportation. Never before has the price gap between natural gas and diesel been so large, suddenly making natural-gas-powered trucks an alluring option for company fleets, rather than an impractical idea pushed mainly by natural-gas boosters like T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman. Railroad operators also are being affected as coal shipments decline.

Pickens’ vision of making the most of America’s natural gas resources was a good one (except for the whole wind power component). But the type of transformational change he was envisioning can’t be forced. The market may not move fast enough for everyone, but when it does move it leads to the lasting type of change that is real and meaningful.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beer of the Week (Vol. CXLVII)

Another special better late than never edition of Beer of the Week sponsored as always by the august folks at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help find the wine, whiskey, and beer you need without having to shell out a fortune to do so.

Our beer this is a another in the Stag Series from the August Schell Brwing Company in New Ulm, Minnesota. It’s called Czech Dark Lager:

The Stag Series is a collection of limited edition, experimental brews released periodically throughout the year. On tap for Stag #5 A Czech Dark Lager.


The Czech Republic is famous for the golden lagers of Pilsen and Budweis, but they also have a history of producing darker versions as well. Some Czech styles have a dark red hue and a nutty malt accent while others are closer to black, richer and spicier in flavor, and sometimes have hints of licorice. The most famous in that vein is the house beer at U Fleku, the 15th-century brewpub in Prague, and the oldest brewpub in the world.
Keeping with Tradition:

With this brew, our brewmasters drew their inspiration from the famous rich, dark, and spicy house beer at U Fleku, the world's oldest brewpub located in Prague, Czech Republic. Throughout the brewing process our brewmasters strived to keep the beer as traditional as possible. Stag #5 utilized a complex malt bill, built around a strong base of floor malted Bohemian Pilsner malt. This special, labor intensive malt was produced from the Bohemian spring barley "Hanka," and hand turned at an original floor malting facility in the Czech Republic. Keeping with tradition, we used a long, energy intensive, decoction mash to help give the beer a rich, full body. Finally, it was generously hopped with the spicy Czech Saaz hop. The beer was then fermented with a Czech lager yeast and stored at freezing temperatures for a crisp dry finish.

The Final Product:

Schell’s Czech Dark Lager is a medium bodied Czech specialty beer with a dry, toasted, dark bready malt character and spicy earthiness. It has a pleasant aroma of fresh grain with hints of licorice & dark fruit.

A six-pack of 12oz bottle sells for $9.99. Classic Schell’s label that follows the Stage Series’ style.

STYLE: Dark lager


COLOR (0-2): Dark brownish-black color. 2

AROMA (0-2): Malty and bready. 2

HEAD (0-2): Off-white with good volume that settles slowly and laces the glass nicely. 2

TASTE (0-5): Rich roasted malty flavors up front with a nice hop bite at the end. Flavors of sweet fruit, nuts, and spices are also present. Medium-bodied with a mouthfeel slanted toward the creamy side. Rather drinkable. 4

AFTERTASTE (0-2): The finish is clean and the flavors linger. 2

OVERALL (0-6): This rather rare style of beer has a unique flavor palate that I found quite good. While still providing the refreshment and drinkability that you would expect with a lager, Schells’ Czech Dark Lager also has more complex tastes that make for a pleasant and fulfilling drinking experience. Another winner from the Stag Series. 4

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 16

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Politics on Parade

On Saturday, the eldest son and I marched in the Golden Valley Days parade with his Cub Scout pack (my wife and other boys watched). It was an great opportunity to participate in a local civic event and, to capture, however briefly, that sense of community that seems so elusive to grasp on to these days. It was a muggy, mostly sunny morning when we started off and the pleasant weather attracted a decent crowd of onlookers. There were many families with young children which wasn’t surprising considering the 9:30am kickoff. Those sans kids were probably still sleeping off their indulgences of the previous evening.

At first, the parade was an almost Norman Rockwell like experience, with us marching behind a classic Ford pickup and the uniformed Scouts waving miniature American flags. It was great to see our neighbors and other residents of the city come together to watch the parade and witness their enthusiastic reaction to the Cub Scouts as we went by. Then, something started to bother me. I noticed that some of the people on the sidelines, my neighbors and fellow Golden Valleyites were sporting stickers touting the reelection of Amy Klobuchar. Further on, I began to see green Keith Ellison stickers and finally, although in lesser numbers, stickers advocating for gay marriage (although like the pro-choice pretension, they weren’t nearly that straight-forward instead proclaiming something about preserving the “right to marriage” as if their position wasn’t the radical one).

Now, I realize that local parades are the mother’s milk of retail politics and they have long been a place for politicians and their supporters to troll for votes. But once the political component was introduced on Saturday, the parade lost some of its appeal for me. When I looked out into the crowd, I was mostly seeing unfamiliar faces. I didn’t know who these people were or anything about them. Other than that they likely lived in or close to the same place as I did. So they were part of the same community and, for a brief moment during the parade at least, this community connection was being recognized and celebrated.

However, once I saw the Klobuchar, Ellison, or gay marriage stickers plastered to people I couldn’t look at them the same way. They were choosing to label themselves in a manner that was inviting separation and division. Instead of seeing neighbors, I was seeing people proudly displaying politically (and even religious) viewpoints that were diametrically opposed to my own. Part of the angst I was experiencing was probably due to the fact that there was absolutely no Republican or conservative presence whatsoever to counter the liberal labeling. And part of it could be the timing. It’s one thing to see the open partisan politicking at the State Fair in late-August or early-September. I didn’t really expect to encounter it in May at a local community celebration.

But I also believe that there should be times and places where we can truly put politics aside. It wasn’t as if Amy Klobuchar, Keith Ellison, or a gay couple dressed to wed were actually marching in the parade or shaking the hands and kissing the babies of would-be supporters. The stickers were being doled out by their lackeys. I doubt whether such efforts will materialize into much when it comes to changing minds or winning votes. They did however diminish my ability to enjoy an event that should have been about bringing us together based on what we have in common instead of dividing us by where we differ.

UPDATE: Apparently Keith Ellison was in attendance at the parade. I didn't see him since he was up front and were in the back end.

Monday, May 21, 2012

They Showed Up

Key excerpt from Jeff Johnson’s speech at the GOP state convention:

So I want to say something to both the Ron Paul lovers in the room and the Ron Paul haters in the room. And there’s a whole bunch of us, I would argue most of us, somewhere in between those groups.

To the Ron Paul lovers in the room, the ones who are here because of Ron Paul, you know what the chatter is, you know what the talk is, you know there is a lot of anger. Some of the anger is from people who have been sitting in those chairs for 20 years or 30 years doing hard work and are not here this year because you are here instead. So you have got to understand that anger. And you have to appreciate that anger. And the chatter is, fair or not ... they don’t care about the Republican Party, they are going to lose interest in a year, they are going to disappear, they are going to let someone else do the work, and then they aren’t even going to vote for Republicans. And it might not be fair, but a lot of people are saying that. And if that makes you mad, if that perception makes you mad, and I think it should, because it would make me mad, make sure it doesn’t happen, don’t disappear. If we are part of the Republican Party, then we all need to vote for Republicans in November.

For the Ron Paul haters in the room, and that’s a strong term, but it’s out there. For the folks who just want to purge the party of the Ron Paul people, the folks I hear say, 'Why can’t it just be like it was six or eight years ago?" My advice to you is: get over it.

Excellent advice that the MN GOP would do well to heed. Four years ago, when Ron Paul supporters showed up at the precinct caucuses and then largely melted away when it came time to get down to the hard work of actually trying run and win campaigns, long-time Republican activists were understandably put out. The Paul people were told that if you want to get involved and really make a difference, then commit to it and sign on for the long haul.

This year, that is exactly what they have done (at least so far). Politics is all about showing up and Ron Paul supporters did that in spades. And it has caused a certain amount of tension within party circles and lead to some uncomfortable situations. I experienced a small dose of that when comments I made at the precinct caucus were not well received by Paul supporters and I was not elected to be a delegate at our BPOU convention as a result. But that’s how the process works. If you show up and get other like minded folks to do so as well, you get to decide the delegates and alternates who will attend the BPOU, district, and state conventions. The Paul people did that and as a result they also got to choose a good part of the delegation that will represent Minnesota in Tampa at the Republican National Convention.

Rather than grousing and complaining about it, Republicans not particularly enamored of Ron Paul need to accept the outcome, learn from it if they wish, and realize that this is exactly what they asked for four years ago. They should also realize that there are worse things than having the party’s direction being driven by limited government/libertarian conservatives. In my experience, there are two kinds of Ron Paul people: those who support the man and those who support his positions. The former are admittedly difficult to deal with at times and their devotion to their candidate can verge of being a cult of personality. The latter however are mostly folks like the rest of us. They think the government is too big in both size and scope and that the country needs to get back to the Constitutional precepts upon which it was founded. We don’t have to agree with them on everything in order to work together to elect candidates that better represent our shared values.

In the past, the Republican party has been able to successfully fuse groups with diverse interests together for electoral success. For example, during the Reagan years it was social conservatives, free market advocates, and foreign policy hawks. There is no reason why a similar fusion that includes a libertarian faction can’t work today. Welcome to the party Paul people.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Conspicious Consumption

Even though they may be chasing many of the same Western brands, the motivations driving Chinese consumers to buy is not the same as it is in the United States. There was a fascinating article in yesterday's WSJ called What Chinese Consumers Want:

Luxury items are desired more as status investments than for their inherent beauty or craftsmanship. The Chinese are now the world's most avid luxury shoppers, at least if trips abroad to cities like Hong Kong and Paris are taken into account. According to Global Refund, a company specializing in tax-free shopping for tourists, the Chinese account for 15% of all luxury items purchased in France but less than 2% of its visitors.

Public display is also a critical consideration in how global brands are repositioning themselves to attract Chinese consumers. Despite China's tea culture, Starbucks successfully established itself as a public venue in which professional tribes gather to proclaim their affiliation with the new-generation elite. Both Pizza Hut and Häagen Dazs have built mega-franchises in China rooted in out-of-home consumption. (The $5 carton of vanilla to be eaten at home is a tough sell in China.)

The second rule is that the benefits of a product should be external, not internal. Even for luxury goods, celebrating individualism—with familiar Western notions like "what I want" and "how I feel"—doesn't work in China. Automobiles need to make a statement about a man on his way up. BMW, for example, has successfully fused its global slogan of the "ultimate driving machine" with a Chinese-style declaration of ambition.

Sometimes the difference between internal versus external payoffs can be quite subtle. Spas and resorts do better when they promise not only relaxation but also recharged batteries. Infant formulas must promote intelligence, not happiness. Kids aren't taken to Pizza Hut so that they can enjoy pizza; they are rewarded with academic "triumph feasts." Beauty products must help a woman "move forward." Even beer must do something. In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.

I've noticed this pattern in the past when Chinese acquaintances would purchase cell phones that cost the equivalent of a month’s salary. I found such outlays puzzling, but when understood in the context of the importance of public display in Chinese consumer culture they become easier to understand.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Gotta Support the Team

Jason Gay says the Devils Will Always Have Puddy (WSJ sub req):

Warburton, who was born in Paterson, N.J., but raised in Southern California, wound up doing 10 episodes of "Seinfeld," becoming one of the series's most memorable side characters. But the Devils episode, called "The Face Painter," has enjoyed an especially long reach. The Devils franchise wound up using Puddy video clips during games in their 1995 Cup run—they still use them—and they invited Warburton to their opening-night championship tribute the following year.

Before that 1995 puck-dropping ceremony, the Devils asked Warburton if he'd do them a favor: Would he paint a D on his bare chest? The actor resisted; he was already painting his face and wearing a team jersey.

But Warburton relented, and it turned out to be a wise move. After dropping the puck during a red-carpet presentation, Warburton was stepping across the rink when he slipped and nearly fell, only to regain his balance. Sensing an awkward moment, he ripped his shirt off.

"I was so thankful I had that D painted on my chest," Warburton said. "The whole place went crazy."

It's all but certain that the Kings will be in the Stanley Cup Finals. If they meet the Devils in LA, we'll be on the lookout for a familiar actor with a painted face (although the Devils have changed their color scheme since the "Seinfeld" days). You gotta let them know you're out there.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

World Leader Pretend

Henry e-mails to alert us to the news that Ahmadinejad is Kind Of Getting Back Into Old R.E.M. Again:

Ahmadinejad confirmed he first discovered R.E.M. in 1986 after stumbling across Fables Of The Reconstruction on vinyl at a record store in Tehran. At the time a civil engineering graduate student who helped crack down on dissident university professors and pupils, he said he was immediately infatuated with the band upon hearing the haunting guitar riff at the start of album opener "Feeling Gravitys Pull."

"I was already into the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, and Pylon, but R.E.M was like the perfect mixture of jangle pop and college rock, plus they had this really atmospheric quality that was all their own," said the man the terrorist group al-Qaeda once blasted for spreading conspiracy rumors about the 9/11 attacks. "You know the thunder effect on 'We Walk'? It's actually the slowed down sound of billiard balls colliding, but with the tape played back at a really slow speed. Pretty cool, right?"

Claiming the Grammy Award–winning band has always been "super important" to him as a source of reassurance in tough times, Ahmadinejad told reporters he never would have gotten through the stress of the 2009 Iranian election protests and Green Revolution if he hadn't pulled out his copy of Lifes Rich Pageant and "just put 'Fall On Me' on repeat."

"People don't give Lifes Rich Pageant enough credit, but it's really good—really good," said the Iranian ruler who has been widely condemned for his human rights record. "It's a great album to put on when you're traveling. When I went to the U.N. in 2005 to speak about Iran's right to develop nuclear power, I was listening to it all the time."

Hitting the Ceiling

Joe Doakes e-mails from Como Park with a preview of what the new debate over the debate ceiling between President Obama and the Republicans might look like:

O: Democrats will not let Republicans hold this country and the global economy hostage. They must raise the debt ceiling without insisting on spending cuts. In fact, I insist on tax increases.

R: Total federal spending approved for 2012 was about 38 and anticipated income was about 24 (million, billion, trillion, doesn’t matter; what matters is the relative numbers). It looks like we’ll be short 14. Raising taxes on millionaires might get us 1, at best. How to you plan to come up with the rest?

O: Borrow it.

R: We’re maxed out.

O: Raise our credit limit.

R: Total federal spending in 2011 was 33 and income was 23 so we were short 10. You said if we borrowed that, you’d get serious with us to balance the budget this year. You do realize your proposed budget just went down in flames in the Senate? It didn’t get one single vote, not even one single Democrat. Do you have anything realistic to propose?

O: Hope. And Change. And possibly vague promises of future intentions. Now do it; or the New York Times will call you names.

R: Oh, okay, um, I guess that’ll be fine. Where do we sign?

It’d be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Nothing to See Here

Let me get this straight: a big bank makes a bad bet and loses a couple of billion dollars. As a result, some people at the bank deemed responsible for the loss lose their jobs and the bank's stock price goes down. Therefore, we MUST have more government regulation of banks. Huh?

I'm not the only one not connecting the dots here as David Harsanyi explains that actually JPMorgan Proves We Don't Need More Regulation:

When banks generate huge profits, they are exploiting the American people, engaging in unadulterated greed and, needless to say, in need of more regulation. And when banks lose too much money? Yep, they're being insatiably greedy -- but stupid, too -- and, naturally, in need of more regulation.

The unscrupulous can't win for losing, apparently.

So when JPMorgan Chase & Co. suffers about $2 billion in losses (probably more) via complex derivative trades that were used by an obscure unit within the bank to hedge against risk, everyone in Washington seems quite excited about the political possibilities. Yet, JPMorgan's problems prove that finance works without any meddling from Washington.

Rather than have someone point out the obvious -- "hey, that's how it's supposed to work"; "that'll teach 'em"; "neat, someone made 2 billion bucks on JPMorgan's stupid bets" -- we have the Justice Department opening an inquiry into the matter, the president calling for tighter regulations, Republican Sen. Bob Corker calling for hearings and a bunch of pundits falsely claiming that if the Wall Street reform bill had been fully implemented, we wouldn't have these kinds of "risky" transactions -- as if we should want to stop them in the first place.

The $2 billion hasn't sunk JPMorgan (and with $127 billion in equity, it hasn't come close), but if this kind of thing constitutes a national emergency, we should have better sense than to allow folks who squander $2 billion on their lunch breaks to concoct the solution.

If you work at JPMorgan or are a shareholder, you have a stake in this. But for the rest of us, the uproar is much adieu about nothing and the worst thing that could happen at this point is to have attention seeking politicians "looking out for the interests of the American people" determine that there's a problem here that needs their special brand of fixing.

'Tis a Remorseless Eating Machine

Man pickets over all-you-can-eat fish fry:

THIENSVILLE, Wis., May 15 (UPI) -- A Wisconsin man said he will picket a restaurant every Sunday until its all-you-can-eat fish fry lives up to its name.

Bill Wisth, who stands at 6-foot-6 and weighs 350 pounds, said he went to the all-you-can-eat fish fry Friday at Chuck's Place in Thiensville and was angered when the restaurant cut him off after he downed a dozen pieces of fish, WTMJ-TV, Milwaukee, reported Tuesday.

"It's false advertising," Wisth said. Wisth, who called police while arguing with workers, said he was not satisfied when the restaurant gave him eight more pieces of fish when he left. "I think that people have to stand up for consumers," Wisth said.

Wisth returned to the restaurant two days later with a picket sign and said he will stand outside the eatery every Sunday until it changes its policy during the all-you-can-eat fish fry. Elizabeth Roeming, a waitress at the Chuck's Place, said Wisth was cut off because the kitchen was running out of fish. She said Wisth has caused disturbances at the restaurant before despite making allowances for the customer, including allowing him to run up a tab that he has yet to pay.

Which brings to mind the classic Simpson's (before the show entered a lenghthy period of medicority) episode called "New Kid in Town."

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Beer of the Week (Vol. CXLVI)

Another special better late than never edition of Beer of the Week sponsored as always by the calm and cool folks at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help find the wine, whiskey, and beer you need without losing your head.

I spent most of last week on a business trip to Mexico and I am happy to report that I returned with all critical body parts (head, hands, etc.) still firmly attached to my torso. And I had the opportunity to enjoy a few cervesas along the way. In general, Mexican beer does not enjoy a good reputation in the United States. And while that negative impression is in some part deserved, there are some rays of light when it comes to swilling south of the border.

One example is Indio brewed by the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery. It’s a dark lager that has more flavor and a bit more of a hop bite than one usually associates with Mexican beers. Victoria from Grupo Modelo is another Mexican beer that isn’t particularly exciting, but fares well when compared to the likes of Corona.

And on this most recent trip, I tried a Bohemia Weizen for the first time and found it quite refreshing. It’s another offering from the Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma Brewery which also produces the decent Bohemia pilsener. The Bohemia Weizen is a wheat beer with a higher alcohol content than you usually find in Mexican beers. It’s somewhat comparable to a Leinie’s Sunset Wheat (with less citrus punch) and it makes for a good alternative in a land of light lagers.

But it seems like the few decent beers that you find in Mexico are hard to come by in the United States. Corona is ubiquitous. Tecate is widely available. And we’re all familiar with the beer from this brilliant ad campaign:

Our beer of the week is Dos Equis Lager. Stay thirsty my friends.

12oz green bottle. Green and gold label with a couple of prominent red Xs as per the name.

STYLE: Lager


COLOR (0-2): Pale yellow and very clear. 1

AROMA (0-2): A bit of bitterness. 1

HEAD (0-2): Bright white color. Decent volume, but it dissipates rapidly. 1

TASTE (0-5): Mostly tepid flavors of sweet malt and corn. Clean and dry finish. Very drinkable. 2

AFTERTASTE (0-2): Fades very fast. 1

OVERALL (0-6): The bearded chap may well be the most interesting man in the world, but the beer he prefers (when he drinks beer) is far from the most interesting. Dos Equis Lager’s bland flavors are remindful of a typical American adjunct lager and there’s not much here to separate it from any macro offering. If you want to enjoy Mexican beer, there are better options out there even if they might be a little harder to locate. 2

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 8

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Company You Keep?

So now we're considered part of Hugh Hewitt's Rabble on his Pinterest account? I don't even really know what Pinterest is, but I'll take this in the vein of any pub is good pub.

Sand, Sand, Sand

A story in today’s WSJ detailed a surprising off-shoot of the oil and gas boom in the United States. Sand Miners Race to Keep Up With Demand From Fracking (sub req):

The surging demand is making sand the Midwest slice of a national energy boom. Oil and gas producers in recent years have greatly boosted the use of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing to tap reserves once out of reach. Sand, injected deep underground to prop open fractures in shale formations and allow oil and gas to flow out, is important in "fracking."

Wisconsin and Minnesota have abundant supplies of the type of sand that oil and gas producers need. Geological conditions were right hundreds of millions of years ago to form sand hard enough to withstand the pressure thousands of feet underground, while also having round grains that leave space so the oil and gas can escape. Fracking sand can fetch around $50 a ton, depending on quality.

Paul van Eijl, land-acquisition manager for Superior Sand Systems Inc., a Calgary mining company, recently set up a tiny office on Third Street in this Mississippi River port city, a color-coded map of sandstone formations behind his desk. Mr. van Eijl spends his days looking to strike deals with landowners for sand just below the surface, using county land records and Google Earth elevations to target properties.

Sand mines are popping up across the region. Wisconsin officials estimate that the number of mines in the state has doubled to more than 60 since just last fall. Those doing the mining range from Houston-based oil-and-gas producer EOG Resources Inc., which opened a mine in Wisconsin to supply its own production, to tiny operators that don't even process the sand.

As with any natural resource story these days, there is some wailing and gnashing of teeth from NIMBYs and environmental reactionaries about the potential detrimental impacts of a surge in sand mining. But most people in the region seem okay with the idea of getting a small sliver of the oil & gas pie. Let North Dakota crow about their oil. Anybody can exploit black gold. We’ve figured out a way to sell sand.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Regulators! Mount Up!

As the news of JP Morgan Chase's recent multi-billion dollar loss on derivatives transactions breaks, many people are asking the all too common question: where were the regulators?

I can understand the impulse to ask this question.  The downfall of Lehman Brothers in 2008 significantly harmed the American economy and marked the beginning of a tough economic period from which we have yet to emerge.  Government oversight theoretically could prevent future events of this sort from wreaking havoc with the American economy.

Unfortunately, I think the proposition of government providing appropriate oversight of major financial institutions is far fetched.  The main reason why is that the government is simply not competent to provide such oversight.

Finance is an incredibly complex business.  Successful executives at major financial firms make tens of millions of dollars in annual income.  This attracts elite level talent to the industry, both interms of IQ and drive.  I'd note that typical investment bankers out of MBA school work 60-80 hours every week and the top Ivy League MBA graduates tend to flock to investment banks. On the other hand, government workers are frankly not as intelligent or hard working.  That's not an insult, it is demonstratable fact.   

Even if government regulators were as talented as the management of the finance industry, they simply don't have the resources to develop the complete understanding of the transactions that take place at individual corporate levels.  A company like JP Morgan Chase is just one of the thousands of companies that the Securities Exchange Commission is tasked with regulating.  Companies like JPM/Chase have thousands of employees dedicated to their various tasks and they can work those employees for ridiculous hours.  Regulators simply don't have the manpower to keep up.  Because they are outsiders, they don't have the context to understand the activities that these firms undertake.

So what is the answer?  Laws like Sarbanes-Oxley and Dodd-Frank have been unable to prevent events like we saw last week at JPM/Chase.  I'd suggest that one role for government is to prevent financial institutions from getting too big to fail.  That's a fine line to walk and I don't endorse that solution lightly.  However, in an environment where Federal Government's the response to the failure of a large financial institutions is to initiate a near-trillion dollar loan program, I submit that we simply cannot afford to allow institutions to be "too big to fail."  Other than limiting size and scope of such institutions, any regulation designed to prevent events like we saw last week is folly.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A special Saturday edition of the Hinderaker-Ward Experience (HWX) podcast is up and ready for your listening pleasure. As always, it’s fresh and free to all.

It’s a spirited 60 minutes of podcast excellence with John  and Brian Ward. They’re joined this week by Dan Blatt of the website Gay Patriot. From the perspective of a gay conservative, Dan shares his unique insights on the big issues of the week, President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage and Washington Post tales of Mitt Romney’s alleged bullying while in prep school.

By the way, I believe the only compelling evidence of Romney’s misbehavior is the uncanny resemblance of a 17-year-old Mitt to Alpha House’s Greg Marmalard.

Next it’s Loon of the Week with Martin Bashir of MSNBC damning Mitt Romney to the infernal regions by masterfully playing the 2 Nephi 2 card (it’s a Book of Mormon thing, you probably wouldn’t understand). Then we wrap up with This Week in Gate Keeping, featuring a story on the real heroes of the current economic recovery, Woodrow Wilson and Kaiser Wilhelm. 

 Many ways to hear the podcast, including over on the mothership at Ricochet. You can be sure to never miss an episode, by subscribing via iTunes, Stitcher, or Feedburner. Or just use the player embedded below or in the upper right hand corner of this web site. If all of these fail, send me an email and I'll be happy to come to your house and read from the written transcript.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Climbing a Mental Rope

In today's WSJ, David Gelernter calls on parents to Make It a Summer Without iStuff:

In fact, the whole point of modern iToys is to increase irresistibly the appeal of sitting inside by yourself and doing nothing. Not reading a book, not studying or listening to music or drawing with crayons or practicing the piano; not playing checkers or chess or Monopoly face-to-face with a real human being. Not doing anything except turning into a click-vegetable.

Children do need to play and have fun. But the best, most refreshing and valuable sort of play and fun unleashes the mind to wander and roam. For many creative thinkers-to-be, classroom hours are torture. In school, child-minds are forced to trot behind the teacher and never (or rarely) stop to think, or go off by themselves. Remember? Roaming around outside or reading a book comes as a huge relief: Your mind floats weightless, or pokes along at its own pace, turning aside whenever it likes—which is just what creative minds desperately want and need to do.

The Web and videogames and online gossip, with their endless servings of colorful and seductive mental mush, never make children grip hard, pull hard, and climb a dangling mental rope. The ability to click themselves clear of all obstacles turns children with computers into little digital Henry VIIIs, sending plates clattering to the palace floor the moment their majesties are displeased.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Pay Now or Later

Vox Day offers up the most realistic argument in favor of state funding of a Vikings stadium that I've yet to come across:

This may sound wildly, even ludicrously hypocritical. No doubt people will assume it is because I am a diehard Vikings fan who wants the team to remain in Minnesota. But that actually has nothing to do with it. I readily concede the following:

1. It is ridiculous for an indebted state to give millions of dollars to a billionaire.

2. The new stadium will not boost the state's economy in the slightest

3. The new stadium will not save any jobs or maintain the tax base in any significant manner

4. It is not fair for non-NFL fans to subsidize the entertainment preferences of others

5. The stadium will cost more than is estimated and the state will be saddled with the cost overruns

So, why should they do it anyhow? Because I know Minnesota. If they stand firm and let the Vikings leave for Los Angeles - a profoundly stupid move on the NFL's part, since no matter what team goes there will end up moving eventually - they will end up spend three to five times more to lure a new team to the area. See: Lakers-Timberwolves and North Stars-Wild. Moreover, the new team will contribute nothing to the stadium cost because the stadium will have to be built before the team is courted. So it's not a choice between stupidly spending $400-$750 million now or not spending that money, it's a choice between stupidly spending $400-$750 million now and stupidly spending $1.5-$4 billion a few years from now. This doesn't mean I support public expenditure on team stadiums. I don't. I think the NFL ownership restrictions are a shameless scam and the Green Bay Packers have an ideal ownership model that is a proven success both on and off the field.

But I'm also cognizant of the reality that there is no chance that the same politicians who have been talking bravely about standing up the NFL will not turn around and be shamelessly kowtowing before it if they lose the team. They've done it before and they will do it again. They've already built stadiums for the Timberwolves, the Wild, the Twins, and the football Gophers, none of whom enjoy the support that the Vikings do. So, it's vastly preferable that they just get it over with now, when it's going to cost less and the team will pay some of the expense.

I agree with Vox's five points of contention against public financing of a stadium. But I also grant the legitimacy of his argument for paying less for a stadium today to preserve the legacy of a team we know versus paying more later for a franchise without a similar tradition. The North Stars-Wild example is especially relevant here. Even ignoring the significant costs differences between what it would have taken to keep the North Stars in town versus launching the Wild as a new franchise is the psychic toll that such an abandonment incurs. It took may years for me to really accept the Wild as Minnesota’s NHL team. And even then, the level of passion and commitment is simply not what it was in the days of the North Stars. Now, I recognize that this sentiment is not necessarily true for many or even most Wild fans today, but as evidenced by the continued popularity of North Stars apparel, there is still a longing in Minnesota for the good old days at Met Center.

I have no doubt that if the Vikings were to leave and Minnesota we were to receive a new NFL franchise at some point in the future, the feelings would be the same. Yes, it would be nice to have the NFL back in town again, but it wouldn’t be the same as the Vikings. I’m still ardently anti any state funding of a Vikings stadium. But of all the arguments in favor of the proposition that I’ve seen, Vox’s is by far the best.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Father of the Bride

The REAL reason Ziggy Wilf needs hundreds of millions of tax dollars to build a stadium for his football team?

He’s on the hook to pay for a wedding later this summer. 

I think he just won the popular support of fathers with daughters across the state. 

Via Katie Baker at Grantland, who notes that young Miss Wilf’s fiancé happens to be an aide to Gov. Chris Chrisite (NJ): 

Imagine that guvna on the dance floor at your wedding.

That does promise to add some extra drama to the chicken dance. 

Beer of the Week (Vol. CXLV)

Another better late than never edition of Beer of the Week sponsored as always by the adventurous folks at Glen Lake Wine & Spirits who can help you find the wine, whiskey, and beer to challenge your taste buds.

Our featured beer this week is Sierra Nevada Hoptimum:

A group of hop-heads and publicans challenged our Beer Camp brewers to push the extremes of whole-cone hop brewing. The result is this: a 100 IBU, whole-cone hurricane of flavor. Simply put —Hoptimum: the biggest whole-cone IPA we have ever produced. Aggressively hopped, dry-hopped, AND torpedoed with our exclusive new hop varieties for ultra-intense flavors and aromas.

Resinous "new-school" and exclusive hop varieties carry the bold and aromatic nose. The flavor follows the aroma with layers of aggressive hoppiness, featuring notes of grapefruit rind, rose, lilac, cedar, and tropical fruit—all culminating in a dry and lasting finish.

A 4-pack of 12oz bottles goes for $8.99. Hop-green colored label with a rendering of a classic hop-head.

STYLE: Imperial IPA


COLOR (0-2): Golden orange color that’s mostly clear. 2

AROMA (0-2): Strong hoppy scents of grapefruit and pine. 2

HEAD (0-2): White color, good volume and lacing. 2

TASTE (0-5): Hoptimum delivers as promised with a heavy hop punch. Like the smell, there are strong flavors of grapefruit, pine, and floral hops with a touch of sweetness. Medium-bodied with a smoother mouthfeel. You can definitely feel the heat, yet it remains pretty drinkable despite the high alcohol content. 4

AFTERTASTE (0-2): The finish is dry and the delicious hop flavors hang around for a long time. 2

OVERALL (0-6): A top notch Imperial IPA that delivers a great hop bang for the buck. Hoptimum has rich, bold hop flavors with a nice kick that pushes the taste envelope without going too far. 5

TOTAL SCORE (0-19): 17

A Doctor, A Scientist, and a Professor Walk Into a Church...

James Taranto highlights a New York Times piece on how evangelicals think about politics in his Best of the Web Today roundup that almost seems like a parody:

If you found that last story aggravating, here's an academic tale that will make you smile. Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford anthropologist, did some field work on an exotic tribe called "evangelical Christians." She explains their mysterious ways to the open-minded, curious readers of the New York Times.

"If you want to understand how evangelicals conceive of their political life, you need to understand how they think about God," she explains. "I saw that when people prayed, they imagined themselves in conversation with God. They do not, of course, think that God is imaginary. . . . They imagine God as wiser and kinder than any human they know."

Fascinating, isn't it? Apparently some of these people live right here in America! In her fieldwork, Luhrmann reports, "I met doctors, scientists and professors at the churches."

Smart people who don’t think God is imaginary? Probably not news to those with even a basic understanding of religion in America, but I’m sure it will come as a surprise to more than a few readers of the NY Times.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Metrics Are Hard

Women, Welch Clash at Forum (WSJ-sub req):

On Wednesday, Mr. Welch and his wife and writing partner, Suzy Welch, told a gathering of women executives from a range of industries that, in matters of career track, it is results and performance that chart the way. Programs promoting diversity, mentorships and affinity groups may or may not be good, but they are not how women get ahead. "Over deliver," Mr. Welch advised. "Performance is it!"

Angry murmurs ran through the crowd. The speakers asked: Were there any questions? "We're regaining our consciousness," one woman executive shot back.

Mr. Welch had walked into a spinning turbine fan blade.

"Of course women need to perform to advance," Alison Quirk, an executive vice president at the investment firm State Street Corp., said later. "But we can all do more to help people understand their unconscious biases."

"He showed no recognition that the culture shapes the performance metrics, and the culture is that of white men," another executive said.

Memo to the ladies: if you so desire, you can debate why there aren't more women CEOs and discuss what might be done to change the situation, but trying to claim it's because the metrics used to measure business performance are inherently sexist and racist ain't going to help move your cause forward. And neither is talking about how you're "regaining your consciousness" for that matter.

Business as Usual

With all the hubbub over the attempts of the Legislature to put a deal together to finance a new stadium for the Vikings, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the State of Minnesota regularly shovels millions of dollars at private companies that allows these firms to make more money. Two new approved projects are expected to bring jobs to Iron Range:

ST. PAUL, Minn. — The board charged with investing in development on the state's Iron Range has approved funding for two projects that will create more jobs in northeastern Minnesota.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board voted today to approve a $650,000 loan for Ellefson Off Highway in Iron, Minnesota. The company refurbishes mining equipment. Company vice president Dan Houck explained Ellefson's business to board members. "We essentially purchase whole pieces of equipment from around the world, bring it back to the Iron Range," Houck said. "It will be dismantled, gone through our shop, which is where these jobs are needed. We need mechanics, warehousing people, welders that can essentially bring these components to the levels we need them to be. The parts are then sold." The company's expansion plans include adding nine new jobs.

Nine jobs in exchange for a $650K loan from the state? Doesn’t seem as if the taxpayers of Minnesota are getting a lot of bang for our bucks.

The board also voted to pay for a $2 million expansion for DeCare Dental in Gilbert. That company plans to add 120 customer service positions.

DFL Rep. Tom Rukavina, who chairs the board, said it's a good investment for the state. "People like the jobs. They stick around a long time, the benefits here are good. Starting wages are around $12 an hour and most people working there are making $15 an hour or better," Rukavina said. "You know, we've been promised that by the end of the year there will be 40 new employees there, so it's great."

Yeah, that is great, isn’t it? I guess it’s great if you’re the politician who can claim credit for using other people’s money to create jobs. Or if you’re DeCare Dental and you just suckered the state into picking up the tab for two million dollars in expansion expense. Or if you’re one of the one-hundred-twenty folks who will now be making twelve dollars an hour thanks to money confiscated from your neighbors.

But for the taxpayers of Minnesota who see their hard earned money forcibly redistributed by the state to a private business it might not be all that. Or for competitors of the two firms on the receiving end of this latest state handout. That’s what’s really so insidious about the government stepping in to pick winners and losers with the power of the public purse. If you’re a business who doesn’t put your hand out or stick your snout into the public trough you may well find yourself at a competitive disadvantage with other firms who eagerly belly up to the bar of public funding. So even if getting into bed with the government may violate your core free market principles, you may find that you have no choice but to do exactly that.

(Photo from Star Tribune)

Rukavina wasn’t the only politician basking in the spotlight of another corporate giveaway as Governor Mark Dayton took a break from shilling for a Vikings stadium to hail the handout:

“I would like to personally thank these quality companies for investing in Minnesota by growing 129 new jobs on the Iron Range. Both projects illustrate how investing in our existing businesses is a strategy for success,” Dayton said.

The companies get thanked for taking our money? How about a little something for those of us giving it up? Left unsaid it all this celebration about how wonderful it is that the state is “investing” in these businesses is any discussion about where the money comes from and whether individuals would have chosen to invest their money differently had the state not forcibly picked it from their pockets.

Oh, in case you were wondering DeCare Dental is a wholly owned subsidiary of WellPoint, Inc. WellPoint CEO compensation slipped in 2011:

WellPoint Inc.'s earnings sank last year, as the health insurer struggled with losses in its Medicare Advantage business, and the total compensation delivered to Chairwoman and CEO Angela Braly slipped as well.

Braly, 50, received 2011 compensation valued at $13.2 million, according to an Associated Press analysis of the Indianapolis company's annual proxy statement. That represents a 2 percent drop compared to 2010.

Welfare for millionaires, anyone?

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Don't Know Much History

A story in today's Star Tribune on the difficulties that young adults are facing in our tough economic environment contained a great example of the lack of perspective that seems to be common amongst this particular cohort. Recession generation has adulthood on hold:

Alyssa Kjellberg still can't believe it. Two years beyond college, her career path has led only to jobs at a greenhouse, a hotel front desk, an aunt's office and a seasonal landscaping company -- all paying less than $12 an hour. After applying for about 100 jobs, the environmental science major even offered "one week of free labor'' last summer to get a foot in the door at the landscaping company. But that job ended with the season, as will the one she's in now. Her dream of becoming a park ranger or environmental educator is drifting away. "There are so many people looking for work, you feel lost in the shuffle,'' said Kjellberg, 23. "I see my grandpa who lived through World War II and all he had to go through. Sometimes I feel like I'm living through something like that, too.''

Living through a world war that killed millions of people and not being able to land the type of job you want after graduating from college? Why yes Alyssa, I'm sure the experiences are quite similar.

Walk The Talk

Next week the Minnesota legislature will decide whether to build a football stadium that would ensure that the Vikings remain in the Twin Cities for the next generation.  I've been a football fan in general and specifically a Vikings fan my entire life. Memories of watching them play are plentiful, especially the happier memories of their successes in my childhood.  Losing the team would greatly disappoint me.

So why am I writing this post to the legislature to reject the Vikings' bid for a publicly financed stadium?  Because I need to walk the talk of my conservative beliefs.  For almost as long as I've been a Vikings fan, I've railed against wasteful government that oversteps its bounds.  Using public funding to support a private enterprise is the most basic example of government waste.

The Vikings are a private enterprise that employs hundreds of Minnesotans.  However, they appear to be bigger and more important than their economic impact suggests.  Examples of Minnesota companies much larger than the Vikings include Valspar, Pentair, and Fastenal.  Each of these companies employs thousands of Minnesotans, and generates billions of dollars of revenue (over $10 billion between the three companies).  You don't hear our legislators debate about giving these companies hundreds of millions of dollars.  Yet the Vikings generate a small fraction of their revenue ($221 million), but because of their visibility in the form of TV contracts we are talking about providing them with a capital asset, courtesy of the taxpayers, of nearly $1 billion.

Investing capital into a medium sized employer may make financial sense.  However, one must derive a return from this investment.  The problem with building a stadium is that the investors (taxpayers) don't receive any of the return.  This is not the same as building infrastructure, it is more like providing a payoff to a favored campaign donor.  Anyone who is honest about the economic impact of public stadiums can see that they are an inefficient use of government funds.

If conservatives want to have any success in reversing the trend of government waste, we must accept that things we might like that don't fit the true role of government must be first on the chopping block.  I'd also argue that it is immoral to oppose welfare for borderline needy while providing significantly greater welfare to a billionaire like Ziggy Wilf.

 Do the right thing, legislators.  Just say no to a billion dollar boondoggle.

Friday, May 04, 2012

On Target

The day before Easter I brought the kids over to a friend’s house for an egg hunt. After the scavenging for poultry products had ended, we spent some time catching up on what we had been reading of late. He mentioned that he had recently received a book featuring a critical examination of the US approach to the War on Terror. This lead to further discussion on the topic of terrorism itself and what had and had not transpired in the years since 9/11. Both of us expressed surprise that there haven’t been more attempts at “lone wolf” or “Nike terrorism” type attacks in the US. It seems like such attacks would be relatively easy to carry out, are difficult to prevent, and would create a level of fear and distrust among the public at large far out of magnitude to the actual impact of the attacks themselves. Why Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups haven’t attempted more of these attacks is a mystery.

Not too long after that, I learned that Mark Yost had released a novel called Soft Target:

"Soft Target" is Wall Street Journal writer Mark Yost's debut novel.

Nick Mattera is a former Marine Corps bomb squad technician who survived four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He's come home to his Italian-American neighborhood on Chicago's North Side and becomes one of the fire department's young hotshots. But Nick never expected to run into Abdullah and Jhalil.

The two al Qaeda terrorists have come to Chicago with one goal in mind: indiscriminately kill Jewish Americans and open up a whole new front in the War on Terror. Adding to Nick's troubles are Jack Weinstein, an opportunistic politician who wants to close Nick's firehouse, and Rachel Cohen, Weinstein's sexy legislative aide who has eyes for Nick and doubts about her boss.

The story that unfolds in "Soft Target" is best described as Tom Clancy meets Backdraft meets 50 Shades of Grey. Mark Yost is himself a firefighter/paramedic and gives readers an unparalleled look at life inside a firehouse. More importantly, he shows just how easy it would be for two dedicated extremists to use America's open society against it and carry out these dastardly missions. When readers finish "Soft Target," they'll be anxiously awaiting the next book in the Nick Mattera Series, and nervously asking themselves, "Why hasn't something like this really happened here?"

Which of course was exactly the question my friend and I had just been asking. So the timing for Mark’s initial foray into the world of action adventure thrillers (if that’s what they’re calling the genre these days) couldn’t have been better. And yes, I refer to the author in the informal manner as I am personally acquainted with him. I had the pleasure of meeting and getting to know Mark a bit when he was living in the Twin Cities some years ago. So this will not be a completely objective review although I will do my best to avoid it becoming nothing more than a over-the-top plug for a chum.

I have to say that coming in to the book, my expectations were not high. This is a not a slight in way toward Mark. It’s just that his previous writing had been fact-grounded topics such as sports, history, politics, museums, etc. Moving to novels is usually not easy an transition to make for any writer to make and Mark’s decision to enter ground well-trod by the likes of Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn and a host of others would invite inevitable comparisons and raise skepticism about how good the book could possibly be.

For the most part, I was pleasantly surprised by what I discovered in the electronic pages of “Soft Target.” I haven’t read a work in the genre for some time and sort of assumed that all the possible compelling story lines had already been played out. Yet Mark was able to create one that held my interest from the beginning and made me want to know what the eventual outcome would be. That in itself is an accomplishment in a novel of this sort.

Mark also does a nice job exploring a number of different subjects with details that are more often than not quite interesting and even informative. As mentioned in the description, he delves into the inner workings of firefighters and paramedics in a way that I thought was thorough without getting in the way of the story. I’ve read authors who know a lot about particular subjects and seem to feel the need to share EVERYTHING they know on them to the point where you find yourself skipping ahead until you can back an area that’s relevant to the plot.

Among other subjects that Mark touches on in addition to firefighting/paramedics and terrorism are:

- Immigration
- Chicago politics
- Unions
- The Mafia
- New York pizza
- Craft beer

That’s far from a complete list as at some point I lost track of the all the macro and micro topics broached at some level in “Soft Target.”

I would say the strength of the book is the characters. The good guys are flawed, but likeable people that you can identify with. The bad guys (and there are many of them, only a few who are actually terrorists) are people that are easy to dislike yet also real. They’re not outlandish stereotypes, but believable villains whose misdeeds run the gamut from the relatively petty to pure evil. Seeing a number of them get their comeuppance in some manner another provides the reader with a measure of satisfaction as well.

The only issue I really had with the characters was one which misfired badly:

“We know you went to the fire academy with Paul Happe, president of the IAFF. You two play golf together, ride motorcycles together. You even went to Sturgis last summer.”

Paul Happe? Not exactly a Dickens’ level of cleverness or creativity with the name there.

The ending did a feel bit rushed and I felt it could have been played out just a little longer. But again, from an overall perspective the plot was engaging and the story was well-paced.

Okay, now for my biggest criticism, which some many find odd. I should have been warned by the description of “Soft Target” as “Clancy meets Backdraft meets 50 Shades of Grey” that there was going to a fair of sex involved, but I was still surprised by the amount of time spent detailing various goings on between the sheets. Now, I’ve got nothing against reading about sex per se. But I expect whatever liaisons are being detailed in a novel to be in some manner germane to the overall storyline and not unnecessarily gratuitous. And I felt a fair amount of the sex in “Soft Target” was exactly that: gratuitous. Not the girl on girl action of course. That was just about the right amount.

But hey, when the worst thing you can say about a book is that there was too much sex, it’s not exactly the most damning of criticisms. And at $2.99 for the digital version at Amazon, you can hardly find a better value for the money. If you buy “Soft Target” before May 7th, 100% of the proceeds will go to the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. A good read for a good cause.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

One Term Stand

Joe Doakes from Saint Paul e-mails to expand on the Romney-Ryan campaign theme:

I’d love to see Romney say this (he can’t, he’d be lynched, but maybe he can find a stalking horse, a GOP Carville-type):

“In 2008, voters had a historic chance to right a long-standing wrong by electing America’s first Black President. Yes, his credentials were a little thin and his campaign promises more idealistic than realistic, but the country was in pretty good shape so we could afford to indulge ourselves. Today, President Obama is running on the same empty catchphrases but the country isn’t in nearly as good a shape. We already elected a Black President. We’ve checked that box. Time to move on. Time to get serious. Time for somebody who understands money and budgets. Time for Romney/Ryan.”

While it might be a bit of stretch to say that the country was in pretty good shape in 2008, it is certainly clear that four years under Obama have only brought us closer to the fiscal day of reckoning and that we can no longer afford symbolic gestures more about doing what feels good in the moment than what we know to be the best thing for the future.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Not A Regular Guy

Dorothy Rabinowtiz thinks that Voters Might Appreciate the Serious Romney:

It would help, finally, if Mr. Romney proved himself the first candidate in years to grasp that aspirants to the presidency who appear on late-night comedy shows invariably end up looking like buffoons. That's in addition to denigrating their candidacy, the presidency itself, and looking unutterably pathetic in the effort to look like regular guys.

Most voters with any sense—this will perhaps exclude a fair number of the screamers in the late-night studio audiences—will understand that the candidate isn't one of them, not even close. That voters in their right minds don't choose a candidate for president because they've had the privilege of seeing him look unspeakably absurd while engaging in obsequious exchanges with late-night hosts.

Americans have good reason these days—count the behavior of the Secret Service as the latest—to value a candidate who not only knows but feels the meaning of the office of the presidency of the United States, its symbolism and of all that's connected to it. Standing up for that symbolism against the showbiz convention of political campaigns today wouldn't be a bad way to begin Mr. Romney's run for the White House—if his handlers allow it.

Amen. This pandering by candidates to pretend that they're just like the guy next door needs to stop tout suite. I don't want the guy next door to be president, I want someone who can fill the role of leading the country through a difficult time when the decisions we make (or decide not to) will have long-term repercussions on the future state of the nation.

I also like the idea of the Romney campaign theme revolving around him being the serious choice. And wouldn't that choice be even more clear if he had an equally (or perhaps even more) serious running mate? Romney-Ryan: It's Time to Get Serious.

Porous Is He

Viacom's SpongeBob Crisis (WSJ):

But the show may be suffering from overexposure. In recent years, Nickelodeon has expanded Spongebob's place on its schedule. For all of 2011, "SpongeBob" accounted for 31% of the network's programming, and even hit 40% toward the end up the year, according to Nielsen That's up from 23% in 2007. Reruns traditionally have been seen as ideal for kids because, television executives say, children are often happy to watch the same programming over and over. Paul Debenedittis, senior vice president of programming strategy at Disney Channels Worldwide, says his networks sometimes play their most successful shows more frequently, but only to a limit. "There's definitely a risk in relying on one or two shows to fuel your entire channel," he says. Moreover, Viacom last year licensed the show and other Nickelodeon programs to Netflix, increasing its availability beyond the TV. While the shows became available on the site in May, Netflix introduced a "just for kids' section of its site in August using pictures to display program selections. The severe ratings declines began in September.

"This is pretty close to a smoking gun on SpongeBob getting worn out," says Mr. Juenger. He published a study last week showing that ratings for children's channels were lower in households with Netflix, even though those households are more likely to have children.

As much as my wife and I have enjoyed the show over the years (and our kids still love it today), it’s pretty clear that SpongeBob jumped the shark sometime in the last two-three years. The quality of the writing is nowhere near as sharp as it was in the glory days of the show. While that may not explain why SpongeBob isn’t as popular among kids, I don’t think it should be dismissed entirely. If a kid’s show can also appeal to parents, there’s a better chance that it will succeed (especially in our house).

Another factor may be stricter parental attitudes. In September, the journal Pediatrics published a widely circulated study linking shows like "SpongeBob" to kids' poor performance on tests of skills such as following rules. And some parents say they don't let their kids watch the show. Ian Guarnieri of Maplewood, N.J., says he started letting his son watch the show when he was five years old, but quickly pulled the plug. "Once we started to watch it, we decided it wasn't something we wanted him to be watching. It's very low brow."

Low brow as in not tediously seeking to be educational, diverse, and touchy feeling as most of the children’s shows on public television are? Sorry pal, but while it may not be the same top shelf children's show that it once was, I’d take SpongeBob and his low brow humor any day over these bland offerings that parents delude themselves into thinking are somehow good for their children.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

A Cross of Shale

Tim from Colorado e-mails on the recent revelation of the EPA’s real motives:

How disappointing it is, but not surprising, that the mainstream media has virtually ignored the comments and resignation of Al Armendariz, the EPA Administrator for Region 6:

At a local Texas government meeting in 2010, Mr. Armendariz compared his policy enforcement strategy against oil and gas companies to that of the Romans, who would enter a town and crucify a few of those that put up resistance, bringing the others in-line. Mr. Armendariz believed the EPA should employ the same strategy against oil and gas exploration companies, and in particular to Range Resources (whom the EPA has recently decided to drop their claims against). Under Mr. Armendariz’s direction, the EPA has accused Range Resources and others of contamination of air and water in the development of gas wells using fracturing techniques.

Mr. Armendariz may have resigned, but I don’t think for a second that this crucifixion culture within the EPA followed him out the door. Remember in 2008 then-candidate Obama openly admitted “if somebody wants to build a coal plant, they can — it’s just that it will bankrupt them, because they are going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.” So the precedent was set four years ago. Forgive me if I seem dubious that the Obama Administration has publicly stated that Mr. Armendariz’s comments do not represent the EPA as a whole; I think that not only do his comments represent the EPA’s views, they also represent the Obama Administration’s views. Mr. Armendariz was an Obama appointee, not some EPA underling who wasn’t fully vetted.

In a nutshell, here’s what the Obama Administration is doing to the fossil fuels industries. Despite renewable-energy advocate’s claims otherwise, solar power and wind generation are not new technologies; wind generators have been around since the 30’s and the first solar cell was developed in the mid-50’s. The problem with renewable energy technologies is that they are not cost-competitive with conventional generation like coal-fired power plants, natural gas combustion turbines, and nuclear plants, and in your and my lifetime this will be ever so. But that’s a point lost on the renewable energy crowd. Obama is dumping billions into renewable technologies to try and make them competitive, and thus far there is little to show for the money that’s been spent.

So if you can’t make a technology cost competitive with competing technologies on one end, what can you do? You can make the competing technologies cost-prohibitive. That is exactly how the Obama Administration is shoving wind and solar technology down our throats. Obama is in favor of carbon taxes because it will make coal-fired generation more expensive, and he can arbitrarily fix the tax to bring the cost of coal-fired generation up to wherever the limit is with wind and solar generation. But now these meddlesome oil and gas companies have found an innovative way to make natural gas more available and less expensive than ever before, which makes natural gas combustion turbines attractive to power companies, so how does the Obama Administration deal with that? Simple; they’ll use the EPA to level unfounded claims that the fracturing technique causes ground water and air pollution violations, and make oil and gas companies spend millions of dollars in fines and defending their process in a court of law. I would bet if you water-boarded one of these EPA higher-ups (am I the only one that would like to see that?), they would admit that they would prefer that the fracturing techniques were outlawed all-together.

For these reasons I think the Keystone XL Pipeline project was resisted by the Obama Administration because the Canadian oil supply would help stabilize oil prices in the U.S. and allow Americans to continue driving the dreaded SUV, the mother-of-all-boogeyman for the environmental left. If you think I’m crazy, just remember Energy Secretary Chu’s comments that he thinks gas in the U.S. should be $6-$8 per gallon. If the Obama Administration can’t get the market to drive the price there by restricting crude oil supplies, I’ll bet you a future tank of gas for a tank today that they’ll find a reason to levy taxes to get it to that level.

The EPA stopped serving the interests of the public welfare long ago. If Romney wins the election this year, one of his top-five goals should be to establish congressional oversight of the EPA.

One of the often overlooked realities of American political life is that the real power of the presidency doesn’t lie with the president’s ability to push legislation through Congress or rally the citizenry by using the much ballyhooed “bully pulpit.” Rather, it’s the power to drive the behavior of myriad agencies like the EPA when it comes to regulation and enforcement. And the actions undertaken by these agencies are often not openly debated or discussed. Mr. Armendariz’s comments about crucifying oil and gas companies were an all too rare glimpse into the mindset that is pervasive among Obama appointees. That’s the real power of the presidency.

Time to Get Serious

William McGurn has more on Paul Ryan and the Catholic left in a piece in today's WSJ called Paul Ryan's Cross to Bear:

Of course, what drives Mr. Ryan's religious critics bonkers is not his numbers. It's his claim that his policies reflect Catholic principles. At Georgetown he summarized one of the differences he has with the protesting professors this way: "I do not believe that the preferential option for the poor means a preferential option for big government."

For a certain kind of Catholic, this is anathema. They assume only one possible interpretation of Catholic social teaching: their own. So when a Republican House budget chairman dares suggest that his approach to taxes and spending also rests on a moral foundation, the cry goes up: Partisanship! Social Darwinism! War on the Poor!

Now, let us stipulate that those of us who incline to Mr. Ryan's application of Catholic social teaching—not least Mr. Ryan himself—do not assert we enjoy any monopoly. Plainly others applying the same principles can and do reach very different conclusions. When that happens, the obvious thing to do would be to have an honest conversation about which path has proved better at achieving its goals.

That's just what Mr. Ryan asked for at Georgetown. He put it this way: "If there were ever a time for serious but respectful discussion, among Catholics as well as those who don't share our faith, that time is now."

Alas, a "serious but respectful discussion" is the last thing Mr. Ryan's critics want. For one thing, the critics don't have a real alternative: Democrats haven't passed a budget in years precisely so they won't have to defend their spending philosophy.

More to the point, a "serious but respectful discussion" would have to concede something Mr. Ryan's religious opponents are loath to do: that conservative Republicans advancing market-oriented answers are as serious about their moral case as liberal Democrats are about theirs.

To voluntarily enter the lion's den at Georgetown and endure the slings and arrows from progressive Catholics takes a lot of gumption. It's just the latest example that demonstrates how Mr. Ryan is ready, willing, and able to take the fight anywhere and argue fearlessly and tirelessly for the conservative principals he believes in.

The prospect of Mr. Ryan facing off against Joe Biden (or Hillary Clinton) in a Vice Presidential debate is almost too delicious too imagine. Even if, for some deeply misguided reason, Ryan is not the choice as Romney's running mate, how about a debate featuring Ryan and Biden arguing Catholic social teaching?