Tuesday, May 31, 2011
I would be doing you a disservice if I did not link to Amazon's list of exciting Father's Day gifts. Remember, anything you buy on Amazon after you click through a blog link puts money in the blogger's pocket at no cost to you. Even if we are not worthy, there is no reason not to support some blogger every time you buy on Amazon!
I rarely listen to conservative talk radio, so when I do I am always surprised by the incessant advertisements for investments in specie, which in certain circles is taken to be a more reliable store of value than fiat currency. The State of Utah has recently pandered a bit to the hard-money crowd and declared gold and silver to be legal tender, and other states are considering similar measures. (Gresham's law does not apply in Utah because the exchange rate between the "bad money" and the "good" is not set by law, but we still do not expect to see see double eagles in our pocket change.)
In the middle of all of this ante-Rooseveltian precious metals revivalism, a financial blogger has fun at the expense of a gold investor. Literally.
Monday, May 30, 2011
From a chain email I got a couple of days back (read through to the essential last paragraph)...
Love her or hate her, Sarah Palin has a way of reinforcing whatever attitude you might have toward her. To wit:
Sarah Palin brought some chaos and political buzz to the 24th annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride Sunday, riding into the Pentagon parking lot around noon on the back of a Harley and quickly drawing a crowd of reporters, fans and gawkers.
While I am not likely to support Governor Palin for president, she is a fascinating political talent with oodles more influence than any other living alumnus of a losing national ticket. I am not sure many people understand Palin's power to move crowds, but those who do probably have a good handle on the current mood of the country.
For my money, Cox & Forkum's "Futures" drawing simply must be counted among the moving tributes to the American soldiers who inspire Memorial Day.
More Cox & Forkum Memorial Day drawings here.
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Mark Haines, the founding anchor of the only morning show I watch, "Squawk Box," died suddenly yesterday at age 65. I have been watching and enjoying Haines for years, and will actually miss him. Strange, I almost never have a personal reaction to the death of a public figure, but in this case I did. I enjoyed his wit and his brains and his personality, and I am so sorry for the family he has left behind.
The New York Times is reporting that the Justice Department is going to press charges against Democratic Vice-presidential candidate John Edwards for having used campaign funds to cover up his affair with Rielle Hunter. The resultant plea or conviction might cost him his law license, among other humiliations.
The linked article does give us a little insight in to the world of political prosecutions. I rather enjoyed this bit:
But it is not the only legal trouble he faces. A former aide, Andrew Young, says he has a videotape and pictures showing Mr. Edwards and Ms. Hunter having sex. Ms. Hunter has sued to get them back and said that Mr. Young used them to secure deals for a book and film. Mr. Young had pretended for a while to be the child’s father to protect Mr. Edwards. He wrote about the experience in a tell-all book, “The Politician.”
Mr. Young is being represented in Hollywood by Ari Emanuel, brother of Rahm Emanuel, the new mayor of Chicago.
Edwards destroyed himself, but it certainly looks as though Team Obama is salting the earth just to make sure he doesn't come back to life. Which is fine with me. Poetic, actually. Rarely has such a hideous person gotten such a free pass from the mainstream media.
I have long thought that the media's disparate treatment of John Edwards and Sarah Palin was the most powerful evidence of structural bias toward the left. Edwards was having an affair and the media turned a blind eye. Palin was pregnant by her husband, and the media accused her of faking it and swarmed Alaska with investigators. Edwards had no useful experience -- he was a trial lawyer, which is training for essentially nothing important, and a one-term Senator -- and nobody in the press questioned his qualifications. However one might weigh Palin's resume, she was no less experienced than Edwards (that would be difficult) and the press hammered her constantly for it. Edwards was vain as can be and the press did not even suggest that he was a narcissist (which he obviously is). Palin bought some better looking clothes for campaigning and the whole press pool jumped on it. Edwards could not make a speech without reminding us he was the son of a "mill worker" who had gotten rich and the media ate it up as evidence of humble beginnings. The Palins actually built a successful small business and the media mocked it as a stunt. One could go on.
The disparate treatment of Edwards and Palin is a warning to all Republicans, or at least Republican women -- the non-Fox mainstream media will pretty much do anything it can to destroy you.
You don't see bumper stickers like this very often in downtown Princeton...
Takes less courage these days.
Tuesday, May 24, 2011
A depressingly logical prediction that President Obama's proposed reform of our federal corporate income tax, which in its current form is horrendously counterproductive, will fail. In the forecast scenario, both liberals and conservatives will be responsible for a bad result for American prosperity. Our dysfunctional national political dynamic in microcosm, I'm afraid to say.
Monday, May 23, 2011
Remember "my truth is that I'm a gay American" as an excuse for nepotism and harassment? The latest news of Jim McGreevey, who seems not to have made much progress in understanding himself.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Jimmy Carter is back in the self-assessment game:
In an interview with NBC's Brian Williams, former President Jimmy Carter, who has been a target of the right through the years, lauded his own post-presidency, telling Williams, "I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents."
I wonder what those accomplishments are. The really awesome deal he negotiated with North Korea on behalf of the Clinton Administration? You know, the one where he bagged his own president.
Carter negotiated an understanding with Kim Il-sung, but went further and outlined a treaty, which he announced on CNN without the permission of the Clinton White House as a way to force the US into action.
Or, perhaps he means his constant siding with the Palestinians against our ally, Israel (respect for "traditional allies" never having been very important for Jimmy Carter). Or, maybe, he means his sickening legitimization of Hugo Chavez' fraudulent re-election in 2004, a betrayal of democracy if there ever was one.
Jimmy Carter is one of the most relentlessly tedious, incompetent, and superficial people ever to occupy the White House. No amount of books, speeches, and "diplomatic interventions" can alter that basic fact, proven again by Carter's own measurement of his "post-presidency."
What a maroon.
Saturday, May 21, 2011
The TH Daughter and I went in to New York for the day. We did some shopping in Chelsea boutiques, walked the High Line, had lunch at Chelsea Pier, and then cabbed it to Dylan's Candy Bar. I grabbed a few moments on the Blackberry camera...
Old sewing machines in the window of the Allsaints store on 13th street, which I take to be the erstwhile location of a garment factory.
A bit of the High Line, an awesome urban park built on old elevated train tracks. Really something to see if you visit New York on a nice day.
The TH Daughter on said High Line.
A view from Chelsea Pier, on the north side of the driving range. I've always liked that colorful building in the background.
Dylan's Candy Bar, at 60th and Third:
Princeton Reunions are coming up, so...
And, finally, a random view of my car going through the car wash, after our return to Princeton. I just like the picture.
Friday, May 20, 2011
Me being me, I was looking at historical gasoline prices while watching reruns of "Gordon Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares," and it occurred to me that the pattern of the graph is not good political news for the current administration.
In addition to his other legion accomplishments in the service of American greatness, we Americans owe a social, athletic, civil, and economic debt to Theodore Roosevelt that transcends measurement:
Some few of you may have noticed that the initial public offering of shares in LinkedIn, the tediously nudgy social-networking site, partied like it was 1999. The deal priced at the top of the range and then promptly doubled and then some more.
My guess is that this will kick off a new round of IPOs, starting in social media and spreading quickly to anything that can be spun in to a social media story. ("Our chain of exciting Bolivian-style family casual dining restaurants in the revolutionary tradition of Che Guevara has grown so quickly because of its early and aggressive use of social media advertising.") Well, good. Bull markets are fun, until they are not.
Paul Kedrosky agrees, by the way, and has a few other interesting observations.
In what is not, actually, a great development in ursine-human relations, there is a bear on the loose in Princeton Township. There has been much talk of bears returning to parts of New Jersey whence they had long departed, and bears have been systematically migrating out of the rural and forested northwestern corner of the state for twenty years. Here is an interesting map from the state (how much did it cost to compile and produce?) that depicts that migration.
I had not heard that bears had slipped in to Princeton Township, which is quite built up, but Mr. Google turned up one bear siting in June 2009. If they become more frequent than biannual we can expect a hilarious local argument between the bourgeoisie, who will want something done about this new phantom "danger" to their children, and the sizeable animal rights constituency in town, who will want us to accommodate the bears among us because they are people too.
Thursday, May 19, 2011
If you are a corporate tool, or an advisor to or auditor of corporate tools, or an investor in corporations, or an academic with an ax to grind, then I respectfully suggest to you that this is the most sensible essay on corporate governance that I have ever read. At some point, when I have more time, I will explain why.
The rest of you, feel free to move along...
As a well-documented supporter of most of George W. Bush's foreign policy choices, it is hard not to enjoy President Obama's adoption in practice, if not in rhetoric, of virtually every major foreign policy plank of his predecessor. Or, to be more careful, it is hard not to enjoy the substance of Obama's actions, which are far more in accord with my preferences than I expected them to be. The fact that he lied about his intentions is annoying, although that might also have been largely in the best interests of the country. Candor, a hallmark of the Bush administration, is not all it is cracked up to be in foreign affairs. Most people do not pay enough attention to know they are being deceived, and another bunch want to be deceived. If they are less hostile to the United States purely because our president says one thing and does quite another, perhaps that is not so bad.
Anyway, here's another reversal in policy that was, in my opinion, too long in coming. (See, e.g., my post on the democratization strategy from almost six years ago, which holds up well in some respects and less well in others.)
MORE: Heh: "They told me if I voted for McCain we’d be getting a reluctant clone of Bush’s policies. And they were right!"
President Obama has deep-sixed the ‘realism’ that marked the first two years of his approach to the Middle East. He has returned to the foreign policy of George W. Bush.
The United States is no longer, the President told us in words he could have borrowed from his predecessor, a status quo power in the Middle East. The realist course of cooperating with oppressive regimes in a quest for international calm is a dead end. It breeds toxic resentment against the United States; it stores up fuel for an inevitable conflagration when the oppressors weaken; it stokes anti-Israel resentment when hatred of Israel becomes the only form of political activism open to ordinary people; it strengthens the hold of extremist religion and strangles the growth of liberal forces.
More, he attacked Iran. All that talk about avoiding polarization with Iran is gone. Instead, President Obama singled out Iran as an oppressive, tyrannical regime supporting terror and running an “illicit nuclear program” as well.
He also followed Bush in attacking some US allies, calling on Bahrain and Yemen to make changes. It was a speech that enraged almost every powerful actor in the Middle East and put America out on a limb. Like Bush, Obama is willing to confront some of America’s closest allies (the Saudis, who back the crackdown in Bahrain). Like Bush, he hailed Iraq as an example of democracy and pluralism that can play a vital role in the transformation of the region. Like Bush, he proposes to work with opposition groups in friendly countries.
Of course, all the people who, oh, three years ago, were "embarrassed" by the "worst president ever" no longer cluck their disapproval. Probably because Obama "did this."
Perhaps Client #9, who now has a television program, can book Client #10 as his guest. That is, if Dominique Strauss-Kahn ever gets out of jail, which seems increasingly unlikely.
I have wondered about the reaction in France to DSK's arrest. This article does not reflect well on the French "elites," who apparently have circled the wagons around this subject, and this man, for years. And the Guardian (yes, you do not get many links there on TigerHawk) has a nice take on the different approaches of the American and French media.
Here is what I wonder: With all the women coming forward, it seems increasingly clear that DSK is just a bad guy. How does this not come through in his other behavior? Or is it now our practice to put thugs in charge of major international agencies? (Of course I mean real ones, not UN commissions and the like.)
A gallery of the "fancy chairs" of Afghanistan and the dignitaries who nestle in them. And while you are scrolling through, check out John Kerry's shoes.
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
[Another recovered post.]
A pretty awesome photo gallery of "the 50 most important" landmarks in the world. The argument in the comments about notable omissions and technical errors is pretty interesting, too.
[Editor's note: This is one of the posts that vanished when Blogger crapped out a few days back. Many of you have seen it, some of you have not. Comments, apparently, were not recovered.]
TaxProf has compiled this year's law school commencement speakers. I wondered how representative these speakers were of the American political spectrum, so I annotated TaxProf's list below with links where necessary. According to my classification, 42 are Democrats or obvious lefties who will not admit party affiliation, 15 are Republicans or obvious conservatives, and 13 unclassifiable based on my short research, or "nonpartisan." Among the partisans, the ratio of Democrats over Republicans was almost 3:1, which is less severe than I would have expected. My dim expectations notwithstanding, the disparity between left and right cannot be random, but rather must be a reflection of an agenda on the part of the university officials who make these decisions. The question is, does it matter?
Stephen Younger, a partner at the Patterson Belknap firm, has with one exception (Christopher N. Cox) contributed exclusively to Democrats.
Stephen Zack represented Al Gore in the litigation over Florida's results in the 2000 presidential election, and was described in the Daily Kos wiki as "the smooth-talking Miami attorney leading John Kerry's army of election lawyers in Florida."
Minnijean Brown Trickey was one of the "Little Rock Nine" (which makes her a legitimate civil rights heroine) and worked in the Clinton Administration.
OK, Ken Starr is probably not a Democrat.
Chief Justice Ireland was first appointed to the bench by William Weld, a Republican, and to the Supreme Court of Massachusetts by Duval Patrick, a Democrat. Without more work, which I am unwilling to do, I'll categorize Chief Justice Ireland as non-partisan.
Judge Chin was first appointed to the federal bench by Bill Clinton, and to the Court of Appeals by Barack Obama.
Judge Buergenthal is an obvious transnational progressive, but no smoking partisan gun. Non-partisan, but no conservative.
Susan Westerberg Prager is a long-time law professor, so the odds weigh heavily in favor of her being a liberal. That said, a quick search reveals no clear evidence of such, so she is non-partisan for these purposes.
Non-partisan military men. Odds are, to the right of the other non-partisans on the list.
Democratic elected official, former "public interest" lawyer. The prosecution rests.
Ms. Cafaro seems like a corporate tool, but actual she is a big Democratic contributor, including $15,000 to the Democratic National Committee in the last cycle.
A quick search reveals no partisan affiliation.
Obama administration political appointee.
Dean Schwab is an economist, went to Michigan Law School (the TigerHawk law school of choice, for newbies), and clerked for Sandra Day O'Connor. No obvious partisan connection -- the O'Connor clerkship does not mean he is a Republican by any means -- but in the absence of more we will classify him as non-partisan.
Justice Márquez was appointed to the Colorado Supreme Court by a Democrat (albeit with some Republican support), and is one of only a handful of openly LGBT state court judges. She is not openly partisan (which is only appropriate), but odds are very high that she votes for Democrats.
Julian Bond is, among other things, a former Democratic state legislator.
Diana DeGette is a Democratic member of Congress.
The Republican governor of Pennsylvania.
Betty Anne Waters, whatever her politics, is speaking for non-partisan reasons. Her story is quite something.
Justice Canaday is a Florida Republican and manifestly conservative.
Not a bad guy as obvious liberals go, lack of partisan documentation notwithstanding.
Former Secretary of the Treasury under George W. Bush, and not Paul O'Neill, so probably a Republican.
Kasim Reed is a Democratic politician.
Johnny Isakson is a Republican member of the United States Senate.
Seattle judge. On a short search, no obvious partisan ties.
Seriously? And in any case, it says something about Harvard that it has the only non-serious person on the list. As if they had nothing to learn from real people.
Uh, Democratic politician, again.
Brad Smith's contributions are to both Republicans and Democrats and I imagine are motivated by what is best for Microsoft. He did give money to the RNC twice, though, which is more partisan than giving to one's own elected officials (who are Democrats), so we'll classify Smith as a non-partisan leaning right.
Vernon Jordan is a Democrat through and through, albeit personally lovely.
Greg Fischer is a Democratic politician.
Democratic government lawyer, served in various capacities in the Clinton administration.
Another Democratic appointee, under both Bill Clinton and Nancy Pelosi.
My alma mater invited Republican Rob Portman, and 100 new graduates walked out! Awesome!
Justice Jefferson is an African-American, and owes his job several times over to Republican Governor Rick Perry, not to mention George W. Bush.
The Democratic governor of Missouri.
Democratic politician, albeit one of the better ones.
Apparent corporate tool, actual Clinton administration partisan.
A Republican member of the United States Senate.
I think it is safe to say that notwithstanding his appointment by Gerald Ford, at this point John Paul Stevens is a liberal.
A former Democratic politician.
Appointed by a Democrat, lifelong union lawyer. Classified here as a Democrat.
Appointed to various judicial functions by Republican governor Pataki and Democrats Spitzer and Paterson. We will call him non-partisan.
Robert George is known for his relatively conservative and Christian views, so we will put him on the right.
A former Republican politician.
Scott Turow gives to Democrats.
A Republican, according to Judeapedia.
A Clinton appointee. Democrat.
Obama appointee, recommended by Democratic Senators Lautenberg and Menendez.
Republican Senator from South Carolina.
The Democratic mayor of Houston. I admit, I did not know that Houston had a lesbian mayor.
A Clinton appointee, but close relationships with many free-market conservatives on the bench. Non-partisan for this count, but your results may vary.
Obama appointee, ambassador to the Vatican.
Democratic politician, GOP turncoat.
Gives to Republicans and Democrats, but how can an oil man be a Democrat these days? Non-partisan, leaning right.
A Republican appointee who took fire from the Donks. Put him down as a conservative.
Republican Senator from New Hampshire.
Life-long military man, probably relatively conservative. I'll allow that profiling.
A ginormous graphic depicting sovereign credit ratings around the world, and the direction in which Standard & Poor's believes they will go. It is a little depressing if you are American.
An interesting slide presentation from UBS on the turmoil rolling through the world economy. Troubled waters, indeed.
My question: When are the Germans going to throw in the towel? Or perhaps even lose their minds, that being a traditional risk with Germans.
Monday, May 16, 2011
Republicans with different priorities will struggle with Mitt. Some will dislike the blue state compromises he made as Massachusetts governor or the flip flopping associated with that past. Others will resent his wealth and silverspoon-ish upbringing. Purists will detest Romneycare and wonder how he can legitimately repeal Obamacare. However, without Huckabee in the hunt to peel away those who struggle with Mitt's Mormon background such as evangelicals, he becomes the default leader and candidate of choice.
Is he electable in the general election? Oh yes. Those same "bugs" that many conservatives will dislike are "features" to independents. Blue state-acceptable? Healthcare savvy and experience? Check. Plus his business and economics bona fides in a moribund, stagflated economy will propel him to the head of the challenger pack. And that will be issue number one, since at this point there isn't much to differentiate the candidates on foreign policy.
Via Maggie's Farm, an interesting history, from the New York Times, no less, on the history of the use of $250,000 in annual income as the dividing line between the "rich" and everybody else. Two bits jump out.
$250,000 isn’t what it used to be. If Mr. Obama were really trying to return to Mr. Clinton’s 1993 levels, he would have to adjust the bracket for inflation, moving it up to about $386,075. In fact, in Mr. Clinton’s last year in office, the top bracket had risen to $288,350 from $250,000.
Right. If you hear anybody describe the Obama administration's proposal as merely a repeal of the "Bush tax cuts" following the Clinton years, they are not telling the truth. Remember that.
Then there is this much more common mistake:
Right after World War II, the highest rate was roughly that. Indeed, for most of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s the highest rate was about 70 percent. Even under President Ronald Reagan in 1986, the highest rate was 50 percent.
This is all factually true, but it omits a critical point, which is that nobody actually paid those high rates. Why? Because tax shelters, which allowed massive deductions for passive losses against ordinary income, were lawful and widespread. Reagan's tax reform quite sensibly outlawed shelters, but in return the top rate came down to 28 percent. Point is, returning to these same high rates (which, when combined with state and local taxes is possible under at least some of the administration proposals -- see the linked article) is not a reversion to the post-war regime unless we also get back the full deductibility of passive losses. While I believe that would be a terrible public policy, if one is going to cite history as precedent intellectual honesty requires that one cite all the history.
Sunday, May 15, 2011
From my Facebook scroll, Steve Martin's speech on the acceptance of the Mark Twain Prize.
The United States Postal Service's new line of "green stamps" could use a little, er, repositioning.
Saturday, May 14, 2011
In what can only be described as a victory for Republicans, President Obama has, in the wee hours on a Saturday morning, announced that he will direct federal agencies to approve more drilling for oil and gas off the Alaska and Gulf coasts. His motives are transparent, even to Reuters:
U.S. President Barack Obama, under pressure from Republicans and the public to bring down gasoline prices, announced new measures on Saturday to expand domestic oil production in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico.
High fuel prices have dented Obama's ratings in opinion polls and threaten to dampen the economic recovery that is critical to his re-election in 2012.
The question is, why announce a big policy reversal at the quietest moment in the news cycle? Well, because it is a reversal, which point both victorious Republicans and anti-oil liberals will be making as loudly as possible with delight and outrage, respectively. The White House wants to minimize the publicity now and leave President Obama room to campaign on the claim that he "expanded" offshore drilling (when, in fact, he unlawfully did the opposite).
Now let's bring those rigs home.
Friday, May 13, 2011
Here at TigerHawk, we are all in favor of rejoicing in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Sorry, it is just freaking awesome, no less so than, say, the death of Benito Mussolini was to those who had suffered under him. Therefore, we were amused to receive what purports to be a genuine FBI "Most Wanted" poster, now annotated, from a friend with a buddy in that agency. Scanned and posted for your delight below:
Something hideous happened to Blogger last night, and they deleted posts in the last 24 hours, so we lost Thursday's posts, including the examination of the political records of law school commencement speakers. I'll repost if I can see them again and they do not come back automatically.
Wednesday, May 11, 2011
Barry Ritholtz on Microsoft's expensive and arguably irrelevant acquisition of Skype, but mostly an interesting argument that Mister Softy caused the "dot.com" bubble. Unintentionally.
My own view is that Microsoft needs to get smaller to get better. All that cash is making it stupid. It should buy in stock and raise its dividend and stop looking backward to its monopoly past.
Watching CNBC from my hotel room in Las Vegas this morning, the following deplorable ad ran incessantly:
Not paying taxes you actually owe is nothing to be proud of, even if ultimately lawful because you "settled." Deadbeat is as deadbeat does, even when the creditor is the government. The modern idea that it is creditable to avoid paying debts -- especially debts incurred to fuel consumption, like mortgages and unpaid taxes -- is hurting the country, not helping it, and ought not pass without objection.
Tom Maguire administers a rather ugly beating of Paul Krugman, sort of a specialty of Maguire. What else are you going to reach over lunch?
When you look at other countries and the history of the world in general, we are all just amazingly, unbelievably wealthy in this country. We have technology and opportunities that are insane; we can’t even comprehend how well off we are compared to people who used to have to live in huts and fight for every meal. When you look at it objectively, every one of us in this country is a billionaire. And what did we do to earn all this incredible wealth? For most of us, the answer is: absolutely nothing. We were just born with it. So we take it for granted. And we demand even more.
There is another type of rich person, though — the working rich. The people who create. These are the people who made all the benefits we enjoy in society today. Thanks to their creativity and initiative, we have all the technological marvels we enjoy today. Because of their hard work, we have all these companies that give us cushy 9-to-5 jobs where we earn sums of money most of the world couldn’t even imagine possessing. And are we thankful? Do we say, “Thank you, rich people, for making all these things so we can benefit from them. I can’t even believe how simple and easy my life is because of you”? No, we demand more from them, because we’re the idle rich, and we think the working rich owe us everything.
The great divide in American politics is increasingly between those who believe that the "system" -- and the economy and the government that regulates it and taxes it -- is fundamentally fair, and those who believe it is rigged to benefit nefarious and poorly-defined rich people who confer no value but have somehow positioned themselves to benefit. The "system-is-rigged" party believes, in its heart, in the labor theory of value -- that the fellow who works a 9-5 job that requires minimal education, training, creativity, or genuine responsibility contributes most of the value that owners extract because they own the capital. In this view, executives are especially suspect, because they do no "work" themselves and have positioned themselves between diffuse, powerless stockholders and the people who supposedly do the work, from which perch they are alleged to siphon off undeserved salary and bonus. Bizarrely, these same people who believe executives create nothing to justify their pay will almost invariably argue that we should hold executives personally liable for newly-created policy "crimes" of vast organizations, whether those executives actually did anything wrong. I have never understood how executives can simultaneously deserve no credit for the vast financial and social contributions of their businesses and at the same time be responsible for everything every employee, agent, or distributor does, but that is what the "rigged-system" crowd believes.
At any rate, I rather like the linked article's concluding proposal:
The next step would be to change the attitudes of all the idle wealthy in this country. Everyone born in this country owes a huge debt to those who went before and built it up for us, and if you’re not going to try and be one who adds to the wealth of this country, at least be grateful for what you have and don’t think you’re owed any more or have a right to the wealth of anyone else.
If you want my one part economic plan, it’s this: A new amendment to the Constitution that makes whining no longer a protected form of speech. And the punishment for whining will be that you lose your inheritance, i.e., you’ll be deported. So these will now be your three choices: Be another creator who adds to this nation, coast by and just be grateful for the privileges you were born with, or learn the hard way not to take the wealth of this country for granted.
I could live with that.
An interesting analysis (through the link) of the transmission of the news of the death of Osama Bin Laden through social media, first as rumor, then as fact. I admit, I do not get much out of Twitter, probably because my settings do not push feeds to any of my devices -- I have too much stuff coming my way as it is. But interesting nonetheless.
My new Blackberry Torch takes a good picture. Herewith, the accumulation of a couple of days in Las Vegas (as you can see, what happens in Vegas to me need not stay in Vegas).
The lobby of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.
A massive reflection of, er, me on the side of the Wynn, from the Encore...
The Strip, also from the Encore...
A "cranberry mojito" at Encore. Very refreshing.
Caesar's, during the morning jog.
Me in the mylar, after the morning jog.
Heading home in a few hours for the first time in eight days.
Monday, May 09, 2011
If you need more evidence that there is nothing worse than a full-time state legislature, look no further than California, where the Senate is proposing to criminalize the use of flat -- rather than fitted -- sheets in hotels.
If you outlaw sheets you can actually fold, only outlaws will be able to fold sheets.
Criminalizing the use of unfitted sheets in hotels? Obviously, this is a regulation aimed a mom and pop motels, not Marriott. No doubt these same politicians wonder why business formation has collapsed and existing businesses are doing everything in their power to avoid hiring more people.
Last week, Stratfor devoted a "Geopolitical Diary" report to "making sense of the Syrian crisis." It includes a lot of historical background I did not know, so (with Stratfor's permission and without having cleaned up the page breaks) we reproduce it in its entirety below.
By Reva Bhalla
Syria is clearly in a state of internal crisis. Protests organized on Facebook were quickly stamped out in early February, but by mid-March, a faceless opposition had emerged from the flashpoint city of Daraa in Syria’s largely conservative Sunni southwest. From Daraa, demonstrations spread to the Kurdish northeast, the coastal Latakia area, urban Sunni strongholds in Hama and Homs, and to Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus. Feeling overwhelmed, the regime experimented with rhetoric on reforms while relying on much more familiar iron-fist methods in cracking down, arresting hundreds of men, cutting off water and electricity to the most rebellious areas, and making clear to the population that, with or without emergency rule in place, the price for dissent does not exclude death. (Activists claim more than 500 civilians have been killed in Syria since the demonstrations began, but that figure has not been independently verified.)
A survey of the headlines would lead many to believe that Syrian President Bashar al Assad will soon be joining Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in a line of deposed Arab despots. The situation in Syria is serious, but in our view, the crisis has not yet risen to a level that would warrant a forecast that the al Assad regime will fall.
Four key pillars sustain Syria’s minority Alawite-Baathist regime:
- Power in the hands of the al Assad clan
- Alawite unity
- Alawite control over the military-intelligence apparatus
- The Baath party’s monopoly on the political system
Though the regime is coming under significant stress, all four of these pillars are still standing. If any one falls, the al Assad regime will have a real existential crisis on its hands. To understand why this is the case, we need to begin with the story of how the Alawites came to dominate modern Syria.
The Rise of the Alawites
Syria’s complex demographics make it a difficult country to rule. It is believed that three-fourths of the country’s roughly 22 million people are Sunnis, including most of the Kurdish minority in the northeast. Given the volatility that generally accompanies sectarianism, Syria deliberately avoids conducting censuses on religious demographics, making it difficult to determine, for example, exactly how big the country’s Alawite minority has grown. Most estimates put the number of Alawites in Syria at around 1.5 million, or close to 7 percent of the population. When combined with Shia and Ismailis, non-Sunni Muslims average around 13 percent. Christians of several variations, including Orthodox and Maronite, make up around 10 percent of the population. The mostly mountain-dwelling Druze make up around 3 percent.
Alawite power in Syria is only about five decades old. The Alawites are frequently (and erroneously) categorized as Shia, have many things in common with Christians and are often shunned by Sunnis and Shia alike. Consequently, Alawites attract a great deal of controversy in the Islamic world. The Alawites diverged from the mainstream Twelver of the Imami branch of Shiite Islam in the ninth century under the leadership of Ibn Nusayr (this is why, prior to 1920, Alawites were known more commonly as Nusayris). Their main link to Shiite Islam and the origin of the Alawite name stems from their reverence for the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The sect is often described as highly secretive and heretical for its rejection of Shariah and of common Islamic practices, including call to prayer, going to mosque for worship, making pilgrimages to Mecca and intolerance for alcohol. At the same time, Alawites celebrate many Christian holidays and revere Christian saints.
Alawites are a fractious bunch, historically divided among rival tribes and clans and split geographically between mountain refuges and plains in rural Syria. The province of Latakia, which provides critical access to the Mediterranean coast, is also the Alawite homeland, ensuring that any Alawite bid for autonomy would be met with stiff Sunni resistance. Historically, for much of the territory that is modern-day Syria, the Alawites represented the impoverished lot in the countryside while the urban-dwelling Sunnis dominated the country’s businesses and political posts. Unable to claim a firm standing among Muslims, Alawites would often embrace the Shiite concept of taqqiya (concealing or assimilating one’s faith to avoid persecution) in dealing with their Sunni counterparts.
Between 1920 and 1946, the French mandate provided the first critical boost to Syria’s Alawite community. In 1920, the French, who had spent years trying to legitimize and support the Alawites against an Ottoman-backed Sunni majority, had the Nusayris change their name to Alawites to emphasize the sect’s connection to the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali and to Shiite Islam. Along with the Druze and Christians, the Alawites would enable Paris to build a more effective counterweight to the Sunnis in managing the French colonial asset. The lesson here is important. Syria is not simply a mirror reflection of a country like Bahrain, a Shiite majority country run by a minority Sunni government. Rather than exhibiting a clear Sunni-Shiite religious-ideological divide, Syria’s history can be more accurately described as a struggle between the Sunnis on one hand and a group of minorities on the other.
Under the French, the Alawites, along with other minorities, for the first time enjoyed subsidies, legal rights and lower taxes than their Sunni counterparts. Most critically, the French reversed Ottoman designs of the Syrian security apparatus to allow for the influx of Alawites into military, police and intelligence posts to suppress Sunni challenges to French rule. Consequently, the end of the French mandate in 1946 was a defining moment for the Alawites, who by then had gotten their first real taste of the privileged life and were also the prime targets of purges led by the urban Sunni elite presiding over a newly independent Syria.
A Crucial Military Opening
The Sunnis quickly reasserted their political prowess in post-colonial Syria and worked to sideline Alawites from the government, businesses and courts. However, the Sunnis also made a fateful error in overlooking the heavy Alawite presence in the armed forces. While the Sunnis occupied the top posts within the military, the lower ranks were filled by rural Alawites who either could not afford the military exemption fees paid by most of the Sunni elite or simply saw military service as a decent means of employment given limited options. The seed was thus planted for an Alawite-led military coup while the Sunni elite were preoccupied with their own internal struggles.
The second major pillar supporting the Alawite rise came with the birth of the Baath party in Syria in 1947. For economically disadvantaged religious outcasts like Alawites, the Baathist campaign of secularism, socialism and Arab nationalism provided the ideal platform and political vehicle to organize and unify around. At the same time, the Baathist ideology caused huge fissures within the Sunni camp, as many — particularly the Islamists — opposed its secular, social program. In 1963, Baathist power was cemented through a military coup led by President Amin al-Hafiz, a Sunni general, who discharged many ranking Sunni officers, thereby providing openings for hundreds of Alawites to fill top-tier military positions during the 1963-1965 period on the grounds of being opposed to Arab unity. This measure tipped the balance in favor of Alawite officers who staged a coup in 1966 and for the first time placed Damascus in the hands of the Alawites. The 1960s also saw the beginning of a reversal of Syria’s sectarian rural-urban divide, as the Baath party encouraged Alawite migration into the cities to displace the Sunnis.
The Alawites had made their claim to the Syrian state, but internal differences threatened to stop their rise. It was not until 1970 that Alawite rivalries and Syria’s string of coups and counter-coups were put to rest with a bloodless military coup led by then-air force commander and Defense Minister Gen. Hafez al Assad (now deceased) against his Alawite rival, Salah Jadid. Al Assad was the first Alawite leader capable of dominating the fractious Alawite sect. The al Assads, who hail from the Numailatiyyah faction of the al Matawirah tribe (one of four main Alawite tribes), stacked the security apparatus with loyal clansmen while taking care to build patronage networks with Druze and Christian minorities that facilitated the al Assad rise. Just as important, the al Assad leadership co-opted key Sunni military and business elites, relying on notables like former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass to contain dissent within the military and Alawite big-business families like the Makhloufs to buy loyalty, or at least tolerance, among a Sunni merchant class that had seen most of its assets seized and redistributed by the state. Meanwhile, the al Assad regime showed little tolerance for religiously conservative Sunnis who refused to remain quiescent. The state took over the administration of religious funding, cracked down on groups deemed as extremist and empowered itself to dismiss the leaders of Friday prayers at will, fueling resentment among the Sunni Islamist class.
In a remarkably short period, the 40-year reign of the al Assad regime has since seen the complete consolidation of power by Syrian Alawites who, just a few decades earlier, were written off by the Sunni majority as powerless, heretical peasants.
A Resilient Regime
For the past four decades, the al Assad regime has carefully maintained these four pillars. The minority-ruled regime has proved remarkably resilient, despite several obstacles.
The regime witnessed its first meaningful backlash by Syria’s Sunni religious class in 1976, when the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood led an insurgency against the state with the aim of toppling the al Assad government. At that time, the Sunni Islamists had the support of many of the Sunni urban elite, but their turn toward jihadism also facilitated their downfall. The regime’s response was the leveling of the Sunni stronghold city of Hama in 1982. The Hama crackdown, which killed tens of thousands of Sunnis and drove the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood underground, remains fresh in the memories of Syrian Brotherhood members today, who have only recently built up the courage to publicly call on supporters to join in demonstrations against the regime. Still, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood lacks the organizational capabilities to resist the regime.
The al Assad regime has also experienced serious threats from within the family. After Hafez al Assad suffered from heart problems in 1983, his younger brother Rifaat, who drew a significant amount of support from the military, attempted a coup against the Syrian leader. None other than the al Assad matriarch, Naissa, mediated between her rival sons and reached a solution by which Rifaat was sent abroad to Paris, where he remains in exile, and Hafez was able to re-secure the loyalty of his troops. The 1994 death of Basil al Assad, brother of current president Bashar and then-heir apparent to a dying Hafez, also posed a significant threat to the unity of the al Assad clan. However, the regime was able to rely on key Sunni stalwarts such as Tlass to rally support within the military for Bashar, who was studying to become an ophthalmologist and had little experience with, or desire to enter, politics.
Even when faced with threats from abroad, the regime has endured. The 1973 Yom Kippur War, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the 2005 forced Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon may have knocked the regime off balance, but it never sent it over the edge. Syria’s military intervention in the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war allowed the regime to emerge stronger and more influential than ever through its management of Lebanon’s fractured political landscape, satisfying to a large extent Syria’s strategic need to dominate its western neighbor. Though the regime underwent serious internal strain when the Syrian military was forced out of Lebanon, it did not take long for Syria’s pervasive security-intelligence apparatus to rebuild its clout in the country.
The Current Crisis
The past seven weeks of protests in nearly all corners of Syria have led many to believe that the Syrian regime is on its last legs. However, such assumptions ignore the critical factors that have sustained this regime for decades, the most critical of which is the fact that the regime is still presiding over a military that remains largely unified and committed to putting down the protests with force. Syria cannot be compared to Tunisia, where the army was able quickly to depose an unpopular leader; Libya, where the military rapidly reverted to the country’s east-west historical divide; or Egypt, where the military used the protests to resolve a succession crisis, all while preserving the regime. The Syrian military, as it stands today, is a direct reflection of hard-fought Alawite hegemony over the state.
Syrian Alawites are stacked in the military from both the top and the bottom, keeping the army’s mostly Sunni 2nd Division commanders in check. Of the 200,000 career soldiers in the Syrian army, roughly 70 percent are Alawites. Some 80 percent of officers in the army are also believed to be Alawites. The military’s most elite division, the Republican Guard, led by the president’s younger brother Maher al Assad, is an all-Alawite force. Syria’s ground forces are organized in three corps (consisting of combined artillery, armor and mechanized infantry units). Two corps are led by Alawites (Damascus headquarters, which commands southeastern Syria, and Zabadani headquarters near the Lebanese border). The third is led by a Circassian Sunni from Aleppo headquarters.
Most of Syria’s 300,000 conscripts are Sunnis who complete their two- to three-year compulsory military service and leave the military, though the decline of Syrian agriculture has been forcing more rural Sunnis to remain beyond the compulsory period (a process the regime is tightly monitoring). Even though most of Syria’s air force pilots are Sunnis, most ground support crews are Alawites who control logistics, telecommunications and maintenance, thereby preventing potential Sunni air force dissenters from acting unilaterally. Syria’s air force intelligence, dominated by Alawites, is one of the strongest intelligence agencies within the security apparatus and has a core function of ensuring that Sunni pilots do not rebel against the regime.
The triumvirate managing the crackdowns on protesters consists of Bashar’s brother Maher; their brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat; and Ali Mamluk, the director of Syria’s Intelligence Directorate. Their strategy has been to use Christian and Druze troops and security personnel against Sunni protesters to create a wedge between the Sunnis and the country’s minority groups (Alawites, Druze, Christians), but this strategy also runs the risk of backfiring if sectarianism escalates to the point that the regime can no longer assimilate the broader Syrian community. President al Assad has also quietly called on retired Alawite generals to return to work with him as advisers to help ensure that they do not link up with the opposition.
Given Syria’s sectarian military dynamics, it is not surprising that significant military defections have not occurred during the current crisis. Smaller-scale defections of lower-ranking soldiers and some officers have been reported by activists in the southwest, where the unrest is most intense. These reports have not been verified, but even Syrian activist sources have admitted to STRATFOR that the defectors from the Syrian army’s 5th and 9th divisions are being put down.
A fledgling opposition movement calling itself the “National Initiative for Change” published a statement from Nicosia, Cyprus, appealing to Syrian Minister of Defense Ali Habib (an Alawite) and Army Chief of Staff Daoud Rajha (a Greek Orthodox Christian) to lead the process of political change in Syria, in an apparent attempt to spread the perception that the opposition is making headway in co-opting senior military members of the regime. Rajha replaced Habib as army chief of staff when the latter was relegated to the largely powerless political position of defense minister two years ago. In name, the president’s brother-in-law, Asef Shawkat, is deputy army chief of staff, but in practice, he is the true chief of army staff.
The defections of Rajha and Habib, which remain unlikely at this point, would not necessarily represent a real break within the regime, but if large-scale defections within the military occur, it will be an extremely significant sign that the Alawites are fracturing and thus losing their grip over the armed forces. Without that control, the regime cannot survive. So far, this has not happened.
In many ways, the Alawites are the biggest threat to themselves. Remember, it was not until Hafez al Assad’s 1970 coup that the Alawites were able to put aside their differences and consolidate under one regime. The current crisis could provide an opportunity for rivals within the regime to undermine the president and make a bid for power. All eyes would naturally turn to Bashar’s exiled uncle Rifaat, who attempted a coup against his brother nearly three decades ago. But even Rifaat has been calling on Alawite supporters in Tripoli, in northern Lebanon and in Latakia, Syria, to refrain from joining the demonstrations, stressing that the present period is one in which regimes are being overthrown and that if Bashar falls, the entire Alawite sect will suffer as a result.
While the military and the al Assad clan are holding together, the insulation to the regime provided by the Baath party is starting to come into question. The Baath party is the main political vehicle through which the regime manages its patronage networks, though over the years the al Assad clan and the Alawite community have grown far more in stature than the wider concentric circle of the ruling party. In late April, some 230 Baath party members reportedly resigned from the party in protest. However, the development must also be viewed in context: These were a couple of hundred Baath party members out of a total membership of some 2 million in the country. Moreover, the defectors were concentrated in southern Syria around Daraa, the site of the most severe crackdowns. Though the defections within the Baath party have not risen to a significant level, it is easy to understand the pressure the al Assad regime is under to follow through with a promised reform to expand the political system, since political competition would undermine the Baath party monopoly and thus weaken one of the four legs of the regime.
The Foreign Tolerance Factor
Internally, Alawite unity and control over the military and Baath party loyalty are crucial to the al Assad regime’s staying power. Externally, the Syrian regime is greatly aided by the fact that the regional stakeholders — including Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran — by and large prefer to see the al Assads remain in power than deal with the likely destabilizing consequences of regime change.
It is not a coincidence that Israel, with which Syria shares a strong and mutual antipathy, has been largely silent over the Syrian unrest. Already unnerved by what may be in store for Egypt’s political future, Israel has a deep fear of the unknown regarding the Syrians. How, for example, would a conservative Sunni government in Damascus conduct its foreign policy? The real virtue of the Syrian regime lies in its predictability: The al Assad government, highly conscious of its military inferiority to Israel, is far more interested in maintaining its hegemony in Lebanon than in picking fights with Israel. While the al Assad government is a significant patron to Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, among other groups it manages within its Islamist militant supply chain, its support for such groups is also to some extent negotiable, as illustrated most recently by the fruits of Turkey’s negotiations with Damascus in containing Palestinian militant activity and in Syria’s ongoing, albeit strained, negotiations with Saudi Arabia over keeping Hezbollah in check. Israel’s view of Syria is a classic example of the benefits of dealing with the devil you do know rather than the devil you don’t.
The biggest sticking point for each of these regional stakeholders is Syria’s alliance with Iran. The Iranian government has a core interest in maintaining a strong lever in the Levant with which to threaten Israel, and it needs a Syria that stands apart from the Sunni Arab consensus to do so. Though Syria derives a great deal of leverage from its relationship with Iran, Syrian-Iranian interests are not always aligned. In fact, the more confident Syria is at home and in Lebanon, the more likely its interests are to clash with Iran. Shiite politics aside, secular-Baathist Syria and Islamist Iran are not ideological allies nor are they true Shiite brethren — they came together and remain allied for mostly tactical purposes, to counter Sunni forces. In the near term at least, Syria will not be persuaded by Riyadh, Ankara or anyone else to sever ties with Iran in return for a boost in regional support, but it will keep itself open to negotiations. Meanwhile, holding the al Assads in place provides Syria’s neighbors with some assurance that ethno-sectarian tensions already on the rise in the wider region will not lead to the eruption of such fault lines in Turkey (concerned with Kurdish spillover) and Lebanon (a traditional proxy Sunni-Shiite battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia).
Regional disinterest in pushing for regime change in Syria could be seen even in the April 29 U.N. Human Rights Council meeting to condemn Syria. Bahrain and Jordan did not show up to vote, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt insisted on a watered-down resolution. Saudi Arabia has even quietly instructed the Arab League to avoid discussion of the situation in Syria in the next Arab League meeting, scheduled for mid-May.
Turkey’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) has given indications that it is seeking out Sunni alternatives to the al Assad regime for the longer term and is quietly developing a relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. AKP does not have the influence currently to effect meaningful change within Syria, nor does it particularly want to at this time. The Turks remain far more concerned about Kurdish unrest and refugees spilling over into Turkey with just a few weeks remaining before national elections.
Meanwhile, the United States and its NATO allies are struggling to reconcile the humanitarian argument that led to the military intervention with Libya with the situation in Syria. The United States especially does not want to paint itself into a corner with rhetoric that could commit forces to yet another military intervention in the Islamic world — and in a much more complex and volatile part of the region than Libya — and is relying instead on policy actions like sanctions that it hopes exhibit sufficient anger at the crackdowns.
In short, the Syrian regime may be an irritant to many but not a large enough one to compel the regional stakeholders to devote their efforts toward regime change in Damascus.
Hanging on by More Than a Thread
Troubles are no doubt rising in Syria, and the al Assad regime will face unprecedented difficulty in trying to manage affairs at home in the months ahead. That said, it so far has maintained the four pillars supporting its power. The al Assad clan remains unified, the broader Alawite community and its minority allies are largely sticking together, Alawite control over the military is holding and the Baath party’s monopoly remains intact. Alawites appear to be highly conscious of the fact that the first signs of Alawite fracturing in the military and the state overall could lead to the near-identical conditions that led to its own rise — only this time, power would tilt back in favor of the rural Sunni masses and away from the urbanized Alawite elite. So far, this deep-seated fear of a reversal of Alawite power is precisely what is keeping the regime standing. Considering that Alawites were second-class citizens of Syria less than century ago, that memory may be recent enough to remind Syrian Alawites of the consequences of internal dissent. The factors of regime stability outlined here are by no means static, and the stress on the regime is certainly rising. Until those legs show real signs of weakening, however, the al Assad regime has the tools it needs to fight the effects of the Arab Spring.
Making Sense of the Syrian Crisis is republished with permission of STRATFOR.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
There are a lot of sentences like that in Crumley's work, which I quite recommend to those of you who like tough-guy mysteries.
Sunday, May 08, 2011
No matter what the relativists might say, some cultures are more hideous than others.
On February 11, a mob of putatively ordinary Egyptian men celebrating their own country's revolution thought it entirely ordinary and proper to assault CBS news correspondent Lara Logan. She was saved, in the end, by faceless, enrobed Egyptian women. The video is riveting, shocking, and rather surprisingly takes note that this attack was very much part of Egyptian culture. Which is, if you think about it, disgusting.
I've been rolling around -- Austin, Princeton, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas since Thursday -- and my phone has accumulated a few pictures along the way.
A sign in Lance Armstrong's bike shop, Mellow Johnny's, listing the "top ten" reasons to ride a bike. I was struck by this one: "In 1964, 50% of kids rode to school and the obesity rate was 12%... in 2003, 3% rode to school and the obesity rate was 45%." As we have said many times before, you can keep them safe now, or later, but not both.
The origin of the word "dude," from the Bob Bullock Museum of Texas History...
The Encore in Las Vegas, from the pool earlier this afternoon...
I like the Wynn hotels better than any other in town. The owner, Stephen Wynn, is beloved at least by the cabbie who drove me from the airport this morning. Apparently he has put televisions up in the taxi stand at his hotel and gives the long-tenured drivers free nights in his hotels.
The lobby of the Wynn, near Parasol Up, where I have enjoyed a "smoky margarita" or two.
Your Blogger, wearing his Princeton "Black Squirrel" logo attire at the "European" (no cameras allowed) pool at Encore.