Andrew Clem home

Archives
January 2010
(all categories)

Monthly links this year:
(all categories)


Category archives:
(all years)



Monthly archives
(all categories)


January 1, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Bowl games in baseball stadiums

On Tuesday this week, the second annual Eagle Bank Bowl was held at good old RFK Stadium in Washington, as UCLA Bruins beat the Temple Owls, 30-21. It was nice to see video clips of an American sport being played in Our Nation's Capital. (Sorry, soccer fans. smile) Prior to that, the St. Petersburg Bowl was played at Tropicana Field, the Emerald Bowl was held at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and tomorrow, the International Bowl will be held at Rogers Centre in Toronto.

Now seriously, how many people pay much attention to those minor bowls, other than the students and alumni of the respective universities? I remain dubious of all proposals to "reform" the BCS and come up with some kind of college football national championship system. Unlike basketball, and to a lesser extent baseball, there are simply not enough regular season college games among nationally-ranked rivals to determine a clear-cut playoff system. Har-r-rumph! Why, back when I was young there was a small number of important bowl games that almost everybody watched, and if you ask me, they ought to go back to the good old days:

  • Rose Bowl
  • Cotton Bowl
  • Orange Bowl
  • Sugar Bowl
  • Gator Bowl
  • Fiesta Bowl
  • Sun Bowl
  • Citrus Bowl

Inspired by memories of grand sporting events of the past in Washington, I spent some time editing several of the photos on the RFK Stadium page, enhancing their quality and making their sizes more consistent.

Hockey in baseball stadiums

This afternoon the NHL Boston Bruins will host the Philadelphia Flyers at the Winter Classic hockey match at Fenway Park, and to mark the occasion I have added a hockey version diagram to that page. Last year the same event was held at Wrigley Field. With the recent blizzards and freezing temperatures, they could probably play hockey at half the major league ballparks in America right now, if they wanted to. frown

In addition, I added a "hypothetical temporary" diagram version of Fenway Park, in response to a recent fan request. It shows how they could rearrange the field with the diamond moved to the right field corner, which would allow them to do major construction work on the main grandstand behind home plate, with a large upper deck. After the renovations of the past few years, however, it became clear that such a rearrangement wouldn't be necessary, which is why I had deleted that version. It's still interesting to contemplate, nevertheless.

Happy New Year!

At the stroke of midnight, the baseball blog page automatically began displaying the countdown clock showing the number of days remaining (94) until Opening Day, which will be Monday, April 5 this year. Chances are, there will be a nationally-televised game on the evening before, however.


January 1, 2010 [LINK / comment]

2009: the year in photos

In virtually all the various places which I visited during the past year, I brought my Nikon digital camera with me to record all the sights in exquisite, colorful detail. It's hard to imagine how I ever got along without it. In February, I took a group of students on a field trip to cameraRichmond, which was a big success that I hope to duplicate this coming semester. At the end of July I visited cameraWashington D.C. (and also Baltimore), on the first leg of my long-distance journey through the cameraMidwest (broadly defined to include Ohio and Kentucky), en route to cameraColorado, where I saw many camerawild birds, including nine (9) "life birds" (i.e., the first time for me). Finally, the snow we had cameralast month provided a great opportunity to take some pictures of the scenery and architectural treasures right here in Staunton. The photo montage below summarizes the above travels in highly condensed form.

And so, I have updated the main cameraPhoto Gallery page. I also added a "new" cameraAutumn 2009 photo gallery, but the photos on it are actually a few months old.

Montage 2009

CLOCKWISE, FROM TOP LEFT: Virginia Senate, Goldfinch, Clark's nutcracker, Hunt Hall at Mary Baldwin College, Red Rock Lake and some kind of moth (or butterfly?) in Colorado, and in the center, Emmanuel Episcopal Church with the new copper roof. (cameraCamera icons above denote dynamic rollover effects; roll the mouse over that image to restore the 2009 montage.)

Happy "Binary" New Year!

(01-01-10)


January 1, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Canaries love the snow!

Pet canaries are descended from wild canaries after which the Canary Islands, located southwest of Spain, are named. In their native subtropical habitat, it never snows. So, you might wonder, how would canaries react to snow for the first time? See for yourself in this YouTube video starring Luciano (overdubbed with his singing), Princess, and Lucy:

Lucy, Luciano in snow

Lucy and Luciano frolic in the snow, December 2009.


January 2, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Politics 2009: Year in review

To hell in a handbasket? With unemployment soaring above ten percent, with terrorists on a rampage, and with economic freedoms being lost week by week, it sure looks that way sometimes. But those of us who dissent from the Obama administration's agenda need to get a grip and avoid the trap of despondency. After all, the corollary of raising "hope" among your own supporters is to instill gloom among your opponents, and the Democrats would like nothing better than to paralyze Republicans and conservative independents by enacting statist policy measures that seem irreversible. So, as we review the major events of the last year as they were chronicled in this blog, just as I did in the year before, let us try to keep things in perspective and remember: "This, too, shall pass!"

What follows is a list of what I consider to be the top ten national and international political events of 2009, listed in chronological order, with links to the respective blog pieces. In a separate blog pice I will compile the major events of what was by most accounts one of the worst decades in American history, of which 2009 was probably the worst year of all.

  1. Inauguration of President Barack Obama -- hope and change!? (Jan. 20)
  2. Conferees agree on stimulus bill --a.k.a. the "porkulus" bill. (Feb. 11)
  3. "RINO" virus: a ghastly Specter -- Arlen defects to the Democrats. (Apr. 28)
  4. House votes to regulate climate -- global warming legislation. (June 29)
  5. Earthquake in Alaska: Palin quits -- and we still wonder why... (July 5)
  6. Happy Constitution Day, America! -- Tea Partiers teach civics. (Sept. 17)
  7. Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize -- and we still wonder why... (Oct. 9)
  8. House passes Obamacare bill -- Pelosi & Hoyer twist arms. (Nov. 7)
  9. Climate summit in Copenhagen -- target: U.S. capitalism? (Dec. 7)
  10. Musings on health care "reform" -- Senate scoffs at Constitution. (Dec. 23)

State & local politics

In spite of periodic disquieting signs of more mischief and acrimony spread by the "grassroots" faction, the general tone of Republican Party politics turned in a very positive direction last year. Virginia Democrats, meanwhile, failed to capitalize on President Obama's historic win last year, and their amiable nominee for governor, Creigh Deeds, found himself using negative campaign tactics that barely put a dent in the McDonnell juggernaut. Whether the GOP "grassroots" will learn the clear lesson from the Republican's landslide victory remains to be seen, however. Here are the top ten events in Virginia and Staunton-Augusta County-Waynesboro politics:

  1. Tax revolt in Augusta County -- "grassroots" flex their muscles. (Mar. 13)
  2. RPV chair Frederick is removed -- the "grassroots" mourn. (Apr. 5)
  3. Creigh Deeds wins big -- upset in Dem. gubernatorial primary. (June 9)
  4. Fourth of July, 2009 -- Dems outnumber GOP in Staunton parade. (July 5)
  5. Saxman ends bid for reelection -- local Republicans are stunned. (July 17)
  6. Dickie Bell gets GOP nomination -- party leaders make safe choice. (July 27)
  7. McDonnell comes to Staunton -- campaigning downtown. (Aug. 17)
  8. Republicans reunite in Verona -- party becomes friendlier, at last. (Oct. 10)
  9. Health care polemics heat up -- Local rallies against Obamacare. (Oct. 16)
  10. Republicans sweep Virginia races -- McDonnell wins over independents. (Nov. 4)

"Deep thoughts" (?)

The following blog posts dealt with broader problems or more fundamental issues, rather than day-to-day political happenings:

  1. Illegal immigration: no problem -- as in, it's too hot to touch. (Jan. 5)
  2. Bush's fiscal profligacy: a recap. -- conservative lamentations. (Jan. 10)
  3. Virginia is for loafers? -- extended unemployment benefits. (May 21)
  4. Are conservatives "brain dead"? (Oct. 4)
  5. Whither the Republican soul? -- re: GOP litmus test. (Dec. 30)

Requiescat in pacem

The following giant figures in the world of politics and public affairs passed away in 2009:

Get well soon, Rush

Radio talk-meister Rush Limbaugh was hospitalized in Hawaii three days ago after complaining of chest pains. His substitute host Walter Williams reassured listeners that Rush is doing OK, and on Saturday Rush was released from the hospital. I join conservatives and champions of free speech everywhere in wishing Rush a speedy recovery and prompt return to the "golden EIB microphone."


January 3, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Culture 2009: Year in review

Continuing with the theme of "going to hell in a handbasket"... Is the pop music phenomenon known as Lady Gaga another sign of the impending Apocalypse? There seems to be a race between her, Beyoncé, and Shakira to achieve the sluttiest stage persona in the music industry. Meanwhile, Britney Spears is trying for a comeback. What ever happened to respectable female vocalists like Janice Joplin or Grace Slick?

The death of Michael Jackson in July sparked a deep emotional outpouring around the world, as most people remembered all the joy he brought to the world and looked past his troubled personal life. I share those sentiments, for the most part. On the other hand, it could be another example of declining standards and the widespread tendency to rationalize or excuse indecent behavior.

I had the impression that the culture wars cooled off just a little bit last year. There was not such a big deal made about Christmas vs. Secular Winter Solstice celebrations, etc. "Kwanzaa" may even have "jumped the shark," becoming just another lame cliché of political correctness. On a more disturbing note, the attacks by Muslim terrorists at Fort Hood, aboard that Detroit-bound airliner, and elsewhere have deepened the chasm between the Islamic world and the West. It seems all but inevitable that ethnic profiling will eventually become necessary at airports and other critical public facilities.

On a brighter note, last week's USA Weekend magazine listed some of the good news from 2009, widely regarded as topping the charts on the bleakness scale. Here are the Top Five pieces of Good News:

  1. U.S. Airways Capt. Sullenberger lands on the Hudson, saving 155 lives.
  2. African-American inaugurated president.
  3. Twitter empowers average people to spread news.
  4. NASA discovers water on the moon.
  5. Ford Motor Company survives without bailouts. (Our Escape still runs fine.)

Here are some "honorable mentions":

  1. Plain-looking Susan Boyle's voice enchants millions.
  2. Paul McCartney goes on tour, young at heart despite his divorce.
  3. Newly remastered versions of all the Beatles albums are released.
  4. Lynyrd Skynyrd releases a new CD, "God and Guns." Excellent stuff!

I checked the rollingstone.com, but only recognized seven of the top 25 songs of the year -- ouch! Well, I'll probably become familiar with more of them eventually. I recently started listening to Nickelback, Hoobastank, and Coldplay, three rock groups from early last decade. And here are some "less than honorable mentions," the first four I which I covered in my blog:

  1. World class procreation -- Nadya Suleman becomes "Octomom."
  2. The end of the Newspaper Era -- dawn of the post-literate era.
  3. Lutherans split over "gay rights"
  4. Catholic - Anglican reunion? -- prompted by push for "gay rights" by liberals.
  5. Amy Winehouse goes "back to rehab."
  6. Chris Brown beats up Rihanna -- what a scumbag.
  7. Tiger Woods' "world-class" infidelity -- what a scumbag.

January 3, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Merry Christmas Bird Count!

Yesterday was the annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC) for the Waynesboro area, supervised by Augusta Bird Club (ABC) member Crista Cabe. It was the first time since 2006 that I had participated in the CBC. The scheduled date for this year's Augusta County CBC (Dec. 19) conflicted with my teaching (or grading) duties, so I opted for the Waynesboro CBC instead. As it turned out, the blizzard forced a postponement of the Augusta County CBC, so I probably could have participated in it after all. Anyway, I joined former ABC President Grant Simmons for several hours yesterday morning and early afternoon as we drove all around the Fishersville-Lyndhurst area. I got to know several neighborhoods and birding hotspots I had never seen before. It was bitterly cold, however, with stiff winds that caused the wind-chill factor to drop to near zero. Altogether, we spotted 37 species, including the following highlights:

  • Red-tailed hawk
  • Cooper's hawk (close view!)
  • Sharp-shinned hawk
  • Raven
  • Red-bellied woodpecker
  • Downy woodpeckers
  • Flickers
  • Horned larks
  • Bluebirds
  • Carolina wren
  • Mockingbirds
  • Goldfinches
  • White-crowned sparrows
  • Chipping sparrow (!)
  • Fox sparrows (!)

Not seeing any Yellow-bellied sapsuckers, Yellow-rumped warblers, or either species of Kinglets was a bit disappointing, but with such frigid conditions, it was amazing that any birds were out and about. Hardly any ducks or other waterfowl were observed in this year's CBC, because nearly all of the local ponds have frozen over, forcing those birds further south for the time being. In the evening, CBC participants gathered at the home of Gary and Crista Cabe, sharing our experiences and tallying up our totals for the day. Since I haven't been able to attend any bird club meetings since last spring, it was great to get back in touch with all those friendly folks.


January 4, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Hellish year for D.C. sports

The year two thousand nine had to be one of the worst seasons for Washington-area sports fans in many years, as the Nationals (59-103), Redskins (4-16), and Wizards (19-63) all ended up with win-loss records below .400. Given that many if not most of the nation's ills stem from bad decisions made by government leaders in Washington, perhaps this is just poetic justice. If, as many believe, the country as a whole is "going to hell in a handbasket," then the Nation's Capital is leading the way, sports-wise! Among the four major sports, only the NHL Capitals have had a positive win-loss balance, but if you include Major League Soccer, then D.C. United would qualify as well, with a 9-8-13 record. Women's basketball? The WNBA Washington Mystics had a .471 record last year -- and yet still made it to the playoffs!

When the Washington Nationals were going down the toilet early last summer, the team's owners knew that drastic action was needed, so in July they replaced Manny Acta as manager with Jim Riggleman. Starting over with a clean slate! By October, it was clear that the Washington Redskins were approaching an equally bleak state of affairs, so what did owner Dan Snyder do? He didn't want to fire head coach Jim Zorn, because he would still have to pay the full contractual salary, so he kept Zorn as the titular boss while putting another guy in charge of calling plays from the sidelines. It was a stupid decision, exacerbating the tension and confusion among team members who weren't really sure who was calling the shots. The short-sighted, meddlesome Snyder is almost as bad a team owner as Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles. But whoever deserves most of the blame, the end result is a loss of fan support. Perhaps declining interest in the Redskins will create an opportunity for the Nationals to add to their fan base.

As everyone expected, Jim Zorn was fired at the crack of dawn this morning, and his apparent replacement, Mike Shanahan (former coach of the Denver Broncos), had already arrived at Dulles Airport near Washington while Zorn was still cleaning out his desk. "Don't let the door hit you on the way out!" As WUSA-TV9's Bret Haber said this evening, Zorn is a decent guy and deserved better treatment than that.

In the Outlook section of Sunday's Washington Post, Michael Richman reviews the history of the Washington Redskins, reminding us that for much of the 1950s and 1960s, they were mediocre at best. Somehow, that doesn't make me feel much better. Anyway, his article included a nice graph showing the Redskins' annual win-loss records way back when, and that prompted me to make the comparison between the baseball, football, basketball, and hockey team win-loss records since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. I had forgotten that the Nats actually did better than the Redskins in 2006. See below:

Winning percentages in Washington

Year Nationals
(MLB)
Redskins
(NFL)
Wizards
(NBA)
Capitals
(NHL)
2005 .500 .611 .512 .406
2006 .438 .313 .500 .412
2007 .451 .529 .524 .581
2008 .366 .500 .232 .676
2009 .364 .250 * .323 * * .686 *

* Season still underway. Years shown above refer to the beginning of the season.
SOURCES: Washington Post, nhl.com, nbauniverse.com


Adios, Giants Stadium

Last night the New York Jets played the last football game ever in Giants Stadium, at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Its replacement next door -- the "stadium to be named later" -- will have 82,500 seats, not much more than Giants Stadium, but it will cost $1.6 billion -- that's about 20 times as much as Giants Stadium cost to build, or about six times as much after you factor in inflation. There will be three main decks, like in Giants Stadium, but with five (5) luxury box levels. It's almost as extravagant as brand-new, quadruple-decked Cowboy Stadium in suburban Arlington, Texas -- down the street from Rangers Ballpark. One notable difference is that the overall structure will have four distinct corners, as opposed to the more rounded shape of the Giants' and Jets' current home. See nyg2010.com.

Prompted by all the recent football developments, I have updated and corrected the Football use page, which now shows where NFL teams moved to after they left stadiums which they had shared with MLB teams.


January 7, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Target Field is complete

As temperatures drop below zero in the northwoods country of Minnesota,* there is actually some good news from the Twin Cities: "Mortenson [Construction] has completed all major work on the new $425 million Target Field more than two months ahead of schedule..." And so, the front office staff of the Minnesota Twins has moved into their spiffy new offices adjoining the team's modernistic new home. See MLB.com.

Also, Mike Zurawski pointed out to me that the interactive seat viewer page on the Twins' Web site shows a "411" marker at the deep corner just left of dead center field, but no "404" marker. Assuming that is how they are going to do it, that will be among the refinements I'll have to make in the Target Field diagram prior to Opening Day.

* The weather ain't much better here in Virginia: snow is falling once again, as another wave of arctic air pushes through. frown

Dawson gets the call

Andre Dawson was the only player chosen by the baseball writers for the Hall of Fame this year. He played for the Expos for eleven years starting in 1976, and later for the Cubs, the Red Sox, and the Marlins. He ended his career after the 1996 season in the city of his birth -- Miami. Over his 21-year career in the majors, he racked up 438 home runs and 2,774 hits. It was his ninth year of eligibility, and he surpassed the required 75 percent threshhold by a small margin. Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were close behind, just under 75 percent, but they are expected to make it next year. Dawson played for over half his career in Montreal, and if he chooses to enter the HOF with an Expos cap, he would be the second player in franchise history to do so. (The fact that the Montreal Expos no longer exist, or rather have transmutated into the Washington Nationals, creates a somewhat awkward situation.) The first Expos player to get the call from Cooperstown was Gary Carter, inducted in 2003. See MLB.com.

Comerica Park update

I set out to do a couple minor correction to the thumbnail Comerica Park diagrams, thinking it would be a "quickie," but not long after I got started I realized that I had to make several significant corrections. The lights and profile are more accurate than before, and the lateral aisle in the upper deck is now shown, but there are also several minor revisions to the shape of the structure. The grandstand between first base and the right field corner is angled slightly less than I thought before, and the "bleachers" in right field are about eight feet shallower.


January 9, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Great American Ballpark update

Once again, I got carried away with the details, but the diagram on the Great American Ballpark Great American Ballpark page has now been revised. Aside from the usual enhancements (lights, profiles), there are some notable corrections. The upper deck bleachers in left field are about ten feet shallower than I previously estimated, about eight feet closer to the field, and extend about ten feet further toward center field. For the first time, the peripheral buildings on the third base side are shown, but there is no room for the building on the first base side. (It would obstruct the profile on that side, and given that the two main parts of "GABP" are so radically different from each other, I decided it was more important to keep that profile.) The other obvious change from the earlier diagram version is that the Ohio River is now shown.

In addition, I added another photo I took while I was passing through Cincinnati last August, showing the camera northeast corner and the "Pete Rose Way" garage entrance. In the top right of that photo you can see the freeway overpass.

Washington Park wall

SABR member David Dyte sent out an alert that the remaining brick wall from Washington Park in Brooklyn is threatened with at least partial demolition by Consolidated Edison. It was the home of the Robins (who later became officially known as the "Dodgers") before they moved into Ebbets Field in 1913. For more information, see his Web site: brooklynballparks.com. Historical preservationists in the Big Apple, get busy!

Hail to the Redskins!

And, speaking of Washington (!?), a few months ago Brian Hughes sent me some YouTube links to an ancient film on the Redskins during the 1940s, in three sequential parts. They are of primary interest to Washington fans, but others may be interested in seeing football games being played in Griffith Stadium, Wrigley Field, Shibe Park, and Venable Stadium in Baltimore, before it was rebuilt as Memorial Stadium:

PART ONE

PART TWO

PART THREE


January 9, 2010 [LINK / comment]

More violence in Colombia

In response to a recent wave of attacks by Colombian guerrillas, the armed forces have launched a counteroffensive that resulted in 18 rebel deaths in the department (province) of Meta, in the center of the country. Air Force jets dropped bombs on the rebel base there. The Army is also pushing into the department of Caqueta, where the governor was kidnapped and killed just before Christmas. As always, the war on drugs is a central part of the equation: "During 2009, the Ministry of Defense reported capturing more than 200 tons of cocaine worth $5 billion." See CNN.com

The two main guerrilla armies in Colombia, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Army of National Liberation (ELN), recently announced that they will merge. It's a sign that the government is succeeding in its efforts to pacify the country, and that the guerrillas realize that they must either unite or be defeated. Whether unity is possible is uncertain, however, because the two groups have divergent ideologies, geographical bases, and strategies. FARC operates in the remote jungles, financed by narcotics traffickers, and these days is little more than a mafia protection racket. ELN has greater strength in the cities, but is much smaller than FARC, which is estimated to have about 10,000 armed members.

Honduran generals charged

Prosecutors in Honduras have filed charges against top military leaders who removed President Manuel Zelaya from power and sent him into exile last June. It is now up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the prosecution will go forward. See BBC. It seems unlikely, inasmuch as the Supreme Court, along with the Congress, authorized the removal of Zelaya on the grounds that he abused his power in trying to hold a referendum on the Constitution. Time will tell. It's an odd situation, and may be nothing more than gestures aimed at mollifying supporters of Zelaya, as the new government of Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo prepares to take power. (Inauguration Day is January 27.) He was elected about one month ago.


January 9, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Democrats hit a speed bump

Just when President Obama is on the verge of achieving an historic legislative victory through the passage of his health care bill (or what's left of it, anyway), the Democratic Party is experiencing some "blowback" from angry voters. In recent days, two veteran Senate Democrats and Gov. Bill Ritter of Colorado have announced that they will not run for reelection this year. Senators Byron Dorgan (ND) and Chris Dodd (CT) called it quits, even though both are in the prime of their political lives. See the Washington Post. Next on the list of endangered Democrats: Majority Leader Harry Reid, who his trailing badly in all the polls in Nevada.

Dodd, of course, has serious ethical problems related to the collapse of the mortgage industry (see Sept. 20, 2008), and would have had a difficult race in any case. But still it makes you wonder why the Democrats would put so much effort into passing a health care bill that is so unpopular. After all, aren't members of Congress motivated first and foremost by their own political survival, meaning reelection? On Facebook recently, I made the suggestion Democrats are willing to pay a heavy electoral price this year precisely because the health care bill will have such a profound transformative effect on the country that it will change the entire political landscape and create a built-in constituency for the Democrats for a generation to come. (For many of them, whether this country can even afford such an ill-considered extravagance is beside the point.) Any thought of repealing the health care bill, as some right-wing activists are demanding of Republican candidates this year, is extremely unrealistic. It's very sad but very true.

Don't forget, President Obama campaigned on a pledge to "transform a nation" (see March 1, 2009), and I have no doubt whatsoever that he is dead serious about it. We may not even recognize this country a few years from now. So, the Democrats may calculate that the short-term losses will be more than offset by the prospects for achieving long-term political hegemony.

Who is Erroll Southers?

He's President Obama's nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, but his chances of getting Senate confirmation are declining day by day. Southers abused his investigative powers by accessing a database for personal use while an FBI agent during the late 1980s, and then he made false statements about it in an affidavit submitted to a Senate committee. That's not smart at all. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) played a leading role in insisting that Southers get further scrutiny before being confirmed. (DeMint is playing an increasingly prominent role in the Senate, and I expect him to gain further renown as a national leader in years to come.) See the Washington Post. At a time when the TSA is playing an extremely important role in resisting the threat of terrorism, we can't afford to have an ethically-challenged person head that agency.

Transparent government

Some people may recall that President Obama made a firm pledge during the 2008 campaign that negotiations among congressional leaders would be fully open to the public. It was an extremely unrealistic pledge, and he should have known better. Indeed, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi laughed at the idea that she would be obliged to live up to Obama's campaign promise, not a good sign for party unity. At washingtonpost.com (hat tip to Connie), Ezra Stein suggests ways to "make government more transparent," which is hard to argue with. He derides the Senate Republicans attempt to delay the health care bill by reading the entire bill on the Senate floor, partly because no normal person can understand that language anyway. I commented:

A noble sentiment, but it would be easy to circumvent any such reforms. Plus, the easier it is to access a given piece of legislative information, the less hard most citizens are likely to work to get it. Bottom line: The less the government tries to do, the less need there is to make its actions comprehensible to the general public.

In sum, government transparency is not likely to happen as long as congressional leaders feel secure enough not to worry about withstanding a serious challenge to reelection -- and that hardly ever happens. Maybe Harry Reid will start to open up...


NOTE: Earlier today (Saturday) I discovered that my politics blog post for Jan. 10, 2009 ("Bush's fiscal profligacy: a recap") had originally been labelled as "Jan. 10, 2008." Since it was a fairly important post which I have cited since then at least once, and may do so again, I corrected that error, and included a note at the bottom, along with a screen shot of the original date stamp to show when it was originally posted.


January 9, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Nice drive in the country

I got a call today from my friend Steve Kijak, who said he's pretty sure he saw a Bald eagle at the Middle River while driving along Interstate 81. The perfect excuse for me to do a little weekend birding in the countryside! So, I hopped in my car and (after attending to an obligation) found a suitable place to park at the corner of Routes 780 and 781 east of Verona. There was a Kestrel perched on an electrical wire (see below), and a Phoebe showed up soon afterwards, but no eagles were to be found. After waiting for 15 minutes or so, I decided to head east along Route 781, which dead-ends in a stretch of land that is surrounded on three sides by the extremely [winding] Middle River. It was the first time I had ever driven on that stretch of road. I saw several Bluebirds along the way, and took a nice photo of one.

Just as I was turning around a bend as the road entered a wooded area, a Red fox ran across the road less than fifty feet in front of me! It was the closest view I had ever had of the animal. It did not stick around, so I had no chance to get a photo. The rest of the drive was full of interesting scenery, with several nice houses and a few interesting birds here and there. Here are the feathered highlights of the day:

  • American Kestrel
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Phoebe
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Raven
  • Red-tailed Hawk
  • Canada Geese
Kestrel on wire

American Kestrel; the blue-gray wings indicate that it is a male.

Bluebird on wire 2

Eastern Bluebird; the bright blue and orange colors indicate that it is a male.

River Bend Farm

Route 781, which terminates at the aptly-named River Bend Farm. The Middle River closely parallels this ridge-top road on both sides for over a mile!


January 10, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Sen. Reid trumped by race card

It all started when excerpts from a new book filled with tawdry gossip from the 2008 presidential campaign were leaked, soon flooding cyberspace. Most infamous was the comment by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who said that Barack Obama could win because he didn't have a "Negro dialect." (See politico.com.) Well, isn't that special? It's not the first time that a Democrat has used implicit racist words about Obama, and it probably won't be the last. The book is called Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

The question is, just how serious is the verbal offense? Is it enough to warrant replacing Reid as leader of the Senate? He is not exactly a soul-stirring leader, after all. What about the partisan angle? Are Democrats living up to the same high standard to which Republican leaders are being held by the mainstream media? Some have compared Reid's gaffe to then Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's unseemly praise for segregationist Strom Thurmond in December 2002. Of Lott, I wrote that "if he's going to hand the Democrats an issue on a silver platter like this, it's obviously time for him to step aside." If I were a Democrat right now, I would say the same thing about Reid. But since I'm not, I hope he stays as the Democrats' leader in the Senate!

For the moment, Reid's ill-chosen words may take the heat off RNC Chairman Michael Steele. (According to Mike Allen at politico.com, however, Steele stood behind Lott when that December 2002 flap took place, suggesting a lack of consistency.) Steele has been criticized lately for taking money for speeches he has given, and whose new book has a lot of harsh criticism about the GOP. For a party leader, however, he does seem unduly pessimistic about the electoral prospects this November. More on that subject later.

Greenpeace fights back

In apparent response to the scandal over the leaked e-mail messages exposing a scientific coverup at East Anglia University last month, activists from Greenpeace have launched a counteroffensive here in Virginia: They are filing a Freedom of Information Act request for all communications sent and received by U.Va. professor Patrick Michaels since he was named as the state climatologist in the 1980s. See the News Leader. It could take years to gather and sift through all that material, and what could it possibly prove? I think it's like a frivolous lawsuit, and will only further diminish Greenpeace's image among those who care more about the environment than politics.

Instapundit too "pithy"?

I must confess that over the past few months, I have fallen out of the habit of following some of my favorite blogs, such as Instapundit, authored by Glenn Reynolds. Maybe there's a good reason, in the case of that blog, at least. At True Slant, blogger Conor Friedersdorf expresses one of my misgivings about Reynolds: "he too often writes posts whose pithiness comes at the expense of substance, accuracy or integrity." What he means to say is that Reynolds' terse and ironic style of writing is aimed at his regular readers who already know his attitudes and pet peeves. It's an enormous yet very closed social group, with their own language and buzz-words that are indecipherable to outsiders, much like the in-crowd at the local shopping mall. It's an unhealthy tendency that inevitably creates misunderstandings and undermines broader political discourse in the country. It may simply be another one of those unstoppable trends engendered by the Internet, however. Hat tip to Bruce Bartlett.

Speaking of which, you folks in Rio Linda ... Nah, I won't go there.

Ray Stevens protests

For a hilarious and uplifting protest against Obamacare, watch and listen to Ray Stevens's new song, "We the People" at youtube.com. It is excellent!!! As I noted on Facebook, I'm actually old enough to remember his song "Wildwood Flower" from 1970 or so.


January 11, 2010 [LINK / comment]

A few more BIG winter deals

The budget-concious Cincinnati Reds have had to let some of their biggest stars go over the past few years -- Ken Griffey, Jr., Adam Dunn, and Austin Kearns -- but they may be preparing for a long-term resurgence. They just made a big splash by agreeing to terms with Cuban defector Aroldis Chapman on a five-year, $25 million contract, outbidding several other teams. Details are still pending. It may take a year or two for the 22-year older to get used to the major leagues, but the lightning-fast (100 MPH?) left-handed pitcher could eventually help make the Reds competitive in the NL Central Division once again. Chapman pitched for Cuba in the 2009 World Baseball Classic last spring. See MLB.com.

The Texas Rangers reached a one-year agreement with Vladimir Guerrero that includes a mutual option for a one-year extension. The outfielder will play most of his games as a designated hitter this year. Vlad began his career with the Expos in September 1997, but they could not afford to keep him when he became a free agent after the 2003 season, so he signed as with the "LAnaheim" Angels. In 2004, he was chosen as American League MVP. That was just one year before the Expos moved south and became the Washington Nationals... See MLB.com.

Plus, there are rumors that Ryan Church is close to a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like the Reds, they need an offensive boost, and Church has proven himself as a reliable batter while playing for the Expos, Nationals, Mets, and Braves.

A few more page updates

Gradually getting caught up with changes in the baseball world over the past year, I have updated the Stadium chronology (by decade), Stadium names, and Stadiums in Limbo pages.


January 11, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Steele on the Republican Party *

Ordinarily, party leaders are supposed to emphasize the positive aspects of their party, but in the Republican Party of today, that is rather difficult. RNC Chairman Michael Steele is catching a lot of flak for his new book, Right Now: A 12-Step Program for Defeating the Obama Agenda. (I'll withhold judgment about the book itself until I've read it.) He says Republicans in general have "screwed up" since Ronald Reagan was president. (New York Times) That is accurate about the last few years, I think, but seems unduly harsh when you consider all the progress that was made during the (all-too-brief) Republican Revolution led by Newt Gingrich in 1995. As the Washington Post reports, Steele's call for "grass-roots activism" on behalf of the "core conservative values of limited government, fiscal restraint and a strong national defense" could alienate independent voters.

In response to Steele, David Frum calls that book "Steele's 12-Step Plan for Self-Destruction." (Via Andrew Sullivan) Frum says the book "amounts to a formula for narrowing the party into the fundraising arm of the tea party movement." Ouch! He also points out some major omissions by GOP leaders, including failure to prevent or deal with all the congressional scandals related to Jack Abramoff, etc. Frum is one of the solid mainstream (i.e., not populist) conservatives with whom I identify.

In contrast to those who eagerly anticipate punishing Democratic incumbents for passing the "Obamacare" bill, Steele is pessimistic about retaking the House next fall, and for good reason. The "civil war" within the GOP shows little sign of abating any time soon, and leaders such as Steele who try too hard to pander to the populist (Tea Party) wing will end up discredited. I respect the Tea Partiers for raising public consciousness about vital constitutional issues, but I am also wary of some of the kooks in their midst. I think they can serve as a key part of a conservative-Republican alliance, but if the GOP hitches their wagon to that group, goodness knows where it will lead.

In sum, I admire Steele for having the guts to say unpopular things, and I agree with most of his criticisms. I'm not sure that he has exhibited good judgment in trying to convey that message, however. As a persistent, firm critic of the direction the party has taken since the second term of George W. Bush (see November 2005) and as a gentle critic before that, I fully understand the dilemma in which Steele finds himself.

Speaking of dissenting voices within the party, I have not heard much lately from the Republican Leadership Council, the moderate GOP faction of which Steele was formerly a leading member. The pragmatic "big tent" advocates, with whom I sympathize to a certain extent, are probably smart enough to keep a low profile for the time being.

"Dirty war" on Obama?

Andrew Sullivan makes some good points about the nasty tone of much of the criticism of President Obama, who he says is "locked in dirty war with the right." See the Times Online (London); hat tip to Andrew Murphy, on whose Facebook page I commented:

I agree with most of Sullivan's analysis, and of course he understands the pathology in today's GOP as well as anyone, but you really have to take his writings with a grain of salt. He reeks of bitterness, and his recent obsession with Palin and Trig was downright creepy.

New year, new photos

In keeping with the new year, I have put a new photo montage at the top of my politics blog page. Unlike the previous such montage, which included images from multiple years, all of the photos in the new montage were taken during the previous year (2009). The group photo at the bottom was at the protest against Obamacare in Waynesboro last October.

Politics montage 2009

At the top: the White House, and a group of "Tea Party" protesters at the Staunton July 4 parade. Middle row: Creigh Deeds, Bob Goodlatte, Bob McDonnell, Bill Bolling, and Dickie Bell. Bottom row: Ben Marchi, Scott Sayre, Ken Cuccinelli, and George Allen.


* NOTE: A technical correction made to this blog post on Feb. 10, 2010, but none of the text was altered.

Originally Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 11 Jan 2010, 2: 10 PM .


January 18, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Earthquake leaves Haiti in ruins

Haiti flag The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti last Tuesday was the most destructive and lethal natural disaster to strike the Western Hemisphere in recorded history. The televised images of toppled major buildings and bodies strewn about the streets are almost too much to comprehend. The suffering of the roughly three million residents of the capital Port au Prince is beyond compare, and it is hard to watch the gravely wounded people waiting treatment outside makeshift surgical clinics. Yet every day they are finding more people still alive, liberated from entombment in the rubble. It is cause for some hope in the face of utter despair.

Right now, the most conservative estimate of fatalities is 80,000, but that number is expected to rise substantially. When the final estimates are made, it may rival the 2004 earthquake/tsunami, which killed at least 200,000 people in Indonesia and other countries around the Indian Ocean. But the question of exactly how bad it was or how highly it ranks on the list of historical disasters (see the list below) can never be answered, and the huge uncertainty in all such death tolls merely illustrates another dimension of the tragedy -- that no one but God will ever know all the human lives that were lost that awful day.

The epicenter of the earthquake was only ten miles southwest of the capital Port au Prince, which is why most buildings were destroyed or heavily damaged. Many smaller towns in the southern part of the island country were ruined as well, but because of bad roads and a broken system of communications, it will be days before the full extent of the damage is known. The neighboring Dominican Republic escaped relatively unscathed. President Rene Preval has not played an active role since the presidential palace was destroyed and he became homeless. He has an aloof reputation, and his leadership abilities seem gravely lacking in this emergency. For continuous updates on this story, see CNN.com.

Inevitably, tragedies of this magnitude invite political commentary, and some of what has been said is either very insensitive or ill-informed, reinforcing American prejudices about Haiti. I refer in particular to Rev. Pat Robertson's remark about the alleged "pact with the Devil" made by Haitian independence leaders in 1804; see Christian Science Monitor. Personally, I think the less some of our pundits talk about Haiti's misery, the better.

After the shock of the disaster wore off and as the people's hunger grew, frustration was bound to erupt into violence. As today's Washington Post reported, the security situation is deteriorating as looting escalates. What is left of most banks and retail stores is being stripped bare, and it will probably take several months for markets to resume functioning in a normal way. Also see the BBC, which reported on the 2,000 U.S. Marines who have arrived in Haiti. Hopefully they will not have to stay as long as they did early in the 20th Century, 1915-1934. Unlike other Caribbean Basin countries which were occupied by U.S. forces during that era, the sport of baseball never took hold in Haiti.

Being located in the middle of the Caribbean Sea, Haiti has been plagued by major hurricanes over the course of its history. Part of the problem is man-made, however: deforestation has resulted in more soil erosion, and made Haiti much more vulnerable to mudslides than otherwise. In May 2004 over 1,000 people died in massive floods after days of heavy rains, and just a few months later, in September, Hurricane Jeanne killed at least 1,500 people.

Relief & development aid

Coincidentally, the News Leader recently ran a series of feature stories about the humanitarian/developmental missionary program in which various local churches are participating. Rev. Bowen, a retired rector, played a leading role in this campaign, which is centered at St. Marc's School in Cerca La Source, in the northeast part of Haiti, close to the Dominican Republic border. Our local church, Emmanuel Episcopal, is going to show a movie on Haiti as part of a pizza dinner fund-raising event next Sunday, January 24. In the mean time, you can donate to help the people of Haiti at: Episcopal Relief & Development.

Politics in Haiti

Of all the 20 countries in Latin America, Haiti is the one I have studied the least. That is because it is French-speaking and is culturally distinct from the rest of the region. Haiti's political system does exemplify bad aspects of Latin America, however, with violence and instability for most of its history. For many decades it was an oligarchy dominated by the light-skinned mixed-race elite class, led by the Duvalier family from the late 1950s (under "Papa Doc") until the late 1980s, when his son "Baby Doc" was forced to flee. Catholic Priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide came to power, but was forced out until President Clinton sent in the U.S. military to restore his authority. Aristide was elected president once again in 2000, but an uprising broke out in early 2004, and he was forced to resign and flee the country. Because of poor security, elections planned for November 2005 were repeatedly postponed until early 2006. The process of counting votes was marred by irregularities, and after riots by poor people, election officials in Haiti changed their rules and declared former President Rene Preval to be the winner in February 2006. (Preval is an ally of Aristide.)

In short, Haiti is an extremely dysfunctional country with a host of social maladies, and it lacked even rudimentary emergency response capabilities. For the next few years at least, it will be largely dependent on international assistance just to survive.

Accordingly, I have updated my Haiti background information page, including an attempt to reflect the current political party configuration, which is very complicated and confusing. Since I am not at all an expert on Haiti, that summary of political parties must be regarded with a grain of salt.

Latin American earthquakes

Anyone who pays much attention to Latin America knows that the region is prone to experiencing major earthquakes, especially the countries along the eastern rim of the Pacific Ocean. (The first time I traveled to Peru, in 1994, I felt at least three minor tremors that were enough to make the walls shake.) To put the 2010 Haiti earthquake in perspective, it is useful to look at the major earthquakes in modern Latin American history. In the list below, the estimated fatalities are in parentheses:

  • Peru, May 1970 (66,000)
  • Nicaragua, Dec. 1972 (5,000)
  • Guatemala, Feb. 1976 (23,000)
  • Mexico, Sept. 1985 (9,500)
  • El Salvador, Oct. 1986 (1,000+)
  • Colombia/Ecuador, Mar. 1987 (4,000+)
  • Colombia, June 1994 (1,000)
  • El Salvador, Jan.-Feb. 2001 (1,100+)
  • Haiti, Jan. 2010 (80,000+)

SOURCE: World Almanac and Book of Facts, 2004

The devastating 1985 earthquake that wrecked large parts of Mexico City happened barely six months after I visited there. It was made worse by the fact that Mexico City was built on an old lake bed, and the ground beneath is still wet and unstable. In addition, a large earthquake hit southern Mexico in 2003, forcing a change in my subsequent vacation plans; 29 deaths were reported.

As for more recent seismic events, an earthquake in Guatemala in October 2005 happened soon after a tropical storm had drenched the countryside. The resulting mudslides killed over a thousand people, many more than would have died if the land had been drier and more stable. The most recent major earthquake in Latin America happened in Peru in August 2007. It was centered near Ica, about 100 miles southeast of Lima, and over 500 people died. One year ago, in January 2009, Costa Rica suffered a serious earthquake in the mountains northwest of the capital San Jose.


January 18, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Our new governor: Bob McDonnell!

After eight years of Democrats occupying the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Republicans have a lot to celebrate now that Bob McDonnell has been elevated to the top executive leadership position in the Old Dominion. The new governor struck a sober yet upbeat and inspirational tone in his hour-long speech to the General Assembly this evening, stressing bipartisan cooperation and making good-natured references to Del. Ward Armstrong and other Democratic legislators. Stylistically, it was right on target.

As for the substance, McDonnell covered the gamut of issues, mostly revolving around the difficult dilemma posed by the severe budget crunch. He focused like a proverbial "laser beam" on the fundamental task of job creation, the subject of Executive Order #1, which he signed on Saturday, within hours of taking the oath of office. My only real criticism of McDonnell was in putting too much emphasis on the standard tools by which state and local governments give special preferential incentives to attract investment from out-of-state. (He mentioned the tourist and movie-making industries as being prime examples of big payoff opportunities.) From a broader, nationwide perspective, however, such incentives yield little if any net increase in aggregative private investment, merely shifting investment from one state or locality to another, as in a zero-sum game. But otherwise, McDonnell said all the right things about the need to ease the regulatory burdens on small businesses, and to firmly reject any proposals to raise taxes on "hard-working Virginia families." Good! (It was also good that he left just a little bit of wiggle room for negotiating purposes.)

McDonnell repeated one line that caught my attention from his inaugural address on the Capitol steps, eliciting loud cheers along with some boos from Democrats:

We will make Virginia the energy capital of the east coast.

To which I say, "Don't count your chickens before they hatch." I support the proposed off-shore drilling measures, as long as there are strong environmental safeguards, but I am under no illusion that we are necessarily going to strike it rich. I was never much impressed with the simplistic slogan, "Drill here, drill now!" Maybe we will get lucky, as Brazil did two years ago, or maybe not. For a detailed summary and analysis of the Governor's speech, read Jim Hoeft at Bearing Drift.

Sunday's News Leader reported on local folks who made it down to Richmond for the inaugural festivities, including Jimmy Brenneman, a young Staunton Republican. [Also present at the ceremonies was the new 20th District Delegate, Dickie Bell and his wife, Anne.] (I was seriously considering making the trip, but the household vote on the issue was tied, 1-1.) smile If I had only known the 70s acoustic rock group America was going to play at the inaugural ball...

In the months to come, Governor McDonnell will have a precious opportunity to prove that he can tackle tough issues in a bipartisan fashion without giving up on conservative principles. He will be under heavy pressure from the "grassroots" to do their bidding. Fortunately, he seems to be a very capable and gifted leader, so there is very good reason to expect that he will rise above the old partisan bickering and gamesmanship, and do what is in the best interest of all Virginians.

I have made no secret of my deep dissatisfaction with the Grand Old Party over the past few years, and I have explained my reasoning in fine detail. Being that I have striven to be discreet about intra-party squabbling, however -- in marked contrast to the "grassroots" leadership -- you sometimes have to "read between the lines" in my critiques. For the record, I ceased involvement in the formal party organization after the final "mediation effort" came to naught in mid-2008. Since then, I have limited my political activities to occasional public meetings, campaign events, and the Mountain Valley Republicans. I am gratified that the victory last November validated the approach I have been calling for, and I hope that it signifies the beginning of a fresh turn in a more sane and constructive direction.

Special Senate elections

In Virginia's 37th Senate District, being vacated by Attorney General-to-be Ken Cuccinelli, Democrat Dave Marsden defeated Republican Steve M. Hunt by only 327 votes: 50.64% to 49.26%. Some Democrats are crowing about the narrow win, but given the demographic makeup of Northern Virginia, the race should not have been so close. Clearly, something is amiss on the Democratic side. Meanwhile, the GOP held on to the 6th District Senate seat, being vacated by Ken Stolle (just elected as Sheriff of Virginia Beach), as Jeff McWaters beat Bill Fleming in a landslide. See the Virginia State Board of Elections. That means the Democrats now have a 22-18 majority in the state Senate, rather than a 21-19 majority as before. Accordingly, I have updated the table showing the composition of the Virginia government on my Politics blog page.

GOP upset in Mass.?

There is also a special election in Massachusetts tomorrow, for the United States Senate. Somehow, the Democratic favorite Martha Coakley has totally botched her campaign, wrongly assuming that the seat was an inherited peerage like in the House of Lords. Amazingly enough, the latest polls show the Republican Scott Brown with a significant lead that keeps growing. (Nine percent??? -- see politico.com.) I commented on a couple blogs that I expect the Democrats to manage to hold on to the "Kennedy seat" one way or another, but I hope I'm wrong. It is clear that a Democratic defeat would signify a humiliating repudiation of President Obama, but I would be very dubious about any claim that the "Tea Party" movement is responsible for a Republican win -- even if the original Tea Party was in Boston! A more convincing argument is that the tax hikes planned under Obamacare would severely penalize the manufacturers of medical devices that operate in Massachusetts, causing workers in that industry to defect from Democratic ranks. Ver-r-ry interesting!

Martin Luther King Day

Today, for the first time since an African-American became president, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, father of the great Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Local Republican activist Carl Tate, one of the rare breed of African-Americans who is proud to stand by the "Party of Lincoln," attended a program in honor of his late grandfather, Oliver J. Tate. I read the elder Mr. Tate's obituary in the News Leader a few months ago, and I can see where Carl got his character and gumption.

Thanks to the miracle of social networking, I learned about another African-American with a Republican identity: Samantha Rucker. She is running for the school board in the Mason District of Fairfax County. (I used to play softball in Mason District Park!) She says, "I am not running to promote one specific agenda or any partisan principles. I am running to be a part of the solution." Sounds good to me.


January 19, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Brown defeats Coakley, decisively

Sorry, Democrats, there won't be any recounts in Massachusetts! Confirming what the polls were saying, Scott Brown easily prevailed over Martha Coakley in the special election for the U.S. Senate today, by a 52%-47% margin. Let the record show that Republican Brown won the election by capturing an overwhelming share of the independent voters -- the same winning strategy followed by Bob McDonnell last year, and the same approach which I have advocated over and over through the years. Granted, that's the only real way a Republican can win in Massachusetts. But maybe the message is finally sinking in among Republicans nationwide. As Brown declared in his victory speech tonight:

The independent voice of Massachusetts has spoken!

It's just too bad the Fox News had to spoil the occasion by featuring two guest commentators who epitomize the unfortunate polarizing tendency within the Republican Party today: Karl Rove and Sarah Palin.

Speaking of which, Andrew Sullivan (hat tip to Bruce Bartlett) has some (predictable) cautionary words that remind us that the Republicans need to reflect just a bit before exulting in glee. He says Brown "has no plans to cut the debt or control government," and that the Republicans "merely want to kill a reform presidency. They have no alternative [policy]." I don't know about Brown, but he may have a point about many of the Republicans in Congress. My comment on Facebook:

Sullivan is on target as far as Rovian hypocrisy, though I would like to think the Massachusetts election is more than a "hissy fit." If the Republicans, and especially the Tea Party "Base," don't face up to the ugly truth about their own complicity in this country's fiscal mess, it's all but certain that they will misinterpret today's results just as badly as the Democrats misinterpreted Obama's 2008 victory, and likewise miss another historic opportunity for true reform.

Be that as it may, we can at least be sure that the threat of a government takeover of health care, and the march toward socialism in general, has been stalled for the moment, at least. How the next chapter unfolds depends to a large extent on whether the Democrats are going to ignore voter sentiment and press on with their agenda before their "window of opportunity" slams shut. Will they make excuses to prevent Brown from taking office in the Senate until they have pulled some legislative tricks? Not if the people of Massachusetts have anything to do with it. In the middle of the victory rally, the crowd started a chant aimed directly at the Democratic leaders in Congress:

Seat him NOW! Seat him NOW! Seat him NOW!

Actually, the threat of Democratic stalling tactics has just diminished, as Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) released a statement urging that no votes on health care be taken until Brown is officially seated as U.S. Senator. If a Democrat says such a thing, there is no way that Harry Reid will risk further damage to his party's sullied image. Good for Webb!

So what will the political ramifications be in Washington? Yesterday, Republitarian solicited forecasts as to how the Democrats would spin a loss by Coakley. My two cents:

Easy -- they will blame it on the lousy economy which Obama inherited from Bush. They can't heap blame directly on Coakley, of course, because she's a women, and it would be hard for Democrats to alienate a key constituency. They will reflexively accuse Brown of lies and distortions and scare tactics, linking him to the Tea Baggers, but in so doing they might even put themselves in a bigger hole for the elections next fall, because all indications are that Brown is a very decent [and] sincere guy.

"America Rising" video

It may seem a little disturbing for younger viewers, but for a good portrayal of the deep, widespread anger against Obama and the Democrats across the Fruited Plain, watch the America Rising Video at youtube.com.


January 20, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Obama's budgetary sneak play

So, how do you suppose President Obama and the Democrat leaders in Congress reacted to the obvious signs of growing and widespread antipathy toward their agenda, in Massachusetts and elsewhere? Why, by pushing to make the government less democratic, of course! Apparently some folks in the White House and Capitol Hill finally got the message that this country's finances are going to hell in a handbasket, and they are determined to show that they really care about it! Rather than calling for belt-tightening measures that would risk more electoral defeats, however, they came up with an unaccountable government body that would make the unpleasant but necessary decisions on which budget items to cut, in backroom sessions. Some "transparency"! What's more, Congress wouldn't have to vote on the recommendations until after the next elections, when many of them are lame ducks and therefore immune to public pressure. Utterly disgusting. From today's Washington Post:

Under the agreement, President Obama would issue an executive order to create an 18-member panel that would be granted broad authority to propose changes in the tax code and in the massive federal entitlement programs -- including Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security -- that threaten to drive the nation's debt to levels not seen since World War II.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to any of them, however, that creating a legislative agency by executive fiat is a flagrant violation of the whole principle of separation of powers. (What-ever!) Kudos to Rep. Frank Wolf for vehemently protesting this scam and insisting that "the American people participate and have a say in how their tax dollars are spent." On Facebook, I thanked Rep. Wolf for "resisting this unconstitutional and anti-democratic bit of skullduggery, and for remaining vigilant in defense of open, representative government."

Miscellaneous

The Huffington Post (hat tip to Connie) blames Martha Coakley's loss on the failure to use social media such as Facebook. To which I say, there are so many reasons for her calamitous drop in the polls over the past month that it would take a page or more just to list them.

It puts a smile on my face to see the newly revamped governor.virginia.gov Web page, with Gov. Bob McDonnell. Brighter days are ahead...

Finally, here's my favorite bumper sticker from libertystickers.com:

The Constitution doesn't matter unless you say it does.


January 23, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Upset: Red Sox fans rock politics

Future historians may decide that the fate of President Obama's domestic policy agenda was decided when a hapless Massachusetts politician managed to offend Boston Red Sox fans twice in one week. Not smart at all. Martha Coakley, who had held a wide lead in the race for U.S. Senate until a couple weeks before last Tuesday's election, was being interviewed on a radio show and referred to retired pitcher Curt Schilling (the bloody red-sock hero of the "miraculous" 2004 ALCS) as a "Yankee fan." What!!?? Schilling was as mystified by this remark as anyone, as his blog 38 Pitches makes abundantly clear.

Gold mine of
prospective voters:

Fenway Park Then, when asked about her lack of campaign activity and failure to court potential voters, she said, "As opposed to standing outside Fenway Park? In the cold? Shaking hands?" (This was in reference to the NHL Winter Classic held there on New Year's Day.) YES, you idiot!!! For more on these two monumental gaffes, see Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. In terms of getting blamed for an easy win that slipped through a team's fingers, Coakley will spend the rest of her life being compared to Bill Buckner or Steve Bartman.

At the very least, this special election in Massachusetts will lay to rest any doubts as to the significance of Our National Pastime in national affairs.

Big Mac comes (half) clean, late

The news about Mark McGwire's belated confession of past steroid use was overshadowed by the earthquake in Haiti last week, which may have caused a missed opportunity for a more intensive public discussion about the dope issue. (With fatalities climbing into the six figures, sports seems less important.) McGwire said what he had to do say to mend his tarnished honor, but it was several years too late, and in any case cannot undo the wrongs that he did against baseball and professional sports more generally. His announcement was probably a condition for his being hired as a hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals late last year, and it was time to clear the air. As the Washington Post reported, McGwire had to wait for the five-year statute of limitations to expire, or else face legal jeopardy. He says he used steroids for the first time after the 1989 season, and resumed doing so several years later, as a way to recover from injuries more quickly. Maybe. Saying that he human growth hormone but not to build his strength makes one wonder if he really has faced up to his culpability, however.

Likewise, as ESPN analyst Peter Gammons writes at MLB.com, McGwire's claim that there is no relationship between the performance-enhancing drugs and home run production does not sound very convincing. Gammons says more time will be needed to judge McGwire and others who are suspected or confess to cheating. The argument over this issue will never end, and the record books will forever be tainted by lingering doubts.

Gannett columnist Mike Lopresti wonders why it took McGwire so long to come clean. Just ask Pete Rose. If your whole identity is based on being a hero to millions of adoring fans, what is there left when you strip away the illusion? Some people develop an innate sense of self-worth in life that enables them to rise above crushing setbacks or the loss of friendships, but many entertainers and other public figures who encounter such a life crisis simply crash and burn.

What about the historical legacy? In the Washington Post, Tracee Hamilton "believe[s] he is contrite" but should not be let in "the Hall of Fame, ever, for a variety of reasons." She thinks he had no choice but to confess, which in her mind doesn't really change much. I have a hard time deciding. If those who cheat are never forgiven, like the Chicago White Sox "Eight Men Out" of 1919, what incentive will suspected cheaters have to come clean? It's a dilemma that can never be satisfactorily resolved: We want to encourage honesty, but we don't want to reward unethical conduct. In the end, they may have to create a separate category in the Hall of Fame for dope users, with asterisks next to their name.

David Pinto comments on the interview Bob Costas gave to McGwire, who denied Jose Canseco's statement that he and McGwire used to inject each other right before ballgames: "I believe Jose more than Mark on this one." Ouch!

McGwire is the biggest-name baseball star to admit dope use since Alex Rodriguez did so last February. Few have doubted that Big Mac was a user since the March 2005 circus on Capitol Hill when McGwire issued a teary-eyed non-statement. Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, and Curt Schilling also testified. The investigations culminated when the Mitchell Report was released in December 2007.

Saying he wished he had never played in the Steroid Era almost sounds like McGwire is rationalizing his behavior on the basis of what was condoned at the time. It's kind of like the reasons that were given for the mortgage crisis and the resultant virtual collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008. I want to give McGwire the benefit of the doubt, but he is going to have to work hard over the next few years to rebuild his credibility and honor.

Stadium news in Miami

Just in time for the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl, Joe Robbie Stadium / Pro Player Stadium / Dolphin Stadium / Land Shark Stadium has been officially renamed "Sun Life Stadium," as part of a five-year $37.5 million contract with a Canadian financial services company by that same name. See the Miami Herald; hat tip to Mike Zurawski. What-ever... I revised the Dolphin Stadium page. I have updated the Stadium names page accordingly.

Coincidentally, plans are underway to add a large, cable-suspended roof at Dolphin Stadium, in hopes of avoiding another 2007 Super Bowl, marred by a steady downpour. Like Qwest Field in (rainy) Seattle, it would cover virtually all the seats, but not the playing field. New scoreboards would be built in the four corners of the stadium, so that more fans will be able to see them. (The scoreboards are currently behind the end zones.) See palmbeachpost.com; hat tip to Mike Zurawski.

Progress on the new baseball stadium in Miami, meanwhile, is already having a positive impact: the budget-conscious Marlins just signed pitcher Josh Johnson to a four-year, $39 million contract through 2013. The new stadium, set to open in 2012, was evidently a major consideration in his decision. See MLB.com.

Wrigley Field makeover

The new owners of the Chicago Cubs have laid out their plans for a further renovation of Wrigley Field, which will celebrate its 100th birthday in four more years. The construction project is to be called "Wrigley 20-14" and is intended to let the Cubs can use it "for another 100 years." Well, let's hope so. See Chicago Tribune; hat tip to Bruce Orser.

The mail bag

Thanks to Matt Lachs for informing me that a bus repair facility for the Philadelphia School District presently occupies the site where the Baker Bowl once stood. I've updated the Stadiums in Limbo page accordingly.

There are more items in my in-box to get to, so thanks for your patience. Where have I been lately? "Back to school..."


January 25, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Conservatives win in Chile

Chile flag For the first time since democracy returned to Chile in 1990, conservatives have won the presidential elections. (It was the second round election, actually, the first round taking place last month.) Last week, Sebastian Piñera, of the National Renewal Party, defeated Eduardo Frei, of the ruling Concertacion coalition, by a margin of 52% to 48.3%. (Frei had served as president from 1994 until 2000, and Piñera was the losing candidate in the January 2006 election, when outgoing president Michelle Bachelet won by a 53.5%-46.5% margin.) Piñera claimed he had a "mandate for change," but promised to try to work with the opposition. He has served as a senator and head of the National Renewal Party. The Washington Post describes him as a billionaire "who ranks No. 701 on Forbes magazine's list of the world's richest people." Also see CNN.com.

This marks the end of two full decades in which socialists or socialist sympathizers have led in Chile, which is one of the rare success stories in modern Latin America. Peru has emulated the free-market approach of Chile since the early 1990s, with considerable success as well. For outsiders, it may seem puzzling that a country with such great success in capitalist economic development would keep electing socialists as president. Part of the reason, obviously, is the lingering stench of authoritarianism that the Pinochet dictatorship (1973-1989) has bequeathed to the conservative movement. (Indeed, went out of his way to promise that officials who had served under Pinochet would be excluded from his cabinet.) Also, the left-leaning governments have been smart and pragmatic enough not to "kill the golden goose" that keeps their precious welfare programs funded. On the other hand, the center-left coalition had become deeply embroiled in a serious of scandals over the past several years, and some people were surprised that Bachelet avoided any public backlash over that when she won the 2006 election. The upshot is that, ironically, economic policy may not change very much in the next few years. I would expect cuts in some social and education programs, however, and there are bound to be protests against "fascists."

One of Piñera's older brothers is among those who once served in the Pinochet government. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Jose Piñera was Secretary of Labor and Social Security, where he played a crucial role in privatizing the nation's pension system, and later as Secretary of Mining. I saw him speak at a conference at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in the early 1990s. He wrote a small book extolling the virtues of free markets: Chile 2010: Libertad, Libertad, Mis Amigos. The latter four words are from a poem by the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario. It's an eerie coincidence that the title of his book coincides with the year his younger brother assumed the presidency, setting the stage for putting those free-market values into practice in Chile -- in a democratic context, for the first time!

Piñera will be inaugurated in March, presumably the first peaceful democratic transition from one party to another in Chile since the 1960s. I have partially updated the Chile background information page, clarifying that the presidential term was reduced from six years to four years in 2005, as part of a series of constitutional reforms that undid some of the lingering authoritarian features of the Pinochet era.


January 27, 2010 [LINK / comment]

They got the Wall Street blues

Even as Republicans are beside themselves with joy in the wake of Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts last week, most economic indicators remain bleak, and investor confidence is flagging. In spite of renewed hopes in the GOP that the free enterprise system can still be saved, there's a lousy mood on Wall Street -- an interesting psychological contrast that bears pondering.

So far, the White House seems to be reacting to last week's defeat by adopting an even more populist rhetorical approach, bashing wealthy bankers for causing the nation's problems. There's more than a little truth in that, but still it's a risky road to take because it makes it hard to sustain a prudent course in economic policy. It will be interesting to see whether the President continues to use such crowd-pleasing words in his State of the Union Address later this evening.

In practice, however, Obama seems to be quite cautious, preferring to keep current government officials in place, as long as they have proven that they are "team players," not prone to spilling the beans about the bad underlying conditions. In that sense, Ben Bernanke is the perfect choice to remain as head of the Federal Reserve Bank, notwithstanding the fact that he has an abysmal record in overseeing the nation's financial system. But it seems that Washington elites on both sides of the aisle are circling the wagons to protect one of their own, and it now appears that the Senate will probably confirm him for a second term. Senator Max Baucus (D-MO), Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) will vote to confirm Bernanke for a second term, while Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) will vote against him. Ironically, MoveOn.org opposes Bernanke, while the U.S. Chamber of Commerce favors him. See the Washington Post. I have heard Bernanke testify any number of times, and while he may know what he's talking about, he just does not convey the firm sense of determination to fix glaring defects in our economy. He does not do well in the critical financial task of "moral suasion."

Another sign of the stay-the-course approach is that President Obama has recruited a former Reagan-era official, Paul Volcker, to sell a proposed new bank regulation system. The proposed "Volcker Rule" is an attempt to deal with the problem of banks that are "too big to fail." (Volcker was first nominated to chair the Federal Reserve Board by President Carter in 1979, and played a central role in defeating the menace of inflation during the 1980s, but he never got enough credit for it.) "Volcker's plan restricts "banks from making speculative investments that do not benefit their customers." (For example, hedge funds.) It would also limit bank consolidation, one of the prime examples of Alan Greenspan's "irrational exuberance" during the 1990s. From the Washington Post,

Volcker had been arguing that banks, which are sheltered by the government because lending is important to the economy, should be prevented from taking advantage of that safety net to make speculative investments.

In a sign of the troubled times, perhaps, Obama has embraced Volcker's proposal, marking what could be a truly momentous shift in economic policy. Time will tell.

Intentionally or not, the return of Paul Volcker to policy-making world has had the effect of undermining Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner. He may end up playing the role of "fall guy" for the Obama administration, and given the miserable shape things are in, they sure need somebody to do so. Ironically, when he was being vetted by Obama staffers for the Treasury job in late 2008 Geithner warned that he carried political baggage because of his role in the bailout of AIG and major banks. So who's in charge? This confusion over future policy direction provoked a large sell-off on Wall Street, as the Dow Jones tumbled four percent during the week.

Moral hazards

The Volcker Rule addresses the perennial question of moral hazards, when public policies or private insurance creates a perverse incentive to be less responsible. If somebody else is going to pay for my mistakes, what is the point in exercising caution? Professor Bainbridge (hat tip to Bruce Bartlett) finds that the proposal "look[s] potentially quite reasonable." Unlike me, Bainbridge sees no need to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act (1933) prohibition on investment peddling by depository banks. But I do agree with him that the Obama's proposal will be a key test to see whether the Republicans in Congress are prepared to support needed financial reforms or will remain the "party of no."

Meanwhile, at Mother Jones (hat tip to Matthew Poteat), economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote an article on this very same subject, but it just seemed to miss the basic point. So, I commented:

That article brings to light a very real fatal flaw in our economic system, but Stiglitz seems totally confused. He says "Market fundamentalism has eroded any sense of community," blaming free markets and a "moral deficit" among bank bosses. He doesn't seem to understand that the moral hazard problem does not stem from the moral failings of individuals, but from lax institutions and practices. Government intervention to prop up failing enterprises is the very antithesis of laissez faire. Banks got lazy and sloppy because of misguided regulations and mandates that took away their discretion over making loans. That, coupled with the absence of any anti-trust enforcement since the 1980s, allowed crooked mega-banks to dominate the market, which led to the demise of (semi-) free market capitalism.

Stiglitz is right that financial leaders haven't learned much if anything from their near-death experience -- but why should they? Bush or Obama or whoever will bail them out in the end. The habit of "socializing losses as we privatize gains" (an apt Marxian critique) did not start in the last ten years, but has long applied to airlines, pro sports franchises, etc. Blaming "Market fundamentalism" for the sins of crony capitalism will lead to the wrong remedies.

National debt sinkhole

I bet you never thought that Russia, Mexico, and Peru would achieve a ranking superior to the good ol' U.S.A. in terms of indebtedness relative to Gross Domestic Product. Altogether, the U.S. government owes $8.68 trillion, or 60.8% of GDP in the aggregate. Actually, Japan is even worse off than we are. Take a sobering look at the GDP vs National Debt by Country graphic at visualeconomics.com. This, in turn, raises the interesting question of whether or for how long countries can indulge the slide toward socialism; James Turk claims that "the ideological bankruptcy of socialism will be laid bare by government insolvency." He may be optimistic, however. Many countries in Latin America and Africa have continued with bankrupting socialist policies for years, astounding those who never dreamed that things could keep getting worse.

Global poverty declines

Here's good news, for most of us, anyway: "world poverty is disappearing faster than previously thought. From 1970 to 2006, poverty fell by 86% in South Asia, 73% in Latin America, 39% in the Middle East, and 20% in Africa." It really shouldn't be that much of a surprise, however, because until the last few years, there was a strong shift toward free market policies around the world, as part of the "neoliberal" wave. Gimme that good old (free market) religion! Contrary to left-wing populist dogma, markets tend to equalize differences among countries, though there is often a tendency to exacerbate inequalities in the wealthier nations, as the working class is forced to compete with dirt-poor peasants who are only too glad to work all day for a few dollars. See voxeu.org; hat tip to Bruce Bartlett.

Cutting health costs

A reasonable proposal to cut health costs was laid out by Dr. Charles Wheelan, Ph.D. He is pragmatic and refrains from any radical solutions, but he does at least recognize some of the biggest flaws in the current system and logical inconsistencies in Obamacare. See yahoo.com; hat tip to Dan.

Freedom of speech, Inc.?

Last week the Supreme Court issued a ruling (in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission) that overturns statutory limits on donations to political campaigns by corporations. Generally speaking, I'm opposed to arbitrary limits on campaign spending, but the way this case was decided causes me concern. The justices seem to be saying that corporations enjoy free speech rights just as much as human individual citizens do. (What??!!) I hope they are not inventing a new right, as the justices who voted for Roe v. Wade in 1973 did. See the Washington Post.

By the way, Citizens United is the PAC run by conservative activist David Bossie. He gained fame attacking Hillary Clinton a couple years ago (perhaps helping Barack Obama get elected?), and last year I finally received the video on Hillary that his organization promised me -- about a year too late.

Expect more government

I swear, I'm NOT making up this latest cybernetic initiative from the Obama White House: expectmore.gov; hat tip to Connie. Was that a Freudian slip, or perhaps a taunt? In fairness, I think they are trying to convey the idea that the government should live up to people's expectations.


January 27, 2010 [LINK / comment]

iPad: Apple does it again!

With Apple, you can never tell for sure how much of the hype is real, so today's big announcement of the iPad by Steve Jobs needs to be weighed against hands-on experience. No matter, if it even comes close to delivering on the promise, it will be worth the $499 price. Jacqueline and I are now arguing which of us is going to buy it first! If I understand correctly, however, the product will not be available in retail stores for 60 more days, and even that depends on approval from the Federal Communications Commission. See apple.com

Always up-to-the-minute with current pop culture trends, Doonesbury has been making fun of the new gizmo all week, recalling the similar satirical slams against Apple's hand-held device from the 1990s, before Steve Jobs returned. (What was that thing called?)

Memory upgrade

Coincidentally, I upgraded the memory in my iMac this evening, from the original 1 gigabyte of RAM to 3 gigabytes. Fortunately, inserting the RAM card into the slot underneath my iMac wasn't as hard as when I upgraded the memory on my old (2001) iMac. To my consternation, the first couple times I booted up I got error messages, but everything seems OK now. My productivity at home has lagged lately, because I am always running several applications at once, each of which has several windows open. (For my Mail program, there are dozens of unanswered message windows open! frown) I also purchased Mac OS X 10.6 "Snow Leopard," which requires additional RAM, so now I can install it.


January 29, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Obama: "We can do it together"

In what appeared to be a magnanimous gesture of outreach to his opponents in his State of the Union Address on Wednesday night, President Obama offered to seek common ground with the Republicans in Congress. What struck me about the speech, however, was the jarring dissonance between the conciliatory words he read from his teleprompter and the smug, condescending attitude evinced by his facial expressions. At a time when a more prudent leader might have displayed more sober acknowledgment of his own past mistakes, as dramatized by recent electoral setbacks, Obama just couldn't resist needling the Republicans. Perhaps he was trying to ease tensions with a little light-hearted humor, but his forced grin suggested he was deeply angry at them. A little more humility and/or a little less jesting would have gone a long way. Here are some of the speech highlights, taken from the transcript at whitehouse.gov, followed by my "fair and balanced" comments:

It's because of this spirit -- this great decency and great strength -- that I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight.

The President started off on the right foot, at least, using his phenomenal grace and charm to try to lift the spirits of the downtrodden nation. He fulfilled that presidential duty quite well. Then he went on to the core economic issues:

And if there's one thing that has unified Democrats and Republicans, and everybody in between, it's that we all hated the bank bailout. I hated it -- (applause.) I hated it. You hated it. It was about as popular as a root canal. (Laughter.)

But when I ran for President, I promised I wouldn't just do what was popular -- I would do what was necessary.

Likewise, he used a good opportunity to emphasize what the two parties agree on, and the root canal analogy may be apt -- if the bailouts ultimately achieve their goals to make the pain worth enduring, that is. But when Obama claimed to acting without regard to political consequences or poll numbers, his credibility started to wear thin. Then he talked about how to get that money back:

To recover the rest, I've proposed a fee on the biggest banks. (Applause.) Now, I know Wall Street isn't keen on this idea. But if these firms can afford to hand out big bonuses again, they can afford a modest fee to pay back the taxpayers who rescued them in their time of need.

True enough, sadly. Those banks accepted the money, and now they are semi-socialized wards of the state. As for his stimulus programs, widely criticized as ineffective, the President remained steadfastly upbeat:

Because of the steps we took, there are about two million Americans working right now who would otherwise be unemployed.

Here Obama is treading on very thin factual ice: estimates of the effects of policy on aggregate employment are notoriously unreliable, because of the complex interactions in our economic system, and in this case there are widespread reports that local officials were obliged to inflate the job figures they reported back to the government.

I know that there are those who disagree with the overwhelming scientific evidence on climate change. But here's the thing -- even if you doubt the evidence, providing incentives for energy-efficiency and clean energy are the right thing to do for our future -- because the nation that leads the clean energy economy will be the nation that leads the global economy. And America must be that nation.

It is hard to avoid the impression that he was mocking his Republican opponents for refusing to believe in the True Religion of Global Warming. It certainly didn't win over any new converts to Obama's brand of bipartisanship from the Republican side of the aisle. It was a virtual carbon copy of Sen. Tim Wirth's famous remark in 1988, when he was accompanied by Al Gore. (See the "Global warming update" section of this piece below.) On a more positive note, the President made a big pitch for foreign trade, resisting calls for protectionism:

We will double our exports over the next five years, an increase that will support two million jobs in America. (Applause.) To help meet this goal, we're launching a National Export Initiative that will help farmers and small businesses increase their exports, and reform export controls consistent with national security.

Then he went on to education, one of those issues where almost everyone agrees, it seems:

Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. ... [Hence the need to] make college more affordable. ... [But we also should forgive college debts] because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college.

Huh??? Is the glaring contradiction between those two statements not obvious to everyone? Or at least obvious to everyone with a high school education? Why on earth should we push more people into college if there is not a solid expectation that it will pay off for them in the long run? Next the President addressed the most difficult issue of all, the centerpiece of his rise to power, and quite possibly the reason for his decline.

[B]y now it should be fairly obvious that I didn't take on health care because it was good politics. (Laughter.) I took on health care because of the stories I've heard from Americans with preexisting conditions whose lives depend on getting coverage; patients who've been denied coverage; families -- even those with insurance -- who are just one illness away from financial ruin.

So he's basing public policy on anecdotal evidence? That makes no sense at all -- especially given his track record of avoiding tough choices. (See above.) I'm not saying that compassion should have no part in policy, simply that it should be subordinated to a rational assessment of likely costs, benefits, and issues of equity. But Obama persists in ignoring critics and treats this issue as an overriding moral imperative:

Here's what I ask Congress, though: Don't walk away from reform. Not now. Not when we are so close. Let us find a way to come together and finish the job for the American people. (Applause.) Let's get it done. Let's get it done. (Applause.)

Then he turned to the uncomfortable reality that the government's financial footing is shaky at best, making such ambitious reforms very difficult to carry out. The President recounted the economic emergency measures undertaken by his predecessor in the final months of his term, and outlined a new, more realistic approach to fiscal policy:

Starting in 2011, we are prepared to freeze government spending for three years. (Applause.) Spending related to our national security, Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security will not be affected. But all other discretionary government programs will. Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don't. And if I have to enforce this discipline by veto, I will.

The problem is, of course, that discretionary spending is only about one-sixth of the total Federal budget, and it is going to take a huge amount of belt-tightening to make much of a difference. The only way to restore fiscal sanity is to make radical reform in those three big entitlement programs: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. (As any economically aware person should know, adding a new Federal entitlement such as health care at a time when existing entitlements are leading us toward national bankruptcy is sheer folly.) And as Jay Leno noted last night, the average cash-strapped American family just uses their Visa card anyway. Hello, China? Would Obama or the Democratic leaders dare to do that? Not bloody likely. That, of course, is why he proposed a "bipartisan fiscal commission" to make the tough choices out of the public spotlight, behind closed doors:

Now, yesterday, the Senate blocked a bill that would have created this commission. So I'll issue an executive order that will allow us to go forward, because I refuse to pass this problem on to another generation of Americans.

As I stated last week, "creating a legislative agency by executive fiat is a flagrant violation of the whole principle of separation of powers." Once again, Obama is determined to do things his own way, no matter what the Constitution says.

... we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue -- to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; to give our people the government they deserve. *

* Emphasis added; that closely resembles the title of a book my father wrote: The Government We Deserve. More trouble came when the President took on a controversial legal issue (the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, decided just last week) and issued a shockingly blunt repudiation of the Supreme Court, whose members were seated just a few feet in front of him:

With all due deference to separation of powers, last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests -- including foreign corporations -- to spend without limit in our elections.

TV cameras showed Associate Justice Samuel Alito scowling after Obama said that, and mouthing the words "That's not true." Evidently Alito shares the same opinion of Obama that Rep. Joe Wilson expressed last September: "You lie!" smile Seriously, though, that was one of the most painful moments in the entire speech -- the President of the United States directly challenging the validity of a Supreme Court ruling that was just made. Such an overt verbal criticism of the highest court in such a dignified setting is almost unprecedented in U.S. history, and constitutes a monumental act of disrespect -- "due deference" notwithstanding. In today's Washington Post, my former colleague at Sweet Briar College, Dr. Barbara Perry, was quoted as saying, "I did think it was an unfortunate display for both branches. ... I'll leave the individuals aside."

Having insulted the judicial branch, Obama went on to lament the partisan divide in Washington, saying he "will not give up on trying to change the tone of our politics." (???) Then he spent a few obligatory minutes on foreign policy, culminating with a warning to the theocratic government in Iran, which is busy figuring out how to making nuclear bombs:

And as Iran's leaders continue to ignore their obligations, there should be no doubt: They, too, will face growing consequences. That is a promise.

To shore up support among the activists who put him into office, Obama declared that he would seek legislation to end all remaining restrictions on gays serving in the military, and to ensure equal pay for women. Neither of those initiatives will come easily, however. Clearly, President Obama remains frustrated that everything is not going according to plan:

I never suggested that change would be easy, or that I could do it alone.

Well, those sky-high expectations were exactly why millions of people voted for you in the first place! Notably absent from Obama's speech was any mention of his far-reaching goal of "transforming the nation." (See March 1, 2009.) In sum, the President has his work cut out for him as he tries to re-calibrate his agenda to fit the world of objective reality, so as to reduce the inevitable popular disappointment to a tolerable level. That readjustment will be a truly monumental undertaking in itself.

I happened to hear Rush Limbaugh's take on the speech on Thursday afternoon, and it was about as brutal as you might expect: He sees Obama as a petulant, narcissistic man-child who can barely contain his rage at those who refuse to follow him. I don't think I would go that far, and it will take years of study by psychologists and historians to come up with a clear assessment of Obama's character and personality. Limbaugh did make an interesting observation, however: unlike most past presidents, Obama never really stopped to characterize the state of the union overall, other than to lament the continuing economic hardships.

McDonnell's response

Less than two weeks after his inauguration, Gov. Bob McDonnell was chosen to give the Republican response, and he measured up fully, in terms of style, poise, and substance. Unlike past responses by opposition leaders, this speech was given before a joint session of the Virginia General Assembly, with other invited guests. Here is what I consider the highlight of his speech, from soturesponse.com

Top-down one-size fits all decision making should not replace the personal choices of free people in a free market, nor undermine the proper role of state and local governments in our system of federalism. As our Founders clearly stated, and we Governors understand, government closest to the people governs best.

Well put! Before the speech, Virginia Democratic Chairman Dick Cranwell said, "My view is, this governor ought to be at home taking care of Virginia," seeming to forget the many out-of-state trips taken by former Governor Tim Kaine on behalf of the Democratic Party. (See Washington Post.) Actually, McDonnell was at home, in Richmond, and the point of his speech was precisely to take care of Virginia's own business, minimizing outside interference.

Global warming update

President Obama's statement about global warming sounded familiar, and after some checking I realized that it was an eerily close match to Sen. Tim Wirth's famous remark in 1988 (when he was accompanied by Al Gore):

Even if the theory of global warming is wrong, to have approached global warming as if it is real means energy conservation, so we will be doing the right thing anyway in terms of economic policy and environmental policy.

(SOURCE: "Planet Gore" at nationalreview.com; Daniel Sarewitz and Roger Pielke Jr. at theatlantic.com; and a similar quote from 1990 in Science under Siege by Michael Fumento) That can't be purely coincidental, can it?

And to bring this farcical saga up to date, NASA scientist Dr. James Hansen has endorsed a new (2009) book by British author Keith Farnish, Time's Up, which calls on environmental activists to engage in widespread sabotage aiming at the destruction of industrial civilization, as the only way to stop global warming. (!!!???) I guess this means that the exploration of space by humans will soon come to an end. For more, see Prison Planet.


January 30, 2010 [LINK / comment]

Flood strands tourists in Peru

Because of recent heavy rains which have caused massive flooding and mudslides in the Andes Mountains, tourists visiting Machu Picchu have been stranded for over a week, and at least seven people have died. The government sent in military helicopters (thirteen of them) to evacuate those who wanted to leave, and they finally have completed their mission, making 268 flights back to the city of Cuzco, about 30 miles away. It was a truly massive undertaking. A state of emergency was declared in the departments (provinces) of Cuzco and Apurimac. There are very few roads in that region because of the extremely rough terrain, and the only way into the town of Aguascalientes (located about a mile from the mountain-top archeological site) is a single railroad line. Until mud has been cleared away and repairs have be made, that rail line will remain closed. See CNN.com.

Peru montage Fortunately, the ruins of Machu Picchu itself have not been damaged by all the rain, but 4,689 homes in the region have been destroyed. See La Republica, which reports that 1,460 people were evacuated. I expect, however, that Machu Picchu will be closed to tourists for as long as it takes to repair all the trails among the various parts of that ancient "lost city." Many Peruvians say they cannot recall such an intense, devastating rain storm in their country, and this will no doubt add fuel to the fire of the debate over global climate change.

Jacqueline and I traveled to Machu Picchu a few years ago, and our hotel was right along the river, so I assume it has suffered heavy damage, at least. Click on the adjacent photo montage to see a gallery of photos from our trip there.

And you thought we had bad weather here in the U.S.A.! Today's snowstorm has dumped about six inches of white stuff in this part of the Shenandoah Valley. frown


.