Saturday, January 06, 2007

State of the GOP

Interesting post by Ramesh over at the Corner. I think it captures the current situation pretty well.

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O, Brave New World

Or, signs of the apocalypse.

Andrew Roth tells us there's new hope for your fat dog.

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On Nuclear Power

Blue Crab points us to a Washington Post piece on the growing popularity of nuclear power worldwide.

This could be a really interesting issue, politically. I suspect that whichever party - or Presidential candidate - embraces nuclear power first, may have a significant leg up in the next go-round. It seems that the old arguments against nuclear power have lost some of their saliency - perhaps because a whole generation has passed since Chernobyl, and even more since Three Mile Island.

An embrace of nuclear power enables a candidate to appeal both to the energy-security crowd and the global warming crowd. That might prove to be a very valuable two-fer, politically.

I know little about what the major candidates have said about nuclear power, generally. The Washington Post noted in May that Hillary was 'cool to increased use of nuclear power, citing problems of cost, safety, proliferation and waste.' I've noted before that Hillary and Giuliani are currently facing off over the Indian Point nuclear power plant, with Hillary stressing the attractiveness of nuclear plants as a terrorist target.

I'll be interested to see how this plays out.

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Is the 'Bush Economy' a Liability in 08?

Novak has his usual interesting set of stories for a Saturday. Check him out for Colin Powell's skepticism about 'a surge,' and how the 'Giuliani playbook' issue affects McCain in Florida.

Also, Novak notes that Mitt Romney has surrounded himself with Bush administration economists and alumni to prepare a tax plan for his Presidential campaign:


During his family vacation in Park City, Utah, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney met with former Bush administration officials who comprise his economic policy team to discuss a tax reform for Romney's presidential campaign.

The meeting included Glenn Hubbard, former chairman of President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) who is co-chairman of Romney's economic policy council. Also on hand were former Bush economic policy officials Brian Reardon and Cesar Conda. Gregory Mankiw, another former CEA chairman, is Romney's economic co-chairman but could not attend the Utah meeting because of a knee injury.

Romney, seeking to contrast himself with Republican presidential front-runner John McCain on taxes, has surrounded himself with architects of Bush's tax plan. Vice President Dick Cheney had to cast a tie-breaking vote on the 2003 tax cuts because Sen. McCain had voted against them.

This brings to mind an interesting question.

If Romney is perceived as the heir to Bush on economic policy, is that a good thing or a bad thing in the primaries (and the general election)? Certainly, Republican primary voters ought to be predisposed to support policies that they are likely to believe are responsible for low unemployment, relatively strong and steady economic growth, and a reduced federal tax burden. One would think that if Romney can claim to be the best person to continue this legacy, it would be helpful among primary voters.

Beyond primary voters however, it's a very different story. Polls have consistently shown that voters disapprove of the job Bush has done on the economy, even as they give a strong assessment of their personal outlook. (See this recent ARG poll, for example).

Will primary voters shy away from a candidate who might inherit this liability? Analysts tell us that primary voters sometimes look for the candidate they like best - regardless of electability - and sometimes opt for the candidate they think can win. For Republicans, 2008 is thought to fall into this latter category. If the Democrats are seen to be nominating someone who can win - whoever that might be, because I have no idea whether Clinton, Obama, or Edwards is truly a likely winner or loser - then will GOP primary voters vote strategically against Romney?

It'll be interesting to see.

I'll also be looking to Greg Mankiw's blog to see what he has to say.

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Friday, January 05, 2007

Is This for Real?

Saw the preview for Stomp the Yard today. It looks like the silliest movie I have ever seen. Seems to be a mix of Breakin 2, Electric Boogaloo and Officer and a Gentleman, or something. Check out the preview for a laugh:

I thought for sure it was a Saturday Night Live sketch.

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Just One Little Nit to Pick Re. Pelosi's Speech

Rep. Pelosi made a reference in her accession speech to the Prayer of St. Francis in the context of being from San Francisco.

The so-called Prayer of St. Francis was not in fact written by St. Francis of Assisi (who is in fact the patron of San Francisco), and cannot be dated any further back than 1912. I cannot presume to judge the authenticity of feeling of those who are edified by imagining that St. Francis wrote it, but its historical authenticity as such is nil.

St. Francis (who accompanied the Fifth Crusade to the Siege of Damietta, for heaven's sake) suffers enough from attempts to reimagine him and enroll him as the patron saint of hippies and antinomianism generally that he should be kept clearly separated in mind, at least initially, from those who invoke his sanctity for their own projects.

Rauch: Target Farm Programs for Real Reform

National Journal's Jonathan Rauch says that if Democrats want to demonstate their reformer bona fides, they can do it by rewriting our depression-era farm programs. He makes a number of good points:

No one, not anyone, would sit down today and design the current farm programs. Although much revised in their details, they remain a paradigm of New Deal heavy-handedness, distorting markets in a way that accomplishes little at high cost. Subsidies are absurdly lopsided: 93 percent of payments flow to five crops (corn, cotton, rice, soybeans, and wheat), which together account for only a fifth of U.S. farm receipts. Meanwhile, 60 percent of farmers and ranchers get nothing.

Payments flow disproportionately to large farms and wealthy farmers. Much of the subsidies' value is sopped up by higher land prices, often benefiting absentee landowners instead of working farmers. Worst of all, the steepest price is paid by desperately poor farmers in the developing world, who must compete not only with American farmers but also with the U.S. Treasury.

Expert opinion has in recent years converged on an alternative approach, called revenue assurance. If the goal is to give farmers more income stability than volatile agricultural markets provide -- and that, these days, is the only goal that most people agree has a public-policy justification -- then revenue assurance is, in principle, a fairer and more efficient way to do it. The government and subsidized private insurers could indemnify farmers against sharp declines in earnings; government-supported "farm savings accounts" could provide further protection...

Environmentalists, anti-hunger groups, and international development organizations are also lobbying for change. Environmentalists want a shift toward conservation, and some, such as the American Farmland Trust, call for replacing crop-specific subsidies with revenue insurance. Bread for the World (motto: "Seeking Justice. Ending Hunger") likewise calls for a subsidy phaseout and an emphasis on mitigating farmers' financial risk. Development organizations want to curtail subsidies that hammer poor farmers in developing countries.

Something else: "Latino groups are rallying around the farm bill," says Rick Swartz, a Washington consultant who is organizing an alliance of reformist groups. Latinos, many of them former field laborers, are the fastest-growing demographic cohort of new farmers, Swartz says, and most of them grow unsubsidized specialty crops. In September, the National Latino Congreso passed a resolution calling for reform -- a first, Swartz says.

Democrats will not have failed to notice that many of these change advocates are core Democratic constituencies.

Nor, probably, will they have missed that today's subsidies flow in vast disproportion to deep-red Republican states in the South and Midwest. Hmm. Then there is the fact that the farm bill is must-pass legislation. Congress will have to send something to President Bush, and he will have to sign something. That is an advantage that welfare reformers never had.

To realize all of this reform potential, two things must happen. First, the Democrats' leaders must seize the issue from the back-room farm interests, elevate it to national prominence, and demand a transformational farm bill instead of a transactional one. Second, Bush must join the effort, as former President Bill Clinton did with welfare. One party can't overhaul a bipartisan program, and only Bush's threat to veto a business-as-usual bill can prevent backsliding.

There are several other reasons Rauch fails to note that this approach makes sense for Democrats.

First, the promise by the Democratic leadership to effectively bring war spending back within the unified budget, to implement 'pay-go' rules, and to expand spending on their own priorities means that they need to find savings elsewhere. Reform of farm subsidies offers a way to save billions of dollars annually.

Second, Democrats are at great risk of being painted as know-nothing protectionists - not without reason. Reduction of US farm subsidies is perhaps the first target of our developed trading partners in negotiations with the US. If Democrats linked the reduction of farm subsidies with an effort to restart world trade talks, they could kill a whole range of birds with a single stone.

Hopefully they have the good sense to take advantage of this opportunity.

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House Democrats Elect New Cardinals

Andrew Roth carries the story at Club for Growth. It's worth checking out:

The Democrats have selected their new "cardinals" for the House Appropriations Committee. The cardinals are the earmark-happy chairmen of the 12 subcommittees, which includes the chairman of the overall committee (David Obey). Here they are, along with their Club for Growth scorecard ratings for 2005 along with their voting record on the Jeff Flake anti-pork amendments. This, of course, is not an encouraging list.

Also, notice anybody missing? Here's a hint: Last June, he said that if the Democrats gained control of the House, he would earmark the @#$% out of the Approps subcommittee that he expected to chair.

That's right. Jim Moran got denied. I wonder what the story is behind that.

And while Andrew notes that Jim Moran did not get a subcommittee to chair, I will point out that the Democrats seem to have resolved another knotty ethical question. Specifically, is it OK for West Virginia's Alan Mollohan to chair the subcommittee that funds the Department of Justice, when that same DoJ is investigating his shady financial dealings?

You'll be shocked to know that in this, the most ethical of all Congresses, the Democrats think it's A-OK.

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Meditation on Marble Ceilings

It is taken as a given throughout the media today that all persons of good conscience must be gratified, at least in the abstract, by Pelosi's elevation to the office of Speaker of the House as a triumph for the dignity of women. Isolated contrarians such as Jonah Goldberg have at most professed yawning indifference.

On the other hand what were the qualifications of her rivals for this position? In point of fact she had no rivals at the current moment; her elevation was largely cemented at the time of her elevation to the position of House Whip in October of 2001, defeating Rep. Hoyer, her current intra-party rival, in a 118-95 vote. That victory coupled with Rep. Gephardt's retirement as minority leader in 2002 put her in a strong defensive position to reach the office of Speaker whenever the Democratic Party's fortunes finally turned. Bob Novak contends that Pelosi's elevation in 2001 represented mostly the resurgence of the socially liberal wing of the Democratic Party (embodied by such things as the Progressive Caucus) succeeding in the aftermath of President Clinton's longtime boosting of the New Democrats, aided by the ability of the San Francisco/Sacramento members of that wing to win the support of more moderate California Democrats in that vote.

Given Hoyer's later ability to thwart Pelosi's attempt to prevent him from moving up to Majority Leader, it would seem that the calculations of self-interest of Californian Democratic representatives were decisive, moreso than Pelosi's personal qualifications. That she was a woman was important in making her initial appeal to the identity-politics consciousness of the Progressive Caucus in 2001, to most everybody else it is ancillary to her fortunate family alliances and geographical location.

House Democrats Still Breaking the Law

Roll Call reports that due to 'tremendous, tremendous staff error,' Congressman Bill Jefferson accidentally sent out a fundraising request to his colleagues on Congressional letterhead:

You might think that a guy who’s still the subject of a federal bribery investigation would be more careful than to use taxpayer resources to raise campaign money. But nope, not Jefferson. And heck, he still hasn’t provided us with that “honorable explanation” he promised for the bizarro (and alleged) $90,000 in cash federal agents confiscated from a freezer in his Capitol Hill home.

Last week, House Democrats were shocked to receive a letter from Jefferson — on his official Congressional stationery, no less — asking colleagues to donate money to help him retire his campaign debt.

“As you know,” the letter, dated Dec. 29, 2006, began, “I recently won a grueling race for re-election.” (And won resoundingly in a runoff, despite the ongoing federal probe in which two people have already pleaded guilty.) “In order to get our message out and otherwise compete, we incurred over $200,000 in debt.

“Therefore, I would deeply appreciate it if you would assist me in retiring my debt by contributing $1,000 (or whatever amount you can afford) to my campaign,” Jefferson wrote.

It would really take a 'tremendous' error for something like this to happen innocently. It would mean that the campaign somehow got its hands on official letterhead, or someone in the Congressional office was 'accidentally' doing campaign work on taxpayer time. Typically, Congressional staffers are pretty clear on the fact that neither one of those is allowed to happen.

One would have thought that given John Conyers' recent agreement with the ethics committee, the topic would have been fresh on the mind of the Jefferson staff.

Hat Tip: TPMMuckraker

Attorney General Joins the New York Yankees

Still trying to figure this story out:

The Yankees reached a tentative agreement with Arizona on Thursday to trade Johnson to Arizona for reliever Luis Vizcaino and three minor leaguers, a move that allows the Big Unit's agents to get him a contract extension.

Arizona general manager Josh Byrnes confirmed what he called "an agreement in principle" but did not identify the players that would go to the Yankees.

New York would receive Vizcaino and minor league right-handers Ross Ohlendorf and Steven Jackson, and shortstop Alberto Gonzalez, a baseball official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The Yankees also would pay $2 million of Johnson's $16 million salary this year.

I know that things have not gone the way the Bush administration would like, and Gonzalez faces some tough Congressional oversight hearings, but becoming a shortstop seems a drastic response.

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

Can Anyone Explain With a Straight Face...

Why Rep. Cohen Can't Join the CBC?

New Memphis Rep. cordially uninvited to join Congressional Black Caucus. This despite the fact that the 9th district is 60% African-American. The more-or-less open reason given is that the CBC has a colour line and Cohen may not cross it.

I submit that the Democratic Party's professed commitment to equality either of opportunity or of outcomes is in fact merely a posture calculated for political advantage, not one which they would ever seriously inconvenience themselves to realise.

Rep. Ellison of Koran-oath-swearing-fame offers this unselfconsciously hilarious coda in his preening Washington Post editorial breathtakingly entitled " Choose Generosity, Not Exclusion":

"Will the preacher tell our young couple, “God loves you – but only you and people like you?” Or will the preacher say “God loves you and you must love your neighbors of all colors, cultures, or faiths as yourselves”? One message will lead to be a stinginess of spirit, an exclusion of the “undeserving”, and the other will lead to a generosity of spirit and inclusion of all."

Powerful words; more powerful if there were any evidence he meant for them to be applied to anyone but people like himself.

New Orleans Repeating Same Mistakes

An extremely disturbing story in today's Washington Post details how a lack of organization and a rash of political cowardice has led residents of New Orleans to rebuild in the same vulnerable neighborhoods, employing the same risky construction techniques:

After Katrina, teams of planners recommended that broad swaths of vulnerable neighborhoods be abandoned. Yet all areas of the city have at least some residents beginning to rebuild. With billions of dollars in federal relief for homeowners trickling in, more people are expected to follow.

Moreover, while new federal guidelines call for raising houses to reduce the damage of future floods, most returning homeowners do not have to comply or are finding ways around the costly requirement, according to city officials.

"It's terrifying: We're doing the same things we have in the past but expecting different results," said Robert G. Bea, a professor of civil engineering at the University of California at Berkeley and a former New Orleans resident who served as a member of the National Science Foundation panel that studied the city's levees...

Mike Centineo, the city's building chief, said, "Legally and morally, we're doing the right thing," but he acknowledged that most returning homeowners are not raising their houses to meet the new flood guidelines. "You wouldn't want to put people through more than they can endure. It's a catastrophe that happened. No one wants it to happen again. But they're just rebuilding as best they can."

The chairman of the federal Gulf Coast rebuilding office, Donald E. Powell, said recently that "tough decisions" about where to repopulate this half-empty city are necessary.

"The President and I believe planning decisions should not be made in Washington, but rather at the local level," he said in a statement. "However at some point, there needs to be strong local leadership, and that includes making tough decisions about the city's size and the safety of her citizens. Federal tax dollars should not be used to rebuild in places that repeatedly flood or are damaged due to Mother Nature -- in New Orleans or elsewhere."

Whatever decisions are to be made, however, none is likely to come soon. And as time rolls on, and as more houses in vulnerable neighborhoods are reinhabited, it will grow more difficult, politically and financially, to lead residents to safer areas...

But Nagin, who was hearing complaints that shrinking the city's footprint was unfair, particularly to African Americans, rejected the idea. Everyone should be able to return to their homes, he said.

"I'm not ready to concede that neighborhoods need to be demolished," Nagin said at the time.

Officials in St. Bernard Parish, meanwhile, rejected closing off a particularly hard-hit 36-block section of Chalmette because they could not afford to buy out property owners.

Once the idea of neighborhood closures was dropped, many pinned their hopes for added safety on the new federal guidelines for elevating homes. "Substantially damaged" houses in the area now must be raised, often three feet above the ground. But the requirements contain enormous loopholes, and there is a huge financial incentive to avoid them.

Raising a house can cost upwards of $50,000, especially for the modern suburban homes built on concrete slabs in some of the most flooded areas. The federal government offers grants of as much as $30,000 for repairs, but in many cases much more is required.

"The vast majority simply do not have the financial resources to rebuild differently," said Greg Rigamer, chief executive of GCR & Associates and a consultant in the rebuilding.

Residents could avoid having to comply with the new guidelines by getting permits before the rules were enacted locally -- thousands in New Orleans did -- or if their houses were determined to be less than 50 percent damaged by Katrina.

Many homes, even those that took on 10 feet of water for weeks, have been designated beneath that threshold, including hundreds whose owners appealed larger initial damage assessments...

It's stunning that given the level of attention to this disaster, such a foolish reconstruction plan is being allowed to go forward. And while it's no surprise, it's still pathetic that the city's local leadership supports it. If there is anything that Mayor Nagin has demonstrated, it's that he is incompetent, and cannot be trusted to protect the city from natural disaster. The city's policy on reconstruction demonstrates that reputation will remain intact.

Perhaps the new Democratic Congress can demonstrate its commitment to oversight by finding out why the Bush Administration isn't doing everyhing it cann to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted, while simultaneously endangering more lives.

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Mighty Mouse, Explained

I know a fellow who, as part of the labwork for his M.D., had to anesthetize mice. I am told that the easy way to do it is to pull firmly on the tail, in order to snap the neck.

He would not have been so dispassionate I imagine, if he were dealing with these super-mice:

Throwing a genetic switch helps mice grow more of a mysterious muscle fiber that lets them run farther and longer than normal mice, a paper in the January issue of the journal Cell Metabolism reports.

A team at Harvard Medical School was able to increase the activity of a gene called PGC-1 beta in the mice.

The gene increases the growth of a little-understood muscle fiber called IIX, which is very efficient and very quick.

Usually a muscle fiber is one or the other.

The more IIX fibers in a muscle, the longer and harder it can work.

This could lead to drugs that change the composition of muscle, boosting strength and endurance in patients with muscle-wasting conditions, such as paraplegia and muscular dystrophies, says Bruce Spiegelman, who led the research.

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Sen. Johnson Recuperating over Long Term

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader reports on a Wednesday interview with Sen. Johnson's spokeswoman, revealing that it will be several months before he can be expected to be back on the Senate floor.

But the overall prognosis seems good, so we wish him a speedy recovery.


I am reliably informed that I need to see the new History Channel show Dogfights. According to History Channel:

The new series DOG FIGHTS recreates famous battles using state-of-the-art computer graphics. With up to 25 percent of the program consisting of animation, viewers will feel like they're in the battle, facing the enemy. First-hand accounts will drive the story. Rare archival footage and original shooting supplement the remarkable computer graphics.

Seems pretty cool.

Clips from the show are available on the History Channel website here.

Alternately, a Youtube search produced some videos as well. Check out the story of Medal of Honor winner and Guadalcanal hero James Swett:

or 'Zero Killer' Hamilton McWhorter:

Hat Tip: Joe

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Coeducation: Another Progressive Mistake

When the squishy-liberal education establishment in the U.K. admits coeducation is a bad idea, it's safe to say that the secret is out.

The evidence has long been admitted that gender-specific education produced better outcomes for girls, now slow acknowledgement seems to be creeping out that boys also benefit.

While a high mountain will need to be scaled to get American parents of the present generation to admit that the overwhelming majority of their educations were deliberately second-rate, the fact that precisely zero public outcry of sexism attended Oprah Winfrey's $40 million endowment of a girls' school in South Africa may indicate that the issue finally stands at the level of what everyone knows but few are willing yet to say out loud.

Or maybe it just remains the case that anything Oprah does is ipso facto above question.

Assorted Political Items

Head over to Taegan Goddard's Political Wire for a range of interesting items today, including two Senators who appear more vulnerable than they did a few weeks ago: John Sununu and Mary Landrieu.

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Do Drugs Cost 'Too Much'

In responding to complaints about the high cost of new drugs, drug companies argue that they cost a great deal to develop, and many never pan out. If you doubted the truth of that, check out the NAM blog for this story about Pfizer's failed effort to develop a drug to boost 'good cholesterol.'

Total cost: $21 billion.

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Labor Strife Forces Dem 08 Convo to NY?

That appears to be a distinct possibility.

Back story is here.

Bob Novak wrote on this before Christmas. He says blame will be heaped at the door of Howard Dean, and that Hillary Clinton may not be very happy with the outcome:


Democratic National Chairman Howard Dean faces a dilemma for siting the party's 2008 national convention. He would prefer Denver, but he may have to be content with New York.

Denver lacks sufficient hotel facilities, a suitable arena and labor union support, not to mention adequate financing. But when New York was leaked as the site, the reaction was so negative that Dean delayed a decision. Party members complained that it would be the fourth out of the last nine Democratic conventions scheduled for New York. Backers of Hillary Clinton don't want her nominated in her place of residence. George H.W. Bush and John Kerry lost elections when nominated in their respective hometowns of Houston and Boston.

A footnote: The Democrats' first choice for '08 was Minneapolis, a rare city that wanted the conventions in this round. But Republicans beat them to the punch in scheduling their convention there. Democratic party rules prohibit them from convening in the same place (as they did in Miami Beach in 1972).

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A New Approach to Evangelism

To expand your reach, sometimes you have to try a new tack.

Looks like it's for real, too.

Hat Tip: Galley Slaves

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CW Wrong (This Time)

CQ reports that the 2006 House races were significantly more competitive than predicted, and more competitive than in previous years:’s analysis of the official results of the House elections in all 50 states finds that 60 House races in 2006 that were decided by 10 percentage points or less.

That doesn’t suggest that most districts have become partisan battlegrounds. Those 60 districts constitute just 14 percent of the 435 that make up the House; traditional incumbency advantages, voting habits and intricately designed gerrymanders held sway in most of the other 86 percent.

Yet when compared to the low-wattage competition of the recent past, the 2006 campaign looks contentious indeed. In 2004, just 23 House contests — a minuscule 5 percent of the total — were decided by 10 percentage points or less.

This finding holds reason for hope for both parties in 2008. Democrats will claim that there are a number of Republicans who won by surprisingly close margins in 2006, and many will be targeted heavily in 2008.

Republicans on the other hand, will point out that many Democrats won by narrow margins in the best Democratic year since 1974. If they barely pulled through in such a favorable environment, they will face a real test in 2008.

Both will likely prove right to some degree. There are clearly Democrats sitting in Republican seats who will be wiped out in the next cycle. But there are also some Republicans who edged past weak and underfunded challengers; you can bet that they will face real races in two years.

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More Back-Pedaling from Campaign Promises

It's beginning to become a rout.

One wonders if there's anything left in the House Democratic campaign platform to which they ARE committed.

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Barone: Dem Plans Run Up Against Reality

Check out Barone's take on the decision by House Democrats to hedge on their promise to have more open and honest proceedings in the House:

Now, though Democrats say they'll be fairer after the "100 hours" vote, it looks like the Democrats are going to renege on their promise, too. So are the House Democrats and the House Republicans before them to be condemned as hypocrites? Not by me. I think both sides were sincere when they made their promises. But once in the majority, the Democrats are finding, as the Republicans did before them, it's difficult if not impossible to run a legislature with 435 members without tightly controlling procedure. That means limiting debate to a considerable extent.

Generally, I agree.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Sox Fans Getting Worried

I don't post much on baseball, but I am a devoted fan of the New York Yankees. As such, it delights me to see this post from Daniel Drezner:

But I can't shake the feeling that over the past six months, Cashman has done as good a job, if not better, than Red Sox GM Theo Epstein. And unlike the last time I compared the two franchises, the Yankees farm system doesn't look so barren now.

Developing.... in a worrisome way.

I don't agree point-by-point, but if his general thrust is that the Yankees are run more wisely than the Red Sox, I can do nothing but compliment him on his perspicacity.

And of course, look forward to the day when Roger Clemens rejoins the New York Yankees - if only to read the posts from Red Sox nation.

Update: Yankees clearing deadwood to make room for the Rocket?

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Superheroes and Supervillains

I note that there's some chatter at the Corner about Silver Surfer, the Fantastic Four, and a host of other superheroes. If you want the definitive analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the easily-recognizable superheroes and supervillains of the DC universe, you want to check out Seanbaby's page on the subject.

An example:

I don't think they should dress Bizarro exactly like Superman. When they go into a fight, he's going to be standing next to a clumsy gorilla with a bag of hand grenades. You don't want a guy on your team dressed exactly like the one you're trying to kill. He and Superman are flying around at thousands of miles an hour-- you don't have time to check to see if the one you're aiming at with your death beam has lines on his face.

If you ever read superhero comics, it's pretty funny.

Language and taste warning, however.

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The Death of Blockbuster

Interesting piece from Edward Jay Epstein about the last days of Blockbuster:

In 1998, at the dawn of the age of the DVD, Blockbuster made a decision that would change the future of Hollywood. Warren Lieberfarb, who then headed the home-video division of Warner Bros., offered Blockbuster CEO John Antioco a deal that would have made the DVD the same kind of rental business as that of the VHS tape, which, at the time, provided the studios with $10 billion in revenue. Lieberfarb proposed that Warner Bros. (which, along with Sony, was launching the DVD) create a rental window for DVDs during which sell-through DVDs would not be available for new movies.

With this window, Blockbuster, which then accounted for nearly half of the studios' rental income from new movies, would have had the opportunity to rent out DVD releases before they went on sale to the general public. In return, the studios would receive 40 percent of the rental revenues that Blockbuster earned from DVDs, which was exactly the same percentage they received for VHS rentals. In fact, it was Sumner Redstone, whose Viacom conglomerate then owned Blockbuster, who personally pioneered the revenue-sharing arrangement for video. Only a few years earlier, Redstone had told Lieberfarb, "The studios can't live without a video rental business—we [Blockbuster] are your profit." Yet, even though Lieberfarb was only asking that the same deal be extended to DVD, Blockbuster, perhaps not realizing the speed with which the digital revolution would spread, turned him down.

Nevertheless, Lieberfarb, determined to make the DVD a success, went to Plan B: pricing the DVD low enough so that it could be sold to the public in direct competition with video rentals. Wal-Mart, seizing the opportunity for an enormous traffic-builder for its stores, began selling DVDs like hot cakes. By 2003, the studios were taking in three times as much money from DVDs as they were from VHS videos (click here for the actual numbers). In this reversal of fortune, Wal-Mart replaced Blockbuster as the studios' single largest source of revenue. Other mass retailers followed suit, often pricing newly released movies on DVD below their own wholesale price to draw in customers who might buy products with higher profit margins, such as plasma TVs. Blockbuster, with no other products to sell, became a casualty of this cutthroat competition for traffic. Not able to match these low prices, its rental business was decimated.

The other shoe dropped with the emergence of Netflix as a major online competitor for what remained of the rental market. (Blockbuster turned down the opportunity to buy Netflix for a mere $50 million, instead entering a disastrous home-delivery deal with Enron.) Netflix signed up over 3 million subscribers by 2005 by offering DVDs that could be kept as long as renters liked for a monthly fee. To compete, Blockbuster had to do away with its single biggest profit-earner: charging late fees to customers who kept videos past the due date. It also had to invest millions of dollars in a copycat online plan.

Of course, WalMart and Netflix may have killed Blockbuster, but won't online downloads soon do the same to Netflix?

Read the whole thing, and appreciate how Joseph Schumpeter would have loved it.

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House Dems Moving Goalposts

While I will 'defend' House Democrats on managing Congressional rules, this is too funny to ignore.

The incoming Democratic leadership promised a fast start to the new Congress, with an ambitious '100 Hour' agenda. They then restated that they didn't actually mean the first, you know - 100 hours, or anything. They meant the first 100 legislative hours - a period that could stretch over a number of weeks, actually.

Now, they further clarify that they don't really mean the first 100 legislative hours - they mean the first 100 legislative hours not counting the new House rules package:

Time spent debating changes to the rules package will not count against Pelosi’s 100-hour legislative blitzkrieg, set to begin the week of Jan. 8 and last approximately 10 legislative days, ending when President Bush delivers his State of the Union address on Jan. 23.

You would think that they might actually want to include that package into their accounting, since that's when they're going to:

...ban all travel paid for by lobbyists or organizations that employ lobbyists, require the ethics committee to pre-approve travel paid for by outside groups, enact a total gift ban, and require lawmakers to pay the market cost of flying on a corporate jet, said Democratic staffers and officials with government watchdog groups.

And, because they feel they lost the 2003 Medicare prescription drug benefit vote because GOP leaders held it open for three hours, during which they flipped opponents into the “yes” column, Democrats will include a provision in the rules to prevent any sort of repetition, said aides to incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Democrats also will eliminate the practices of changing conference reports after members have signed them and excluding elected members from conference committees.

Seems like ambitious stuff not to include in the accounting, doesn't it? And isn't it a little ironic that the Democrats do not intend to count this stuff toward the first 100 hours - but include in it a measure to prevent leadership from stopping the House clock in order to hold votes open? This is different how, exactly?

Do you suppose I could promise fidelity in my marriage, but 'not count' the hours between 9:00pm and 3:00am? Or maybe I should go for the gusto, and promise the IRS that I will report all earned income, except that which I judge doesn't really belong...

Yes, the Democrats certainly changing the way Washington does business.

It reminds me of a song...

Update: Welcome Instapundit readers, and thanks Glenn for the traffic! While you're here, feel free to look around - or check out the Howard Dean mistake that might jeopardize Hillary Clinton's Presidential bid.

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Congrats to Tim Chapman!

Congratulations to Heritage's Tim Chapman, of TimChapmanblog, who has left Heritage to serve as Senior Communications Advisor to Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina. Tim has a good feel for communications, politics and Congressional dynamics. Mr. DeMint will be well-served.

Good luck, Tim!

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Decoding the First 100 Hours

So much of politics is a matter of perception and expectations, so it's useful at this point to review the program offered by Rep. Pelosi before the election for the agenda of the first 100 hours of her Speakership:

1) Enact all 41 of the 9-11 Commission's Recommendations (scheduled for adoption Jan. 9)

2) Increase minimum wage--probably to $7.25 (scheduled for Jan. 10)

3) Remove existing restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research (scheduled for Jan. 11)

4) Permit (or require) the federal government to negotiate prescription drug price schedules with pharmaceutical companies (scheduled for Jan. 12)
5) Cut interest rates on federally guaranteed student loans "in half" (scheduled for Jan. 17)

6) "End subsidies for Big Oil and invest in renewable energy" (scheduled for Jan. 18)

It's hard to see how this can be done successfully.

To implement even a quarter of the 9-11 commission recommendations is going to require significant congressional hearings to clarify roles and responsibilities. Democrats on the Hill have made off-the-record comments within a month of their electoral victory distancing themselves from some of the Commission's recommendations. Even stifling all Republican input on the issues involved is not going to remove the real differences of opinion which exist even within the Democratic caucus on how these recommendations should be implemented. All that can reasonably expected for Jan. 9 is some sort of boilerplate endorsement of the findings of the 9-11 commission along with a vague pledge to implement its recommendations in due course. The actual jurisdictional bloodletting will necessarily be kicked down the road. So the 100 hours will begin with an act of theatre as opposed to actual legislative change.

Day Two will offer an actual legislative accomplishment for the Democrats; most members of the House--Republican or Democratic--are already on record as voting for this raise, but the issue will not finally be resolved until the Senate weighs in with its version, which may very well include the same small business tax breaks which the Democrats found indigestible in October. The long-term consequence of this action will therefore remain to be seen, although the bill passed by the House on Jan. 10 will at least bear the hallmarks of actual legislation.

Day Three brings us the most arbitrary issue of the Democrats' 100-hour programme--one which has never reached statistical significance in any polling of Americans' concerns. Rep. Pelosi has expressed her hope to pass the abolition of restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research by veto-proof majority of 290 votes or more. Given that the recent House override attempt on the issue failed 235-193, it is difficult to see from where the additional votes are going to come. Since President Bush has already rejected such legislation repeatedly, it is hard to see what end this initiative serves, except, again, divisive theatre.

Day Four, and the last day of the Democrats first big week, will bring legislation to permit federal direct negotiations with pharmaceutical manufacturers. This in fact is likely to pass, and it's also likely to reach the President, but its long-term consequences are discounted by the Congressional Budget Office.

Day Five will bring legislation to lower interest rates on federal student loans. As Byron York of National Review pointed out, this runs smack into the Democrats' pledge of fiscal responsibility and embrace of pay-as-you-go budget accounting, so it's hard to see how this circle will be squared in the single day given over to it.

Day Six brings us the ritual denunciations of the unpopular oil companies, but what form the Democratic legislation will take is difficult to say, especially given the established tendency of oil-patch Democrats to prevent their regional economies from being targeted to win points for their coastal brethren. Rep. Dingell indicates that reforming oil drilling leases and incentives and establishing an alternative fuels fund is going to take significant fact-finding and numerous hearings, so again, the actual legislation for day six seems likely to be mostly pro-forma.

Coupled with the Democratic leadership's repeated undercutting of its own anti-corruption talking points in such matters as Rep. Jefferson's frozen assets and Abscam-tainted Rep. Murtha, it seems as though the new House leadership will struggle to reconcile its sweeping rhetoric with the political capital it is actually willing to spend to implement it.

On Dems Squelching Debate

A lot has been made of the move by House Democrats to limit GOP input into measures considered by the House in the first few days of the new Congress. I think it exposes the hypocrisy of these campaign promises rather well. Further, if the Democratic leadership is willing to sacrifice process to result on the first day, I'm willing to bet it happens a lot more often in the next two years.

At the same time, I can't get too upset about it - yet.

'Everyone knows' that the House Republicans squelched debate during their time in the majority, and 'ran roughshod' over the Democratic Minority. To the extent that happened, there are a few reasons:

  1. In the House, under 'normal procedures,' the Minority has great power to gum up the works - hence the use of 'special rules' to limit debate; and,
  2. The Democratic Minority generally intended to frustrate every effort by the Republican Majority to pass major pieces of legislation. So in order to enact a given policy, it was seen as necessary to limit their ability to interfere.
Now you're perfectly free to think this was wrong - that the 'will of the majority' in the House should be allowed to work on any given policy, and let the chips fall where they may. But Ms. Pelosi and the Democratic leadership don't think that way; they KNOW what they want to pass - just as Messrs. Hastert, and Boehner, and Armey, and Gingrich, et al., did before them.

So is this hypocrisy by the House Democrats? Absolutely. Is it unexpected, and is this the last time it will happen? No, and no.

In fact, the Democrats fface a major challenge on the minimum wage increase. As I have posted before, the GOP Congress passed the minimum wage increase several times in the past few years - most recently last July. The reason that no increase has been enacted is that Democrats have refused to support a measure that pairs a minimum wage increase with tax breaks for business.

However, 6 House Democrats voted last July against the Democratic version and for the GOP version. Those Democrats are Neil Abercrombie, John Barrow, Dan Boren, Bud Cramer, Chet Edwards, and Jim Matheson. Are there 10 House Democrats among the incoming class of Freshment who will join them? If 16 House Democrats join all House Republicans in a vote for the Republican version - probably in a procedural vote, or a vote on the Republican version of the bill - then the House may end up passing the GOP version - again. The President has said that he would sign such a measure. In that way, the incoming Democratic majority could wind up finally passing the minimum wage increase that they have been blocking for years.

Of course, I don't really expect this to happen - because there is a way to prevent it. It involves arm-twisting, bribery, and use of House rules to squelch the input of the minority...

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Monday, January 01, 2007

Tax Code Determines Birthdays

Behold the awesome power of the tax code, which can cause thousands of children to be born December 31, instead of January 1.

For decades and decades, the busiest day of the year in the nation’s maternity wards fell sometime in mid-September. Americans evidently do a lot of baby-making during the cold, dark days of December, and once a baby has been made, the die for its birth date has largely been cast.

Or at least that’s the way it used to be. In the last 15 years, there has been a huge increase in the number of births that are induced with drugs or come by Caesarean section. In either case, parents or doctors can often schedule a baby’s arrival on a day of their choosing.

Not surprisingly, they tend to avoid weekends and holidays, when doctors have other plans, hospitals are short of staff and the possibility of an unfortunate birthday — Christmas Day, anyone? — looms. During holiday weeks, births have become increasingly crowded into the weekdays surrounding the holiday.

Over this same period — since the early 1990s — the federal government has been steadily increasing the tax breaks for having a child. For parents to claim the full amount of any of these breaks in a given year, a child must simply be born by 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31. If the baby arrives a few minutes later, the parents are often more than a thousand dollars poorer...

In the last decade, September has lost its unchallenged status as the time for what we will call National Birth Day, the day with more births than any other. Instead, the big day fell between Christmas and New Year’s Day in four of the last seven years — 1997 through 2003 — for which the government has released birth statistics. (The day was in September during the other years; conception still matters.) Based on this year’s calendar, there is a good chance that National Birth Day will take place a week from tomorrow, on Thursday, Dec. 28.

“It’s phenomenal what’s happening in late December,” said Amitabh Chandra, a Harvard economist who provided many of the numbers here. “December is not really a particularly busy time for babies to be born. So to see a spike that’s equal to September is astounding...”

By my calculations, about 5,000 babies, of the 70,000 or so who would otherwise be born during the first week in January, may have their arrival dates accelerated partly for tax reasons. When Mr. Chandra interviewed one mother in central Kentucky, she told him her doctor encouraged her to schedule a late-December birth well in advance, to be sure she got a delivery room. Anecdotes aside, Mr. Chandra thinks my estimate of 5,000 is conservative, based on his own more sophisticated statistical analysis...

The Times also provides a list of the most common birthdays. If you want to see the effect of scheduled deliveries on this list, note that February 14 - Valentine's Day - is the most common birthday in February. It finishes 54 spots ahead of the next most common February birthday.

And my birth month - that same month of February - is extremely unpopular, with only 4 days in the top 200. Plus it holds the distinction of carrying the day that finishes in 366th place. If you can't figure out what day that is, you drank too much last night.

Hat Tip: Norlos

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