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Archive for July, 2009

The conventional wisdom seems to be that Vietnam was a bad war because we lost.  Pity, because the tragedy is that there was nothing there to win.

It is a distinction that I fear has been lost among our political leadership on both sides of the aisle.  It’s easy to imagine war as capture the flag – two grand armies fighting to seize the other’s capital city.  Onwards for glory, to Mexico City or Richmond or Berlin.  But the world can be maddeningly more complicated.

During the campaign John McCain insisted on what I would call the Martingale strategy of combat: just keep throwing troops at the problem.  It reflects all the frustrations of Gulliver among the Lilliputians; how is it that this band of people who cannot block our advance in any cardinal direction can so stymie our will?  Why won’t they give in?  Surely you don’t expect us to give in to them?  They cannot make us yield.

But is it yielding to have the confidence in our strength to follow our interests?  The heavyweight champion does not need to fight every barroom goon.

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Details

There is something about a large federal program that makes it impossible for every stakeholder to resist trying to bury a clause or two for his own enrichment.  Probably the money.

I realize this isn’t new.  Railroad construction was a scam of epic proportions in a growing nation, not because of the profitability of the rail operations – most went broke from low demand and the looting of management, setting the stage for Amtrak – but for the land and mineral rights the government provided.  Herman Brown and a young Lyndon Johnson schemed to have World War II pilot training moved to Corpus Christi Naval Air Station, not out of any military logic but simply so Brown & Root could build the base.  Pat Leahy had Lake Champlain deemed a Great Lake – quite a surprise, no doubt, for the other five – so Vermont could grab some more Federal dollars.  Just last month Barney Frank had the Taunton River deemed a wild and scenic waterway to prevent a liquified natural gas facility from being built there.  Why would someone want to put an LNG terminal on a scenic river?  Because this is the scenery, and the terminal would replace the five oil storage tanks sitting there in white on the right side of the picture:

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Waterloo

Jim DeMint believes health care will be the President’s Waterloo:

He may be right…but I’m not sure Waterloo is the metaphor he thinks it is.

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The House hearings on rescission – the retroactive cancellation of individual health insurance policies – were over a month ago, but after its initial run through Daily Kos it seems to have waited a bit before popping up on Baseline and Slate.  James Kwak at Baseline described the practice as rare, affecting only 0.5% of the population.  The faint light bulb above my head began to flicker: could that be true…that’s not rare – that is amazingly common.

It is.  In fact, from Don Hamm’s (CEO of Assurant) prepared testimony, with the company logo nicely on the front of it in the original:

Rescission is rare. It affects less than one-half of one percent of people we cover. Yet, it is one of many protections supporting the affordability and viability of individual health insurance in the United States under our current system.

What tangled webs we weave…

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Food

This weekend the Remote Area Medical Group – a variant of Medecins Sans Frontieres – had its annual field event at the Wise County Fair Ground.  In Virginia, not Zimbabwe.

It is disgraceful that in the United States, which our politicians insist on telling us is the best at everything, people need to drive hundreds of miles to line up in the middle of the night for battlefield medicine.  Here is a 60 Minutes clip from last year’s version; this year had just under twice the turnout:

I have tried to outline a few ideas about the health care system, and there is no shortage of academic interest in the area.  But I can’t help but notice something else in the coverage: we have a food problem. (more…)

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James Kwak takes on Will Wilkinson, who has a critique of Paul Krugman‘s articles about income inequality.  I’m not sure I agree with any of them.

The third grade version of the debate so far:

Paul says that when he grew up in the 1950s, everything was perfect.  We lived in cookie-cutter suburbs, drove one of three similar cars, worked in similar jobs, and had 2.4 kids.  Unions were strong, single-earner families were the norm, and everyone gathered for backyard barbeques on the weekend.  Unless you were black, in which case you lived in a dog-run shack in the South and weren’t a part of our story, or a single/divorced/fallen woman, in which case you could expect something between benign neglect and borderline assault from society and also weren’t a part of our story.  Now, of course, a few financial engineers on Wall Street and a handful of other tycoons in the intellectual property industries (and big box retail) make an absurd amount of money and lord it over everyone else by reestablishing Gilded Age society – combining land parcels, building gated communities that do not host neighborhood barbeques, flying around in private jets while the rest of us take off our shoes at security.

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Goldman Sachs reached agreement with the Treasury to buy back Treasury’s TARP warrants.  As the press release makes clear:

In June, Goldman Sachs repaid the U.S. Treasury’s investment of $10 billion, and during the eight months of the investment, the firm paid $318 million in preferred dividends. We are pleased that the payment of the dividends and the redemption of the warrants, which total $1.418 billion, represent an annualized return of 23 percent for US taxpayers.

As Goldman’s PR agency well knew, all sorts of commentators have taken to calling the 23% return a good investment.  It is not.  It is and was an awful investment, and the reaction to its liquidation is showing how few people in DC who are in charge of taxpayer money have even the most basic understanding of investing.

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Fancy Fast Food

Thank you Freakanomics, for showing me a website dedicated to rearranging fast food items.  Yes, this really is a Big Mac, fries, and Coke:

McSteak & Potatoes (Fancy Big Mac) by FancyFastFood Ingredients:  1 McDonald’s Big Mac Extra Value Meal (#1) with a large fries and large Coca-Cola  First deconstruct the Big mac into its parts: (sing along now) two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions, and a sesame seed bun… plus the french fries, ice, and Coca-Cola. Dice the cheese, cube the middle and bottom buns, and extract the sesame seeds from the top bun. Take the french fries and some pieces of bun and purée them in a food processor with water (melted ice), then top it off with the diced cheese. Rinse the onions and lettuce in a colander and garnish it with “croutons” made from cubed bun pieces. Slice the beef patties, and then garnished it with sesame seeds and top it off with slices of pickles. Serve on a white rounded square plate with a dollop of Thousand Island dressing (the special sauce); serve the Coca-Cola in a wine glass.

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During the campaign, one of the rare moments of principle of any candidate was Obama’s refusal to take Hillary’s bait and endorse a gas tax holiday.  It was the time I stopped seeing him as Candidate Barack Obama and started seeing him as President Barack Obama.  Although I have disagreed with some of the decisions his Administration has made, it has been incredibly refreshing to have a President who actually understands the issues in front of him.  If he can deliver a great speech about it, so much the better:

A few quibbles with a bravura performance:

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On July 3, 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia was defeated at Gettysburg by the Army of the Potomac.  As was fitting for a conflict in which each side simultaneously advocated the right of the minority to be free from the majority and the majority’s right to dominate the minority, the South attacked from the north and the North attacked from the south.  Defeat crushed the Army of Northern Virginia’s offensive capability, ended any hope of European intervention, and gave Lincoln the confidence to refuse to meet Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens, who had proposed a conversation about prisoner exchange that would likely have touched on ending the conflict.  In every meaningful sense, it was the day the Confederacy lost its chance at independence.

General George Meade was nervous about his victory.  He had been in command for all of eight days.  Robert E. Lee moved to a defensive formation, anticipating a final attack.  The attack never came; Meade knew General Hooker’s forces were shredded at Chancellorsville with similar numerical advantage and didn’t want to press his luck.  He let Lee’s army ford the Potomac and escape back to Virginia.  For that – and for getting into a fight with a newspaper reporter – the story went out that Meade lost the battle.  He was replaced by Grant at the end of the year.  It’s not about what happened, it’s about what people think happened.  Call it the Liberty Valence Hypothesis.

We are already seeing this sort of revisionist history in the financial crisis.

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