Sunday, August 31, 2008

My thoughts on the McCain VP pick

Someone asked me to post my thoughts on McCain's choice of Gov. Sarah Palin as VP.

The last two Vice Presidents have been unusual because of their powerful roles in the White House. Gore as a member of Clinton's advising staff, and Cheney for doing a little bit of everything in the executive branch and being the most powerful VP in history. On cue, an article today in the NY Times.
"Historians will debate Mr. Cheney for decades. Critics say he has set a dangerous precedent; former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, a Democrat, said the Cheney model posed “disturbing risks.” Indeed, Mr. Cheney loomed large over Senators Barack Obama and John McCain as they picked their running mates."
So, the first thing that struck me was that McCain is returning the VP back to its traditional role-- doing nothing. Palin will be a Dan Quayle. Lindsey Graham quoted in the same article:
“If someone said that your vice president is like Dick Cheney, you’ve got a Dick Cheney model in place, I don’t know if that’s something you would want or not,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is a close ally of Mr. McCain. The McCain model will be “more traditional,” Mr. Graham said, adding, “there will be no doubt nobody else is pulling the strings.”
So, that's refreshing to me.
In contrast, Joe Biden would likely have a huge role in an Obama administration-- he's the Senate veteran that would get things pushed through, he's the foreign policy wonk. But, he's also more liberal than Obama appears to be and will likely greatly affect policy.

What I don't understand is all the high-fiving taking place in conservative circles over the pick of Palin. Do they not understand McCain's desire to return the VP to its proper Constitutional role of doing nothing? Given that's his goal, why get excited about a person who does nothing? It's essentially like voting for McCain because he now wears a really cool necktie.

I also don't understand the "Oh, okay, now I'll believe a McCain administration is pro-life because his VP pick definitely is." Anybody who thinks McCain would alienate the conservative base by appointing liberal judges is just dumb. And that's the only thing he has to try and combat abortion (though it hasn't worked so far with the newly conservative court!) Like he said at Saddleback, "Life begins at conception... strict Constitutionalist judges...etc."
Anyone who thinks abortion will be outlawed at any point in this country and that the President has any power whatsoever over this is simply deluding themself (wow, I just criticized a huge swath of people). Even if McCain stacked the bench with conservative judges, the best that can happen is that it will be left up to States to decide.
Obama made the point last week-- abortions have increased despite election of staunchly pro-life Presidents. None of them have done anything to create incentives to reduce abortions.

I understand the "Palin is cool because she's an NRA member and did rifle training in Kuwait and hunts and fishes and her husband is a purple heart vet and she's smokin' hot." But, this isn't American Idol. And doesn't the McCain camp criticize Obama for his celebrity appeal backed with minimal experience?

Palin has had about the same political experience as Obama. She also instituted a windfall profits tax on oil companies, something that the Republicans villified Hillary Clinton for proposing. She's also a self-proclaimed "maverick" in her party, isn't that what conservatives hate about McCain? I guess "Pro-Life Female" is the tree that keeps people from seeing the forest.

McCain reportedly wanted to pick Joe Lieberman, but the conservative backlash would have been bad, despite the appeal it would have been for independent voters. Palin is the better choice because, whether it makes logical sense or not, the conservative base is now excited about his ticket.

*UPDATE*(HT: Sok): "(James) Dobson, the head of Focus on the Family, vowed earlier this year never to support McCain. However, within hours of Palin’s addition to the G.O.P. ticket, he had changed his tune, saying, he had “not been so excited about a political candidate since Ronald Reagan.
Source
Again--Dobson's change of mind due to a powerless VP makes no sense to me.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Obamanomics

I finally got around to reading David Leonhardt's lengthy analysis of Obama's economic philosophies, last week in the NY Times.
I highly recommend reading the article. Leonhardt has previously profiled the economic advisers of the various campaigns for the Times. Obama's team is of course larger and more talented than McCain's one-man team.

Obama's philosophies are well-researched and explanations of his tax plans are summarized fairly neatly. Honestly, I think he's much better-read and more knowledgeable than McCain in the area of economics.

Confession- I must admit I'm eager to see what McCain & Co. have to say this coming week because Obama said a lot in his Denver speech that I think deserves attention. There is an awful lot about his pragmatic approaches, his understanding and respect of markets, and his proposed policies that appeal to me.
As I've called multiple times for McCain's staffers to be fired, there's a lot about their juvenile dirty campaigning (and it is dirty...Clinton-level dirty, they should be ashamed) that I greatly dislike.

Will Obama's lack of experience result in his policies never coming to fruition? Is his "post-partisan" persona a myth or a complete falsehood? Will the Democratic Congress pull him further to the left than he claims to be? Should I believe the Right's claim that he's going to be a Socialist in disguise?
Should the fact that he's pro-choice be the sole litmus test I use to judge him?

Some notable quotes from the article:
“The market is the best mechanism ever invented for efficiently allocating resources to maximize production,” Obama told me. “And I also think that there is a connection between the freedom of the marketplace and freedom more generally.” But, he continued, “there are certain things the market doesn’t automatically do.” In other words, free-market policy isn’t likely to dominate his agenda; his project would be fixing the market.

"By all accounts, Obama didn’t spend much time with (Milton) Friedman’s disciples at the (Chicago) law school. Instead, he became friendly with another crowd: liberals who had come to think that Friedman was right about a lot, just not everything."

"'During my formative years, there was still ideological competition between a social-democratic or even socialist agenda and a free-market, Milton Friedman agenda. I think it was natural for me to ask questions of both sides and maybe try to synthesize approaches.'”

"Depending on how you look at it, he is both more left-wing and more right-wing than many people realize."

"To a large extent, Obama’s own economic agenda revolves around reversing Bush’s tax policies and then going a bit further in the other direction. Here, more than in his regulatory approach, Obama stands on the left side of the Democratic Party, but not exactly in the traditional tax-and-spend ways."

"All told, Obama would not only cut taxes for most people more than McCain would. He would cut them more than Bill Clinton did and more than Hillary Clinton proposed doing. These tax cuts are really the essence of his market-oriented redistributionist philosophy (though he made it clear that he doesn’t like the word “redistributionist”). "

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Book Review (#20 of 2008)

The Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyon. Considered the first English novel, this book is required reading for students in Principles of Microeconomics here. I'm teaching the class so I thought I should read it since I never had before.

The first part was written in 1675, the second part was published in 1684. This book proves that even in the 1600s the sequel isn't as good as the original. The second part was hardly worth reading, IMO.

The vivid illustrations of the Christian life were nice, as was the King James English.

2.75 stars out of 5.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Life Lessons of the Week (Part 2): Academia

First of all, if any of my theologically-trained readers have ever read Stanley Grenz or Merril Westphal, please comment with some thoughts on them.

Last week I attended some seminars for faculty to present the results of their "scholarly activities" in the past year. Each had received a grant and it was a way of showing how they'd spend the money.

A couple had written papers or presented papers at a scholarly conference in their field. While I didn't find their topics interesting (ballet, literary criticism, etc.) I enjoyed the passion that they had about their respective fields.

On Thursday, faculty were required to attend two lectures on postmodernism-- it was supposed to be a way for us to better understands the worldviews that our students are increasingly arriving on campus with. Instead, it turned out to be a deep history lesson and philosophical discussion between the theology and philosophy departments here, which greatly annoyed other faculty present.

The last speaker was going to eventually talk about Emerging vs. Emergent church paradigms but ran out of time (unfortunately...most folks here at SBU/Bolivar have no idea what that is about). But, I learned a lot about the history of postmodern theology and some of the good things they're thinking about.

I greatly enjoyed the passion the presenters had and the hard work they had put into their research. It made me miss the economics seminars I attended at Baylor, and some of the other research presentations that I enjoyed there. These are people who know a lot about their fields and have a voice in their fields. I want that same voice. I want to completely understand the economic journals that get sent to my office and be able to explain them to others with credibility. So, that's a goal I'm working toward.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Life Lessons of the Week (Part 1): Math really is important

This one has been a long time in coming.

Brief history:
Since I was in the 12th grade, every math class I've taken I've taken twice. (And I took my 10th grade class twice too). I've struggled with math badly since the 7th grade and can only seem to succeed when I spend a large amount of time and disciplined study in it. Growing up, I equated higher math with engineering and knew that I didn't want to be an engineer (my father is) and had no idea that math was actually important. Thus, I had little motivation to do well.

Economics is (surprise!) very math-dependent once you get past the principles courses. I've taken well over 50 hours of economics courses but have had surprisingly little math, and few of the courses required much calculus (I avoided ones that did). [I had a very hard micro class in grad school that was mostly calculus, and I received a decent grade due to a merciful curve (and many long nights of frustrating study)]. It's a little like driving a race with an engine missing a couple cylinders, somehow I have stayed on the lead lap but at the back of the pack.

Currently:
So far this year I've read 3 books by mathematicians and 2 more about math. I now understand that if you want to know how the world/universe works, you need a lot of math. These books helped me understand that math is taught and understood poorly in the U.S.
This past week I've also learned well the difference between mathematicians and scientists and people with PhDs in math or science education. My current job encourages people such as myself to get a PhD in Education or Business Admin. Rather than be an economist, I could be an economics teacher, which are two distinct things.

During my previous job search I found out that I wasn't being hired for certain jobs I was qualified for on the "job requirements" list because I didn't have a math background.

So, I'm at a career crossroads. There is definitely a glass ceiling for me without more math training and a PhD. I definitely have goals and aspirations that will be almost impossible to achieve without more training.

There comes a time in life where you can either "accept" your "limitations," or you can push harder to see if you can expand your limits.

So, I've made a resolution:
I'm going to spend every evening working my way (back) through Calculus I on my own. Next semester, I hope to register for Calculus II on campus and pass the class the first time. Now that I see how necessary math is, and how useful it is, I think I'll have the motivation to learn mathematics.

If I am successful, I will take further steps to become an economist.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Book Review (#19 of 2008)

This was one of the audio books I picked up for $1 at a garage sale recently. I got 3 chapters into it before deciding to make it mandatory reading for my International Economics class this fall.

The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy by Pietra Rivoli.
Rivoli is an economist at Georgetown Univ. who decided to take up a sweatshop protester's challenge and find out where her t-shirt was made. What follows is a journey through the supply chain and an in-depth look at the complicated rules and regulations on trade.

It's a great historical look at how the U.S. has developed its production, labor standards, and comparative advantages. How America's domination of the cotton market is partly through creative ingenuity and a free enterprise system and partly (though currently probably mostly) through government subsidies and price support programs.

While China and other countries are using their competitive advantage in labor to dominate the market, but how that comparative advantage is slipping away as their economy grows and they begin making more complicated products.

Rivoli also does a great job of showing how free trade agreements such as NAFTA have so many complicated rules for countries that they often don't free up trade much.

Among other things.

I give the book 4 stars out of 5. A must-read for anyone interested in sweatshops, trade, globalization, or economics in practice.

Happy Anniversaries

Joni and I celebrated our 3rd anniversary on Wednesday. Pretty low-key, we went to a local Italian place and enjoyed good pasta and a chocolate fried pie. If you've not had a fried pie then you're missing out. But, more than one every 6 months is probably too many.
Joni is more beautiful now than when I married her 3 years ago. She puts up with me as best she can. In many ways I consider myself to be pretty easy to get along with and helpful to others. In other ways, however, I can be difficult to get along with. Namely my transitory existence of moving across the country and world a lot and keeping Joni far away from family. She deals with it well, and I appreciate that.

Now we have a son, and that's fun. The past week has brought me to some conclusions about life that I will post here in the next couple days. Class begins on Monday, and I'm not 100% prepared yet.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Mike's Auto Repair in Bolivar, MO

(I write this post because someone in Bolivar is likely to come across it looking for auto repair).

If you're looking for an honest mechanic in Bolivar, I recommend Mike's Repair on Hartford Ave.

Our used '96 Mazda 626 has a check engine light with a 14xx code (evap. flow control valve)*.

I searched online for repair places in Bolivar and didn't find any that had customer reviews. I asked around and was told that Mike's had a reputation for honesty so I called them. The soonest opening hey had was over a week later. I took it there early in the morning, it's not a big place, and they don't have many staff.

They gave me a call in the afternoon and said they couldn't find anything wrong. Flow was normal, it was possible that the valve was sticking but they couldn't be sure. They cleared the code and charged me a reasonable price for the service. They told me that if it was the valve it would be relatively easy to fix, but the part could be expensive. And there were a number of other things that could be wrong with it requiring other parts.

The next day the engine light came on again and I called them back. The mechanic returned my call and explained that since the problem could have many diagnoses, the cost of parts by fixing it trial-and-error could end up being expensive, since he'd have to swallow the costs of the wrong parts. He recommended just taking to a dealer since they would be able to use all the spare parts which they ordered on other Mazdas.

He gave me an additional refund on my service, almost half of what I'd payed. I greatly appreciated the honesty. So, I'm sad they couldn't fix my car but am quite glad because
*this is the same problem our old Grand Am had, which I blogged about last year. (Never ever ever "top off" your tank. Ever). It cost us about $1,000 and at least 6 trips to a mechanic to get the right diagnosis and they probably didn't make much profit off of me. This is the same problem, and could likely cost us about as much. Mike's Repair made the right call in telling me "I don't want to try and fix your car."

I only paid $500 for the car, so I don't want to get in over my head on repairs. The car will likely never leave Bolivar anyway. Until it goes to Old Mexico, where the Grand Am now lives.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Answering readers' questions- on the Saddleback Civil Forum

Liz asks :
"Justin, did you see the forum at Saddleback with Obama and McCain? What did you think of what McCain said about the Russia/ Georgia situation?"

No, I didn't watch it (we don't have cable) but I just finished reading the transcript. I also saw the review of it on NBC Nightly News last night.

McCain didn't say anything about Georgia that he hasn't said previously, and then nothing remarkable. That he's been there, thinks it's "wonderful," that we should support Saakashvili and that he's concerned about the new Russian assertion of power in the region. Again, one of his top advisers is a paid lobbyist for Georgia, so no surprise there.

But, what else was said at the forum that I thought was interesting?

1. Barack Obama's words were clearly less "stumpy" than McCain's. While the audience groaned when he reiterated his pro-choice position, Obama made the point that abortion takes an emotional toll on women and that we need to find incentives for women to keep their babies or give them up for adoption.
The recognition that people respond to incentives is big for me. Because abortion will likely never be outlawed in the U.S. So, I favor Obama's realist approach on the issue--reduce abortions through incentives.

2. Warren asked "What do you define as 'rich'?" Obama claims he's giving the middle class a tax cut when he's not. The data say he's raising marginal income tax rates for everyone considerably. See here and here. (HT: Greg Mankiw).

I'm hoping at one of the debates the candidates are able to use powerpoint. The tax issue should be a slam dunk for McCain. But, I have little faith in his team to understand or exploit this.

But, Obama makes the important point that tax hikes are necessary if we want to eliminate deficits:
"Generationally for us to invest or for us to spend $10 billion a month on a war and not having a way to pay for it. That I think is unacceptable. Nobody likes to pay taxes. I haven't sold 25 million books but I've sold a lot of books lately. I've written a pretty big check to Uncle Sam. Nobody likes it."

McCain, however, makes some fundamental Republican mistakes. The first was surprising, calling the $700 billion we spend on oil the "greatest transfer of wealth in history" to countries "that don't like us very much" and spend some of it to fund Al Qaeda and other terrorists. McCain is quoting T. Boone Pickens here. Last week, Rush Limbaugh bashed Pickens for calling this a "transfer of wealth," accurately pointing out (and quoting an economist) that it's an exchange of wealth, not a transfer. McCain's team apparently didn't get that message. He also claims that tax cuts increase revenue, a myth unless applied only to the very wealthy (on the far side of the Laffer Curve), and then only theoretically, as it depends on how their behavior is altered.

McCain did well to point out that:
We (ie: Congress) spent $3 million of your money to study the DNA of bears in Montana. Now I don't know if that was a paternity issue or a criminal issue, but the point is that it was $3 million of your money. And you know we laugh about it but we cry and we should cry.

3. I think McCain had the better answer on education, calling for choice and competition. Obama says he favors merit pay. McCain says he wants every American to have the choice to send their kids to private schools (like himself and Obama) if they desire. I agree.

Thanks for the question!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

2 good reads

Washington Post has a lengthy timeline attempting to piece together exactly what happened last Thursday-Saturday in S. Ossetia from a military perspective. Very helpful.

Nicholas Kristof, the NY Times' legendary foreign correspondent decides to apply for a permit to hold a legal protest in Beijing according to their laws set up for the Olympics. Comedy and tragedy ensue.

"What I didn’t realize is that Public Security has arrested at least a half-dozen people who have shown up to apply for protest permits. Public Security is pretty shrewd. In the old days it had to go out and catch protesters in the act. Now it saves itself the bother: would-be protesters show up at Public Security offices to apply for permits and are promptly detained. That’s cost-effective law enforcement for you."

Saturday, August 16, 2008

South Ossetia- When Foreign Policy Fails

(Aside: Donald Rayfield wrote a good piece (HT: Sean's Russia Blog) about how the stories of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia have been completely lost/ignored in this battle, as is the wider context of the people groups of the Caucasus. If you're interested in reading about the many ancient peoples of the land, I recommend The Highlanders by Yo'av Karny.)

We need to ask ourselves: are we (the U.S.) in better shape now in terms of foreign policy than we were 4 or 8 years ago?

It's a worthwhile question since one of John McCain's chief foreign policy advisors is a famous neocon, architect of the Iraq war, paid lobbyist for Georgia, and an outspoken Russophobe. Much of the blame for the S. Ossetian conflict is being laid at the feet of the Neoconservatives--Bush and company.

I think that's giving them too much credit. But, here are some distinct foreign policy failures that come to mind under the Bush administration:

1. The war in Afghanistan. I've harped on this again and again. We have given over $10 billion to (the now embattled) Musharraf and Pakistan to fight terrorists. They've done little, their intelligence services have cast their lot with the Islamists, Bin Laden & Co. are living happily and growing strong, and all Pakistan has done is beef up their military to keep up with India and tried to assassinate Afghanistan's president. We simply swat at Taliban flies with our troops in Afghanistan, a prospect that appears to be growing more bleak every day.
What's more is that Hamid Karzai is on the take with druglords. Thomas Friedman reports that most Afghans are feeling like the Iraqis-- that Americans should just leave.
What's the strategy here? PLEASE, someone tell me (I've been asking that for 2 years now).

(Note: Richard Clarke and others have blamed the Bush team for not paying enough attention to Al Qaeda, and therefore bearing responsibility for 9/11. You make the call.)

2. Continued dependence on oil. President Bush made a good speech about how Americans were "addicted to oil." But being a good oil man and enabler, he didn't mind begging the Saudis for more. He (and Congress) didn't mind trying to find ways to bypass Russia rather than passing more tax credits to develop alternative fuels. Now, the #1 way to avoid Russia--through the Caucasus-- is essentially "in play." Instead, we're mainly concerned with drilling for more here and subsidizing corn ethanol--both of which are stupid in the long run.
In fairness, Europe is no better in its energy policies--save for a much higher gasoline tax. For example, Germany gets over 60% of its natural gas from Russia, and that's not changing anytime soon. That's why the Germans have been so quiet this week.

3. Containing Iran. We've done a great job emboldening Ahmadinejad instead of emboldening pro-democracy students in Iran. If we assist Israel in their planned attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities (probably after November elections) then we can reassess the magnitude of this point.

4. Darfur, The Sudan. What exactly have we led on here? Oh, Bush was of the firsts to call it a genocide. But, something about us being busy with a couple other wars...

5. The Doha Round. World trade talks collapsed last month (finally... or anticlimactically). Bush and the U.S. didn't do a very good job leading. Part of that was Democrat-led backlash that led to a narrow vote on CAFTA. Part of it was Bush's hypocrisy in policies such as installing steel quotas in a Congressional election year in '02 to help endangered Republicans.

6. Iraq. Need we hash on this more? We unilaterally opted for regime change and went about it very messily. In the end we freed a country at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, over 1,000,000 lives, and most of the educated Iraqis fled the country to elsewhere rather than be assassinated. Now other countries (ie: Russia) feel they can unilaterally opt for regime change and we should just shut up.

7. The war in S. Ossetia. By all accounts, the State Department gave--at best-- mixed signals to Saakashvili. We didn't know what was happening until it was too late-- either because our satellites were focused on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, or because Saakashvili didn't tell us, or we were just stupid. The response to the escalation was to have Bush make some remarks from Beijing rather than send an envoy immediately. When an envoy was sent, she went to Tbilisi and avoided Moscow. Now, Bush is boldly botching the aid effort. We've lost the moral imperative due to Iraq and Kosovo and we are toothless because we're tied down elsewhere (and supposedly because we want Russia's help with #3).
Looking back to how it relates to #2, someone wisely pointed out:
"(If the defense of Georgia) is about the oil pipeline, then the best response is to spend 1 billion dollars on alternative energy and doing everything possible to build more oil rigs, because it would go a lot further towards a strategic response that helps Europe than flooding military capabilities into Georgia."

8. Missile Defense. Did you hear that Russia's Deputy Chief-of-Staff threatened to nuke Poland and the U.S. yesterday because we've agreed to the installation of a defensive missile base there? That's pretty bad timing.
I guess we should consider it a "success" since Bush pledged to build the system while running for his first election. We're now building a radar station in Czech Republic that can see all the way to the Urals, which is why Russia is really not happy--even though we've offered to let them share all the base's information. But, is this really making the world safer for democracy? If you build a weapon in the name of peace & defense that makes your enemies MORE likely to attack you (and the rest of the world via NATO), then where's the rationale for building?

9. Middle East Peace. Well, no administration can claim this as a victory. But, Bush's Road Map to Peace didn't work very well. Whatever happened to that, anyway?

Some potential foreign policy successes(?):

1. North Korea comes clean. This was after multilateral talks with other countries, and after the State Department convinced Bush/Cheney to let go of their hard stance. Clinton also did a peace deal with the N. Koreans that they reneged on, so assuming everything holds, Bush can claim a victory on this one.

2. Democratic "revolutions" spreading in Ukraine and Georgia, almost to Kyrgyzstan. Would this have been different if Democrats had been in power? Do we really believe that invading Iraq encouraged these revolutions? Who should get the credit, Bush or George Soros (who hates Bush but has done more to fund democracy-building in those countries than anyone else). My vote is for Soros.

3. Independence for Kosovo? Would that have been different under a Democrat? I doubt it. And it's really hacked Russia off. As I saw an anonymous State Department official quoted last week saying essentially (can't find the article) "If we could go back and say to the Russians 'Okay, Kosovo for Georgia', we'd do it."

Friday, August 15, 2008

Good reading

Today's Paul Krugman column will be passed out as required reading in week 1 of my International Econ. course (only about a week away). (Maybe for no other reason than the Keynes' quote is always presented in every course on trade and the textbook I'm using didn't print it).

Krugman makes the point that the current age of interdependent markets and freer trade doesn't necessarily mean the end of war. It should, we'd like to hope it does, but it doesn't.

In the Lexus and the Olive Tree (reviewed recently here), Thomas Friedman famously illustrated his commerce = peace optimism by saying "No two countries that both had McDonald's had fought a war against each other since each got its McDonald's" (Wiki). No longer.
Lebanon and Israel both have McDonalds. So do Russia and Georgia.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

War of Words over South Ossetia (Part 2)

Analyzing reaction to the war has really flushed out for me which blogs/news outlets/pundits are credible and which ones are just full of garbage.
An issue I have with the "pro-Russia" blogs is the assumption that everything Russia is saying is true, and everything Georgia is saying is false. Here are some
outright lies that the Russians have been caught in:

1. The Russian government continues to state that the Georgian "genocide" claimed upward of 2,000 civilian lives.
Human Rights Watch is having problems confirming this. They've only confirmed 44 in Tskhinvali. However, the media on the ground is reporting that Ossetian irregular militias are currently burning villages, raping, and killing Georgians. ITV reporters showed the smoke drifting eerily up from Georgian villages as refugees fled in terror. HRW seems more concerned about that right now.

2. On Wednesday, ITV reporters recorded footage of Russian patrols in Gori. Hours later, the Russian government called rumors of their troops being in Gori a lie.
Ambulances from Gori are being barred from retrieving wounded in surrounding villages by Russian forces.

3. The Russians claimed that attacks on the BTC pipeline were "lies." The Daily Telegraph and the Wall Street Journal have reported otherwise, posting pictures of the bomb craters right near the pipeline-- far away from any civilian or military locations.

4. The Russians have violated the ceasefire to destroy Georgian military bases and sink Georgian ships. "Necessary" to support the peace. There are reports that Russia is even mining the base in Gori.

5. Not a lie, but now Russia may be in violation of the Geneva Convention due to their cluster munitions--which do a lot of collateral damage. Such weapons were outlawed under the 1977 addendum to the Convention, which the Soviets agreed to and Russia has not refused since.

How many lies does a government have to tell before the world stops believing them? For the "pro-Russia crowd" the answer to this question is quite possibly a several-digit number.

Fortunately, this is what a free press gets you: actual footage instead of government propaganda (on all sides). You can believe whoever you want to, but it's hard for me to believe that the people on the ground are lying or that their photos & video are fabricated.

In an attempt to show fairness fairness, on the Georgian side the lies I've seen have been:

1. An unwillingness to say "We fired first." There have been some speculation that armed Ossetian were heavily shelling Georgian villages, forcing their hand. And that Russia had the invasion pre-planned since July (see next to last paragraph). That's still suspect, however. As it stands now, Georgia attacked, and didn't let anyone in the West or their Western advisors on the ground know about it.

2. On Sunday, they claimed the Russians took Gori when they didn't. A seemingly moot point now that the Russians do have Gori. They claimed on Wednesday that Russians were moving toward Tbilisi, which they weren't, they were just patrolling southward.

Actually, looking back at the Georgian ministry press releases (they set up a Blogger account), most of what was once considered a Georgian "lie" has since been proved true (the bombing of the airports, the sinking of Georgian ships, attack on BTC, burning of Georgian villages, etc.).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The War of Words over South Ossetia (Part 1)

My head hurts from trying to disseminate all the information and opinions surrounding Georgia-Russia conflict over the last 5 days. Blogs, news, and official government announcements.
There are two very vocal sides: the Russia-skeptic side and what I will call the "pro-Russia crowd. " The "Pro-Russia crowd" have always felt that the West has an anti-Russian bent in its media and politics. These are often businessmen blogging from Russia. Their blogs usually make the following points:

1. Isn't America being hypocritical?
a) If U.S. troops were killed anywhere in the world by a military force, wouldn't the U.S. respond with overwhelming force?
b) If China or Iran were to help build Mexico's military, provide advisory assistance to their government, and full-fledged support, wouldn't the U.S. want regime change in Mexico?
c) Doesn't Russia have the right to object to Western meddling in its neighbors and doesn't Russia have a right to object to independence for Kosovo, since it was basically an international vote? Why does America want to have more rights for itself than what it gives others?

The U.S. has used the Monroe Doctrine to justify intervention in Grenanda, Panama, Venezuela, Columbia, Cuba, Haiti, and other countries in our hemisphere-- plotting coups, assassinating leaders, funding guerillas, etc. We look down on Russia for doing the same things in theirs.

However, the problem with b) and c) is that it assumes that totalitarianism/socialism and democracy are morally equivalent. I believe that they aren't. Iran and China can't easily un-elect their leaders if they dislike their policies. Free speech, free press, and free opposition don't exist in those countries. Our government does bad things all the time, but we are aware of it because we have a free press, and we can criticize our own government. Not so easy in other countries (and not so easy in Russia).

The answer to a) is "absolutely." But, it's very hard to paint the S. Ossetian conflict in such black & white terms.

2. Aren't the Neocons to blame for this mess?

[nutshell] In the 1990s, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and a bunch of right-wingers sought to resurrect a "Reaganist" foreign policy. They created the Project for the New American Century (Wiki), a thinktank to essentially foster Pax Americana. The Neocons sought to maintain U.S. dominance of economic and military affairs calling for a strengtening, restructuring, and redeployment of the U.S. including a focus on Southern Europe.

After the Soviet collapse, Russia struggled with economic and political reforms. Hyperinflation, the rise of the oligarchs, falling commodity prices, Chechnya, an alcoholic President; Russia was weak. The purported Neocon strategy was to keep Russia down-- expanding NATO (which Reagan said America wouldn't do if the Soviets would free Eastern Europe), withholding aid, criticizing Russia's slow move to democracy and free markets.
All the while seeking to develop oil sources that would bypass Russia--particularly in former Soviet Central Asian states. The U.S. began cultivating important relationships with Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, etc.

Russia didn't like being criticized, and mourned the loss of the old days. Putin came to power, the price of oil and gas began to climb, foreign investment in Russia began to surge as the free market finally began to operate efficiently and Russians returned from abroad with Wall Street educations. Russian youth finally had something to be proud about. (Read Kremlin Rising for a good view of this). Putin declared that the era of being talked down to by America was over.

Bush II and his cabinet were the very embodiment of the Neocons (Bush was just the name to get Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, etc. elected to real power). Bypassing the newly-strong Russia became important. The U.S. clashed with Russia over the Balkans, as Russia was a strong ally of Serbia. The U.S. supported a democratic revolution in the Ukraine, helping defeat Putin's choice for leadership. When Saakashvili was swept into power in Georgia, it was seen as going just a little too far. [nutshell]

Fast forward a few years and you have 25% of the Georgian Army trained in the U.S., armed by NATO countries, and promised NATO membership without the seeking of Russia's blessing. Georgia is a key conduit in the "bypass Russia" energy plans, and has a President eager to retake lost lands, by force if necessary, and outspokenly critical of Russia's President.

2 years ago, Russia closed all rail, road, air, and mail routes to Georgia. They also outlawed financial transfers to Georgia. Time Magazine reported at the time:

Saakashvili's heavy hints that he might force the (Abkhazia, S. Ossetia) issue has allowed Moscow to accuse the Georgian leadership of threatening aggression. And it has certainly helped President Vladimir Putin rally the Russian public behind a nationalist cause. A poll taken by the Moscow-based Echo Moskvy radio station late last month found that 40% of its typically liberal audience believe that Russia's national interests justify any hard line on Georgia.

The Neocon foreign policy led to an offended Russia that was eager to heal its wounded pride and became increasingly nationalistic. It also led to the support of an aggressive government that New Russia didn't like in its backyard. And thus you have a recipe for conflict.

The problem I have with #2 is similar to the problem with 1(b)(c). Putin said early on that "the Russian people are not ready for democracy." All the television news stations were taken over by hostile Kremlin takeovers, leading to dramatic televised standoffs in some instances, and most radio stations as well. Elections were "managed," opposition parties harrassed and opposition leaders jailed. Journalists killed. Chechnya was retaken and soldiers committing well-documented heinous crimes went unpunished. Government-funded youth movements like Nashe train teenagers that the West is a liar and that a cult of personality behind Putin is OK.

In recent years, several Western business leaders have been kicked out and their assets seized by the government. BP-TNK is the latest of these. American accounting firms have learned that it's hard to do business in Russia. OSCE election monitors were denied visas, Western NGOs were kicked out along with non-Orthodox missionaries. Often, the press gets blamed rather than the government out itself. Take today's example of reporters in Gori recording footage of Russian tank patrols in and around the city. 3 hours later, the Russian government denied it had even had troops in Gori at any time. Does the camera lie? What other examples do you want?

The Neocons, for all their faults and arrogance, have not succeeded in fundamentally eliminating American democracy. Witness the wave of anti-neocon Democrats being elected to power. If Abu Gharaib had been in Chechnya do you think you'd have seen pictures on the news about it? Do you think people would have been prosecuted?

When you begin to remove free speech and free press (and free religion in many instances), you lose the very elements that make a free democracy function well. I believe that democracy > totalitarianism, communism, socialism, or anarchy.

Now, the pro-Russia blogs will call those last two paragraphs "Western propganda" or "Neocon lies" or "garbage" from "someone who's never been there." I've been there, I have friends there, I've studied its neighbors pretty well (used to live in the Caucasus), and I read a lot of books and newspapers from there. Either the vast majority of people are lying and Russia is a free utopia, or the vast majority are fabricating sources. It's kind of like denying the Holocaust or questioning its happening-- you have to ignore a whole lot of evidence to reach such a positive conclusion.

The stock market in Russia might be free (and much of the investment climate might be--with the caveats above) and booming, but so what? If all you care about is making money, then Russia and China are Heaven. But, for those of us who care even more about justice and human rights as well as freedom of speech, press, and religion, then Russia has serious issues.

*Accompanying the "Pro-Russia crowd" are U.S. university students who are studying Russian. Everywhere I go, I find students studying Russia passionate about Russia, enamored with Putin, collecting Soviet memorabilia, and often revering Stalin as "The Man." They tend to do semester studies or summer trips and come back deeply critical of U.S. policy. I remember what my own Russian classmates were like, almost all were liberal arts majors.

Tomorrow I'll try to conclude my thoughts as the situation continues to evolve horrifically on the ground.

Book Review (#18 of 2008)

Probability Without Tears: A Primer for Non-Mathematicians.

I wish every textbook were written exactly like this book. The book is almost pocket-sized but is packed full of explanations and examples of how to do basic probability calculations. The author talks to you through the book, not just teaching, but understanding what you're going through. He knows when he's overused an example or when you're frustrated. It's perfect teaching. By the end of the book, you're putting it all together and it makes so much sense.

Probability, binomial distributions, permutations and combinations. He makes it all easy, and provides enough practice problems that you feel confident, and exams to test what you've learned.

It looks like it's out-of-print. I got it used for like $4.00.

This book actually gets 5 stars out of 5. I wish every textbook was written as well as this.

He tries hard...

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why I don't watch the olympics

1. They're predictable. the largest share of medals go to the largest-income countries. Though, someone clever has created this chart showing medals by population size. The Czechs are currently doing the best in Gold per million people, the Aussies in total medals per million.

2. They're the same every 4 years. Can you really tell me the difference between the synchronized diving even this year and the one in 2004? Is there any new routine being invented in gymnastics? 100 meter dash is still the 100 meter dash, oddly enough.

3. I believe most scores are driven by randomness. Take diving, for instance. Every athlete competing is capable of a perfect-form dive but each has their own probability of performing it in a given jump. Out of 100 jumps, each diver would have a wide range of scores. What matters, though, are the few jumps that the diver makes that are being judged. If a person gets lucky and has his least-probable yet most-perfect form dive when being judged, he advances. So, the worst diver can advance by being lucky. My guess is that the probabilities are not all that different among divers, and that's how it is in many sports being judged.

4. The judging is subjective anyway. Past Olympic judging scandals aside, a person decides whether or not a competitor's routine was harder or better performed. There are few objective criteria. And if a judge blinks during a routine he/she misses something critical.

The exception to this are the sports that professional athletes compete in-- basketball, soccer, etc. And these are fairly fun to watch, I admit.

5. There's a war on, you know. I don't remember what newspaper I read it in, but there was an op-ed that essentially stated "I bet the Georgian government figured out that the U.S. wasn't going to be all that helpful when they turned on the TV and saw Bush embrace Putin before the opening ceremonies, saw him take brief time outs from watching Olympic events to chat with Putin before hurrying back to cheering, and spent his days doing this:"
6. I don't think rooting for the U.S. national teams = patriotism. Patriotism is being an informed voter. It's not littering because you want to keep your land beautiful. It's standing up for freedom and democracy. It's not Team USA blowing out the Chinese national basketball team. I think the bronze medal 4 years ago united American efforts behind a common goal more than anything since Sputnik. I talked with someone who skipped church on Sunday to watch the basketball game. "The Chinese teams are just... rude." She badly wanted to see them get beaten badly.

We're (technically) still the #1 economy in the world (see #1 above), so I expect to be at the top of the medal-earning list. If not us, then China. Fact of life. *Yawn*

The chill

My thoughts this morning:

Last night on PBS Newshour UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that Russia would be punished with whatever punishment was warranted. He made some pretty vague and bold statements. None of which will be backed up. He said any military support would simply be helping rebuild Georgia's military, something I bet Russia is excited about.

Whether or not the Russians are holding Gori, they have still captured the port city of Poti and created quite the economic mess for Georgia. Lavrov's statements that Saakashvili "must go" make me think the Russians will probably sit tight while the UN/EU try to hammer out a peace agreement, effectively blockading Georgia until Saak leaves. .

Interesting that it's Medvedev, and not Putin, who announced the official halting of Russian troops. As it should be, but as it hasn't been since Friday when Putin took over the show. Perhaps that's why Russians are still bombing and haven't really ceased fire?

Putin's had some interesting quotes:
“What’s amazing, of course, isn’t the cynicism,” he observed. “The scale of the cynicism is amazing, the ability to call black white and white black. The ability to so smoothly present the aggressor as the victim of aggression and lay responsibility for the consequences on the victims...” He further noted that “the Cold War mentality has firmly taken hold in the heads of some American diplomats” and described relations between the U.S. administration and Saakashvili by recalling a phrase ascribed to Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “Somoza is a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch, and we will help him and we will defend him.” Putin compared Saakashvili himself with Saddam Hussein. “Of course Saddam Hussein had to be hung for destroying some Shia villages. And the current Georgian rulers, who wiped ten Ossetian villages off the face of the Earth in an hour, of course they have to be protected,” he fumed.
Here's a blog by a S. Ossetian refugee in Vladikavkaz. She has taken some pictures of the facilities and talked of what people are hearing from the South, and how they're reacting to the Russian soldiers.

In "Rebuke of a President" the NY Times profiles the "New York lawyer" Saakashvili.

Most of the Georgian blogs I've been following have gone silent. One journalist in Azerbaijan (I gather he's fairly new to the country) talks of Georgian civilians claiming indiscriminate killing of Georgians by the Russians. I guess Putin feels turnabout is "fair play."

Let the Monday-morning quarterbacking begin, and let the American attention span fade elsewhere as Russia is no longer on the move. Now is the time that Georgia needs our diplomatic "strength" the most, to insure that Saak's government isn't toppled and that Russia gets its boots off Georgia's neck.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Another War?

About the time the Georgia news broke, the blogosphere was murmuring with rumors of 2 more US aircraft carriers leaving for the Gulf. Israeli vessels are also possibly enroute. Target: Iran.

Perhaps equally disheartening is John McCain's latest statement on Georgia being possibly mostly plagiarized from Wikipedia (HT: Registan.net). I'll restate my request: Please fire McCain's staffers. Let's get some not-as-dumb college kids on his campaign immediately!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Why I'm still blogging about South Ossetia

I've spent much of the weekend reading blogs about the conflict, including Russian-language blogs of people supposedly there. Most of these are maintained by youth and read like angry propaganda. This widely cited blog is from a youth in Tskhinvali who was supposedly nice enough to emerge from his bomb shelter to make posts about how the women and children were being run over by tanks, even though the city was without power.

He's a member of one of several youth movements in Russia called New People to go with Young Russia and Nashe, the official "Putin Youth" government-sponsored nationalist organization. They held demonstrations in Moscow protesting "NATO-Georgian aggression." The photos posted showed teenagers gathered around a jar of red liquid labeled "Blood for Saakashvilli," while in the videos you can hear them chanting anti-Georgian and anti-U.S. slogans.

The liveblogging Russian youth are quite angry and nationalistic, seeing Georgia as merely a puppet of the U.S., and their actions despicable violations of international law. There are a few Georgians asking questions on the blogs who are getting told to go to hell.

The Russian media is state-controlled and producing some very one-sided coverage. Here's an English-language example.
What sounds more like "genocide", responding to an attack after publicly declaring a unilateral ceasefire (what Georgia did)? Or asking UN peacekeepers to leave the Kodori Gorge (in Abkhazia, not even S. Ossetia) so you can shell Georgian villages (What Russia did)?

Russia is now singling out Ukraine for selling Georgia weapons. However, the U.S., Turkey, Lithuania, France, and other NATO countries have sold the majority of the weaponry to Georgia.

So, one reason I blog is to try to balance what I perceived as very anti-Georgian efforts on the Net.

The other reason I blog is because of what an anonymous White House official told the NY Times yesterday: "Maybe we're learning how to shut up now."

In other words, we've been critical of Russia and others despite our own poor unilateralism, and made many promises to countries like Georgia, and now we are powerless to deliver any action. We can't "walk the talk."
We give billions to a country like Pakistan whose own internal security forces tried to assassinate Hamid Karzai and give aid to the Taliban while our own soldiers die trying to keep the Taliban out of Afghanistan. Yet we just keep giving more and pretend that things will get better. We do nothing.
We promise Georgia a NATO position in April, train their troops and pledge to support them because they sent 2,000 soldiers to Iraq. But now when the chips are on the table and their country is on the verge of invasion, we do nothing.
Even the Ukraine had the guts to tell the Russian Navy not to return to their Ukranian bases.

So, I mourn the newfound impotence of my country, whose President says The Case for Democracy was one of his favorite books. I mourn the dirt in the eye of Georgia who will now likely be kept at arms length and out of NATO.

I mourn for countries like Moldova and Azerbaijan who will have to think twice about reuniting with seperatist parts of their countries in order to move forward economically & politically. Moldova especially can learn from the Georgian precedent-- Moscow will intervene in your affairs.

I firmly support Georgia's efforts at joining the West and their fragile and imperfect democracy.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

From Bad to Worse

Edward Lucas, the author of The New Cold War, writes:

As things stand, Georgia will be fighting not to regain South Ossetia or even to deter aggression, but to survive. It is hard to see any good outcome...The fighting should be a deafening wake-up call to the West. Our fatal mistake was made at the Nato summit in Bucharest in April, when Georgia's attempt to get a clear path to membership of the alliance was rebuffed. Mr Saakashvili warned us then that Russia would take advantage of any display of Western weakness or indecision. And it has.
If Georgia falls, Europe's hopes of energy independence from Russia fall too.

While President Bush and both Presidential candidates condemned attacks on Georgian soil, the Russians have bombed several airfields, the city of Gori, and the key port of Poti, as well as the Kodori Gorge in Abkhazia. Putin is rumored to be in North Ossetia now. The U.S. will help Georgia airlift 2,000 of its troops from Iraq to Georgia. There are about 4,000 Americans in Georgia from what I heard on the news yesterday.

The NY Times reports that the Russians are possibly moving an invasion force toward to Georgian coast with their Black Sea Fleet. Thousands of soldiers are pouring in from the North, "Too many for South Ossetia," says NY Times reporter Ellen Barry. Cyberattacks are probably also underway as pretty much anything with a .GE web address has gone down. Rumors from Azerbaijan are that the Russians are violating an Armenian-Georgian treaty by launching attacks from Armenian air bases.

A British expat in Tbilisi keeps a blog on her and various other expats' activities and intentions to evacuate/stay.

Welcome to the new world of renewed Russian dominance and Western weakness. If you didn't see it coming, you haven't been paying attention.

In case you feel the blog is too biased in one direction, here's a link to the Russia Blog's take on the war, which seeks to put out a different (positive) image of Russia than what they feel is presented in the Western media:
"The politically correct, bipartisan American rule seems to be that, no matter what Russia does, it must always be in the wrong."

Friday, August 08, 2008

Waking up to War

I'm not sure if Americans will take the time to care, but Russia and Georgia are engaged in a shooting war today. There have been negotiations in recent weeks over the break away republics South Ossetia and Abkhazia that have gone nowhere. Georgian unmanned spy drones were recently shot down by Russian fighters, and other breaches of peace (like a Russian bomb dropped in a Georgian village) have occurred.
Every incident gets it own spin. Russia says it doesn't even have planes in the area, etc.

The official story, according to the NY Times, is that Georgia moved to occupy the capital of South Ossetia last night and Russia counterattacked in response. Putin and Medvedev later announced on Russian TV that "The war has started." I'm not currently seeing much on Russian news about it, no live footage that is, only replaying Putin and Medvedev's statements about defending Russian citizens and punishing those who harm them. Different international newspapers have different angles.

According to recent articles at Kavkaz Center, Russia has been moving troops toward Georgia since the end of July, and evacuating women and children from S. Ossetia. Officials involved have denied an evacuation, saying it's all part of pre-arranged summer camps for the kids.

As usual, there's spin on both sides and it's hard to get concrete information.

Why you should care:
Georgia's President is American-educated and an ally of the U.S., having sent troops to help in Iraq. Georgia has been eager to join NATO against Russia's wishes. The U.S. has helped train Georgian troops in antiterrorism tactics and we might even still have some troops there. Russia's foreign minister holds us partly responsible:

"Now we see Georgia has found a use for these weapons and for the special forces that were trained with the help of international instructors," he said.

"I think our European and American colleagues ... should understand what is happening. And I hope very much that they will reach the right conclusions."


We've spent $millions and a lot of political manpower securing the recently-opened Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline that pumps 15 million barrels of oil to Western markets every day (and was maybe bombed this week, not good for oil prices). Condi Rice has been on the phone with President Saakasvhili "several times" today.

Would Russia like to get rid of the Western-leaning Saakasvhili who is always criticizing and accusing them of meddling? Absolutely. Would they love to control the oil pipeline? Absolutely, officials have recently been talking about buying all the natural gas that comes from Azerbaijan. PM Putin has previously expressed his desires to see Russia restored to all of its former territories, including Georgia.

Will the truth about what's happening ever come out? Probably not. The NY Times seems to be taking a "Russia is shady" stance, while other publications aren't making as many claims as the Times is.

But, war has started and in the Caucasus all wars are very long and bloody.

Update1: Russia bloggers are starting to chime in. Registan.net reports that Russian financial markets met the war news rather grimly and also wonders about the war's implications on the pipeline.

Update2: A Tblisi blogger reports Russian warplanes bombing airport just outside Tblisi. This is inside universally-recognized Georgian territory (whereas S. Ossetia is disputed). Bad sign.

Update3: The Eurasia Daily Monitor, a very conservative (right-leaning) site posts this about Russia's intentions. The truth is probably somewhat less extreme than this, but somewhat more extreme than what state-run Russian media is saying. The U.S.' response will be critical.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Ethanol and the Future

As mentioned previously, one of my favorite job perks is receiving various economic journals & magazines, such as The Regional Economist, the St. Louis Fed's quarterly publication. There's a good article about ethanol in the latest edition. Some parts of the article I found interesting:

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 required that 5.4 billion gallons of biofuels be blended with gasoline in 2008. This amount would then increase to 7.5 billion gallons in 2012. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) increased the target for 2008 to 9 billion gallons and extended the mandate through 2022, when 36 billion gallons of biofuel are to be blended.

To achieve this policy goal, Congress has provided numerous incentives for domestic ethanol producers over time, such as subsidies and import tariffs... (and) a tax credit for gasoline blenders....

Government mandates and incentives have meant that demand for corn has risen. As more corn is planted to meet demand, fewer of other crops are planted, and this drives up food prices all around.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the percentage of the domestic corn supply used to produce ethanol has increased from less than 5 percent in 2000 to 22 percent last year. The USDA’s latest long-term projections indicate that nearly 5 billion bushels of corn, or about 31 percent of total projected supply, will be used to produce ethanol in 2017. At the same time, the USDA projects that the price of corn in nominal terms will fluctuate between $3.50 per bushel and $3.80 per bushel. ... a substantial step-up from the roughly $2.25 per bushel average price seen from 2000 to 2006.

Okay, the government has mandated we produce 36 billion gallons of biofuel by 2022. That could mean sugar ethanol or other biofuels like switchgrass. However, most of it will come from corn ethanol simply because "the infrastructure to support ethanol from switchgrass is 'virtually nonexistent.'"

So, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that prices are going to rise a good bit due to government intervention in the corn market.

Where's the benefit? It won't make us more energy-independent.

"Using all corn grown in the U.S. to produce ethanol would replace only 12% of the gasoline used for transportation in the U.S...The increased percentage of the corn crop used in ethanol production, according to the USDA, largely comes at the expense of corn used for livestock purposes (feed) and, perhaps more important, buffer stocks (inventory). In addition, the increased acreage devoted to corn reduces the area devoted to other important crops, like wheat and soybeans. All else equal, this means higher prices for those crops also."

Studies have shown that ethanol production produces more carbon emissions than burning standard gasoline. The environmental and resource costs of producing it are greater than the benefits gained. The E10 blended gasoline you put in your car reduces your fuel mileage by about 2%.

So, why the bad energy policy? Answer: The farm lobby. Our farmers are struggling to compete, so instead they squash the competition of poor farmers in places like Africa and South America by subsidizing our production and keeping poor countries' goods out of our markets.

Barack Obama is a supporter of these subsidies & tariffs and kissed up to the farm lobby, helping him with the now historically-important Iowa Caucus. John McCain is against them.

From the NY Times (HT: Greg Mankiw):

Mr. McCain advocates eliminating the multibillion-dollar annual government subsidies that domestic ethanol has long enjoyed.... Mr. Obama, in contrast, favors the subsidies....

On the campaign trail, Mr. Obama has not explained his opposition to imported sugar cane ethanol. But in remarks last year, made as President Bush was about to sign an ethanol cooperation agreement with his Brazilian counterpart, Mr. Obama argued that “our country’s drive toward energy independence” could suffer if Mr. Bush relaxed restrictions, as Mr. McCain now proposes.

“It does not serve our national and economic security to replace imported oil with Brazilian ethanol,” he argued....

The candidates’ views were tested recently in the Farm Bill approved by Congress that extended the subsidies for corn ethanol, though reducing them slightly, and the tariffs on imported sugar cane ethanol. Because Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama were campaigning, neither voted. But Mr. McCain said that as president he would veto the bill, while Mr. Obama praised it.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Brett Favre-- "overrated"

Brian Burke, one of my heroes in the blogging world, gained some fame the past month with this post showing that Brett Favre didn't have a good season last year-- his receivers did.

He gives an even simpler analysis today.

Despite a very average overall completion rate, Favre's rates for deep right and deep left passes are well below average. That means in order to have an overall average completion rate, he must be gorging on the dink and dunk stuff.

I'm not the only guy with access to stats like these. Do you know who else might have them? Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson.


It's so hard to read the blogs I do and still listen to commentators on TV. We no longer have cable, and I don't miss watching Around the Horn or PTI. (Related note- It's hard to watch the evening news these days, I only enjoy PBS' NewsHour).

If you love football but don't read Brian's blog then I challenge you to put your mind where your heart is and click the link.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Carter the Prophet

Three years ago I wrote this post about Jimmy Carter not being such a bad President. One of his staffers wrote this editorial in the Philadelphia Enquirer. (HT: Some Assembly Required).
I feel even more justified in my thoughts as Carter was right about energy policy (bold text my own):

In 1979 he issued a Presidential Message to the Congress, charting a path to increased reliance on solar energy, renewable resources and conservation, and setting a goal: 20 percent of our energy needs were to be met by solar and renewable resources by the year 2000.

The message envisioned a broad range of measures to reduce the nation's oil dependency. Among them were developing and applying technologies to reduce energy consumption in industry and in the home; wind-generated electricity; biomass fuel sources; and environmentally safe ways to burn and use coal.

If we let cheap oil lull us into inactivity, Carter warned, "we could endanger our freedom as a sovereign nation to act in foreign affairs." He saw our oil addiction as a threat to our national security, and he urged the nation to break free of it.

Carter saw solar power as a key to America's energy independence. Energy from the sun would be clean and safe, and would provide a non-polluting insurance policy against the rising cost of imported oil.

As a demonstration of his commitment, Carter directed that solar collectors be installed on the roof of the White House.

He proposed the creation of a Solar Bank to provide capital at subsidized rates for the development and application of solar technologies.

Congress responded by passing legislation to create the bank.

In 1981, Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. The solar collectors were removed. The Solar Bank was abandoned; when asked when its board of directors would meet, a high administration official said, "Never."

Instead of achieving energy independence, we became a nation of energy gluttons, beholden to dictators who are our suppliers but not our friends.

And with what dire consequences. We are paying about $4 a gallon for gasoline. We have fought two wars in the Middle East. Whatever justifications may be given, one may wonder what national interest would have required those wars if we had not needed the oil.

And we have spawned a deadly terrorist organization - al-Qaeda - by our very presence in Saudi Arabia.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Church Shopping (Part 2)

Last week we re-visited the first church to get a better sense of what a usual service is like since most of their staff was back from vacation. Last night we visited a different church, the biggest church in Bolivar, opting for their contemporary worship service at 6:30pm (fearing what we'd heard about the traditional service).

This church also amazingly posts the words to the songs on the wall (with nice powerpoint graphics) and has a talented praise band. I bet some of them are music students at the university. There sure wasn't much hand raising, everyone was pretty stoic. It was nice to hear some modern songs that I didn't know the words to. I'm told the church has a bi-monthly ultra-contemp. service mostly for college kids.

We met some people who teach a Honeymooners/Homebuilders SS class. One of the classes has several couples with infants and home groups that meet during the week (and possibly form/reform spontaneously). So, that's a plus.

The pastor preached a sermon on the prayers of the upright from Proverbs 15 but was all over the Scripture. To my surprise, he opened up the floor for "questions, discussion, debate." There were probably 100 or so people there, so a pretty risky situation. But, the discussion was pretty mild, and the points well-taken. One man made a point about imputed righteousness that I felt was very necessary, although the pastor seemed to want to avoid such terminology (is "imputed righteousness" a Calvinistic codeword?).

So, we'll likely visit it again.

My thoughts on church shopping have changed from the overly-spiritual ideal to merely practical.

Here's sort of a checklist of what I look for in a church:
1. What's the attitude of the congregation toward praise/worship? Do I feel free to raise my hands?
2. Is the preaching expository?
3. Is the doctrine Reformed?
4. Are there home groups? Real discipleship?
5. Are the missions merely denomination-driven or is there support for local-church activity?
6. What makes it unique in the community (like the unpaid staff of the previous church)?

This checklist has been modified for the practical:
1. Is there a "cry room" where Joni (or myself) can feed Elias?
2. Is the preaching good by someone well-prepared?
3. Are there home groups?
4. Does the music take me back to middle school?
5. Are the people outgoing during "meet & greet"?
6. What makes it unique? What economies of scale does it leverage? (a big church has more ministry options).

The previous church had expository preaching but the co-preacher we heard preach was a retired football coach and that's how I would have described his exegesis of the chapter. People were excited about praising God, but the music was... lacking a certain quality we've been spoiledby at other churches.

Yesterday's church didn't have expository preaching but the quality and interactiveness were good. People didn't seem excited about praising God, but the music was taken seriously enough that a worshipful environment was created.

So, there are no perfect churches. "Ideally" becomes "realistically." And that's okay.

Carl Edwards is a nice guy


I don't root for Carl Edwards, but if a Hendrick boy can't win then I don't mind Edwards winning. He's always polite and well-spoken in the pits. He seems to like the reporters and they seem to be able to joke around with him. He has a good sense of humor. He's a licensed pilot and owns his own record label. He does a backflip off his car after every victory. He's cool.

Yesterday during the rain delay he sheepishly talked about how he and his crew chief got into a screaming match about who's idea it was for him to pit. "I should just learn to keep my mouth shut and do what I'm told, (my crew chief) is usually right."

He also admitted to following Jimmie Johnson into the pits because "those guys are usually on their stuff."

Edwards is the exact opposite of all the Joe Gibbs drivers. See, sometimes nice guys finish first.
Not-so-nice Kyle Busch ran out of gas on the last lap and finished 35th after burning fuel battling Dale Jr. for 4th place. HA!

Three top 10 finishes for Hendrick, super-nice-guy and future Hendrick driver Mark Martin dominating much of the race, and Kyle Busch looking dumb make for a great race.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Garage Saleing

I think Bolivar must be the place to live if you love garage sales. They have them all the time, during the week, on weekends, doesn't matter. I have taken to committing my Friday mornings to hitting them, as Fridays are peak garage sale time here. Not all of them advertise in the paper, you just have to drive around town and follow the homemade signs, or get lucky and stumble across one.

Today I successfully crammed a tall bookcase in great condition into my Mazda 626 and slowly drove it home. The amount of miles I've driven looking for a cheap bookcase has not made it worth it, but the deal today was great. Got Joni a used DVD player as well, since all our previous used ones have blown up (and this one will too eventually). I also got a couple lamps we needed for the living room for $4.

I got our computer desk for $2.75 from a thrift store. Technically not garage sale-ing but I found it while shopping. It's great. Our nearest thrift store is like a 6-day garage sale, there's something new out front every day. Bolivar has a nice collection of thrift and junk stores, and also high-quality antique stores for the tourists. The garage sales are also all loaded with cheap antiques.

My favorite garage sale find was a guy selling his collection of non-fiction audio books on CD for $1 each! Most of which I'd either wanted to read, or had almost bought at one time. So, I racked up that day. Everything would have cost me at least $10 even at a used store. I'm currently listening to one book that I've decided to make required reading for my International Economics students. I figure we can sell them to a used book store in Springfield and I'll make at least 100% accounting profit.

There are also auctions almost daily here (I'm not sure if that coincides with the fact that probably 10% of houses are for sale). I've hit a couple of those just to browse around. The auctions are just like garage sales except everything in the house is for sale. However, I don't find it worthwhile to it to sit around for hours waiting to bid on something I want when chances are I'll see it at a garage sale somewhere else.

One garage sale today had a huge pile of boys clothes for. You filled your own Wal Mart bag with whatever you wanted and paid $1/bag. We've not had a need to get Elias clothes yet, but soon enough he'll get used to wearing the latest garage sale find.

So, every Friday morning I am the Garage Sale King.