Wednesday, July 16, 2008<

Not fawning, but . . .

If we're honest with ourselves, it's apparent that Barack Obama has a better chance than not of being elected President, so hopefully we won't end up seeing this as the most exciting outcome of the election. But it appears to me that Obama's campaign will have some positive externalities for the country regardless of whether Obama ultimately wins the Presidency.

First, the "Obama Organizing Fellows" program has the potential to have a lasting impact. By giving college students an easy way to get into community organizing, he is providing a path to public service that will attract larger numbers of young people. Some people (like myself) might end up going into a job (or law school or medical school) because it's a more well worn path than something else, with a more clear future. By establishing this program, he is providing a structured path into public service. He is literally enabling a substantial number of college kids to shun the private sector for something more meaningful (like he did, at least according to Dreams from my Father) - this should improve the quality of our government and other public servants in the future.

Second (on a more partisan level), by getting young people (including kids who can't vote yet) excited about politics, Obama is helping establish the party identity of the next generation. If all the young people supporting Obama (currently 48% of people aged 18-29, compared to McCain's 36%) remain Democrats as they become adults, this country will become much more Democratic in the coming years.

Now I would doubt that these side benefits are at the forefront of Obama's mind as he runs his campaign. On the first one he is probably just implementing a strategy he thinks is effective based on this days as a community organizer. And I'm guessing the second one is incidental to running a good campaign. But from my perspective, his campaign will leave the country better off even if McCain somehow pulls it out.

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It's Good to Know What's Really Important

President Bush said Tuesday that he will not call on Americans to conserve gasoline despite the rising price of oil, saying consumers are "smart enough" to figure out for themselves that they should drive less.


Tuesday, July 15, 2008<

Larry Kudlow: Hack

I enjoy reading the Corner on the National Review Online because it's always good to get the other side's perspective, and they have some intelligent and thoughtful writers working for them.

Larry Kudlow is not one of them.

Kudlow's specialty is linking economic news to political events in such a way as to prove the correctness of conservative ideas about the economy.

Here's a classic example:
after Obama’s big North Carolina win, a night he nearly carried Indiana, stocks opened way down. . . Markets don’t like Obama. If he wins alongside Democratic gains in the House and Senate, taxes are going up big time.
I see, so markets don't like Obama and therefore they go down when he does well. I guess the markets going down on May 7 (the day after the NC primary) didn't have anything to do with this:
On Wednesday, stocks ended sharply lower as fresh record highs for crude-oil prices touched off concerns that the stock market's recent gains might have been premature as consumers grapple with rising energy and food costs.
Kudlow is smart enough to know that the movement of the markets aren't so easily explained by a single factor (be it movement in oil prices or Obama winning the NC primary) - if they were, I would be a much better investor. That leads me to believe that Kudlow is being intentionally disingenuous and trying to use his label as a financial expert to push a political agenda.

The Corner is filled with a bunch of very smart political commentators, so I find it hard to believe that they can't see through Kudlow's rhetorical tricks. So I would appeal to them from a self-interested standpoint: Kudlow makes you all look like hacks, and he shouldn't be allowed to blog about politics.

Anyway, here's Kudlow's latest foray into political commentary:
In a dramatic move yesterday President Bush removed the executive-branch moratorium on offshore drilling . . . Crude-oil futures for August delivery plunged $9.26, or 6.3 percent, almost immediately as Bush was speaking, bringing the barrel price down to $136. . . Now isn’t this interesting?
Here's the Wall Street Journal's take:
Crude futures were recently down $8.14 at $137.04 a barrel in New York, weighed down by several factors. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries gave a downbeat outlook for world oil demand in coming months. Traders also said it appears that some funds are unloading positions, either to book profits from oil's hefty long-term rally or to raise money to cover soured bets on credit securities that can't be unloaded.
Not to mention the fact that the news about Bush lifting the offshore oil drilling ban was known to the world at least by 3:35pm EST yesterday (July 14), yet the price of oil only went down $0.10 from 3:35pm until the market closed, and it opened up this morning about $0.60.

Does this guy even look at the data before he starts writing?


Sunday, July 6, 2008<

McCain's Gambling Problem

Here goes my attempt at original reporting -

This article in Time from last week talks about both McCain and Obama's gambling proclivities. The bottom line is that McCain is a craps man, while Obama sticks to poker.

This aside caught my attention though:
Aides say McCain tends to play for a few thousand dollars at a time
First of all, that's a lot of money to play at any given time (especially since an ill-timed 7 roll can wipe out all your bets in an instant).

But, more importantly, if McCain is playing for a couple thousand dollars at a time, he must have some substantial gambling winnings and losses over the course of a year. I was curious about exactly how much McCain had won or lost over time so I figured I would check his tax returns to see what kinds of gambling related gains/losses he reported.

Turns out he hasn't reported any - at least for 2006 and 2007 (the tax returns of McCain's that are available on his website).

Gambling gains are supposed to be reported as "Other Income" on line 21 of Form 1040, and McCain has not listed any "Other Income" for 2006 and 2007. It's true that gambling losses can offset gambling gains for tax purposes, but the gains still need to be reported as "Other Income" and the losses to offset it are then reported as itemized deductions on Schedule A.

It's possible that McCain didn't gamble at all in 2006 or 2007 and therefore wouldn't have any gambling gains/losses to report - in fact, I would guess that he probably didn't in 2007 since he was immersed in the presidential campaign. But I would be surprised if he didn't play at least a little dice in 2006 (the article states that he played in 2005). The sense the article gives is that McCain likes him some craps, and I find it hard to believe he hasn't played at all in the last two years. Take this anecdote for example:
In the heat of the G.O.P. primary fight last spring, he announced on a visit to the Vegas Strip that he was going to the casino floor.
That's about as far as I can take it, but it would be great if a real reporter could ask the McCain campaign a couple things:

1) Did McCain gamble at all in 2006 or 2007?
1a) If yes, why did he not report his gambling-related income on his tax returns?
2) It's known that McCain gambled in 2005 - was his gambling-related income properly reported for that year? What about for previous years?

Just to anticipate some objections:
a) Yes this is a relatively trivial issue, but it's a slow news week. So the easiest thing to do would just be to get this out in the open and clear the air. Plus, this story certainly is as important (if not more) than the Barack Obama birth certificate "controversy."
b) Yes any failure to report was likely an oversight rather than an attempt to avoid taxes. But unfortunately the IRS doesn't recognize oversight as a legitimate excuse for failing to report income.
c) Yes the article discusses Barack Obama playing poker and he didn't appear to have reported any gambling-related income (though I didn't check thoroughly). But clearly there is a difference in kind between a "$1 ante and $3 top raise" poker game (where I imagine on a good night, Obama might have maybe walked away with $50) and playing craps for several thousand dollars at a time.

P.S. If this becomes a big story, remember you read it here first.

UPDATE: This photo (if the June 3, 2006 date accompanying the story is correct) would seem to indicate that McCain did gamble in 2006.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008<

Run the Ball

I'm not going to go through and refute each point in this article about why Hillary is the obvious choice for VP, but sufficed to say I would probably be a little weary of taking political advice from the campaign manager for Walter Mondale's 1984 campaign.

More importantly, this article, and a lot of calls for Hillary to be VP, are ignoring the reality of the current situation. Barack is up on McCain somewhere in the 8-12 point range nationally, and in most of the battleground states. This lead can easily go away of course, but if I were Obama I would probably not take any big risks or vary too much from what I am currently doing.

It's like in football - you don't throw a deep pass when you're up by 10, you protect the ball and run out the clock. Without getting complacent, that's exactly what Barack should do.

I don't care what anyone says - picking Hillary would upset some of Barack's current supporters and cause them to vote for McCain or not at all. True, Hillary would bring in some new supporters, but we can't know whether the net effect would be positive or negative.

So since Barack is up fairly big already, why risk it?

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Perfect Law School Hypothetical

Did you know that adherents of the Sikh faith are required to carry a ceremonial sword (Kirpan) at all times?

I find this fascinating because it's not often that real-life facts present such a perfect law school hypothetical (say there is a religion that requires its members to carry a weapon . . . what are the limits of religious freedom in this case . . .).

There has actually been surprisingly little litigation about this issue - only a couple federal and state cases. I haven't read the full opinions, but apparently the state cases found that wearing a kirpan could not be banned (even where knives were otherwise not permitted). The federal case allowed a kirpan to be brought to a school if it were tied into a sheath and could not be removed (doesn't that violate the spirit of the kirpan?). I am somewhat surprised by these outcomes as I would think that restricting weapons would stand up to the strict scrutiny required by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to restrict the practice of religion.

In any case, I support any practice that sets up such a perfect law school hypothetical.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008<

The $300M Car Battery

I agree with David Axelrod that McCain's idea for a $300M prize to the developer of a superior car battery is not completely dumb. It's good to see Republicans thinking creatively about energy policy.

That being said, it's still dumb.

Of all the things McCain could have chosen to reward, it was strange to single out a car battery. Prizes make sense when a promising technology might slip through the cracks because there are no parties doing research on it. But in this case, clearly the auto makers have been working and will continue to work on improving hybrid technology. So, are we really going to give $300M to GM if they come up with a better battery?

More generally, prizes make sense when research on a technology can't get funding because the ultimate reward to successful development of the technology is uncertain. For example, better ways to capture and/or neutralize carbon would be a huge benefit to the world, but not easy to monetize. A prize for carbon sequestration would guarantee a reward for that technology. But with car batteries, there is no doubt that there would be a huge upside because every car purchaser wants better gas mileage. The problem in developing a better car battery is not lack of reward.

If McCain was serious about trying to develop better battery technology, it would make more sense to take that $300M and invest it in R&D in related technologies that are not easily commercialized but which are important building blocks for further research. This is where government can really make a difference with some well targeted funding (as it has done with NIH and all the prescription drugs that were built on the back of basic government research).

Of course, actually spending $300M on R&D now is different than proposing a $300M prize (since that money will probably not be spent for years if ever). That's why I still file this proposal in the cheap political gimmick file (no political risk, questionable benefit to society).

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008<

Hypocrisy on Al Franken

Remember in 2003 when Arnold Schwarzenegger was trying to replace Gray Davis as Governor of California, and Republicans were all up in arms about having an entertainer with such a vulgar body of work running for office (not to mention his famous interview in Oui magazine talking about the orgies and drug use he used to participate in).

Oh right, there was no outrage because he was a Republican, and everyone realized that he was an entertainer in his prior career, not a politician.

But apparently Al Franken's career as an entertainer is now reflective of his potential as a politician. And the alleged "vulgarity and viciousness" of his humor makes him inappropriate to serve in the U.S. Senate (even though his humor was good enough for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan on Franken's seven USO tours).

And the worst part is the way his jokes are misinterpreted - take this one quoted in Gerson's article:
Why don't we focus on what Afghan women can do? They can cook, bear children and pray. As I recall, that was fine for our grandmothers.
Republicans are claiming that he is mocking the plight of Afghan women. But, given that he was addressing the Feminist Majority at the time, it seems pretty clear that he was mocking the Taliban and their backwards views on women.

I know Franken is an easy target because of his past in entertainment, but let's try to at least keep our senses of humor sharp enough to understand the jokes we are criticizing.


Thursday, June 12, 2008<

McCain's Anger Problem

When I see stories like this about McCain's anger issues, I can't help but think it's just a matter of time before McCain explodes in some public setting. I'm sure i'm not the only Obama supporter who is waiting anxiously for that to happen.

It's kind of like that episode of Friends where Ross sees Rachel's boyfriend (Ben Stiller) screaming at several people, but no one believes him until they see it for themselves.

read more | digg story

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Fair is Fair

In defending Fox News referring to Michelle Obama as a "baby mama," Michelle Malkin says:
I do know that it was Michelle Obama herself who referred to Barack as her “baby’s daddy” and has used the phrase “baby daddy” to describe Barack while on the stump this year.
So if the press is allowed to refer to the candidates spouses as they refer to each other, does that mean it's okay for MSNBC to call Cindy McCain a c**t?

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Polling Fallacies

It's annoying when news stories include this kind of comparison when talking about polling data:

White suburban women, who make up 10% of the electorate, prefer a Democrat to be president by 11 points, 47% to 36%, the poll shows. And if Sen. Clinton were the nominee and the election were held now, she would beat Sen. McCain among this group by 14 points, 51% to 37%. Yet Sen. Obama loses to Sen. McCain by six points, 44% to 38%, among the same group.

What bothers me is that these articles inevitably fail to discuss tradeoffs - so Obama takes a hit among suburban women vis-a-vis Clinton, but he must also be outperforming her among certain groups (probably men). This part of the story is never discussed (not just with regards to Obama, but for all candidates) because it's not news that the person who won does better in polling. It's only news when they under perform. That's fine, except without discussing where Obama outperforms Clinton, it's gives a misleading view of the true dynamics of the race and insinuates that maybe Clinton would have been a better candidate. It also creates a press narrative that this is something Obama should be particularly worried about.

A vote is a vote, so if Obama can outperform in another demographic, he doesn't necessarily have to worry about his performance among one particular group (though, I will say it's frustrating for him to leave Democratic-leaning voters on the table).

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If I were Obama's campaign manager . . .

I would have him on a plane right now for Iowa and then Mississippi to view the damage from the tornadoes and flooding, and also to hopefully offer some comfort to people in those areas. It would offer a stark contrast from the McCain/Bush response to Katrina, and show him being a leader (apparently, just by showing up to a disaster you show leadership, see Giuliani, Rudy).

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Tuesday, June 10, 2008<

Traveling on the Same Plane

Enough already from McCain about him and Barack traveling together on the same plane to these town hall debates.

First of all, are they coming from the same place before the debate and leaving for the same place after? If not, this would clearly just be a gimmick. Also, aren't each of their respective campaign planes pretty full? Who gets left off the magical unity plane? And i'll just say that as a matter of national security, it's probably not the best idea to have both major presidential candidates traveling on the same plane.

My guess is that this is a ploy by McCain to save money, and that he will have "accidentally" forgotten his wallet when someone hands the two of them the bill.

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It will probably fall on deaf ears, but Obama is 100% right on this whole Jim Johnson kerfuffle. He says:
I am not vetting my VP Search Committee for their mortgages. You’re going to have to direct – it becomes sort of a – this is a game that can be played – everybody, who is tangentially related to our campaign, I think, is going to have a whole host of relationships. I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters. I mean at some point, we just asked people to do their assignments. Jim Johnson has a very discrete task, as does Eric Holder, and that is simply to gather up information about potential vice presidential candidates. They’re performing that job well. It’s a volunteer, unpaid position. And they’re giving me information, and I will then exercise judgment in terms of who I want to select as a vice presidential candidate. So these aren’t folks who are working for me, they’re not people who I have assigned to a particular job in a future administration. And ultimately, my assumption is that this is a discrete task that they are going to be performing for me over the next two months.
I know anything related to the subprime mortgage crisis is toxic right now, but we have to draw a line in the sand somewhere and this is it. Jim Johnson has a discrete task. He is not making policy, nor in a position to influence Barack on policy. He's been asked to do a simple information gathering task (one that he has done before for other candidates). And, in the end, he is responsible to Barack.

The case would be different if Jim Johnson were an advisor to the campaign on mortgage matters, because then he might be in a position to influence policy in a way that might be favorable to himself or his friends (like say, Phil Gramm).

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Monday, June 9, 2008<

50 State Strategy

Got an e-mail from the Obama campaign just now which started with this:
Today, I am proud to announce that our presidential campaign will be the first in a generation to deploy and maintain staff in every single state.
I think this is a really smart move. While i'm sure some of the presences (Utah, Arizona) will be pretty cursory, there is great symbolic value in having staff in every state. It's also got to make McCain nervous to know that the campaign is serious about expanding the electoral map.

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The Great Compromise (and why it can't happen)

Bringing Hillary's supporters into the Barack camp is going to be no easy feat. Here's what I think should have happened in the next couple weeks, and then i'll talk about why it can't.

In closed door meetings, Barack should agree to offer Hillary the VP nomination, which she would turn down (citing her desire to lead the fight on the issues that matter to her in the Senate). In exchange for taking part in this bit of theater, Barack would promise to make Hillary his Secretary of Defense.

This arrangement would have several benefits. First, Barack's gesture of offering the role would hopefully ease the pain of Hillary's supporters at least somewhat, and make it easier for them to vote for Barack. It would be a demonstration of Barack's respect for Hillary (which for many of Hillary's supporters seem the most concerned about - though admittedly, some just want her and only her to be president). Second, by her turning down the VP slot, we could avoid all the problems that would come with a joint ticket (including the potential for haters of both candidates to oppose it, and the fact that Obama probably doesn't want her on the ticket). Finally, it would be groundbreaking to have a female Secretary of Defense - and I think Hillary would recognize the signal she would be sending to her female supporters by taking such a post.

Now for why it won't work. For this to work best, Barack and Hillary would have to keep this deal secret. If they publicly admitted that she was in line to be SecDef, it would negate the benefits of her not being on the ticket (and might inflame the right more since she would be in such an important role). So they would want to keep it quiet. But, no one would believe that Hillary would turn down the VP role without cutting some deal because she's publicly expressed interest already. This is why I really wish Hillary had held off on pursuing the VP slot - by doing so, she has closed off options for both of them.

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Sunday, June 8, 2008<

Crazy Supporters

Let's make a deal as a country. Let's agree not to judge the candidates based on the fact that they have some supporters who hold distasteful ideas. So, conservative bloggers, if you would agree to not jump on Obama for the fact that a very small number of his supporters may be anti-Semitic, I think we can get liberal bloggers to forego raining down on McCain when some of his supporters inevitably publish racist things.

Oh, it's on his official website you say so he should take it down, well then how can you turn around and give him a hard time for doing just that.

And as a Jewish individual (and I don't pull the "as a Jewish individual" card lightly), I would appeal to the Jewish community to stop assuming the worst about Obama. He's gone out of his way to reassure Jews that he is sufficiently supportive of Israel and doesn't harbor any of the anti-semitic idea of a guy like Louis Farrahan.

And it doesn't make us look good as a community. We are smart enough to know the differences between different types of brown people (African is not the same as Arab . . . and on a related note, Muslim is not the same as Arab).

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Thursday, June 5, 2008<

What Barack Obama Underestimates

Mark Halperin just posted 15 things that John McCain underestimates. I presume that he is going to do the same for Obama soon, so i'm going to beat him to the punch (and we'll see how close I get to his list):

1) The ferocity of the Republican attack machine - while McCain officially wants to keep the campaign clean, there are plenty of 527s and other surrogates who won't be afraid to hit Obama hard (and dirty)

2) The extent to which patriotism can be used as a bludgeon, no matter how much Obama wishes otherwise

3) The ability for some Americans to hold conflicting thoughts in their head, specifically that Obama is a Muslim and that he's got a crazy minister

4) The dislike of the American public for having their government controlled entirely by one party

5) The resentment of Hillary supporters over the primary - for most it will go away, for some it won't heal by November

6) The need to fight the pompous/arrogant/elitist label before it becomes the campaign narrative

7) The limits of speaking the unvarnished truth to the American public - Americans only like so much bad news and calls for sacrifice

8) The fear of change - some people think that as bad as things are now they can always get worse

9) The transition in the style of the campaign - Barack won't have a primary night every week or so in which he can give a big, nationally televised speech - he's going to have to create occasions to give speeches and make the most of them when he does

10) The ability of Republicans to raise money - Barack will have the money advantage, but not by as much as people think

11) The strength of McCain's personal story - he's a war hero without the Kerry post-war complications

12) The difficulty of the electoral map - he's going to have to win in places where Democrats haven't won in a while

13) The difficulty of linking McCain to Bush - despite simiarities in policy, people do see McCain as representing a different direction

14) The potential for Republicans to use referendums on divisive cultural issues to drive turnout (e.g., gay marriage in CA)

15) Changes in the economy - gas prices will likely start to come down by the fall as gas stations switch back from summer to winter blends and demand drops, this will feel to some voters as though things are getting better under the incumbent party

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Obama as Role Model

There were several articles yesterday and today about the impact of Obama's nomination on black communities. I thought this was one of the most striking anecdotes (told by Obama):

“Probably the most powerful story I heard was today at a conference, a woman came up to me,” he said in an interview on NBC News. “She said her son teaches in an inner-city school in San Francisco and said that he has seen a change in behavior among the young African-American boys there in terms of how they think about their studies."
Who could have guessed that having a positive black role model would inspire young black men?

I think what stories like this highlight is the overreliance on the dichotomy between de jure and de facto discrimination. America has patted itself on the back for eliminating de jure discrimination, but many people think that is as far as we should go as a society. Do young black men see our country's claim that society won't hold them back because of race as credible? How can they? Sure, there is lots of lip sevice paid to equality under the law, but we have not yet seen a black president. Does it really matter if society is holding back black men and women not through laws but through other forces? The bottom line, and what black men and women will see, is that society holds back black people. Whether discrimination is legally mandated or not has no effect on the material impact of discrimination for those who experience it.

That's why a moment like Obama's nomination is so important - it shows that not only is a black man legally allowed to be President, but that he actually could be president. And that is a concrete sign of progress.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008<

"Black" v. "Black Candidate"

I checked the NY Times and Washington Post websites last night after Obama officially clinched and they both said something to the effect of "first black to lead a major party."

This struck me as a somewhat brusque way of addressing Obama's race. I would have expected something more along the lines of "first black candidate for President from a major party" or "first black nominee on a major ticket."

There is something harsh about referring to someone as a "black" rather than a "black candidate." While the substance of the statement is the same, using race as a noun rather than as a adjective makes it seem so all defining, rather than simply acting as a modifier.

Interestingly, the NY Times story online now uses the "black candidate" construction.

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