Monday, October 28, 2013

Some pre-re-election thoughts re Chris Christie

I'll be voting for Chris Christie on Nov. 5, partly despite and partly because of my anger at much of the rest of his (and my) party at present. As governor, he's demonstrated a willingness to grapple with fiscal problems and entrenched public-sector unions. He doesn't kowtow to interest groups, including, importantly, the organized right wing, which he has offended through such means as not toeing a denialist line on climate change, and giving a warm greeting (but no hug, he says!) to Barack Obama.

His re-election as governor is, for all intents, a foregone conclusion. His possible entry into the 2016 presidential race has been much speculated upon, and is, I think, likely. Politicians don't work this hard at cultivating a national image unless they have some interest in capitalizing on it. For a while, Christie's bluntness helped win him support of many conservatives; they liked his style even if they did not see eye to eye with him on some policies. More recently, he's fallen out of favor with the right, even as the right has (rightly) fallen in popularity.

New Jersey is underrated in many ways, but it can be a rather rude place. The state's roads, for instance, have an unfortunately high proportion of aggressive, rude schmucks (let's call them what they are). For people in much of the country, New Jersey rudeness can be very off-putting, and surely the sharp edges Christie sometimes displays have some downsides for a national contest--but also some upsides. Even voters in gentler climes might be reassured to see a politician who tells people off who need telling off, and Christie in any case has demonstrated an emotional versatility that can surprise his opponents. His self-description as a "fighter, not a bully" seems to have hit a resonant chord with New Jersey voters.

A big question for 2016 is whether Christie, or any politician not of the hard right, can win the Republican nomination. I think the answer is yes, in that the Republican field is likely to be crowded at starboard with figures including Ted Cruz and Rand Paul, plausibly leaving a center-right type with enough space to carve out a substantial plurality of primary voters. Then it would be on to the general election, against a Democratic opponent who, whether of left or center-left, will be carrying some of the baggage of the Obama years. It's noteworthy how the recent gross GOP irresponsibility regarding the shutdown and debt ceiling has already started fading amid the glare of the Obamacare web fiasco.

I'd be attracted to a Christie 2016 campaign, though there are other possible candidates I'd look on favorably as well (e.g., Condoleezza Rice, Mitch Daniels, Jon Huntsman) in the event that there does end up being more than one hopeful in that center-right space mentioned above. In the event, though, that the nomination does go to some RINO-hunting denizen of the fever swamps, my guess (despite some scenarios to the contrary) is that the Democratic landslide would be of historic and lasting impact.

UPDATE 10/29 6:40 PM: A perceptive post by Seth Mandel at Commentary: "Why 2016 Talk Hasn't Hurt Christie's 2013." Also see this interesting Obamacare/Christie-related speculation by Tyler Cowen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Ted Cruz's Spanish

David Frum has a post on "How Ted Cruz Can Win in 2016." It seems to be open to interpretation as to whether David thinks that would be a good thing, as readers' responses vary widely on that point. I suspect it was intended as a cautionary tale. But what particularly caught my eye was a commentor asking how Cruz learns Spanish between then and now. A quick Internet surf reveals that Cruz's 2012 opponent David Dewhurst pressed for a debate in Spanish, and that Cruz has described his own Spanish as "lousy." I have sometimes used the same word to describe my own Spanish, which is at a level where I can have a conversation with a patient person, but not win any debates (though I might get in a good zinger once in a while). Does Cruz's lack of full fluency hurt his presidential prospects--or possibly help him with some voters? And might he be taking some lessons even as we speak?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Who owns the Fed?

Cullen Roche's blog Pragmatic Capitalism has an interesting and worthwhile post on "Who Owns the Federal Reserve?" It can be taken as a debunking of the notion that the Fed is privately owned, though Roche's description of the system as a "public-private hybrid" still seems to me to overstate the "private" aspect. The private ownership of the Fed's regional banks is nominal--it involves private-sector banks being required to buy shares that are not tradable; and the system's profits being (mostly) remitted to the Treasury--and the Fed's Board of Governors is a government agency by any standard. Still, Roche does a decent job of veering the conversation into reality and away from Brad Thor's Hidden Order: A Thriller, which I fact checked here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Noticing misleading graphs

I recently attended Edward Tufte's one-day course "Presenting Data and Information." I recommend it for anyone with a strong interest in producing or consuming complex, information-rich graphics, articles or other presentations. (If the $380 cost is an obstacle, one could also consider just purchasing some or all of the four books that come with the course; Tufte's excellent presentation drew heavily on the books.) For me, I believe the course will be helpful in various activities, including my magazine job, this blog and the book I am working on. In any case, the course has definitely sharpened my eye for noticing when info is being presented in a misleading, uninteresting or otherwise bad way. Here via Quartz is an example of a not-very-informative chart, produced by no less an entity than Apple. Quartz's analysis is here.

Me: For resting on one's laurels, and obscuring one's lack of recent progress, a focus on a cumulative number will work for a while. (Of course, if things are really bad, that will become noticeable as the curve approaches flatness.)

By the way, one thing I didn't particularly expect was Tufte's enthusiasm for the work of Richard Feynman, especially his famous Feynman diagrams. But in looking into that further, I find that I worked on a Michael Shermer column at Scientific American years ago (either fact checking it or copy editing it--can't remember) that involved Tufte, Feynman and the latter's diagram-illustrated van. As a further aside, I'm pleased to see that this TV movie is coming out: "The Challenger Disaster" (originally "Feynman and the Challenger").

Monday, October 21, 2013

Flora and fauna of the firmament—Part 3

A hypothetical look at the life-forms that we might find on recently discovered exoplanets.

Kepler 62 e, an Earth-like exoplanet’s population boasts (almost) no sinners
Upon discovering this Earth-size world, astronomers happened on it just as its dominant life-form was ascending off the surface and dematerializing. They hypothesized that the inhabitants of Kepler 62 e were experiencing their version of Rapture. Close examination after the event showed only one individual left behind, establishing an astounding planet-wide righteous-to-sinner ratio of 99.99999 to 0.000001. The world now is now going through a cataclysmic breakup, although with the population on a higher plane, its preordained period of tribulation, Armageddon and Apocalypse is proving to be somewhat anticlimactic, and a bit of overkill, considering that world’s deity is wreaking all that fire and brimstone on one confused—and terrified—lapsed soul, whose only apparent mortal sin was failing to create a Facebook page.
Flora and Fauna of the Firmament is a satirical collaboration featuring illustrations by Ken Silber and captions by Michael Battaglia. Cross-posted at Quicksilber and Beige Matter.

Parts 1 and 2.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Sciam problem reaches critical mass

I recently wrote a post called "Trial by Blog Post," in which I denounced what I thought (and still think) to be irresponsible handling of an accusation of sexual misconduct. Now, there is a different set of accusations against a different person (albeit again a person with a connection to my former part-time employer Scientific American): Bora Zivkovic, editor of Sciam's blog network. I never met him though I did exchange a couple of emails with him in my capacity as copy editor/fact checker. These accusations--again, set of accusations--are different from what I discussed earlier in that they come from women who have given their names and details of what happened. They also give the lie to Zivkovic's initial response (after the first accusation of sexual harassment) that it was true but a "singular, regrettable" episode unlike anything he'd done before or since. There should at this point be a strong presumption that he is not fit for the position he has held at Sciam.

UPDATE 4:11 PM: The announcement of his resignation.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

On voting against the GOP

I voted for Cory Booker this morning. Until recently, I was an undecided voter in that election, and even after deciding to vote against Steve Lonegan, I wrote that I was voting for Booker "with no particular enthusiasm." But my enthusiasm actually increased since then, as I saw (a) that the conservative DailyCaller was running ludicrous pieces supposedly debunking Booker's residency in Newark and his rescuing of a woman from a fire; and (b) that the House GOP madness continues.

As I've mentioned, my congressman Scott Garrett is one of the farthest-right members of Congress and one of the worst perpetrators of debt ceiling nihilism. Here again is a scene that still encapsulates what the conservatives in Congress have wrought.

So it goes without saying I'll be voting against Garrett next year, and more comprehensively I am on the same page as Rod Dreher in this statement in his piece "The Strangelove Republicans" at The American Conservative:
I cannot believe I’m saying this, but I hope the House flips to the Democrats in 2014, so we can be rid of these nuts. Let Ted Cruz sit in the Senate stewing in his precious bodily fluids, and let Washington get back to the business of governing.
Me: The Strangelove analogy is apt. Here's a scene that demonstrates the various strands of thought that interwove into GOP debt ceiling strategy.

Me: I'm a fairly conservative guy. I admire Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, Alexander Hamilton and Prince Namor of Atlantis. And I've been a registered Republican for three decades. And as far as I'm concerned, this is what things have come to: The Republican Party deserves to be drubbed in congressional elections next year. Whether it's worth voting for in 2016 will depend largely on who it nominates for president and whether that's someone who can and will stand up to the party's conservative wing run amok. Next month I'll be voting for one Republican who plausibly fits the bill. But there's a long, hard road to rehabilitating the GOP from what it has done lately. And we very well may not yet have seen the worst of the current conservative disaster.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Ninth Gate of conservatism [updated]

This clip from The Ninth Gate pretty well sums up recent events within the Republican Party. Think of Frank Langella as Tea Party/conservative hardliners and Johnny Depp as relative moderates.

Also, here's an update from my congressional district, about which I wrote here.

UPDATE 10/14 9:30 AM: I'm beginning to think I may have understated the case with my analogy between current-day GOP and this film clip. At least, Frank Langella, once he's on fire, seems to realize his strategy was suboptimal.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The conservative bubble revisited

I wrote a piece early this year called "Who's Kidding Whom?" (appearing online as "Who's Kidding Whom on Bubbles?"), in which I discussed bubbles, both in the market sense (price bubbles) and in the information sense (living in a bubble). I argued, or acknowledged, that conservatives had been operating in the latter type of bubble, filtering out undesired information and believing dubious ideas transmitted mainly among themselves. I also argued that conservatives were not alone in living in such a bubble, in that Occupy Wall Street had its own insularity and that Wall Street itself also had such tendencies (including the financial advisors who were my targeted readership).

Subsequently, I expressed some optimism that conservatives were emerging from their bubble, rethinking their assumptions and perceptions, such as when I noted that even so staunch a conservative as Victor Davis Hanson was advising his readers to "beware the cocoon."

Well, I was wrong on the latter point. Such a reemergence may occur someday, but right now the trend is in the other direction. Conservatives are doubling down, embracing their worst and dumbest ideas with an unprecedented fervor. There will be a reckoning, for them and for the country.

The idea that the government can not raise the debt ceiling and then just reprioritize its payments so it doesn't default on debt or damage its financial standing is so wrong, so horribly misinformed, that it can only be a product of the most egregious self-delusion. The federal government sends out many millions of payments a day. Even if it could competently get its interest payments out while allowing other bills to wait, this would cause economic and legal chaos. Even the possibility that there could be a failure to raise the debt ceiling is rattling financial markets as we speak.

I can only look with appalled amazement at my congressman, Scott Garrett, whose stance in the current standoff over the shutdown and debt ceiling doesn't even make sense on its own terms. He recently--within a day--announced first that he'd vote against a debt ceiling deal unless it included a defunding or delay of Obamacare--and then that what he really required was entitlement reform, evidently bringing Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security into the mix. He will fight to the end for ... whatever pops into his head. The affluent Wall Street types who live around me in Garrett's district, among many others, will not be amused by the consequences of that bitter-endism.

The conservative bubble is thicker than I thought, and its bursting is going to be nastier than I expected.

Book note: Beyond the Pale

Review copy received: Beyond the Pale: The Story of Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., by Ken Grossman, founder of the company. I've long been an enthusiast and aficionado of entrepreneurship, which is one reason I've long been a Republican. (For my current, growing revulsion at my party, see recent posts including this and this.) And I've long been interested in beer (with my usual moderation). To me, one of the most interesting parts of the Gillespie-Welch book The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (which by the way at present it cannot, I believe, referring to the subtitle), and which I reviewed here, was its chapter on how craft brewing went from underground activity to thriving industry. In any case, I suspect the Grossman book has some interesting material. As a side note, searching for it at Amazon Associates also yielded Beyond the Pale: The Jewish Encounter with Late Imperial Russia (Studies on the History of Society and Culture).

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Snapshot of the Republican disaster

An excellent and succinct piece by Josh Barro who is (I believe) my fellow Republican (though for how much longer in his case or mine who can tell?): "Republicans Do Crazy Things Because They Have Crazy Beliefs." Excerpt:
The changes from Obamacare, good and bad, are marginal. It will not fundamentally change America. 
For about 30 million people, Obamacare will mean the difference between having health insurance and not having it. Other people will get higher quality insurance. And there will also be negative effects: rich people will pay higher taxes; fees on insurance premiums will modestly raise the cost of health insurance for some; businesses that don't provide health insurance will pay penalties; fewer full-time jobs for low-skill workers may be created; some people will end up having to change doctors. 
Nobody would say "I'm concerned that the employer mandate will have a moderate negative effect on low-skill employment, so we should bring the U.S. government to the brink of default to stop it." Or "Obamacare fees will add 2.8% to group insurance premiums, and stopping that rise is more important than paying our debts." Those statements are crazy.
Me: The above comes apropos the absurd statement from Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga.) that "This law [Obamacare] is going to destroy America, and everything in America, and we need to stop it." This is the same guy who offered the insight that "All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell." Meanwhile, my congressman, Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ) is avowing that he won't vote for a debt ceiling deal unless it delays or defunds Obamacare. And it's becoming conventional wisdom in the party that not raising the debt ceiling would not mean default because the Treasury can just pay interest and not other stuff, which is false and would still be folly even if it were true. And the supposedly reasonable people in the party don't have the guts to stand up against this nonsense.

It's a disgraceful time for the Republican Party. Will the emerging anti-Tea Party backlash be enough to salvage anything of value from this decaying, more than century-and-a-half old institution? The next few weeks may tell.

UPDATE 11:18 AM: Recommended: "Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Political Parties," by David Frum.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Anti-Tea Party [updated]

Recommended reading: "Some tea party congressmen find signs of political backlash at home." That I consider good news. May some center-right Republican challenge my congressman Scott Garrett, one of the farthest-right members of Congress, who retains his seat because of the gerrymandering that combines wealthier parts of Bergen County with more rural areas in northwest New Jersey (Lou Dobbs country, one might say), thus creating a conservative 5th district while leaving nearby areas of Jersey dominated by liberal Democrats. We need competitive elections, both between parties and within parties. It so happens one longtime Republican has already expressed an interest in challenging Garrett.

UPDATE 3:40 PM: Also see E.J. Dionne's "Shutdown: the tea party's last stand" and Jennifer Rubin's "Republicans are fighting back against the tea party." Soon, I'm thinking, I'll be able to go into hipster mode and brag that I was anti-Tea Party before that was cool. For an alternative view, see Tim Carney's  "Tea Party loosens K Street's stranglehold on the GOP." To which I say: (1) Whatever such benefit the Tea Party brought has long since been outweighed by its obstinacy and inanity; and (2) Actually, the Tea Party reinforced some bad manifestations of GOP-industry coziness, such as climate science denialism.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Contours of 2016

Here's an interesting poll: Hillary Clinton handily beating Christie, Paul and (especially) Cruz.

Here's how some possible Republican primary hopefuls stacked up.

While there was a clear front-runner among possible Democratic contenders.

To me, there's a sliver of good news for the GOP in these figures. It's that "Unsure/No Answer" is at the front of the pack in the party's prospective primaries. Time to think out of the box. I can think of a couple of academics who might be ready for a change of scenery in a few years.

Off a cliff

Recommended reading: "Republican eyes wide shut," by John Podhoretz. It's gratifying to me to see Podhoretz, Rubin and other vilified neocons emerge as voices of reason within the GOP. Meanwhile, Reason with a capital R is running things like this combo of sophistry and nihilism.

UPDATE 2:07 PM: "House GOP Considers Merging Shutdown and Debt Limit Fights." Pura locura.

How I decided not to vote for Steve Lonegan

I wrote recently about being unsure whom I would vote for in the New Jersey Senate race. There was a time when my vote for the Republican could've been taken for granted. Long ago, as a New Yorker, I voted for some of the mediocrities the GOP put up against Sen. Moynihan, even though I liked him, on the grounds that I wanted more presence for Republicans in the Senate. That reflexive desire to see victories for the Republican Party (which I've now been a member of for 30 years) has dissipated. Interested readers can find a couple of broad snapshots of my political evolution here and here.

The polls' recent tightening shows Steve Lonegan a "mere" 12 or 13 points behind Cory Booker. In all likelihood, he is going to lose, and I doubt the current showdown in Congress is going to help Lonegan, who praises the GOP legislators for "having the guts to hold the line" -- and, after all, why wouldn't they, given that their paychecks continue and many of them represent safe, gerrymandered districts? I share the widespread disagreement with using a government shutdown (and worse, a possible debt default) as a mechanism for stopping Obamacare, which by the way I consider to be a bad piece of legislation that should over time be replaced with better health care reform ideas (which the GOP has been slow to produce).

So, my dislike for what's now going on in Washington lessens my willingness to vote for a "hold the line" conservative. So does the appearance just now in my county of one Rick Perry, campaigning for Lonegan by calling Obamacare a "criminal act" and a "felony." (Why not "treason" too?) I might have voted for Lonegan, despite generally disagreeing with him on social issues, if I saw in him even a hint of the open-mindedness and policy innovation the Republican Party needs now. It needs people who would be willing to consider such policies as a carbon tax (coupled with other tax reform), market monetarism, and substantial long-term investments in science and infrastructure.

The Democratic Party is not a vehicle for such things because it's too busy generating subsidies and regulations that calcify the economy. But the Republican Party is worse--at present--because it's dominated by a misguided and destructive knee-jerk Tea Party conservatism, and sending Lonegan to Washington would be a message to continue in that vein. So, with no particular enthusiasm, I'll vote for Cory Booker.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Marriage benefits

Interesting piece by Virginia Postrel, including this: "Marriage is increasingly the big sociological divide in American life. Getting and staying married makes you part of a privileged elite."

Quick shutdown note

Regarding the government shutdown: I'm against it, and broadly agree with Jennifer Rubin on it.