The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Burger King

Last month, I wrote about the continuing anti-electric vehicle (EV) drumbeat from both the Left and the Right in anticipation of the release of the first commercial EVs within the coming months.

Walter Russell Mead continues the drumbeat by suggesting that (1) American auto companies can’t compete against foreign auto makers with internal combustion engines and therefore will not be able to compete in the EV arena, (2) that success in the EV arena would drive the price of oil down, making internal combustion vehicles more attractice from a cost of use point of view (i.e., the success of EVs will make them fail?), and (3) that the “apps” that will evolve as EVs prosper will not benefit us, but rather off-shore software developers.

Mead also suggests that success in EVs will result in greater emphasis on nuclear and coal-based power generation—a bad thing from his point of view and that the U.S might be better served by following this trend rather than leading it. He writes:
Counter-intuitive as it may seem, it is frequently a smart strategy to let other people pay the massive development costs for new technology while you sit back, wait, and then reverse engineer whatever they do to come up with some way around their patents. I’m told that McDonald’s used to spend a lot of time and money researching the best possible place for a new hamburger stand. Burger King had a cheaper strategy; it waited for McDonald’s to hire consultants, carry out extensive traffic surveys, compare several potential locations and finally build — and then Burger King simply built across the street. Burger King might not have gotten the absolute best spot, but they would come close — and for a lot less money.

The Burger King plan works pretty well in the real world; I have less confidence about the environmental benefits of electric cars. What if the heavy new demand for electricity means a politically irresistible demand for more coal-fired electricity plants? Greens want us to shift from coal, the cheapest and most secure fuel for electricity generation, toward more expensive sources like wind. If a significant chunk of the transportation system moves to electricity, I don’t think this will happen. If the electric car lobby wins out, coal (and nuclear) power could loom very large in our future. Electric car drivers will want cheap electricity just as much as gasoline-powered drivers want cheap gas — and when and if electric car ownership becomes widespread, the ‘cheap electricity’ lobby will be as powerful as the anti-gasoline tax lobby is today.

I couldn't resist a comment on Mead's piece. This is what I wrote:
Okay … we forget about EVs and instead stay in bed with internal combustion engines and oil. A war breaks out in the Middle East (think: Iran), the Gulf of Hormuz is closed (maybe for months or years), and the domestic cost of gasoline jumps to $5 – $6 dollars a gallon. Our economy takes a serious hit, and the only folks who win are the Arab oil producers, the Russians, and Hugo Chavez. Whether Mead likes it or not, that’s an energy ‘tax’ that can be levied by people who don’t like us very much.

No rational observer thinks the EVs are a panacea, but they are an important technology that should be encouraged over the next decade. EVs are one part of the energy puzzle and its perfectly okay to encourage their use.

Mead makes the unsupported assumption that technology is static, that new sources of energy generation will not arise over the coming decades. Solar and wind are expensive today, but its very likely that the prices of electric power generation using these technologies will drop dramatically over a 20 year span. In addition, it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a new electric power generation technology (fuel cells or fusion) may emerge in a 20 – 30 year time span.

Bottom line … the US is not Burger King! We’ve succeeded as a nation by innovating technologically, not following. It’s far past the time to encourage EV technologies.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Few would argue that the Fox News Channel (FNC) has its collection of doctrinaire, Right-leaning commentators, or that the likes of Glen Beck or Sean Hannity don’t go hyperbolic in their criticism of the President or the Democratic majority in Congress. Most of us in the Center recognize that Fox takes strong positions and that those positions are antithetical to those of President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and their supporters on the Left.

But it’s time to get real. For every Right leaning talking head on FNC, there are dozens of Left-leaning talking heads, commentators and newsreaders on MSNBC, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC who are only too willing to defend the President and trash his opposition at every turn. The problem is that progressives don’t perceive the Left-leaning bias of other cable and broadcast networks – they’re nothing more than “centrist” or “mainstream” as far as they're concerned.

The reason that many on the Left become unhinged when discussing FoxNews is that a Right-leaning cable/broadcast network is a relatively recent phenomenon. For three television generations, if you watched TV, you were subject the center-Left ideology in everything from news reporting to investigative reports.

But let’s get back to FoxNews.

President Obama said in an interview in Rolling Stone:
Obama: “[Laughs] Look, as president, I swore to uphold the Constitution, and part of that Constitution is a free press. We’ve got a tradition in this country of a press that oftentimes is opinionated. The golden age of an objective press was a pretty narrow span of time in our history. Before that, you had folks like Hearst who used their newspapers very intentionally to promote their viewpoints. I think Fox is part of that tradition – it is part of the tradition that has a very clear, undeniable point of view. It’s a point of view that I disagree with. It’s a point of view that I think is ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world. But as an economic enterprise, it’s been wildly successful. And I suspect that if you ask Mr. Murdoch what his number-one concern is, it’s that Fox is very successful.”

The President is correct. The total daily viewership of FoxNews’ is greater than all other cable news outlets (CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, HLN) combined. I can only wonder why he doesn’t ask himself how that can be if their point of view is “ultimately destructive for the long-term growth of a country that has a vibrant middle class and is competitive in the world.” In fact, a smart guy like President Obama might think critically for just a moment and further assess why his own poll numbers are plummeting while FoxNews’ rating are soaring.

David Zurawik of The Baltimore Sun comments on the President’s obsession with FoxNews:
And I guess, it is even okay if Obama wants to say he believes Fox News has a point of view and that it's "ultimately destructive" for America. That is a pretty serious charge for the president of the United States to make against a media outlet. I wonder if Obama realizes that he carries the history and the weight of the presidency behind him when he say such things -- words that seem more suited to the slash-and-burn rhetoric of a politician on the campaign trail than the president of the United States.

But, after all, Fox News is winning with the viewer-voters of America, and Obama has been losing support for his party left and right. And nothing rallies the left, which is pretty disllusioned with Obama these days, like an attack on Fox -- especially on a week of more great ratings news and the release of a study that finds Fox a winner when voters are asked what news outlets are having a positive impact on American politics.

But you don't deny Fox News or any other news organization access to pool interviews with administration officials as was done last year or have your top aides go on Sunday morning public affairs shows and tell other journalists they should cut Fox News from the journalistic herd.

I have written this before, but it bears repeating: Outside of Richard Nixon, I have never seen a president with the profound contempt for the press that Obama has.

The historic relationship between any administration and the media is adversarial. It's for that reason that no President loves the media. But today we live in an era in which the media has been the Obama administration’s biggest booster. It’s ironic, therefore, that the President is so thin-skinned that he cannot help but publicly denigrate his sole media adversary.

Friday, September 24, 2010


In a speech in front of the UN General Assembly yesterday, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad suggested that one of the plausible explanations for 9/11 was that it was planned and executed by the United States in an effort to “improve the economy” and prop up the Zionist regime (Israel). In a rare moment of clarity and candor, a member of the US delegation called Ahmadinejad’s comments “abhorrent” and “delusional.”

Within 4 - 5 minutes of those comments, I heard a talking head on CNN suggest that we couldn’t take Ahmadinejad’s comments too seriously because he was pitching them to his domestic audience. This is the continuing trope of those on the Left who cannot bring themselves to condemn unequivocally a man and a regime that denies the holocaust, advocates the stoning of women who have had an affair, hangs gay people in the public square, and advocates “wiping the Zionist entity (Israel) off the face of the earth.” So instead, they listen to Ahmadinejad’s words and then pooh-pooh them, suggesting that he really doesn’t mean it, and he’s just being provocative (tell that to a woman who is about to be stoned to death).

Richard Fernandez comments on this phenomonen:
The way this is going to be translated in some circles is, “Ahmadinejad doesn’t really mean what he says. He’s playing to a regional audience. What he is really signaling is a willingness to talk, and we must go that extra mile for peace by showing him good will.” And if he rebuffs them again, the translation is, “Ahmadinejad is playing hardball, but he really doesn’t mean what he says. We have never been so close to a genuine peace, etc.”

Maybe it is true. But how do we know? Ultimately Teheran must show some concrete tokens of goodwill. Their malice cannot always be put down to “holding out”. But if you are part of the agency tasked with building bridges, self-interest requires than every brick thrown your way be represented as a missive of love.

President Obama is a member of the “building bridges” brigade. Ironically, just a few hours before Ahmadinejad’s speech, Obama spoke to the same audience suggesting that the door remained open to diplomacy with Iran. He did later characterize Ahmadinejad’s comments as "offensive" and "hateful," but the word used earlier by a US spokesperson—“delusional”—is far more accurate.

And that goes to the heart of the President’s continuing attempts at dialog with Iran. How does one have a meaningful dialog with the President of a regime that is “delusional?” More important still, can we afford to allow such a regime to acquire nuclear weapons? Our current feckless policy is likely lead to that end-result.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

A Corollary

Among the very first things that a young engineering student learns is a fundamental principle that will guide his or her work—understand the problem first, then attempt to craft a solution. Another way of saying this is “If you don’t understand the problem, there is no hope of crafting a viable solution.”

In the world of politics and public discourse, there's a corollary to this fundamental principle—“If you refuse to recognize the problem, or if you understand it, but are hesitant to state it clearly, you have little hope of crafting a viable solution.” It seems that this corollary is applicable to decisions by both Republicans and Democrats of the past generation. I’ll explore this in a number of posts in coming months. A good place to start is with the nation's current obsession with our “failures” in education.

Over the past 40 years, the federal government has poured almost $1 trillion dollars into a variety of different attempts to improve our schools, and more recently, to improve our teachers. The sad reality is that the overall average achievement of students has not improved appreciably over the intervening four decades. Some students excel and move on to do great things, while others can’t seem to progress to a level that politicians have arbitrarily set.

The political class and the media define the problem in this way: “Our schools provide out-dated technology, poor facilities, and teachers who are less than effective. That’s why students test scores don’t improve.”

Unfortunately, this is an example of the corollary I mentioned earlier. It purposely misstates the problem, and as a consequence, calls for more comprehensive testing, attempts to blame teachers for the failings of their students, and the wasteful expenditure of taxpayer money (think: half a billion dollars spent on one LA school complex).

Just this morning, NBC’s Today Show did an “expose” on the state of education in the U.S. In breathless tones, the reporter asked how we as a country could stay competitive with India and China when our education system is “failing.” She noted that Bill Gates (CEO, Microsoft) and Mark Zuckerberg (CEO, Facebook) were donating hundreds of millions to improve our schools. Typically, she failed to see the irony in the fact that our “failing” education system had produced the likes of Gates and Zuckerberg as well a millions of other accomplished scientists, engineers, artists, composers, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs of every type and kind. She failed to see that the USA leads the world in start-up companies. How can that be?

The Today Show report is typical of hundreds that follow the “failed education system” narrative. They all exemplify the corollary by refusing to recognize the real problem, or if the real problem is understood, bowing at the alter of political correctness and refusing to state the problem clearly.

And what is the problem? Like almost everything in real-world, it’s multifaceted, but at its foundation we have far too many families that do not emphasize the importance of education, far too many parents who are either too lazy or too ill-informed to encourage their children to learn, too many children who have never seen a book (physical or electronic) in their homes, far too many communities that are all too willing to play the victim, but never seem willing to do the hard work to reform themselves. Sure, schools deserve improved resources, and teaching techniques can always be improved, but those are secondary issues.

The real problem has to do with family and culture. Sadly, big government is not the solution, so it purposely misstates the problem to look like it's doing something important. All the while, it denigrates teachers and suggests that rewards based on “testing” is the solution.

Judging the effectiveness of a school or an education system based on test scores is like judging the “livability” of a city based on the number of miles of streets. Educational effectiveness, like livability, is measured by dozens of parameters, but if you’re unwilling to state them, much less measure them, your results will be meaningless.

Until politicians are willing to state the problem and encourage community-based solutions to it (including different paths for different students), all the money, all the testing, and all hand-wringing in the world won’t improve the lot of those who are being left behind.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Going Ghost

Unless you’ve been paying close attention, you’ve probably missed the story of Molly Norris. The mainstream media has covered the story, but as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Surprising, given that it involves first amendment freedoms and direct threats to freedom of the press. USA Today reports:
At the urging of the FBI, the Seattle cartoonist behind "Everybody Draw Mohammed Day" is "going ghost" — leaving town, changing her name, creating a new identity because of the death threat issued in July by an Islamic cleric linked to the failed Times Square bombing, the Seattle Weekly says of its former contributor.

The Cartoonist Formerly Known As Molly Norris gained notoriety in April with a comic response to Comedy Central's censoring of a South Park episode after its creators received a death threat from Brooklyn-based radical Muslims offended by satirical representations of Mohammed. Islam forbids any representation of the prophet, which is considered blasphemous.

It’s astonishing that Mollie’s story has been covered so unenthusiastically the MSM. Yes, they did report the facts, but where is the commentary? Where are the editorials that condemn the Islamists who threaten death for drawing a cartoon? Where is the level of outrage that was ubiquitous when an obscure preacher threatened to burn the Quran?

When the Washington Examiner went to leading journalism associations for comment, this is what they got:
The Examiner asked the American Society of News Editors for a statement on the issue, none was forthcoming. This despite the fact that the first sentence of ASNE's Web site describes its mission as supporting "the First Amendment at home and free speech around the world." We got a similar response from the Society of Professional Journalists, despite its dedication "to the perpetuation of the free press as the cornerstone of our nation and liberty."

Curious … until you think about the narrative that has been adopted throughout the Left-leaning MSM—Islam is to be characterized as “the religion of peace.” When events occur that might cause readers to question that characterization or to realize that some very violent, anti-Western people have hijacked the religion, those events are to be ignored, or if that’s not possible, the story is to be deemphasized.

But the Mollie Norris story has other curious aspects. The last time I checked, the FBI worked under the auspices of the Department of Justice—a federal agency controlled by the Obama administration. Why did the FBI suggest going ghost, as opposed to a more aggressive stance that might place armed officers of the law to protect Mollie Norris, allowing her to continue her work as a cartoonist? After all, this has been done many times in the past, why not now?

And why has the President not commented on this case? He inserted himself into the debate on the mosque near ground zero, claiming (incorrectly in my view) that it was all about freedom of religion—a constitutional matter. In the case of Molly Norris, there is no doubt whatsoever that it’s about freedom of the press (a constitutional matter) and yet, the President remains silent. Why is that?

We should all be ashamed that the federal government allows an Islamist thug to radically alter the life of an American cartoonist. The journalistic world should be doubly ashamed that they’ve decided to whimper in the face of direct threats against their most basic of freedoms. Pathetic.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tipping Point

In a full page ad that appeared in a number of major newspapers this morning, the Cato Institute , a right-leaning libertarian think tank, laments the federal government’s headlong dash toward insolvency. The ad begins by castigating the Obama administration for its big government philosophy and lack of concern for deficit reduction:
Our looming debt crisis threatens to destroy the American dream for future generations. Yet your administration continues piling up deficits of over a trillion dollars a year. By 2012 our national debt will be larger than the entire U.S. economy. Isn't it past time you identified the programs you'd cut?

But Cato recognizes that the problem hardly started with President Obama:
In all fairness, both parties got us into this mess. "Deficits don't matter," Vice President Dick Cheney scoffed as the Bush administration and a Republican Congress led one of the biggest spending sprees in American history, nearly doubling federal outlays over eight years. Our bipartisan flight from responsibility is a national disgrace — and it's fast becoming a national disaster. Vague promises to eliminate "waste, fraud, and abuse" won't cut it any more. Both parties need to step up with specific and substantial cuts.

The Institute then goes on to delineate specific cuts in federal programs that include education (better left to state and local governments), defense (achieved by winding down the war in Afghanistan and then restructuring the military and its procurement system), agriculture (eliminating farm subsidies to agribusiness), transportation programs (better left to state and local governments), entitlements (profound restructuring of both social security and medicare), among many topics.

Interestingly, the Cato Institute is more in tune with general public sentiment (based on recent polling about the deficit, which a majority of respondents rate as the most important challenge facing the government) than the political elites in both parties.

The Democrat majority in the Congress, supported by its cheerleaders in the media, don’t seem to recognize that the people of our country have hit a tipping point. The profligate spending of the Obama administration and it predecessors, coupled with the arrogance of a current congressional majority that rammed through a costly new health care entitlement is what spawned “push back” exemplified by the hated tea parties.

In what can only be characterized as a panic, Democrats and Left-leaning pundits work tirelessly to demonize the loose coalition of tea party citizen’s groups. They ferret out fringe participants and extrapolate their actions to paint a citizen’s movement as extreme, dangerous, even crazy or racist. In reality, the vast majority of those who support the tea party are everyday middle class people who are fed up with big government and big spending.

But the group that Angelo Codevilla calls “the ruling” class is blind to all of this. Maybe their eyes will open wide in November, but then again, maybe not.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Bipartisan Technologies

Now that electric vehicles (e.g., Tesla and Nissan Leaf) and plug-in hybrid electrics (e.g., Chevy Volt and Fisker Karma) are going to be introduced to wider consumer market in 2011, there appears to be a reactionary backlash from many automotive blogs, select automotive magazines and some commentators on the Right. In the automotive realm, many writers pooh-pooh the performance of the vehicles, question the range of EVs and PHEVs, and suggest subtly that there is no need to move away from gasoline or diesel-powered vehicles. Commentators on the Right often argue that EVs and PHEVs are not as "green" as claimed and seem to twist themselves into a pretzel to prove that the benefits are of these new vehicles are minimal, at best.

All of the critics seem to miss one fundamental point: Using vehicles that are driven (in whole or in part) by electricity will begin a long process that will aid in achieving energy independence. It will reduce emissions and pollutants (regardless of the ridiculous arguments to the contrary) and will provide a national security advantage by reducing dependence on foreign oil and the countries that supply it.

Any yet, there seems to be a concerted effort to denigrate this new generation of vehicles before EVs and PHEVs even reach the broader market. The big question is: why?

On the automotive side, it’s probably nothing more than resistance to change. The gasoline-powered vehicle has been around a long time, and automotive writers are (apparently) having a hard time dealing with cars that are radically different. How do you write about shift points and torque curves when the car you’re looking at has no transmission and step-function torque? How do you describe the growl of a high performance engine when a 400 HP electric motor makes almost no sound?

Those on the Right seem obsessed with defeating any idea that is not associated with big oil and are only too willing to bad-mouth any alternative energy source as inefficient, ineffective, or inane. Right-leaning publications always seem to be the first to question the economics of EVs and PHEVs, suggesting that the savings they accrue cannot be cost-justified because of their higher purchase price. They conveniently forget that newly adopted technologies are always more expensive (think: LCD flat screens, smart phones, e-book readers) but come down in price rapidly as adoptions accelerate.

In reality, EVs and PHEVs are truly bi-partisan technologies. They allow those on the Left to celebrate going green while those on the Right can celebrate because the U.S. will no longer have to buy oil from people who want to kill us. It’s win-win, and that’s why those of us in the Center will be among the first in line to adopt these new technologies.

Friday, September 03, 2010


All of us watched as the housing market heated up from 2003 to 2006. People speculated, flipped houses and bragged about their obscene profits, got low cost loans that they were unqualified to pay back, and finally, the looked on in horror as the housing bubble burst. The result in 2010 is severe housing price deflation but still no buyers, and the worst real estate market in history.

Glen Reynolds writes about another “bubble” that has been expanding for the past 30-plus years and may soon burst. He writes:
It's a story of an industry that may sound familiar.

The buyers think what they're buying will appreciate in value, making them rich in the future. The product grows more and more elaborate, and more and more expensive, but the expense is offset by cheap credit provided by sellers eager to encourage buyers to buy.

Buyers see that everyone else is taking on mounds of debt, and so are more comfortable when they do so themselves; besides, for a generation, the value of what they're buying has gone up steadily. What could go wrong? Everything continues smoothly until, at some point, it doesn't.

Reynolds is talking about the “higher education bubble.” Quoting Money magazine, he notes that "After adjusting for financial aid, the amount families pay for college has skyrocketed 439 percent since 1982. ... Normal supply and demand can't begin to explain cost increases of this magnitude."

Young people often leave college with six figure debt and a degree that has increasingly less value in a contracting job market. The question is, when will consumers begin to realize this and push back? When will parents (who sometimes pay) and students (who incur the debt) begin to ask whether $30 – 40,000 yearly costs can be justified economically? When will alternative forms of skill-based education begin to become a commonly chosen option. When will a paradigm that is tied to 18th and 19th century learning approaches be replaced with something cheaper, more convenient, and better?

It’s ironic that many “elite” universities tend to deemphasize skills based learning (e.g., engineering, nursing, accounting, pharmacy) that actually add value to society and instead emphasize softer liberal arts learning that although worthwhile, adds little real value. And yet, these elite schools often cost considerably more than those who emphasize more pragmatic education. They are, in essence the designer handbags of the education establishment—hip and attractive and worn by all the “right” people, but grossly overpriced and actually little better than a broad spectrum of educational alternatives.

If the past few years has taught us anything, it’s that bubbles cannot continue to expand indefinitely. The education bubble is no exception.

Thursday, September 02, 2010


It comes as no surprise that the Left-leaning MSM gave almost no play to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments at the outset of this year’s edition of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. In comments at the White House, Netanyahu clearly stated that these talks were not intended to achieve
A brief interlude between two wars … a temporary respite between outbursts of terror. We [Israel] seek a peace that will end the conflict between us once and for all. We seek a peace that will last for generations.

But Bibi is also a realist. He further stated:
We left Lebanon, we got terror. We left Gaza, we got terror. We want to ensure that territory we concede will not be turned into a third Iranian sponsored terror enclave aimed at the heart of Israel. That is why a defensible peace requires security arrangements that can withstand the test of time and the many challenges that are sure to confront us.

Of course, these conciliatory and at the same time pragmatic words conflict with the Left’s continuing narrative that Israeli actions are the primary impediment to “peace.”

At the kickoff to the talks, President Obama stated:
"The goal is a settlement negotiated between the parties that ends the occupation, which began in 1967 and results in the emergence of an independent, democratic and viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with a Jewish state of Israel and its other neighbors.

So, let’s see if I have this straight. Israel is attacked by Arab armies in 1967. They repulse the attack and win convincingly, annexing Arab territories won in battle. They unilaterally give back the Sinai and other territories, keeping only small swaths of largely uninhabited land for security. Barack Obama calls that an “occupation?” I wonder if our president would characterize Texas as occupied Mexican territory?

President Obama further noted that both sides have taken “important steps” to build confidence. I have to wonder how that jibes with the Hamas terror attack that killed four Israeli civilians (included a pregnant woman on the eve of the talks.

It's worth noting that negotiations of this type are not new. They have been tried in 1978, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2007. In every instance Israel has been asked to make tangible concessions for peace. In every instance, Palestinian leadership has found a reason to walk away. It’s a near certainty that history will repeat itself. It’s also certain that the Left will blame Israeli intransigence.