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

Wednesday, November 30, 2011


John Lennon is famous for the quote: “What if they gave a war and no one came.” In Iran, entities unknown have modified that sentiment in a far more pragmatic way: What if you fought a war, but no one could see you.”

For the past month, two significant explosions have rocked Iran’s nuclear and missile facilities. As is the penchant of many Islamist regimes, Iran tried to explain the explosions by lying through their teeth. First, Iranian spokesmen claimed that the explosions didn’t happen, backing off that lie when satellite photography provided indisputable evidence of the wreckage. They then claimed they were conducting a training exercise—odd, given that if that were the case, they caused tens of millions of dollars of damage to their own facilities. Then, they suggested that it was all an accident—an interesting coincidence to say the least.

Sheera Frenkel comments on all of this in The Australian.
On Monday, Isfahan [a city in Iran] residents reported a blast that shook tower blocks in the city at about 2.40pm and seeing a cloud of smoke rising over the nuclear facility on the edge of the city.

"This caused damage to the facilities in Isfahan, particularly to the elements we believe were involved in storage of raw materials," said one [Israeli] military intelligence source.

He would not confirm or deny Israel's involvement in the blast, instead saying that there were "many different parties looking to sabotage, stop or coerce Iran into stopping its nuclear weapons program".

Iran went into frantic denial yesterday as news of the explosion at Isfahan emerged. Alireza Zaker-Isfahani, the city's governor, claimed that the blast had been caused by a military exercise in the area but state-owned agencies in Tehran soon removed this story and issued a government denial that any explosion had taken place at all.

On Monday, Dan Meridor. the Israeli Intelligence Minister, said: "There are countries who impose economic sanctions and there are countries who act in other ways in dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat."

My money is on the latter group of countries.

Like the devastating damage done by the now-infamous STUXNET computer virus, the two explosions this month have further degraded Iran’s nuclear progress.

A shadow war has begun, and although it is fraught with dangers, it provides a counterpoint to the West’s pathetic public efforts at containment over the past three years.

War is a very deadly and very serious business, but it’s hard not to smile when thinking about the frustration of the Mullahs as they try to fight an enemy that they cannot see. Ka-boom!

Monday, November 28, 2011


The main stream media in the United States has covered the European financial crisis in only the most peripheral sense. We get an occasional story of trouble in Greece, an inkling that things are not going well in Italy and Spain, and a passing remark that problems are spilling over to France, Germany and other countries. We get almost no discussion of why these problems have occurred and why the countries in trouble are past the point where they can be easily fixed.

Sure, the MSM reports on protests and riots among the populace when EU politicians, facing the very real specter of bankruptcy, try to reign in spending, reduce entitlements, and otherwise attempt to get the deteriorating situation under control. In the main, European people who have taken to the streets are characterized a heroic protesters who are being set upon by their respective governments.

In the United States, Leftist economists (Paul Krugman comes to mind) step through the looking glass and try to convince their readers that the problems in Europe have little to do with 60 years of big government policies. They argues that it can’t be socialist policies that are bringing down Greece and Italy, it must be something else—the Euro? right wing extremists? trade imbalances? —anything but over-spending, over-borrowing, and over-taxing (albeit that because of over-taxing, many Europeans have made non-compliance with income taxes an art form).

And now, Krugman’s kindred spirits within the Obama administration remain eerily quiet as the IMF moves to loan still more money to shore up Italy and Spain and the Euro. Robert Winnet reports:
Reports in Italy suggested that the IMF is drawing up plans for a €600 billion (£517 billion) assistance package for the country. Spain may be offered access to IMF credit, rather than a rescue package, to avoid it being “picked off” by the markets in the coming weeks…

An IMF rescue package involves a country being offered hundreds of billions of euros in return for agreeing to launch a major austerity programme to cut spending. A credit line is a more flexible arrangement which gives countries short term access to international finance.

Italy and Spain are likely to be forced to accept some international help as the cost of their debts has risen to unsustainable levels of about seven per cent.

The United States share of this loan is about $140 billion of taxpayer money.

If there was real hope that serious spending cuts and reduced borrowing would occur in Italy and Spain, I’d be in favor of the loans, even though the U.S. is in dire financial straits itself. After all, both Italy and Spain are allies, and helping one another is the right thing to do.

But our participation in the IMF program is more like loaning big money to an inveterate gambler as he enters a casino. Sure, he’s promised to reform himself, to use the money to pay-off his gambling debts with a promise of paying back the loan sometime soon, but …

The irony in all of this is that we’re heading in the same direction as Greece, Italy and Spain. Our fiscal path is unsustainable and all the wishful thinking about taxing the rich and redistributing wealth won’t change that a bit. When we reach the economic point of no return, who will be there to help us?

Friday, November 25, 2011


The Washington Post is generally no enemy of the President. It is surprising, therefore, that the WaPo Editorial Board is beginning to question the President’s soft power diplomacy with respect to Iran. In an Editorial Board Opinion, they write:
THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION pledged that Iran would suffer painful consequences for plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington and for refusing to freeze its nuclear program. Key European allies and Congress — not to mention Israel — are ready for decisive action. But on Monday the administration unveiled another series of half-steps. Sanctions were toughened on Iran’s oil industry, but there was no move to block its exports. The Iranian banking system was designated “a primary money laundering concern,” a step U.S. officials said could prompt banks and companies around the world to cease doing business with the country. But the administration declined to directly sanction the central bank.

The result is that President Obama is not even leading from behind on Iran; he is simply behind. At the forefront of the Western effort to pressure Tehran is French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who issued a statement Monday calling on the European Union, the United States, Japan, Canada and “other willing countries” to “immediately freeze the assets of Iran’s central bank” and suspend purchases of Iranian oil. France rejects the Obama administration’s view that these steps would cause a counterproductive spike in oil prices. In any case, higher oil prices are preferable to allowing an Iranian bomb — or having to take military action to stop it.

It’s encouraging to see that some of the President’s staunchest supporters in the media are finally beginning to recognize the vacuity of his administration’s naïve and ineffective foreign policy decisions.

Two years ago (almost to the day), I wrote:
Our pathetic attempts at controlling nuclear weapons development in Iran continue as (to quote the AP): “The United States and five other world powers … meet Friday in Brussels to discuss what measures can be taken to punish Tehran for its refusal to halt its nuclear enrichment program.”

The West has been all too happy to adopt President Obama’s “soft power” approach. As I predicted month’s ago, it has been an abject failure. Obama’s naive attempts at detente impressed his fans on the Left, but have done nothing but project an image of weakness. … harsh words don’t much impress the bad actors in Tehran, unless they’re backed up by a credible threat of force. The Mullahs know, to an absolute certainty, that force is now off the table. So words—even harsh words—mean little.

About four months earlier (July, 2009), I commented on the prevailing meme among many commentator’s on the Left who counseled “strategic patience” with respect to Iran.
According to many on the Left we should do nothing, hoping against hope that change will occur within Iran. But doing nothing will more likely allow the Iranian Islamist regime to strengthen it hold on Power and at the same time ensure that they’ll have a nuclear weapon that might completely destabilize the region. Because if we do anything, the Left argues, it will allow the Iranian Islamist regime to strengthen its hold on Power and at the same time ensure that they’ll have a nuclear weapon that might completely destabilize the region.

Two and a half years later, what happened? The Obama administration did nothing ... and Iran's regime strengthened it's hold on power, and based on recent IAEA reports, Iran is well on its way to a nuclear weapon. Hmmm, the Left's notion of strategic patience didn't work out too well, did it?

Still earlier, just five months into his Presidency (May, 2009), Barack Obama was naively trying to reason with the leaders of both North Korea and Iran by “reaching out” to each. My comments at the time:
Both NoKo and Iran make outrageous threats and then soften their rhetoric if "talks" are promised. They might even agree to a few things, with no intention of keeping their promises. They talk to buy time and that they get. Time to build nukes. Time to prepare for aggressive action. Time to fortify their defenses.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but President Obama is supposed to be a smart guy, not a dummy like Bush. You’d think he’d better understand the rules of the big game. Like it or not, he’s a player, and to date, he's certainly no Kobe Bryant.

It’s taken some time, but the WaPo editorial board has finally figured it out:
By now it should be obvious that only regime change will stop the Iranian nuclear program. That means, at a minimum, the departure of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has repeatedly blocked efforts by other Iranian leaders to talk to the West. Sanctions that stop Iran from exporting oil and importing gasoline could deal a decisive blow to his dictatorship, which already faced an Arab Spring-like popular revolt two years ago. By holding back on such measures, the Obama administration merely makes it more likely that drastic action, such as a military attack, eventually will be taken by Israel, or forced on the United States.

The WaPo editorial board is right. But what they say now was “obvious” three years ago.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


“Sustainability” is a term that is used quite freely today. In it’s simplest interpretation, it implies the ability to endure—to achieve a long-term level of existence that can be maintained across years and generations.

Many people use the term when they write or speak about the environment, ecology, population, food, living spaces, and communities. Ideally, almost everything that humans encounter in their world should be sustainable. As a concept, sustainability is reasonable enough, although a bit vague when we move from philosophical discussions to actual implementation in the real world.

In the millions of words that have been written about sustainability, those who espouse the concept rarely discuss sustainability of our current federal government. Leo Linbeck III writes:
The US is facing a tremendous challenge in the coming years, one that will test the mettle of our nation. We have allowed too much power to become concentrated in Washington DC, and that power has dangerously corrupted our system of governance. The federal government spends too much, regulates too much, borrows too much, and is on an unsustainable path. [emphasis mine] Lobbyists, politicians, bureaucrats, and the “bigs” (big corporations, big unions, and big special interest groups) love and abet this concentration of power, as it enhances their own power, prestige, influence, and net worth. The result is a self-reinforcing cycle of power to get the money, and money to protect and accumulate the power.

Most of us in the Center agree with Linbeck’s sentiment. But how does all this relate to sustainability?

In general, proponents of sustainability argue that it can be achieved by going small. For example, they distain “big” corporations, suggesting that we do business with small “locally-owned businesses.” They criticize “big” agriculture, suggesting that we “buy from local farms and cooperatives.” They lambast “big” pharma, advocating government controls on pharma profits. Yet when it comes to “big” government, they never seem to consider sustainability.

Big government in its current form is simply not sustainable. The number of dollars required to feed government’s ravenous growth cannot be raised through borrowing or taxing—at least not without ruining our economy and our children’s future. Sure, massive borrowing and heavy taxes would postpone the day of reckoning for a while, but continuing to feed big government’s current demands for more and more spending is just another way of kicking the can down the road. The road will end, and when it does, big government programs that many take for granted will come to a painful halt.

Reducing the size of the federal government is all about sustainability—and you’d think that would be something that the everyone would enthusiastically support.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


It’s really no surprise that the vaunted Congressional Budget Supercommittee failed in it’s job of finding a $1.4 trillion in budget cuts over the next 10 years. Remember, that’s 140 billion in cuts a year (on average) against a budget of 3.7 trillion in spending per year. About 4 percent in cuts.

The Democrats blame the intransigence of the Republicans, who at least proposed a concrete, albeit flawed, plan as the basis of a start in negotiations. Robert Samuelson reports:
Contrary to much press coverage, the committee's Republicans opened the door to compromise by abandoning -- as they should have -- opposition to tax increases. Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania proposed a tax "reform" that would raise income taxes by $250 billion over a decade. First, he would impose across-the-board reductions of most itemized deductions and use the resulting revenue gains to cut all tax rates. Next, he would adjust the rates for the top two brackets so that they'd be high enough to produce the $250 billion. All the tax increase would fall on people in the top brackets.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin called Toomey's proposal a "breakthrough." With good reason: It came from a "no new taxes, over my dead body" Republican who had signed Grover Norquist's pledge against any tax increases. But the details of Toomey's plan are murky, and many Democrats claim that it would cut taxes for the rich. Nor did Democrats respond with an equal concession: a willingness to deal with Social Security and Medicare.

According to many sources in the media, the Democrats on the committee seemed frozen, not able to make a substantive counter-offer and come to a negotiated agreement.

Part of the problem with the Democrats inability to make a counter-offer was the President’s now predictable absence during this process. Rather than defining his position clearly (i.e., stating specifically what structural changes in entitlements he could accept) he talking in broad generalities. As a consequence, the Democrats were leaderless and seemingly afraid to commit.

So now, we go to “sequestration cuts,” mandatory cuts in defense and other small cuts to discretionary spending. The GOP howls about cuts to defense, when in fact, they are probably justified and will do little to endanger the country. The Democrats seem relieved that they didn’t have to address entitlements, even though it’s delusional to believe that structural changes are not required. The President? He has demonstrated repeated that he’d prefer to vote present and not commit to anything unless it aids in his reelection.

The problem is that sequestration cuts do little to change our current trajectory. Veronique de Rugy writes:
… the automatic sequester cuts do very little to the overall trend in the growth of debt. Under current law, according to CBO projections, public debt will reach nearly $14.54 trillion by 2021. Under sequestration, it is projected to reach $14.38 trillion, a rather minute difference of $153 billion.

The United States was downgraded by S&P in August for failing to take the steps necessary to change our financial path. Unfortunately, sequestration cuts wouldn’t change much about our march to more and more debt.

Rather than taking fiscally responsible actions, both parties will now fight about the viability of the sequestration cuts, even though the cuts themselves are miniscule. The President will promise vetoes to protect the cuts in a laughable effort to look like a deficit hawk, hoping that we forget that he spent more money in 3 years than his predecessor spent in eight.

And in the background, we watch Greece, Italy, Spain, and other countries slide into bankruptcy for doing the things 10 years ago that we’re doing right now.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Win

The President Obama’s foreign policy has resulted in so many mistakes and missteps that it’s wonderful to note a significant foreign policy win. During the past week, President Obama has traveled through Asia, solidifying the work of Hillary Clinton and the DoS diplomats. Walter Russell Mead reports:
The cascade of statements, deployments, agreements and announcements from the United States and its regional associates in the last week has to be one of the most unpleasant shocks for China’s leadership — ever. The US is moving forces to Australia, Australia is selling uranium to India, Japan is stepping up military actions and coordinating more closely with the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea, Myanmar is slipping out of China’s column and seeking to reintegrate itself into the region, Indonesia and the Philippines are deepening military ties with the the US: and all that in just one week. If that wasn’t enough, a critical mass of the region’s countries have agreed to work out a new trade group that does not include China, while the US, to applause, has proposed that China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors be settled at a forum like the East Asia Summit — rather than in the bilateral talks with its smaller, weaker neighbors that China prefers.

Rarely has a great power been so provoked and affronted. Rarely have so many red lines been crossed. Rarely has so much face been lost, so fast. It was a surprise diplomatic attack, aimed at reversing a decade of chit chat about American decline and disinterest in Asia, aimed also at nipping the myth of “China’s inexorable rise” in the bud.

The timing turned out to be brilliant.

By reasserting itself in China’s domain of influence, the United States (and the President) delivered two messages. First, the purported weakness and lack of support for the U.S. in SE Asia is belied by the week's events. Second, that China is not quite as ascendant as some would believe. Overall, an important win.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Work Habits

USA Today reports on a national study of college students:
Full-time college students on average study 15 hours a week, but averages varied by academic majors, says the survey, released today by the National Survey of Student Engagement, based on a spring survey of 416,000 freshmen and seniors at 673 colleges and universities nationwide.

Engineering seniors studied the most, 19 hours on average, and business and social science majors studied the least, about 14 hours. A companion survey found that faculty expectations for study time by major corresponded closely to what students reported. One exception: Social science faculty expected students to spend about 18 hours a week, four more hours than students reported.

This comes as no surprise to most of us who have engineering degrees.
Thinking back, I seem to recall that I spent far more than 19 hours a week studying, solving homework problems, and doing lab work. But then again, that was a long time ago, and memory fades.

Engineering students can’t rely on rote memorization to excel. There were times when I remembered every fact in a chapter, but still did poorly on the exam. Almost every engineering student can remember the nightmare landscape of entering an exam prepared, but still being unable to “see” how to solve a particular problem.

All of the extra study (33 percent more than business or social sciences students) is about learning how to dissect a problem, learning how to understand the core elements that must be solved, learning how to select an appropriate approach that will result in a solution, learning how to craft the solution, and then, implement it without error. In essence, all of those study hours teach engineering students how to think in an organized way. The best students go beyond that and learn to create innovative and creative solutions.

Maybe that’s why many engineers have trouble with the weak problem-solving skills exhibited by our national political leadership on both sides of the aisle. If you check, you’ll find quite a few lawyers are in positions of political leadership. I suspect that if you were to take a poll, as undergraduates most those lawyers never learned how to solve problems—they never had to. Now, they’re very good at talking about problems, but not very good at solving them. Maybe they should have taken a few basic engineering course and studied just a bit more.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Crash Test

It appears that some conservative commentators and right-wing media sources look for any reason to criticize electric vehicles. The narrative follows one of a number of memes: they’re underpowered and unattractive, they’re too expensive, the public doesn’t want them, they’re nothing but government subsidized golf carts, their range is insufficient, and most recently, they’re unsafe because a few car fires have occurred.

None of these claims stand up to scrutiny and that's why it's quite odd that some conservatives have such a violent reaction to EVs. After all, if adopted in meaningful numbers, EVs will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, particularly from countries that are clearly not our friends. EVs will also reduce pollutants into the air (because EVs emit no pollutants and have no tail pipe). EVs will create American jobs and in some cases, EVs are close to 100 percent American made in American factories.

Most recently, a car fire that occurred after a violent NTSA sanctioned collision test of a Chevy Volt has the right-wing blogosphere aflutter. In reality, the car was purposely crashed into a pole, which destroyed the car and cracked the battery casing. It was towed to a wrecking lot and three weeks later, it caught fire.

According to :
After news of the fire, both Chevrolet and the NHTSA independently replicated the crash test and subsequent vehicle rotation procedure. In neither case could they reproduce the conditions under which the battery pack ignited.

Months later, the NHTSA doesn't appear to view the fire as terribly alarming. It has given the Volt a five-star safety rating, and the IIHS designated the Volt a Top Safety Pick as well.

“Based on the available data, NHTSA does not believe the Volt or other electric vehicles are at a greater risk of fire than gasoline-powered vehicles," the agency said in a statement today. "In fact, all vehicles -- both electric and gasoline-powered -- have some risk of fire in the event of a serious crash.”

It will take decades, but EVs will become a major segment of the automotive fleet. The Right’s unthinking resistance to these 21st century vehicles is antithetical to any attempt at energy independence.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


In a fascinating article on the decline of great powers, historian Niall Ferguson suggests that the decline great powers, whether it happened to Rome, the Incas, the Chinese Ming Dynasty, or the Soviet Union, happened quickly—in a matter of a decade or two. Ferguson goes on to suggest that the West surged after the 1500s “thanks to a series of institutional innovations that [he] call[s] the ‘killer applications’”:
1. Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations.

2. The Scientific Revolution. All the major 17th-century breakthroughs in mathematics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology happened in Western Europe.

3. The Rule of Law and Representative Government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.

4. Modern Medicine. Nearly all the major 19th- and 20th-century breakthroughs in health care were made by Western Europeans and North Americans.

5. The Consumer Society. The Industrial Revolution took place where there was both a supply of productivity-enhancing technologies and a demand for more, better, and cheaper goods, beginning with cotton garments.

6. The Work Ethic. Westerners were the first people in the world to combine more extensive and intensive labor with higher savings rates, permitting sustained capital accumulation.

For hundreds of years, these killer apps were essentially monopolized by Europeans and their cousins who settled in North America and Australasia. They are the best explanation for what economic historians call “the great divergence”: the astonishing gap that arose between Western standards of living and those in the rest of the world.

The West is slipping perceptibly in each of these killer apps, as a consequence, talk of decline or collapse is common.

Ferguson comments:
Is there anything we can do to prevent such disasters? Social scientist Charles Murray calls for a “civic great awakening”—a return to the original values of the American republic. He’s got a point. Far more than in Europe, most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy, from competition all the way through to the work ethic. They know the country has the right software. They just can’t understand why it’s running so damn slowly.

Unfortunately, our current leadership can’t seem to understand that “most Americans remain instinctively loyal to the killer applications of Western ascendancy” and are reflexively antagonistic to those who suggest that they no longer work. The anti-capitalist, anti-consumer memes espoused by some in power and a small minority on the streets are correctly perceived as threatening apps #1 and #5. The near-religious belief in tenuous climate change theory and related attempts to make massive changes in public policy are viewed by many as a threat to app #2. The highly partisan, grid-locked events in Washington over the past few years threaten app # 3. An attempt to implement a government takeover of medical care is correctly viewed as a threat to app # 4. A leader who assails “the rich” is perceived as a leader who, at some level at least, is criticizing app # 6.

Can we yet recover? Ferguson continues his metaphor:
What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anticompetitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our over-leveraged personal finances, and our new found unemployment ethic.

Then we need to download the updates that are running more successfully in other countries, from Finland to New Zealand, from Denmark to Hong Kong, from Singapore to Sweden.

And finally we need to reboot our whole system.

I refuse to accept that Western civilization is like some hopeless old version of Microsoft DOS, doomed to freeze, then crash. I still cling to the hope that the United States is the Mac to Europe’s PC, and that if one part of the West can successfully update and reboot itself, it’s America.

But the lesson of history is clear. Voters and politicians alike dare not postpone the big reboot. Decline is not so gradual that our biggest problems can simply be left to the next administration, or the one after that.

If what we are risking is not decline but downright collapse, then the time frame may be even tighter than one election cycle.

One can only hope that a "reboot" will be initiated in 2012.