Thursday, August 31, 2006

President Rice? Not Likely

Every time I read an investment prospectus, it touts the performance of the investment over time, but then includes the disclaimer that past performance is no indication of future performance. Well, yeah. Nobody is very good at useful predictions of the future, but we continually make decisions based on history because, taken in proper context, it can at least give us some idea of what might be coming down the road. But it’s a very subjective and unclear process. Different events have different historical value and different relationships to current events, and it’s not always clear where an event ranks on the value scale. Also, events occur from time to time that completely defy history.

With all of those disclaimers, I can say that it is likely that there will be no U.S. President Condoleeza Rice; at least not in the near future. Dr. Rice, who currently serves as Secretary of State, has gained a cult-like rock star status among certain pockets of conservatives, who promote her as a possible candidate for president. Rice regularly says that she has no ambitions to run for the office (see here).

The fact that Rice has never held an elected office is a strike against her. Per this site on presidential facts, “Five Presidents had never held any prior elected office.” They are Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and William Howard Taft. Three of these were considered war heroes, so they fit well with the profile of the warrior that is electable, having proven to be a worthy high ranking leader in a popular military campaign. Hoover and Taft both served in a variety of appointed positions, eventually serving at the cabinet level.

Hoover leveraged his Secretary of Commerce position to the point that his policies eclipsed those of the presidents under whom he served. Taft served a very public and popular term as the appointed Governor-General of the Philippines. He served as Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of War, and for a time as acting Secretary of State. Roosevelt trusted Taft so much that he was the de facto executive when Roosevelt was away. A few years after his presidency, Taft became the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and is currently the only president that also served on the court. Roosevelt was still very popular when he decided against running for a third term and more or less anointed Taft as his successor.

So, it is not unheard of for an appointee that has served at the cabinet level, but has never served in an elected position to become president. But it has only occurred under somewhat extraordinary circumstances. I could be reading the current situation completely wrong, but it does not appear that the elements are in place today to make it possible for something like this to occur in the near future.

This little foray into history also explains why it was necessary for Hillary Clinton to serve in a relatively high elected office before she could become a serious contender for the presidency. Statistically speaking, Americans are unlikely to trust that office (or even the vice presidency) to someone that has never before held a high elected office (state governor, U.S. Senator, U.S. Representative, mayor of a major city, etc.) unless they have become a war celebrity in a popular campaign.

A few years ago Colin Powell fit well into the military celebrity image, but his disloyalty to the Bush administration during his tenure as Secretary of State has probably doomed his chances with the GOP machine. If his continual under-the-covers working against the White House wasn’t enough of a poison pill, the recent revelation that he knew—but kept secret from the White House—that his right-hand man at the State Department, Richard Armitage, was the actual official responsible for leaking Valarie Plame’s identity to the press, leaving others to have their lives destroyed over the resulting mess (see here and here) has surely fatally injured his chances for any kind of GOP nomination.

Our little look at history also demonstrates why General Wesley Clark is unlikely to be elected president. War hero in a popular campaign, some of you say? Who even knew his name before he ran in 2004? Taylor, Grant, and Eisenhower were each household names throughout the country before they ran for the presidency. Clark? Most Americans can’t tell you who he is or anything about him. “General who?” they say.

And while Ross Perot got a 19% of the vote in 1992, the vast majority of Americans could not bring themselves to vote for a person that had neither held a high elected office nor a high appointed office. If Bill Gates were to jump up and decide to run today, he would likely suffer a similar fate. As much as people like to gnash their teeth about career politicians, when it comes to our highest elected office, that is what we consistently demand—somebody with experience. Our voting history speaks louder than our words in this matter.

Back to Condi. Could a popular outgoing president anoint her to be his successor? Well, unless matters change drastically over the next two years, that would be a resounding no. Of course, it is possible that Iraq could suddenly become a fantastic success, Iran could peacefully back down from its nuclear program and its ambitions to control the entire Middle East, and George Bush could become wildly popular with the vast majority of Americans. Possible, yes, but unlikely. Is it likely that Rice’s policies will become so popular with Americans that they will be happy to support her for president? Again, possible, but unlikely.

Add to all of this the fact that Dr. Rice is doing none of the heavy lifting required to build a campaign apparatus. There is no fundraising going on. No organization building. No grassroots outreach efforts. “Hey,” you say, “there’s more than two years left until the next presidential election.” Yes, but every serious candidate for 2008 is already up to her/his elbows in the serious work of building and maintaining a campaign. In today’s world, you can’t simply decide a year before the election to run for the presidency and then hope to have any chance whatsoever at the job.

This same principle devolves down to state and local politics, but the timeframe is increasingly shorter the closer to the local level you get. Except in extraordinary circumstances, sufficient lead time and organization building is required for any political race. Olene Walker discovered this when she jumped on the gubernatorial bandwagon way too late in the game two years back. The fact that she was already serving as governor did not overcome her failure to build a strong campaign apparatus.

OK, so Condi’s not running in 2008. What about 2012 or 2016? Or what about the GOP candidate selecting her as the VP candidate? I don’t know about any of that. A lot will happen between now and four or eight years down the road. Also, VP candidates are often chosen for coalition building within the party and/or broad national appeal. I’m not sure how well this works in her favor. And I’ve got to say that (as silly as this sounds) the fact that ‘Rice’ and ‘vice’ rhyme is probably a strike against her.

Dr. Rice is quite popular with a narrow section of politically active conservatives. The polls cited that show her popularity involve mostly conservative activists. Most voters aren’t even thinking about this November yet, let alone November 2008. Many likely voters probably can’t even tell you today who Dr. Rice is. So for now, don’t expect to see Condoleeza Rice as President or VP.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

About Those Income Taxes...

What is income?

Why is this question important? This is more than a simple academic matter. It dramatically impacts your life in many ways. One of those ways is how much you pay in income taxes.

Let’s take a look at the 16th Amendment to the Constitution.
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.
Tax protesters have long held that the government has no authority to levy income taxes, but this amendment that was ratified in 1913 should make it clear that this argument is false. Disclosure: I once worked for the IRS and have had a fair amount of exposure to many different facets of income taxation, including protest arguments. Of course, some laws and regulations have changed since I left the agency.

OK, so the government can tax any kind of income. But economist Bruce Bartlett points out in this National Review article that income has never been defined in federal tax law. That means that the definition of income has largely been left to the IRS. Unsurprisingly, the agency tends to maximize the definition of income, thereby, maximizing the amount of tax you pay. Since the legislators have left the definition of income to the bureaucrats, there is no legal limit to what can be included in income.

That may be changing. Bartlett cites a recent federal appeals court ruling that says that there is a constitutional limit to what can be included in income. The court ruled that legal settlements for emotional distress are not income, but only compensate the recipient for real, less tangible losses. In effect, such a settlement merely returns the recipient to her/his previous position, much as does an insurance payout for a more tangible loss.

Bartlett asserts that this ruling logically leads to other elements currently included in income that also simply return the recipient to his/her previous position. Interestingly, he mentions interest. (OK, bad pun.) Interest (or at least part of it) is merely compensation for the loss of immediate use of your money. It also helps defray the diminution of the value of your principle due to inflation during the investment period. Bartlett argues that interest is really about the same as an insurance reimbursement.
“Think of it this way. Would you be satisfied receiving your paycheck a year from now instead of on payday? Of course not. You would be suffering a real loss if you had to wait a year to get paid for your work. But if you were offered, say, 10 percent more in a year, you might be okay with this. Collectively, our willingness to put off consumption today for greater consumption in the future is what determines the pure rate of interest.”
This is an interesting thought exercise for economists, but it must be realized that this cuts both ways. My employer has become very pro-active in showing employees the value of non-monetary compensation (i.e. benefits) that it pays on behalf of the employee. Many of these items are currently excluded from income that could probably be considered taxable under a strict interpretation of the term. Of course, it should also be realized that making interest tax free would encourage saving, which is in short supply in our society.

Rather than leave this up to the courts to determine, it would be better for income to be legally defined via the normal legislative process where citizens can have input. Unless the issue becomes a crisis, however, I have little hope that anyone in Congress will become sufficiently exercised about the issue to actually formulate a proposal to fix it. Both chambers of the body are too busy mucking around with stuff that really should have nothing to do with the federal government to worry about such mundane things. A mailer stating, "I sponsored bill XXX that defined the term income," probably won't garner many votes.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

We Need Improved Communication About Iraq

A year and a week ago I griped here about the poor job President Bush was doing communicating with Americans about the war in Iraq. I cited Richard Nixon’s statement that it is the president’s “responsibility to educate the people and the Congress about where our vital interests are and then gain support for whatever military actions may be necessary to protect them.” I whined that the President was failing in this regard, and was merely trotting out the same old, increasingly unconvincing ‘stay the course’ rhetoric.

It’s no secret that the political left has strongly taken the President to task on this issue since that time, with some elements going to ultra extremes. Those that suppose that all conservative thought is well represented in radio talk shows seem to have the idea that all conservatives stand squarely behind the President regardless of the obvious problems in Iraq. However, an increasing number of conservatives are critical of the administration’s efforts in Iraq, or even in just communicating about Iraq.

Conservative political pundit John Fund decries the President in this article, which is subtitled “The president just doesn't communicate anymore.” Eminent conservative writer Mark Steyn, who regularly argues for more serious military intervention in the Middle East, has increasingly expressed dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of Iraq. For example, in this article he laments that despots that cowered before and/or paid obeisance to the U.S. back in 2001 now do as they please because they no longer consider us a serious threat.

Well known conservatives David Frum, Newt Gingrich, Michael Ledeen, and Michael Rubin (none of whom are currently elected officials) all take their shots at the administration on this issue here, mostly in the form of advice. Even conservative defense expert Frederick Kagan warns here that fresh strategies are needed, saying, “It seems very clear that we long ago passed the point at which steadfastness becomes simple stubbornness and commitment to an idea becomes refusal to adjust to reality.” (See also here. Note that, like Condoleeza Rice, Kagan started out as a Cold War and Russian expert and is retooling to employ his skills in the current conflict.)

Indeed, war historian Victor Davis Hanson says here, “What, then, is needed — aside from crushing the jihadists and securing Afghanistan and Iraq — is more articulation and explanation.” He argues, however, that the President’s communication task regarding Iraq and the Middle East borders on impossible. He contends that the difficulty of communicating the complexity of the situation in the Middle East would be difficult enough for someone with “the eloquence of a Lincoln or Churchill” to manage.

Hanson says, “the administration’s problem is not really its (sound) strategy, nor its increasingly improved implementation that we see in Baghdad, but simply an American public that so far understandably cannot easily differentiate millions of brave Iraqis and Afghans, who risk their lives daily to hunt terrorists and ensure reform, from the Islamists of the Muslim Street who broadcast their primordial hatred for Israel and the United States incessantly.” Heck, this is even difficult for people educated in this arena to understand.

I saw a glimmer of hope last week when the administration had U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad publish this op-ed piece outlining the Iraqi government’s plan to secure Baghdad. Of course, our people are the ones that are holding the fledgling government’s hand through this process, forcing them to do it and providing resources (including leadership) for its implementation. Khalilzad’s article is a noteworthy start, but the administration must do a lot more than this if it is going to get its message out to the American people.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Who Won? Redux

A couple of weeks ago I opined here that the real winner in the Israel-Hezbollah war was Hezbollah. Iranian born author Amir Taheri disagrees. He asserts here that Hezbollah was hurt far more seriously than they have been letting on.

Taheri says, “Hezbollah may have won the information war in the West. In Lebanon, the Middle East and the broader Muslim space, however, the picture is rather different.” Taheri discusses Hezbollah’s post-war tactics in Lebanon to buy endearment to its cause from the Lebanese people. It was an attempt to prove “that the death and desolation it had provoked had been worth it.”

Taheri contends that the Lebanese aren’t buying it, and neither are Muslims throughout the Middle East. He says that a burgeoning middle class in Lebanon has moved public sentiment more toward optimism and away from martyrdom over the past 30 years. Many Lebanese are quite upset about being played as pawns in Iran’s grand scheme via one man’s autocratic control of a political party with foreign-supplied weaponry.

That one man, Hassan Nasrallah, who will likely have to spend the rest of his life in hiding, now contritely admits here that his provocation of Israel was a mistake. Oh, he still pounds his chest and tries to repeat the mantras of victory, but the people he’s trying to impress aren’t buying it. Hezbollah pulled out all the stops and threw everything it could muster into the battle only to have its host country devastated, its military capabilities drastically reduced, and its credibility crushed.

Perhaps Musims in the Middle East aren’t quite as easily manipulated as conventional wisdom in the West dictates. Taheri quotes Egyptian columnist Ali al-Ibrahim, who writes, “Hezbollah won the propaganda war because many in the West wanted it to win as a means of settling score with the United States. But the Arabs have become wise enough to know TV victory from real victory.” It says something when even Egyptian journalists can see the bias in the West’s MSM.

Israel, on the other hand, is undergoing its own post-war anxiety. Although Israel crippled its enemy, Israel’s failure to quickly and decisively win the war was a de facto defeat. As the country struggles to figure out how it should deal with threats to its very existence, the political battle looking in the rearview mirror at the war is resulting in its own set of casualties. It may take some time for this process to work itself out.

So from the current vantage point it appears that there were lots of losers in the 2006 summer war: Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Israel, to be sure. Iran? Syria? That’s difficult to say at this point. Their neighbors now regard them with far more suspicion than before the war, and perhaps that is what is desired. It seems obvious that Iran at least views this little skirmish as just a data point in a larger strategy.

Wars are a messy and unfortunate business. It sometimes takes months or years to really understand the outcome of a war. It took quite a while after Corwallis’ defeat at Yorktown before anyone realized that the Revolutionary War was over. It took Britain six months to acquiesce, and British forces did not relinquish all of their holds until more than two years after the rebel victory at Yorktown. Even then the British continued to bully the fledgling United States for years. Those actions indirectly led to the adoption of the U.S. Constitution and also led directly to the War of 1812. So, one might even argue that the Revolutionary War really wasn’t complete until the conditions prescribed by the 1814 Treaty of Ghent were implemented in 1815.

Likewise, our current vantage point may be too close to provide adequate perspective on the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. But one thing seems certain: it’s much easier to see the bad in it than to extract any good from it.

What Utah's Non-SLC Residents Think of Rocky

The chief newspaper in Weber County, the Standard Examiner, has recently published a number of letters to the editor denouncing Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson as an embarrassment to our fair state. Many of these letters decry Rocky’s promotion of the anti-Bush, anti-war, anti- … um … anti-whatever-the-majority-in-this-state-believes-to-be-normal-and-good rally (sort of reminds me of P.A.G.A.N. from the 1987 Dragnet movie) that is planned to coincide with the President’s visit to SLC on August 30.

The general sentiment expressed in these letters is that Rocky’s promotion of the rally in the capacity of the mayor of Utah’s capital city is, to say the least, disrespectful of the office of President of the United States as well as disrespectful to the office of Mayor of Salt Lake City. I daresay they have a point.

But let’s look at the facts. The people writing these letters don’t choose to live in Salt Lake City. They are not Rocky’s constituents. Rocky’s controversial, attention-grabbing style should not be news to anyone. While Rocky’s tactics have often been divisive (especially publicly), he has also used his influence to pull people together and make various proposals work (less publicly).

To some of his constituents, Rocky is a hero. To others he is a devil. To some he is a wide-traveling, tantrum-throwing brat that wings into town only to make waves and grab headlines. To others he is just another politician. His constituents have handily elected him twice, and while some think that he has decided against running for a third term because his reelection chances are poor, it is debatable whether a majority of SLC voters share this view. In any case, Rocky’s determination not to run again precludes the opportunity of finding out whether this is true.

Like most urban population centers throughout the nation, SLC has become increasingly liberal as many traditional families and conservatives have fled to the suburbs, creating stronger enclaves of liberals. That makes SLC a bastion of blue in a sea of red, much to the delight of some and to the chagrin of others.

Rocky remains an enigma to the majority of the inhabitants of the red ocean that surrounds his blue island. In fact, the whole island remains an enigma to them. It seems to proudly and priggishly defy the values held dear by them, and yet they can’t bring themselves to live there so that they might have some inside influence in these matters. Still, SLC remains in many ways the hub of the state, and that galls them all the more. And it galls many Mormons that sometimes-hostile SLC surrounds LDS Church headquarters, even while many non-LDS residents chafe at the influence wielded by this hub within a hub.

Yes, Rocky’s support of the anti-majority-Utah-values rally as an in-your-face to President Bush is inconsiderate and inappropriate, but it is hardly unexpected. It could be worse. At least SLC doesn’t have Marion Barry as its mayor.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Hike to Willard and Ben Lomond Peaks

Check Out the Mountain Goats
This past weekend I went with my son’s Boy Scout troop to Willard Peak and Ben Lomond Peak. The first order of business was to drive to Willard Basin (GPS lat. 41.38778, long. –11197806, alt. 8360). The small and rustic campground is about six miles from my house, as the crow flies, but two hours as the Jeep drives. Each of the four campsites consist of a fire pit, an ancient picnic table in desperate need of rehabilitation, a tiny bit of bare ground, and not much level area for tents. The public outhouse that was once up there has been demolished and capped.

Willard Basin is accessed via the town of Mantua, which is a short drive up Box Elder Canyon. Mantua is easily accessed from I-15 exit 364, and then driving east for about 6½ miles to US-89’s exit to Mantua. The pavement ends not far from the edge of town, where the Willard Peak Scenic Backway begins.

This southbound 11-mile winding stretch rises more than four thousand feet. It could be considered an improved dirt road, but it is best suited to true off-road vehicles. It is extremely rugged and is definitely not for the faint of heart. While acquaintances of mine reported seeing a Ford Fiesta parked at the campground (the road can be managed in a 2WD vehicle in dry conditions), the road calls for a vehicle with a fair amount of ground clearance. It is common to see motorcycles and four-wheel ORVs traveling on it. Many stretches of the road have large rocks exposed, requiring careful navigation even in Jeeps and 4WD trucks. It is a very bumpy, grueling trip where maximum speeds range from 5-15 mph.

After nine miles of tedious, bone-jarring travel, the road eventually tops out at a scenic overlook that peers down into Willard Basin. A large sign there explains that the Civilian Conservation Corps constructed over 700 miles of terraces and did other work up there during the late 1920s and early 1930s to curb flooding problems in Willard and Perry below. The terrace work is quite visible. Another two miles on the road gets you to what many still call the CCC Campground.

We spent a pleasant Friday night in our tents, but it was a good 20° cooler than it was at my house that night. Willard Peak overlooks and is south of the campground. We saw deer fairly close by and saw a couple of mountain goats in the distance. We were keeping our eyes open for mountain goats because we heard that there had been more sightings this year than any year on record.

There is a trailhead near the campground, but looking at our map, we figured that we could save 500 feet of vertical climb by driving two more miles to Inspiration Point, which is at the top of Willard Mountain (not Willard Peak). That two-mile trip took much longer than the relatively short, but steep hike would have taken. Next time I do the trip, I will start from the Willard Basin trailhead.

There is precious little parking at Inspiration Point, but five or six full-size vehicles could squeeze into the available space. The trail that leads from there, around the south side of Willard Peak, and toward Ben Lomond Peak is good trail that is not terribly difficult to traverse. We were passed by mountain bikers and a few dirt motorcycles. About a mile from Inspiration Point, we looked for a way to access Willard Peak, but didn’t see any noticeable trail, so we bushwhacked our way to the top. This short stretch was extremely strenuous and caused one of our party to stay behind due to acrophobia.

We were rewarded with a spectacular view of Box Elder, Weber, and Cache counties from our 9764-foot vantage point on the rocky top of Willard Peak (lat. 41.38276, long. –111.97453). The peak straddles Weber and Box Elder counties, and is the highest peak in Weber County. We saw an adult mountain goat with two juveniles sauntering through the trees a couple of hundred feet below us on the north side of the peak.

As we searched for a geo cache on the south side of the peak, we suddenly noticed a few mountain goats about a quarter mile away on the slopes below. The sun was just reaching those slopes over the tops of the mountains, and the goats seemed inclined to stand in the shadows, making it difficult to see them. However, the goats became more easily noticeable each time they moved. We soon counted seven goats, and then three more, and then three more.

My son then said, “There’s one right in front of you, Dad.” I looked, but didn’t notice anything. I queried, “Where?” as I looked into the distance. He replied, “On that ledge right over there,” pointing to a spot less than 100 feet away. Sure enough, a large goat was lying on a rocky ledge nearby staring intently at our group. We soon discerned that there was another goat behind that one on the same ledge. After watching them for a while I realized that there were two goats behind that, and then we noticed another one on the ledge below. All were resting, but were aware of our presence. In the meantime, two of the other adults in our group continued spotting animals on the slopes below and to the south. Eventually, we counted about 30 mountain goats.

After a while we scrambled down from the peak to the trail below. We had to go right near the ledges where the nearby goats had been resting. They got up and easily ambled down the steep incline as we approached, and we counted eight of them, so some had been hidden from our view. It wasn’t so easy for us to navigate the rocky slope. The animals we scared up soon joined their companions. As we reached the trail and began hiking toward Ben Lomond Peak many of the goats scampered down the slope, crossed our trail, and headed down the rocky ledges below. However, we then noticed even more mountain goats on the slopes and ledges above us. Due to movement of individual animals, we lost count of how many goats we saw, but we figure we saw between 40 and 50.

The trek to Ben Lomond Peak from there is about two miles. Most of that is fairly easy trail. It gets a bit strenuous in the final quarter mile ascent to Ben Lomond Peak (lat. 41.36321, long. –111.9607, alt. 9712), but the trail quality is very good.

Another Scout troop was getting ready to leave the peak as we climbed to the summit. That morning, they had made the 9½-mile trek from the trailhead at the top of North Ogden Divide, a route I have taken in the past. That route has the advantage of the trailhead being easily accessibly by automobile and having plenty of paved parking. Of course, it’s three times the distance from that trailhead than from the Willard side, and there is a significant rise in the first mile and a half of the hike, and another major climb to ascend Ben Lomond Peak.

There is less standing room on Ben Lomond Peak than on Willard Peak, but the view in all directions is spectacular. Scanning south and slightly east from Ben Lomond Peak, a whole line of peaks if visible: Chilly Peak (8459 ft.), Lewis Peak (8031 ft.), Allen Peak (9465 Ft.) next to Mt. Ogden Peak (9572 ft.) and with Malan’s Peak (really just a prominence) to the west, DeMoisy Peak (9369 ft.), and Strawberry Peak (9275 ft.).

The three-mile hike back to Inspiration Point was relatively easy trail hiking. On the trip toward Ben Lomond Peak, we saw no mountain goats after we rounded the first major bend to the southeast after passing Willard Peak. Upon rounding that same bend on the way back we saw three or four goats in the ledges above. A gaggle of hikers were ogling them. We just smiled smugly to ourselves, knowing that 90% of the herd had moved out of sight to the steep slopes far below the trail. The final ascent to Inspiration Point was strenuous after having already hiked some distance.

Then we had 13+ miles of really nasty “scenic backway” to navigate. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, that means pulling off to the side frequently to allow ORVs to pass. Unfortunately for us, it also meant a trip to the auto mechanic, since we managed to bash in our transmission oil pan while navigating one particularly horrendous rock field that is part of the road, causing the transmission to fail. Gratefully, due to the relative slope of the road, we were able to coast more than five miles to Mantua with one little push over a small hump in the road and one 100-yard push up a nearly level stretch.

All in all, our trip provided the boys in the troop with a lot of adventure with only about seven miles of hiking. For me, sighting the mountain goat herd was one of the highlights of the trip. In all of the years that I have hiked around the mountains to the north and east of my home, I have never before seen even one mountain goat. My only regrets are my failure to pack my camera and the need for auto repair.

I’d do it again next weekend if I could.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Intervew With an 'Enlightened' Egyptian

The September 2006 National Geographic Magazine features an interview with Alaa Al Aswany, the author of the novel The Yacoubian Building, which has been a best-seller in the Middle East for over two years. Al Aswany is an American-educated full-time dentist in Cairo that very seriously pursues writing as a hobby. Al Aswany is a critic of Egypt’s Mubarak administration (which can be dangerous), and a critic of some cultural and political aspects of Middle Eastern life. His popular novel is a commentary on what Egypt has become over the past 75 years.

The interview ranges through Al Aswany’s thoughts about Islam, terrorism, politics, and his personal life. I found the following interchange impressive.
Q: Some people believe there can never be a true democracy in Egypt. Do you agree?

A: I disagree. We must begin with democracy. But the Arab regimes play games with this word. They say there has to be an interpretation of democracy that fits the Arab world. I don’t believe that. We need Western-style democracy, with a free press and the rule of law, where all people can choose their elected officials. People do not need to be educated to vote. You may be poor, but making the choice for democracy is not complicated. A person makes choices every day.
Al Aswany is Muslim, but he does not seem to be passionately so. He says, “I am born Muslim, so I am Muslim. If I had been born Christian, I would have been Christian.” While recognizing that many evils have been done in the name of religion, Al Aswany sees religion as a positive force. “[Religions] are a way to find God, a way to have positive personal values, to prove oneself as a good human being.” When questioned about the clash “between the Muslim world and the West,” Al Aswany says, “The clash comes from the aggressive interpretation of some religions.”

When asked where “the current fanaticism is coming from,” Al Aswany claims it is due to poverty and lack of opportunity. He says that those that are unempowered, “marginalized and oppressed, without any future and any kind of human dignity” turn to violence in an attempt to change the status quo. He likens this to violence he saw in poor neighborhoods in Chicago, where he went to university.

While the elements Al Aswany mentions certainly are factors to consider, I must respectfully disagree with his take on this matter. For starters, it is completely disingenuous to equate the occasional street violence in poorer sections of Chicago with people willing to walk into a public place and blow themselves to smithereens along with as many innocent bystanders as possible.

While many of the Palestinian suicide bombers that used to frequent Israeli cities prior to the wall going up were drawn from the lower classes, this was not universally the case. Nor can it be said that perpetrators of the world’s most infamous terrorist murders and attempted murders over the past quarter century (the 1972 Munich Olympics, 9/11, the shoe bomber, the Madrid trains, the Chechnyan school, the London subway, the Iraq beheadings, the recently thwarted airliner plot, etc.) were poor. If they were marginalized and oppressed, it was only in their own minds.

The things all these terrorists have in common is that they claimed to be Muslims acting for the glory of Allah, and they received hateful, terrorist-promoting indoctrination (and even training) via Islamic mosques. Some less recent terrorists, including the IRA in the UK and leftist radicals in the late 60s and early 70s in the US, also had hate-filled indoctrination and training, sometimes through religious sources (with the IRA), and other times through secular sources (some of which act like religions).

The point is that in all of these cases, there have been hate-spewing radical organizations that have either implicitly or explicitly promoted acts of terrorism, sometimes enabling or even directing these acts. Today there are still such organizations, but much of the radicalism is coming from mosques.

Michael Medved argues here (hat tip MOP) that there is a “deep-seated human hunger for connection with a Supreme Being, the nearly universal yearning to draw closer to eternal truth.” He argues that when it comes to this desire, it is “not possible to beat something (radical Islam) with nothing (secular agnosticism).” Medved argues that the answer is more and vibrant religiosity in society, not less. He drives his point home by asking, “If those three British bomb plot suspects who converted to Islam had instead found their way to Pentecostal Christianity, or traditional Catholicism, or the Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints, would they ever have considered killing themselves to blow planes out of the sky?” Medved points out that even the most ardent Jew has never suggested forcing the rest of the world to accept strict Jewish law, but the idea that the whole world must accept strict Islamic law or be annihilated is broadly believed in major portions of the Muslim world.

Al Aswany blames much of the mosque-sponsored radicalism on Sunni Wahhabism, which he calls “an aggressive, intolerant approach that institutionalizes Islam as a state religion rather than allowing people to interpret it in their own individual ways.” He says, “The Saudis have spent millions to export Sunni Wahhabism through the Middle East…” Actually, they have spent billions exporting it throughout the world, including to many mosques in the US, as well as throughout portions of Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Unhappy about this, Al Aswany criticizes the US. “I must remind you that the American administration has been the most powerful supporter of the medieval Saudi regime because of Saudi oil. To support them is like having a tiger in your house.” Al Aswany makes a good point, but he places too much blame in the wrong places. He believes America must choose between being a moral superpower or a capitalist superpower. I’m not sure these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive.

In other words, while Al Aswany finds problems with his home country of Egypt and some facets of Middle Eastern society, he pretty much blames the confrontation between Islamic fascism and the West on the US and Saudi Arabia. He seems to be saying that it’s our fault terrorists murdered thousands of innocents in New York and Washington, DC on 9/11. The Saudis are partly to blame as well, but only because we bought oil from them. The rest of the Middle East has its problems, but they’re all local and have nothing to do with the broader conflict.

While this blame-shifting attitude seems stunningly bizarre to me, I have to face the fact that a number of people in my own country share Al Aswany’s ideas on this point.

I admire Al Aswany’s desire for democratic societies in the Middle East. He seems to agree with George Bush on this point. He surely must be one of the more enlightened denizens of that region. But his denial of the true causes of Islamic terrorism, as well as its breadth and depth throughout Islamic populations, is a harbinger of the difficulties ahead of us as we are forced to deal with it.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Congressman Rob Bishop Town Meeting Report

Last night I attended a town meeting held by Congressman Rob Bishop (R-UT, District 1) in Weber County. About 70 people were in attendance. The retired generation was strongly represented. I am in my mid 40s, and there were only a few people there that were younger than me. My observation would be that representation varied directly with age through about age 82.

Mr. Bishop started out by speaking for about 15 minutes, admitting that he was attempting to hit the most popular hot button issues. He then took questions for the next 50 minutes. During the last five minutes two aides stood at the chamber door, becoming increasingly antsy while pointing repeatedly at their watches, since the congressman had another town meeting less than an hour later in Davis County.

Those Nasty Senators
In his opening speech, Mr. Bishop repeatedly expressed frustration with the U.S. Senate. This echoes a common theme among some political observers, who think that the divide between the House and the Senate has reached epic proportions, being much stronger even than partisan divisions. Mr. Bishop asserted that the U.S. Senate is the only body at any level of government that is not a majoritarian body. He contends that the body’s rules ostensibly favor minority politics, noting that any single senator can indefinitely place a hold on a bill for any reason.

The congressman expressed frustration because a number of pieces of legislation he has worked on, and that he considers to be good are stalled in the Senate. These include Associated Health Plans (would allow small employers to group together for health insurance purposes), medical malpractice caps, business tax reform, repeal of the death tax, various ‘values’ bills, and most of the budget bills.

Bishop says that Senate leadership won’t even consider addressing legislation passed by the House unless it can be demonstrated that they likely have 60 votes in favor of it. Mr. Bishop expressed frustration that it takes 60 votes to free a bill held hostage by a single senator’s hold. Reflecting his party loyalty, Mr. Bishop reiterated a couple of times that Utah’s two senators are part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Our Constitution provides only the highest level direction for the workings of the two bodies of Congress. Within those guidelines, each body is permitted to establish its own rules. The procedures of the Senate come from both official rules as well as traditions, some of which predate the founding of our nation. Senators generally demonstrate a high degree of loyalty to these rules and traditions. There is some sense that this provides for stability that many believe is essential to good government. There is also an argument that having one legislative body with some minority control helps our democratic republic work toward its goal of maintaining a proper balance between majority and minority rights.

In answer to a question about the 17th Amendment, Mr. Bishop opined (as a former history teacher and former member of the state legislature; the body that elected U.S. Senators prior to 1913) that there were serious flaws in the system for electing senators prior to the amendment. Some states went unrepresented for years due to local squabbles. People had begun electing state legislators based on whom they would support for the U.S. Senate. But Bishop carefully suggested that the 17th Amendment solution was overkill that introduced a new set of problems from which we will likely never be free. State governments now have no representation in Congress. We have two houses of representatives, so federalism has declined.

Budget and Immigration
Congressman Bishop is disgusted with problems in our current federal budgetary system. He said that each year he votes in favor of the alternative RSC budget, which is much more fiscally responsible. However the RSC budget fails each year. He then ends up voting on the budget bills that the leadership and the committees allow to come forward.

I had formulated a rather pointed question to ask regarding one of my pet peeves about runaway spending at the hands of our Republican controlled congress. I wanted to know if Mr. Bishop was doing anything to support the formation of an Office of Taxpayer Advocacy (see here), whether he supported legislation that would create searchable online databases of all federal spending (including grants and contracts—see here), and whether he supported the Truth in Accounting Act (H.R. 5129). I wanted to know specifically what he was doing to reign in expansion of big government and deal with our scandalous budget process. However, I came to realize that the brief meeting format would lead to inadequate answers. I also quickly realized that I was simply unwilling to be pushy enough to ask my question. I will write a letter to the congressman today instead.

Immigration was a very hot topic. A diversity of opinions was expressed by those present. The congressman classes the problem as two issues: national security and employment. He thinks we could easily pass a bill that deals only with the security side, but he emphasized that it would have to deal with all of our borders, not just our southern border. On the employment front, Mr. Bishop doesn’t like any of the proposals currently on the table. He thinks that any of these solutions would only make the problem worse, and that much of the point is moot anyway until we deal with the security side. So he seems to support doing border security first and then looking at resolving the employment issue once the borders are secure.

Throughout the meeting, Mr. Bishop repeatedly focused his rhetoric on federalism and pushing government functions down to their lowest reasonable level. A number of citizens stood up and asked what the federal government was doing about something or why the federal government wasn’t doing something about some issue. To me, many of these issues seemed quite local. On the majority of those questions, Mr. Bishop said that they would more appropriately be handled by state, county, or municipal governments.

“You don’t really want the federal government involved in that,” Bishop would say. Or, “The federal government has a very poor track record of its involvement in that type of program. It is far more efficiently and personably managed at the local level.”

When asked which federal department he would eliminate if he could, he replied from his viewpoint as a former school teacher and as a state and national legislator that it would be the Department of Education. He feels that the department is operating illegally in some respects, as some of its programs violate the statute that created it. He thinks the federal government has no business in primary and secondary education. “Whenever you use the government as a resource for a program, it soon becomes more of a regulatory and coercive body than a helpful body,” Bishop said. “We’re not fixing education. We’re making it worse.”

The Citizens
With only about 70 people, there was a surprising variety of levels of articulateness, politeness, thoughtfulness, astuteness, etc. A few just wanted to make comments. Some made comments or asked questions that were very well thought out and reflected some understanding of the issues involved. Some folks made good points, but spent two minutes saying what could reasonably have been said in 15 seconds. Some were concise and to the point. Some comments were incredibly ignorant, and some commentators were simply rude.

One woman held the rest of us hostage for five minutes of narrow minded extremist harangue, followed by a question that took three minutes just to ask. This lady voiced a wide variety of ultra-conservative as well as ultra-liberal opinions, which seemed quite odd. I guess her main criterion for forming opinions is that they must be extreme—one side or the other, it doesn’t matter. Congressman Bishop treated her with as much respect as any other commentator.

This woman, however, was not content to have said her piece. For the next half hour she kept interrupting other citizens as well as the congressman, interjecting bizarre and off the wall comments. One guy whom she interrupted very kindly said, “Ma’am, nobody interrupted you while you spoke, now allow others the same courtesy.” However, courtesy seemed to be a foreign idea to this woman. She even complained when somebody agreed with her. I began to wonder whether she was only happy when she was being rude. Eventually at least half the audience would shush her every outburst. That’s not a way to win friends to your cause.

The Answers
Mr. Bishop came off as fairly down to earth. But the format of the meeting did not allow for detailed discussion of anything. Many of his answers had to be dumbed down to more or less a sound bite. He was pretty quick on his feet, but he didn’t mind saying that he didn’t know the answer to something. He asked a couple of people to give their information to one of his aides with the promise that he would get back with them on it.

My Take
I am glad I attended the town meeting. It was informative, if nothing else, to see the diversity of opinion expressed by other citizens of Weber County. Congressman Bishop came off as affable and fairly competent, even if I have some issues with his voting record and I didn’t agree with his take on some matters. Next time I attend one of these meetings, if I have a question I will strive to be one of the first to ask. Sitting back and waiting your turn just doesn’t cut it.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Sharing the Load

I worked at a bank when I was 22. One December day I found myself at a branch of the bank seated on a bench next to a man that was about my father’s age. The wiry man, dressed in the well used apparel of a construction worker, was a few inches shorter than me. He puffed on his cigarette and started talking to me.

It was just light conversation at first. He found out I was working part-time and going to college full-time. I dated a bit, but had no serious prospects at the moment. I intended to get married and raise a family someday. He had been married for over 30 years. He had a daughter that was married and had made him a grandpa twice. He adored his little grandchildren.

After a while, he said, “I’ve also got a son about your age.” And that started a conversation that has stuck with me to this day.

At first the man made some remarks that showed some admiration for his son, but then, with a tone of disgust, he started mentioning some of his son’s shortcomings. The man was proud of his own occupation, but he wanted better for his children. However, his son had dropped out of college and was working in a job where he was making good money. The problem, as this man saw it, was that his son would hit the ceiling in that line of work within 10 years, and would then be sorry he hadn’t stuck with his education.

Then he started talking about his son’s preoccupation with going to the gym and lifting weights. “Oh, he’s got muscles, alright, but they’re not like these,” he said pointing to his own arms. “I got these honestly by doing real work with ‘em every day for 30 years.” He made me feel his biceps. “These ain’t fake.”

And then this man got to the meat of the matter. “Yeah, and he’s got himself a pretty little aerobics instructor that he met at the gym. He wants to bring her to stay overnight at our house on Christmas Eve, and he wants her to sleep with him in the same bed — in my house!” He was beside himself. He wasn’t particularly religious, but, for heck sakes, everyone knew that was wrong. “My wife wants to let him come, but it’s just not right. I can’t do it! It’s just not right!”

The man fumed, “The kid wants to bring his little joy toy home and sleep with her in my house. They’re not planning on getting married anytime or giving me any more grandkids. They’re just using each other’s bodies to get their jollies. They don’t really care about each other. And when they’re through with each other, they’ll just move on to someone else. There’s no commitment there. Where do they get these ideas? Not from his mother and me.”

The man was hurt, angry, and sad. “Why can’t my boy be more like you?” he asked, with tears trickling from the corners of his eyes onto his tough, weathered face. I wasn’t sure I was such a wonderful model citizen, but in those few minutes, I must have represented something this man wanted for his own son.

I felt like a captive audience, and yet I could sense this man’s intense sorrow. There was a lot more to the conversation, or at least to his side of it; some of it quite personal. I mostly just listened and made polite responses. I marveled that this man, who was old enough to be my father, would confide some of his deepest issues to me, a complete stranger. Eventually the man had to go, and so did I. I never saw him again.

I have reflected on that conversation from time to time since then. In a few years when my oldest son is 22, I will be about the age that man was at the time this conversation took place. I’m still not sure what to make of that conversation. Maybe it’s just a warning that the day will come when my own kids make their own choices, some of which will likely differ from my desires for them, in the ever repeating generational struggle of children becoming autonomous adults. I’m not sure that knowing this will make it any easier for me.

We all face difficult situations in life and we all suffer our share of grief. But sharing the load can sometimes help. Perhaps someday someone will be there to be my listening post when I need that service.

Who Won?

Following the U.N. Security Council approval (and beginning of implementation) of the U.S.-France sponsored ceasefire agreement between Israel and Lebanon, President Bush says (here) that Israel defeated Hezbollah. Hezbollah, for its part, insists that it came out the victor. It is quite possible that both views have some validity, because different parties understand victory differently.

Given Hezbollah’s pan-Islamic, stateless definition of victory (see Mark Steyn’s take on pan-Islamism, some of which goes too far, in my opinion), it would be difficult for the terrorist organization to perceive any outcome as defeat. Indeed, loss of Lebanese lives, displacement of significant swaths of the Lebanese population, and loss of Hezbollah military positions do not constitute defeat for Hezbollah or its masters in Tehran and Damascus. Hezbollah retains its ability to fling missiles into northern Israel from Lebanon, and it insists that it yet has missiles fully capable of reaching Tel Aviv. Supply of war materiel from Iran and Syria continues unabated. Support for its cause and for the puppeteers manning its strings has increased throughout the Middle East.

Israel’s so-called victory can only tepidly be referred to as such. Make no mistake; Israel significantly whacked Hezbollah positions in Lebanon. But Israel is experiencing some of the same frustration the British experienced during the American Revolution. The British, using their standard experienced military tactics, won every major conflict and occupied many major metropolitan centers early in the war, and yet they could not prevail against a decentralized, but committed government and a populace that supported the Revolution.

Israel’s greatest benefit from the war may be their newfound understanding of Hezbollah’s capabilities. The last time Israel had to deal with a sustained barrage of Hezbollah rockets, it was obvious that Hezbollah was something of a ragtag group of renegades. Now Israel and the West have discovered, much to their dismay, that Hezbollah embodies a level of training, organization, technology, and popular support that seemed unimaginable only a few weeks ago. They have embedded Iranian military advisors. They have drone aircraft. While the world’s media outlets and politicians still want to paint Hezbollah as a minor localized glitch, the fact is that they pose a very serious military threat. And they are not concerned only with Lebanon.

The terrorists, on the other hand, discovered something valuable that has now been exposed to the whole world. Today’s Israel is not the Israel of a generation ago. Many American and Western hawks figured that Israel would quickly and easily stomp on their attackers, as their fathers and grandfathers had a history of doing. But the recent, somewhat ambivalent election that brought Ehud Olmert to power in his own right after assuming the reigns from an ailing Ariel Sharon, should have been a message to the world that the Israeli populace doesn’t have the stomach for serious security actions that their predecessors did.

Israel today seems worn out; fatigued from decades of fighting implacable neighbors and continual political oppression from its supposed allies in the West. Many of its citizens seem to have bought into the West’s proposition that the path to peace is giving up land to its neighbors. Other citizens are like our “To Hell With Them” Hawks, thinking that security comes from sequestering themselves behind some kind of barrier while allowing those outside the barrier to do whatever nefarious business suits them. Israel has tried to follow both of these strategies. Obviously, neither one works. That should be a warning to us.

While the West breathes a collective sigh of relief that we have a ceasefire agreement, it should be a clue to us that the terrorists (none of which are parties to the agreement), have been loudly arguing in favor of such an agreement since early in the conflict. They did this not because they wanted mercy, but because in their view, a ceasefire is merely a symptom of weakness. It’s a feather in their cap; another way they define success.

So, is President Bush right? Did Israel beat Hezbollah? Sure, just as much as the British beat the Americans when they took Philadelphia; a Pyrrhic victory, at best. Or did Hezbollah win? Well, when you define winning as the feeling a suicide bomber has just before blowing himself up on a bus filled with innocent citizens, I don’t know how you could say that Hezbollah lost. In Hezbollah’s twisted value system, any outcome could be defined as victory.

But Hezbollah and its supporters today know more of the weaknesses of their perceived enemies, while Israel and the West only know more of the strengths of Hezbollah and its cruel masters. The question is whether we will wake up and do something to effectively deal with these threats.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Basic Differences in Democrat and Republican Views

Utah’s premier pollster, Dan Jones (who is a proud Democrat), gives a laundry list of reasons (here) that Utah leans so heavily Republican. He says that the Democrat desire to set some arbitrary date for leaving Iraq without a serious exit strategy “doesn’t work.” Jones suggests that Utahns in general are very solid supporters of a strong national defense policy.

Jones says that most Utahns haven’t been able to identify with a national level Democrat for a long time. He says that Utah Mormons “feel that Democrat policies are counter to church positions.” He suggests that Ronald Reagan’s immense popularity with Utahns still carries clout to this day. He also thinks President Bush’s two new Supreme Court justices are very popular with Utahns.

But it seems to me that Jones is merely whacking at the leaves of the matter rather going to the root. There is something that underlies everything that Jones discusses. I think that much of it is exposed in Michael Barone’s analysis of Senator Joe Lieberman’s (D-CT) primary election defeat. Barone essentially says that the vast majority Republicans believe in American exceptionalism—“the idea that this is a special and specially good country”—while Democrats increasingly do not.

Barone cites a 2004 poll that concluded that two-thirds of all voters believed strongly in American exceptionalism. But, when you look at how they voted, 80% of Bush voters were strong on this point, while only slightly over 50% of Kerry voters supported it. Joe Lieberman is an unabashed believer in American exceptionalism, while many of his party’s voters believe in transnaitonalism—the concept that “our country is no better than any other, and in many ways it's a whole lot worse.” Barone suggests that this sentiment goes far deeper than the war in Iraq.

One of Barone’s greatest strengths is his ability to connect the dots and understand the importance of demographic data. He says that the data show a marked shift in the Democratic Party over the past four decades, “from the lunch-bucket working class” to the “professional class … living a life in which they are insulated from adversity, [and so] feel free to imagine that America cannot be threatened by implacable enemies.” Barone shows how Lieberman was supported by the same kind of people that supported John F. Kennedy, while his opponent was supported by the same kind of people that supported Richard Nixon.

While Utah has lots of Mormons, state demography is shifting so that a steadily decreasing percentage of the populace is Mormon. Still, Mormons make up the largest single voting bloc in the state. While there is diversity in Mormon voting patterns, it is important to note that Mormon theology (even scripture and statements by leaders) is supportive of American exceptionalism.

However, Mormons weren’t always supportive of the United States. When they first came to the Salt Lake Valley, they thought they were leaving behind the U.S. and the persecutions they had endured under democratic governments. Then Mormons had a six-decade-long dispute with the rest of the U.S. over the practice of polygamy and religious control of public life. Once again, they felt oppressed by a democratic government.

Over the last century, through two world wars and a Cold War, Mormons in the U.S. became generally very patriotic and supportive of the American experiment. It would appear that this sentiment runs very strong among Utah Mormons, and it would be interesting to see the results for Utah of the 2004 poll cited by Barone to see if my supposition is valid.

Jones notes that Utahns were not always strongly Republican. The pendulum has swung back and forth. At times the parties have been somewhat evenly split. In the 1930s Utah became solidly Democratic. But, as Barone notes, back in those days, both parties were very strong supporters of American exceptionalism. Barone clearly believes that the two parties are increasingly being defined by their stance on this one issue.

While Barone notes a shift away from American exceptionalism among Democrats, what he fails to make clear is how the general populace is moving on this issue. For my part, I would be interested to know how the general Utah populace is moving on it. This dynamic will apparently have a lot to say about who wins and loses elections and which stances the Republican Party takes in the years to come.

More On Drugs In Sports

Last week I wrote about the ongoing problem of performance enhancing drugs in sports (here). On Saturday, the Wall Street Journal published a wonderful op-ed article by an unnamed author that captures some of what I think I was trying to say.

The article explores the reasons people watch athletics. It suggests that while sporting events are entertainment, we need to look at what it is that causes spectators to derive entertainment value from them. The author asserts, “We watch men and women race--or pitch or bat or cycle--because the drama of humans pushing themselves to the limits of their physical gifts is compelling, and at some level admirable.”

When we move away from the natural to the chemical, it becomes more a competition of who has the best drugs. It cheapens the validity of the experience. The author suggests that the logical conclusion of this type of devaluation in any sport will drive the sport to become something akin to professional wrestling. Pro wrestling is, of course, entertaining, but on a very different level than legitimate athletics.

The conclusion the author draws from this is that “in the end, the professional leagues that get serious about keeping it clean will prosper at the expense of those that turn a blind eye to the abuse.”

Friday, August 11, 2006

Ashdown's Debate Dilemma

Utah Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, Pete Ashdown, wants a debate with the current long- (long, long, long) time seat holder, Republican Orrin Hatch (see Ashdown press release). Actually, Ashdown wants a series of debates with Hatch. So far, the Hatch campaign has totally stonewalled Ashdown, treating him basically like he doesn’t exist.

Ashdown has scheduled a debate for all legitimate candidates for the seat Hatch currently holds for tomorrow at the Salt Lake City Main Library Auditorium from 10:30 AM to 12:30 PM. Ashdown says that a seat will be available at the debate for Hatch or for someone to represent him. Other debate participants will represent the Constitution Party, the Desert Green Party, the Libertarian Party, and the Personal Choice Party.

Ashdown’s frustration with the Hatch campaign is evident in his press release. Ashdown’s campaign has tried to schedule a debate with Hatch during the Utah State Fair anytime between September 7 and 17. According to Ashdown, the Hatch campaign is non-committal, and insists that it won’t even discuss a debate schedule until after Labor Day.

In his press release, Pete Ashdown openly accuses Senator Hatch of thinking that “the more he acknowledges me and my positions, the more people will know about my candidacy.” Obviously hoping for that kind of exposure, he says, “I think they will like what they see.”

And that is precisely Ashdown’s problem. Some will consider this assertion a sad commentary on the state of politics in Utah, but the fact of the matter is that Senator Hatch has little to gain and much to lose by engaging in early and/or numerous debates with any opponent, while Ashdown has little to lose and much to gain by engaging in debates with the incumbent. No Utahn is going to learn anything new about Orrin Hatch in a debate, so most won’t even care that he refuses to debate.

This kind of situation is not a new development in politics, nor is it a uniquely Utah phenomenon. Wherever you have an incumbent that is fairly confident of a commanding lead, public legitimization of opponents can only hurt, while treating opponents like annoying but unimportant insects can make the incumbent appear even stronger. This strategy will backfire on an incumbent that is more vulnerable, making him/her appear weak.

Challengers of a secure incumbent have it tough. They need legitimization with respect to the incumbent to have any hope of being competitive. Strong challengers of vulnerable incumbents gain this legitimization easily, especially if they have a positive public image. A strong party apparatus helps a lot too.

In Pennsylvania, for example Republican Senate incumbent Rick Santorum is quite vulnerable. His Democratic opponent, State Treasurer Bob Casey already has established a positive public image and has a strong party to back him up.

Voters generally only dump incumbents when they have a very strong beef with them. Take, for example, the displeasure Democratic Connecticut voters displayed toward Senator Joe Lieberman the other day. Unfortunately for Mr. Ashdown, Mr. Hatch has given most Utahns no substantial reason to fire him. Moreover, Ashdown’s reputation as a dynamic, smart, and strong geek/businessman resides within a fairly tight community and does not automatically translate into broad public legitimacy.

Also, while Utah Democrats like to be optimistic about the party’s popularity in the state, the fact is that it operates more like a third party in Utah than a viable opposition party. That could certainly change in the future. I’m sorry if this hurts people’s feelings, but the state party currently lacks the resources to offer a strong support system for candidates for major races. The national Democratic Party does not consider the race competitive, so they are reluctant to spend much of their political capital on it.

Put all of these factors together and you can see that Mr. Ashdown is in a very tough spot. This does, however, create a tremendous opportunity for Ashdown. More than one seemingly secure incumbent has gone down in flames to an obscure challenger. Senator Frank Moss, who was beaten by upstart Orrin Hatch in 1976 comes to mind. But usually there are a number of somewhat telltale dynamics at play in races where this happens. At present, nothing of that nature appears to be going Mr. Ashdown’s way.

Is it impossible for Pete Ashdown to win in November? Well, nothing is impossible. But I stand by what I wrote last November, when I said, “I believe that most of the people that actually vote in Utah won’t give five seconds of thought to Pete Ashdown between now and the ’06 elections.” I’m not saying that this is my personal choice. It’s simply the way I see it coming down in real life.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Hiding Will Not Make the War Go Away

Here is a sample of how extremist propaganda has co-opted substantial swaths of the Islamic population in the Middle East. Reuters reports that Lebanese impacted by Israel’s attempts to defend itself directly blame the United States for their plight.

Here’s how the story works. Your house/apartment, which was built on top of or in the near vicinity of a Hezbollah missile launch bunker, is flattened by an Israeli missile aimed at a legitimate military target; i.e. the nearby missile launcher that just indiscriminately heaved a missile into a residential area in northern Israel. Israeli forces used modern technology to pinpoint the launch site and then air dropped leaflets on the area telling people to get clear before taking out the bunker. People you know were killed either because they wouldn’t get out or were prevented by Hezbollah terrorists from getting out.

And whom do you blame for your plight? Logic would seem to dictate that the Hezbollah terrorists and their suppliers are to blame. If Iran and Syria weren’t funding, training, and supplying Hezbollah terrorists, none of this would have happened in the first place. If they weren’t launching missiles from your neighborhood, Israeli forces wouldn’t have bombed your neighborhood. Failing that, if terrorists hadn’t prevented your friends and family members from leaving, they wouldn’t have been hurt by Israeli bombs, even though, their homes and their possessions would have been destroyed as Israel worked to defend itself.

But, no, the blame falls squarely on the U.S. Why? Because the U.S. sells military weaponry to Israel. Because the U.S. is Israel’s ally. The U.S. doesn’t have to be within a thousand miles of the conflict to be at fault. There is no outrage expressed toward the Iranian mullahs and Syrian dictator that provide the missiles and war materiel that keep the conflict going after more than a month. There is no anger expressed toward the terrorists (brave martyrs, freedom fighters) that started and continue to pursue the war.

The solution to the Lebanese people featured in the article, of course, is to get rid of the Jews. One woman says, “They [Americans] have a big country, so why don't they give them [Jews] some land there so we can live in peace.” Another woman says, “I just wish I had a plane so I could destroy Israel, Bush and his dog Olmert.”

What is amazing is how well variations of these proposed solutions seem to play with the elite in Europe and the U.S. The sentiment seems to be that if Israel would just go away, all of our problems in the Middle East would go away too. Of course, clear thinking demonstrates that this is simply not true. Hitler and his minions had similar delusions with respect to Europe a few decades back.

Conservative polemicist Mark Steyn has an interesting take on this here. Steyn discusses the active health of anti-Semitism today. But he argues that “it doesn't usually work out so well for the Jew-haters,” because anti-Semitism is actually a symptom of a horridly toxic worldview that prevents proper decision making.

Steyn makes the point that Israel is simply a harbinger of what radical Islamists would prefer to do to the U.S. and to the West, as demonstrated by last night’s foiling of a plot to blow up 10 airliners over American soil (see here). He quotes American social writer Eric Hoffer, who said following the 1967 war, “As it goes with Israel so will it go with all of us. Should Israel perish the holocaust will be upon us.”

While most Americans’ lives go on much as they did before 9/11, we are at war with a vicious and perverse ideology. President Bush was correct when he said today, “This nation is at war with Islamic fascists who will use any means to destroy those of us who love freedom, to hurt our nation” (see here).

Many of us long for the days before 9/11 when we felt safer. We weren’t safer. We merely had an illusion of being safer. Those arguing for a pullout from Iraq seem to think that this will somehow increase our safety. This is little more than an attempt to return us to our pre-9/11 blissful ignorance. Leaving Iraq to fend for itself isn’t going to change the fact that we are at war. It will only make matters worse (see here). But our efforts in Iraq need to become more effective—rapidly (see here and here).

War is a messy business, but this one won’t go away by ignoring it or trying to barricade ourselves within our own borders. It needs to be fought on all fronts, and must include every useful diplomatic, military, intelligence, technology, communication, education, business, and personal effort. It took Americans a long time to understand the threats that precipitated WWI and WWII, but once we did, we became very focused and applied every effort toward achieving success. We’re not there yet on the war with radical Islam, but I think the time is coming that it will become impossible not to deal with it in a decisive way.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Give Them Liberty, or Cower and Ignore

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” –John F. Kennedy, inaugural address, January 20, 1961

“The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” –George W. Bush,
inaugural address, January 20, 2005

“[W]e cannot put our American troops, and ask them to do the things we are asking them to do in the middle of a civil war [in Iraq], and that’s where it’s headed.” –Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE),
Face the Nation, August 6, 2006

“I can't in good conscience, Bob, face a family in Connecticut and say to them, ‘Send your sons and daughters [to Iraq] because they’re going to be a referee in a civil war.’” –Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT),
Face the Nation, August 6, 2006

What do we as Americans believe with regard to freedom and democratic government? Is it really the best hope for global peace, as President Bush says? Is it really worth bearing any burden and meeting any hardship for, as President Kennedy said? Or is it the most monstrous thing to come along in a long time, as the Ward Churchills and Noam Chomskys would have us believe? Or is it simply morally equal to other forms of government?

Let’s put it this way. How many of us would be willing to pull up and go live under one of the non-democratic regimes that populate the face of this planet? China, anyone? Or Myanmar? North Korea? Perhaps the Cuban climate is more to your liking? How about Syria or Iran?

Whatever our system’s flaws or your disagreements with the current administration, the fact is that there aren’t many of us that would care to live under a non-democratic government. Oh, people in democratic societies often admire features from other governmental forms, but they don’t want the whole thing.

We now find ourselves mired in a very difficult situation in the Middle East. Senator Dodd and Senator Hagel represent two disparate camps that agree that we should get out, or at least get out of Iraq for now. They’ll worry about running away from Afghanistan once we have successfully run away from Iraq.

Senator Dodd represents the doves—those that oppose war as a matter of principle. While his voting record and his rhetoric make him seem more like an unenthusiastic supporter of the Iraq war until it went bad, he is starkly aware of the strong anti-war sentiment in his state that resulted in the ouster of his three-term colleague, Senator Joe Lieberman in yesterday’s primary race (see here). So, Senator Dodd is necessarily taking the dovish road. Indeed, it appears that the Democratic Party apparatus believes that this stance will produce significant wins for them in the November elections.

Senator Hagel, on the other hand, is in the camp National Review Editor Rich Lowery refers to as the “To Hell With Them” Hawks. They see the Middle East as an intractable problem that we have neither the wisdom, the capability, nor the fortitude to overcome. They want to pull back to secure areas, fortify those areas, and let the Middle East fight it out among themselves. In the meantime, Senator Hagel and his compadres find themselves darlings of the national media because they are presently useful for the MSM anti-Bush agenda.

Jed Babbin, former undersecretary of defense under Bush I, is among yet another group of hawks that is supportive of the effort in Iraq, but is critical of the Bush Administration’s management of that effort. For example Babbin said yesterday (go here to listen to 8/8/06 hour 2 clip), “The President is not prosecuting this war in a manner that is calculated to win it.” Even some squarely in the President’s corner are pointing out that broad mismanagement of expenditures in Iraq is hampering our efforts there.

Indeed, given the current state of affairs it would be difficult for even the President’s most ardent supporters to put a happy face on Iraq, let alone the whole Middle East. The current war between Hezbollah and Israel that has dragged on due to terrorist support from Iran and Syria plus Israeli intelligence shortcomings (reminiscent of our own CIA’s bungling) is certainly helping to cement the concept of the Middle East as a perversely incorrigible conundrum.

Senator Hagel asks us to consider what will happen to our military in Iraq if we don’t get the heck out of there. He and Senator Dodd plead for sending former Presidents Bush I and Clinton to work the diplomatic circuit in the Middle East. But it’s not clear how it is expected that these diplomatic efforts would succeed in light of the fact that we would be demonstrating that we have no credible military threat to back it up. We would be vindicating Osama bin Laden’s assertion that we lack the fortitude to deal with difficult, drawn out conflicts.

American Enterprise Institute scholar Frederick W. Kagan explores the alternatives to decisively winning in Iraq (here), and concludes that “a failed or failing state in Iraq will demand our constant attention and intervention… Abandoning Iraq now will provide no real relief: it will only make a dangerous world even more dangerous.” While wailing about the price we will pay for staying in Iraq, the Dodd and Hagel camps fail to address what price we will pay if we leave without completing the job properly.

Family and culture researcher Stanley Kurtz calls himself a gloomy hawk. He believes that due to the nature of the mess that is the Middle East, “we’re facing years — maybe decades — of inconclusive, on/off (mostly on) hot war, unless and until a nuclear terror strike, a major case of nuclear blackmail, or a nuclear clash among Middle Eastern states ushers in a radical new phase.” Let’s be clear that Kurtz is not focusing on Iraq, but on the deep seated ideology that is pervasive throughout the Middle East and that Westerners don’t even begin to comprehend.

David Warren writing in the Ottawa Citizen notes that Americans and Westerners are systematically protected from the intense hatred on display among radical Islamists and everyday Muslims because journalists believe “that the material is too "inflammatory", and might prejudice people against Palestinian or other Muslims.” He wonders why these journalists can’t seem to understand that this type of reporting is “outrageously misleading.” It’s no wonder Westerners don’t understand the Middle East, given that we are fed a constant diet of watered down drivel.

While Kurtz believes in democratization, he pines, “Even a long-term military occupation cannot promote democratization in the absence of social peace.” And social disruption is what the insurgents in Iraq have succeeded in creating, thereby, effectively squelching our democratization efforts. But Peter Wehner, who heads the White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, sees a silver lining in this opposition (here). He contends that “the best proof of how dangerous democracy is to Islamic fascists is the energy with which they are trying to defeat it.”

Kurtz is disgusted with the deep seated and broadly accepted negative ideologies in the Muslim world, saying that “the entire Western world now stands in a position roughly analogous to that of Israel: locked in an essentially permanent struggle with a foe it is impossible either to placate, or to entirely destroy — a foe who demands our own destruction, and whose problems are so deep they would not be solved even by victory.” He says, “Withdraw or attack, the results are the same: more hatred, more terror, more war. Compromise and settlement have been ruled out from the start by a pervasive ideology, an ideology that is a product of the underlying inability to reconcile Islam with modernity.”

Wehner, on the other hand, is more optimistic. Of course, that’s his job. He takes on critics of elections in the Middle East and handles each objection individually, including the Hamas victory in Palestine. He says, “Elections are not the problem; rather, they reveal what problems exist and remind us what tyranny in the Middle East has wrought. Liberty is the antidote to the virus, not the virus itself.”

Wehner understands the complaints of those that criticize the President’s push for elections in Iraq ahead of the formation of liberal institutions upon which democratic societies depend. But he argues that there was little chance of encouraging the development of such institutions without pursuing free elections. He argues, “Perfection cannot be the price of support for democracy …”

Wehner admits that the road to democratic societies in the Middle East is a long one that is fraught with many obstacles, including an age old ideology. But he argues that the track record for democracy in the Middle East is actually quite remarkable when you consider the starting point. “No serious alternative strategy to the Freedom Agenda has been proposed,” he contends.

And that is the challenge that awaits an answer from the get-out-now contingencies. One can easily argue that the war effort and our entire Middle East policy might be handled better, but yet to be explained is how running away when the going gets tough is going to improve our position in the Middle East and is going to improve our national security. Years of hiding from and/or ignoring the problem brought us 9/11.

How is fulfilling bin Laden’s prophecy about us being weak going to prevent another terrorist attack on our home soil? Given that Iran is the bully on the block—the one calling the shots in the Middle East, how is departing from our military bases on its border going to help our strategy or improve our bargaining position with Iran?

Both Kagan and Kurtz make a strong point that if we do leave Iraq, we will eventually be back there, or somewhere close by. Only the cost will be far greater in both resources and lives at that point. The President’s team argues that democratization is the only path to real security. While many do not like the turn this path has taken, few offer cogent ideas about alternative paths that have any hope of achieving this goal. Those that love liberty ought to wish it for everyone else.

Like it or not, this generation has had the incredibly difficult problem thrust upon us of Islam’s juxtaposition with modernity. We can try to ignore it/run away from it/hide from it, but didn’t we learn our lesson about that course in WWII? Face it, we will. But if we choose to face it later rather than sooner, the interest rate we will pay for a brief interlude of faux peace will be high indeed.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Should We Scrap Anti-Doping Measures?

I am not your average sports minded guy. Most of the time I couldn’t tell you which professional sport is in season, let alone tell you anything about the teams and players. But you’d have to have been living in a cave for the past decade or so not to know about the huge drug problem in professional (and college, and amateur, and high school, etc.) sports.

We’re not talking about players doing hallucinogenic drugs. We’re talking about performance enhancing drugs. Today it is standard practice for athletes to give samples that can be tested for unapproved substances. And in long-term events, like cycling events that last several days, participants often give a number of samples at various intervals. This is all done mainly to ensure fairness, although, there is also a concern (even if it is only litigiously based) for athlete safety.

But athletes and their handlers always seem to be one step ahead of the enforcers. There is a continual pursuit to find an undetectable performance enhancing treatment that can give the participant an edge over his/her competition. And the practice seems to be extremely broad based. The sentiment seems to be, “anything to win.”

Yesterday’s Deseret News included a strange article by editorialist Lee Benson on this subject. Benson, obviously smarting from U.S. cyclist Floyd Landis’ (apparently impending) disqualification from the Tour de France due to abnormally high amounts of testosterone measured after his stunning ride in Stage 17 of this year’s race, wants the whole anti-doping movement to dry up and blow away. This is strange coming from Mr. Benson. Somehow I doubt he’d jump on George Soros’ bandwagon to legalize illegal drugs for the general populace.

Benson notes that it is increasingly difficult to find sports participants that don’t use performance enhancing drugs. His solution is to make a rule against it, and then leave it up to each participant’s personal honor. Let them wear a badge of personal shame if they violate this rule, but scrap the whole anti-doping program. Benson suggests that this system couldn’t possibly produce worse outcomes than our current method.

There’s one problem with Benson’s proposal. As demonstrated by the actions of athletes and their handlers, the underlying culture that would make it work simply doesn’t exist. Shame and dishonor are largely absent in our sports culture when it comes to personal integrity. The only honor is winning and the incidental endorsements and sponsorships (position, wealth, fame) that go along with it. How many of our top athletes care one iota about performing “clean?” How many of the fans care?

This problem goes deeper than just sports. Its manifestation in athletics is merely a symptom of its pervasiveness in our culture. School and college teachers continually note dramatic increases in cheating. Students don’t see it as any big deal. They consider it part of the cost of getting ahead. Our Congress is rife with a whole slew of scandals, but it turns out that this is just the way business is done inside the DC Beltway. Employers grapple with qualification falsification on resumes.

Institutions respond by trying to teach ethics, but even they convey dual messages, because administrators and managers (at least occasionally) act in ways other than what is taught—even quite publicly. And then they defend their actions, even litigiously.

We once had a culture of honor, where personal integrity (or at least the public perception of it) was highly prized. In fact, it was so highly prized, that insults regularly resulted in violence ranging from fist fights to duals to wars. I suspect that few today would wish to return to that era, given its incident violence and aggression. But we might want to have a culture where internal integrity was important—a culture where it was counted highly valuable to know inside that your personal integrity is intact regardless of the opinions of others.

I don’t know how you go from “I don’t care about your definition of ethical behavior—I’ve got the cash (or the title, or the power, or the babes, or whatever)” to quietly valuing personal integrity. Our culture seems to be headed in quite the opposite direction, and current ‘solutions’ don’t seem to be helping much.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Utah Budget Surplus Redux

It’s déjà vu all over again. This year’s legislative session was mostly about how to deal with the largest budget surplus ($1 billion) in Utah state history. It made for some pretty interesting, and sometimes strange political wrangling. Many legislators thought it was worse than having a budget shortfall.

It now turns out that the state has a surplus of $351 million on top of the original surplus, which has politicians, administrators, and lobbyists circling like buzzards over road kill (see here, here, and most importantly here). Of course, I want to know who calculated this amount. Hopefully it’s not the same folks that had to keep revising the figures they were feeding to the Governor about potential tax system changes earlier this year. Grab your seatbelts, because we’re in for a bumpy ride.

The Governor wants to cut taxes to give back about a third of this extra surplus to the taxpayers that overpaid it. Of course, you may recall that our politicians are still in a quandary about how to get the paltry $70 million of the original surplus that was set aside for tax relief back to the taxpayers. So maybe some of the money you overpaid could come back to you—someday, if our elected officials ever come up with a way to do it. Although it seems like this should be a simple task to oafish rubes like me, apparently our erudite elites have great trouble with the enormity and complexity of the task, so don’t get your hopes up just yet.

Ah, and what to do with the other two-thirds of this cash? I know, let’s expand the size of government. Heck, Republicans on the federal level seem to have pretty much given up on all of this limited government stuff (for which they may pay dearly this November), so why shouldn’t our Republican controlled legislature follow suit?

Oh yeah, they already have. In fact, the legislature found it absolutely necessary to use 93% of the original record surplus to “invest in the future” and to fund “under funded” government programs. I’m not saying that none of this was the right thing to do, but I believe we got our priorities messed up. The tax cut should have come first, followed by considerations of education and infrastructure (and the education cash should have been tied to some serious changes in the system), followed by social programs.


It is a good idea to limit the size of government even if it appears that society can afford to pay for more government, because every Dollar put into government increases the amount of control government exercises over your individual rights. Oh, you don’t see your rights disappear overnight. They evaporate a drop at a time over years until you find that you have to get permission to school your kids at home, you can’t have any semblance of religious practice on public property—especially in schools, and especially if it might demonstrate faith in the dominant religion, or a whole host of other limits we now blindly accept on our liberties.

And here’s a news flash for you: almost all segments of the government will *always* be “under funded.” How can this be? There are a couple of rules of simple economics and human nature at play here. One is that you can never get enough of what you don’t truly need. When we fund government programs that are “good” or “useful” but that do not fit into the context of actual need, there is no logical limit to their growth, no matter how tightly we try to define their mission.

Also, you will never find a department manager in the government that will tell you that their budget is big enough. The sheer nature of the beast means that each manager will always tell you that they need more. In fact, if you threaten to make this year’s increase less than last year’s, some will scream about “draconian cuts.” I know. I have worked in government, and that’s the way it is. Admittedly, this makes it difficult for legislators to know where true needs lie and where unnecessary demands are being made, but that’s what we elected them to do.

It is nearly impossible to cut funding below the previous allocation, so it is imperative to be extremely cautious on funding increases. When we lavishly increase spending during times of economic booms and budget surpluses, we set ourselves up for future budget shortfalls, because economic booms do not last forever. California has discovered this the hard way. But even in dire straits, they find cutting the fat (ridiculous laws and programs) out of their government to be an insurmountable task.

Cutting taxes first says that the taxpayer takes priority. It says that the people that are funding government take priority over everything else that government does. It says that producers take priority. It says that the average Joe and Jill American Taxpayer that are the majority of the “people” that our government is “by,” “of” and “for” come first.

Cutting taxes first also boosts those on the margin into a slightly better economic situation by letting them keep more of what they earn. Don’t underestimate the importance of those on the margin. Those that are doing OK often think, “Hey, a tax cut is only going to put only $X back into my pocket. The government might as well keep it.” The problem with this is that they are projecting their situation onto the whole of society. History shows that small actions that affect those on the margin have major impacts over time. We need to make sure that we are helping them become what will be best for them and for society.

It will be interesting to see what our elected officials choose to do with this new surplus amount. I would like to see a positive change in priorities, but I’m not holding my breath.