Saturday, May 29, 2004

Housing bubble?

Kevin Drum comments on the large drop in housing starts in May, convinced that there’s a nationwide housing bubble. I heard the same slant on National Public Radio’s business show Marketplace. The Economist magazine did a story several months ago arguing an international housing bubble exists, especially in the US, and we’re going to follow Japan’s example of recession and stagnation when it bursts.

I think they’re probably right, and we’ve been in a bubble for a long time. I’m not sure what to do about it though, as a nation or as individuals. Greenspan has apparently argued he was right not to try and pop the stock-market bubble, because the resulting recession when it burst “naturally” wasn’t too severe. I find that hard to accept – maybe the recession would have been even less severe, or merely a slowdown, absent the bubble. Anyway I think as soon as enough people acknowledge a bubble exists, then it will burst, and that’s not too far away. It’s a good time to assign blame though – I give Bush, Greenspan, and the Republican Congress the lion share of responsibility, although the Democrats should get some blame for not even warning about it now, or doing anything about it back in the 1990s when they were in charge. If any prominent person has done anything about this problem, I’m not aware of it.

As an individual, I’m not sure what to do – why am I thinking of buying a car? A severe recession would quite possibly kill my job. On the other hand, I waited for years for the high-tech bubble to burst; it’s a difficult thing to time. I wouldn’t buy a house now, though.

The comment section on Kevin’s post has some interesting stuff, except by some idiot named “Brian”. Kevin’s site also has a search function, so if you look up “housing bubble” you’ll find a lot more information he’s posted.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Two bumper sticker ideas

Number 1: Al Qaeda Hates This Car

Something I could use when I get my hybrid - the idea being a positive bumper sticker for those of us who are not quite up to surreptitiously sticking the "I'm changing the environment - ask me how" bumper stickers on SUVs.

I think using "Al Qaeda" is better than "Osama" - Bush has finally taken CIA resources out of Iraq and sent them to Afghanistan, so hopefully "Osama" will be an outdated reference.

Number 2: Even Slaves Could Marry - no explanation needed, I think.

I might actually do something about the first bumper sticker. I'll have to do some research on getting bumper stickers made.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

The car race is on

Today I put in my deposit to get on the waiting list for a Toyota Prius. In San Francisco, the wait time has increased from 3-4 months to 4-6 months. Apparently Peter Jennings and his crew came down to interview the dealership here because they sell more Prius(es?) than anyone else in the country; you can see the show tomorrow night.

The race in this case is between my potential future Prius, and my existing, 17-year-old, 181-thousand-mile, Honda Accord. Will the Prius get here before the Honda demands yet more expensive and not cost-worthy repairs, or gives up entirely? I’ll keep folks apprised of the drama.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Feeling like a cover-up

I'm deeply suspicious of conspiracy theories, but the prosecution of the soldiers abusing prisoners in Iraq does not feel like a normal prosecution. In a normal investigation of a criminal network, someone less culpable and less important in the network is convinced to plead guilty and implicate higher-ups in return for leniency. Then those people a step higher up, facing the testimony against them, are forced to accept a less-lenient deal that includes testifying against their superiors, and the process continues until you have the evidence to convict the most important members.

Specialist Sivits, who should be the start of this process, is pleading guilty and implicating his direct superiors, but then says the problem stops there:

Sivits told investigators that the abuse would not have happened had higher-ranking members been present. "Our command would have slammed us," he said. "They believe in doing the right thing. If they saw what was going on, there would be hell to pay."

(Thanks to Talk Left for the tip to the article.)

In other words, it feels like the Bush administration is trying to create a show trial, and declare to everyone that it's only a few bad apples by cutting a deal with one of the abusers in order to get him to say the right things. I'm pretty sure I don't believe this actually - it would require pretty extensive cooperation by military prosecutors - but it feels like that to me. I bet the Arab world, which will not take a generous view of anything the US does, will feel the same way, and likely believe it.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Liberty going up in smoke

I just finished listening to a BBC radio correspondent interview the outgoing chairman of British American Tobacco, who apparently has done an excellent job of boosting the company’s profits. The chairman went on at great length about being a “socially responsible” tobacco company, about not limiting people’s freedom to choose to smoke, and about the World Health Organization’s supposed imposition of Western values in its campaign to limit smoking in developing nations. He faced incredibly sharp questioning by the interviewer, and admitted that smoking is addictive “in a conventional sense,” just like many other things are addictive, but that people still deserve the freedom to choose.

For semi-libertarians like myself, the question of whether people should be allowed to become addicted to cigarettes or heroin is a difficult problem. A hard-core libertarian wouldn’t have a problem – people have the right to do anything they want to themselves, no matter what the consequences are. But choosing to destroy one’s own freedom through addiction is tougher for those of us who take a common-sense approach to maximizing human freedom.

The point of maximizing human freedom is what distinguishes tobacco companies from all libertarians. All libertarians want more freedom, while all tobacco companies are trying to persuade their customers to become addicted to something and lose their freedom. The oh-so-British, oh-so-socially-responsible chairman of a tobacco company wrapping his company philosophy in libertarian trappings is disgusting. What they are trying to do burn away liberty, not protect it.

Side notes: the Social Responsibility section of BAT’s website is here. Under the youth smoking subsection, the FAQs basically deny that advertising plays an important role in encouraging youth to smoke. BAT, in other words, is scum.

BBC correspondents always question their interviewees more sharply than Americans do. I wish our leaders had to put up with that type of questioning – we might get better leadership.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

Time to see a crescent Venus

If you own or can borrow a pair of binoculars (10x magnification or better), get out after sunset and take a look at Venus, the very bright star in the western sky. I’ve watched it off and on for months, and now is the first time I can see it’s a crescent, just like the moon is a crescent at this point in its phase. Kind of a neat thing to observe, a visual confirmation that the phase of the moon is not some unexplainable, unique thing, but part of a larger pattern of the universe in motion.

While you’ve got the binoculars out, take a look at the obvious, second-brightest star in the sky after Venus, not as low in the west as Venus, but looking higher and more to the south. This star is the planet Jupiter, and with 10x binoculars, you should see between two and four of its moons lined up on either side of the planet. That’s what Galileo saw 400 years ago, and what set human perception of our world in motion.

To see what Venus would look like from a very large telescope, click here. I got the image from the NASA Solar System Simulator website, which has a lot of great stuff to use.

UPDATE: Some more night sky: look just up and to the left of Venus, and you will see a faint, reddish star. That's Mars, much fainter than it was last summer because it's far away from earth now. Look further up and to the left from Mars and you'll see a brighter blue-white star, which is Saturn. Ten power binocs may be enough to make out Saturn's moon Titan. With my 12-power binocs, Saturn looks a little elongated, which I'm pretty sure is the beginning of a distinction between the planet and its rings.

Directly above Saturn are two bright stars, close together. Those stars are the twins in the Gemini constellation, part of the zodiac.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Blood and treasure: looking at Iraq war forecasts with hindsight

An interesting article about the monetary costs of the Iraq war prompted me to try and dig out forecasts of what the war would cost in lives and money. It wasn’t easy, at least on the casualty side.

Blood. Gulf War I killed 148 American soldiers. In March 2003, we were stronger and our enemy was weaker, but we faced a more difficult task of defeating Saddam on his own turf. My vague recollection is that “experts” gave a range of 500 to several thousand Americans dying in the proposed war. I’ve found nothing to directly back up my recollection (my Google search is here, feel free to look at it or revise it if you’re interested). This Chicago Tribune article says the Bush Administration refused to give estimates of its own, which meant public approval of the war had to rely on outside estimates. A West Point instructor guessed less than a thousand American dead, while a Brookings Institution expert guessed as much as 5,000 dead.

The current number of American dead (excluding civilian contractors) is 773, according to this excellent website, and trend figures on the site are not encouraging. There will be considerably more than a thousand dead when we exit (whenever that is), although I have trouble seeing 5,000 Americans dying there. Fewer than 200 Americans died in combat before liberating Baghdad, far beating expectations. No one that I’ve seen predicted the aftermath would be so deadly. The end result will probably be in the middle of expectations.

Treasure. The SF Chronicle had this informative article. Gulf War I cost $84 billion in current dollars, 90% of that paid by our allies, so less than $9 billion to the U.S. In late 2002, the Bush administration rebuked its own, since dismissed, economic adviser for estimating the cost of prospective war of being $100-200 billion, and instead suggested a total cost of $50-60 billion. The Chronicle has various figures for actual costs, one of which is $63 billion from March 2003 to January 2004. This figure excludes costs of preparing for the war. We know the Bush Administration asked for an additional $87 billion for Iraq last August and spent almost all of it (although some money went to Afghanistan), and now wants another $25 billion. This chart attached to the Chronicle article suggests $130 billion dollar costs for Iraq, excluding war preparations. War critic estimates I’ve seen usually guess at $200 billion spent so far, but with little to no documentation. The Chron estimates another $50 billion will be needed through the 2005 fiscal year, and nobody knows after that (to Bush, “nobody knows” equals “free”). I will bravely guess that Iraq will cost us an additional total of 50 to 200 billion dollars after fiscal year 2005, before it finally reaches a point where we spend relatively little money there on an annual basis. Adding $30 billion for war preparations prior to March 2003 (to make up a figure out of absolutely nothing), my grand total is $210 to $360 billion dollars, or three to seven times the Bush estimate, and twenty to forty times the cost of Gulf War I.


The "blood" analysis excludes Iraqis, American civilians, and third-party nationals. We can forget getting reliable data on Iraqi deaths, let alone a breakdown into combatant versus non-combatant deaths. We can bet it is far higher than American deaths. American civilian and other nationals deaths might be available to someone doing additional research.

Yep, this post is 20-20 hindsight talking. The point is to look at forecasts afterwards, and decide who you trust, and whether your own judgments at the time were right.

Judging in March 2003 whether invading Iraq was worth the blood and treasure involved the perception of the vast majority (including me) that Iraq had WMDs.

Sometime before the November election, the 1000th soldier will die in Iraq. I expect a lot of soul searching in the media. I also guess that both presidential campaigns already have their written statements prepared for that day.

I could swear the Bush Administration said last August that the $87 billion they asked for would be the grand total for both Iraq and Afghanistan, and they wouldn’t need any more afterwards. Haven’t been able to confirm that.

Saturday, May 08, 2004

Rumsfeld’s timing

Just a guess here, but I think the fact that there are more and worse Iraqi prison photos yet to be released has played a role in Rumsfeld’s failure to resign. If he resigns now, people will demand still more action at a later point when those other photos and videos get released. Better then (the Bush administration thinks) to wait until the other evidence is released and at that point have Rumsfeld take the fall, if necessary.

Different issue: some American civilian contractors involved in the abuses are considered above the law because they’re arguably not subject to US military law, but are also not subject to Iraqi courts pursuant to an “agreement” made by the US occupation. Seems like there’s an easy solution to this – the US waives the particular civilians’ immunity to Iraqi prosecution. This should be one of the demands on the table for ways start cleaning up the mess.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Watch your blind spot

I don’t expect to do many movie reviews for this blog, but I have to make an exception for one I just rented, “Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary.” This documentary consists solely of an elderly woman talking to the camera in German for 80 minutes. That doesn’t sound very appealing, but it was fascinating. She had been picked at random as a young woman to be Hitler’s secretary for the last three years of the war, and she was with him until the end.

On a personal level it was moving and disturbing to watch her wrestle with her conscience over her blindness to Hitler’s evil, while I wondered whether to completely believe her. On the political level it was interesting for several reasons:

---Hitler never once doubted or questioned that he was doing the right thing. Moral uncertainty, or a gray area instead of black-and-white ideas of right and wrong, were concepts that escaped him.

---He never allowed anyone to question moral judgments of his administration. People were allowed to bring him bad news about the war’s progress, but the only person who ever said to him that Jews were being mistreated, a wife of a Nazi official, was banished from his presence.

---Hitler believed he had been chosen by Providence to lead Germany.

---He hid from himself the terrible consequences of his choices. His train traveled with blinds down to hide the destruction of bombing raids, and his chauffeur knew to drive the Berlin roads with the least-damaged buildings.

---When it was all over and the secretary returned to her home in southern Germany, she was amazed at the respect and kindness the Americans showed to occupied Germany, the opposite of what they expected.

I don’t believe it's useful or truthful to equate modern leaders to Hitler. Drawing comparisons and learning lessons from Germany’s experience with Hitler is another question, however. I wish Bush paid attention to history.

For more information about the movie, click here.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Effects of the Iraqi prisoner horror

Some commentators have noted the danger that the scandal poses to American POWs. At first I wasn't sure if I agreed, thinking that people who would be willing to do awful things to our POWs, would do them even without the photos. But thinking some more, I could easily imagine scenarios such as a debate among enemy prison guards over how badly to treat American POWs. These pictures could help the sadistic guards overcome resistance from the less brutal guards.

The other thing I imagine will happen is that as American POWs are brutalized, they will be shown these pictures and told, "we have every right to do this to you." The psychological damage of the pictures could be as damaging as physical pain.

Finally, this is not a short-term problem. These pictures will be used against American POWs not just now but anytime in the future, in completely unrelated wars. Only when the photos appear outdated will they stop to pose a danger to Americans - I guess maybe forty years.

What a fiasco.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

A hero in drag

I really, really hate hero-worship, so much so that I sometimes fail to notice when an actual hero is being worshipped. This time I had to jump on the bandwagon though, for the following quote from the SF Chronicle website:

His brother-in-law and close friend, Alex Garwood, described how Tillman handled his duties when he became godfather to Garwood's son. He came to the ceremony dressed as a woman. Not as a religious commentary. He was doing a balancing act.

"We had two godfathers, no godmother,'' Garwood explained. And what NFL player turned Army Ranger wouldn't don drag to make that math work?

The last thing that I would have expected. Someone who could pass through that kind of macho lifestyle and show up in drag deserves respect.

Sunday, May 02, 2004

Not dishonorable, but still disqualifying

I think there's a parallel between the controversy over Bush's military record and the 2000 presidential election fiasco in Florida. In both cases, the focus on disputed facts has distracted people from drawing important conclusions from the facts that noone disputes.

Starting with the disputed vote in Florida, I wish that Bush had won the state with a clear victory, so we all would have then focused on the fact that he would not be president in a country with a democratic system, because Bush lost the national vote. There has been no attempt to fix the electoral college since then, and little focus on whether Bush should moderate his policies towards the position of the candidate that won the vote. It looks like we may have another close election, so it very well could happen again that the losing candidate will be in the White House next January. We've learned nothing.

Getting back to Bush's military records, there are disputes over whether strings were pulled to get him into the National Guard to keep him from Vietnam, whether more strings were pulled to put him ahead of other candidates for pilot service, whether his apparent failure to take a required physical that was necessary to allow him to continue flying constituted a dereliction of duty, whether he was AWOL in Alabama, and whether his military records have since been purged of damning documents. Maybe Bush is as pure as the driven snow regarding these disputes. What's undisputed though is that Bush supported the war in Vietnam, he was the right age, he was unmarried, and he had no children. In other words, he was in the category of the most appropriate person to go to Vietnam.

So was it dishonorable for him to fail to volunteer to serve in Vietnam, as Kerry had done? No - you can believe that something is the right thing to do, even if it's dangerous, without having to automatically volunteer yourself for the position. As long as you take no unethical steps to avoid an unpleasant or dangerous duty, you don't have to take the next step of seeking that duty out. So long as Bush is as pure as the driven snow on the disputed facts, then, he did not act dishonorably.

But he still should be disqualified from the presidency. We're not talking about the failure to perform jury service - this is about the Commander in Chief ordering people in harm's way, people who are married, people with children, people who even oppose the president's policy, when Bush was not willing to take the same risk.

This isn't even about the modern military being all volunteer - it's not all-volunteer anymore. The military has issued stop-loss order to crucial personnel requiring them to keep serving after their stints have expired. These people are in the same position of draftees, of having to take risks they did not assume willingly. More about this issue in a posting for another day.

In 2000 this might not have mattered so much - ordering soldiers into combat was only a possibility, not a certainty, and Gore's service as a military journalist in Vietnam did not contrast as strongly as Kerry's does with Bush. Now we live in a different era. Bush's actions may not have been wrong (maybe), but they were not enough to allow him to be president.

Saturday, May 01, 2004

An okay-type of big brother

I heard an announcement about this on the radio and decided to look it up - the Report a Smoking Vehicle program, which encourages people to report license numbers for vehicles giving off visible smoke. Their website is here. Summary is the program operates in the Bay Area only, where people call 1-800-EXHAUST to report vehicles (or they can report it on the web here. More than 10 seconds of visible smoke violates the required standard. An average of 35,000 calls are made each year, and apparently the owner of the offending vehicle gets a letter informing them they have been reported and may be breaking the law. A "high percentage" of reported owners supposedly return a form confirming the problem and stating that steps were taken to fix the problem.

In the modern Ashcroft Era, I'm not sure how enthusiastic I am about encouraging citizens to inform on each other. I think this one is more or less okay, however. The smoke is ten to fifteen times as polluting as normal car exhaust, and there's no question that air pollution is killing people. While I'm not completely happy about it, I think it's a good idea.