Waxman-Markey debate

In this weeks version of fun in politics, Rep. Jim Boehner R-OH, the House Minority Leader, took the stand today and started reading the 300-page amendment that was tacked onto Waxman-Markey at the last minute. Literally. Reading the thing.

Searching for an apt metaphor to what the Democrats have been doing procedurally since sweeping the trifecta... here it is: They're like a serial rapist who gets off on a technicality, then the first thing he does is go to a schoolyard with class in session, pull down his pants, and start shaking hands vigorously with Mr. Marbles. It's going to end badly for them. I just don't get it.


Dear Barack, or: How to make your presidency not a complete disaster

I like Barack Obama about as much as I liked the George Bushes or Clinton... okay, I liked Clinton a little more, but only because he had a deadlocked congress to not do his bidding. Now that I'm getting over the shock of the fiscal insanity that is going on, and reserved to watching the dollar lose 3/4 of its value in the next 10 years, I'm trying to find subtle sparkles to the touches of grey. I'm thinking there are a few things that might go the right way with this administration, if they have any of the balls or vision they keep telling us they have. So here goes:

#1: End or significant softening of the War on Drugs. The WoD has been an abject failure - it has not changed the proportion of people who do drugs, it has made the drugs that are on the streets less safe, it has created a huge mafia-run black market, it has made us into hypocrites and bullies on the world stage, and it has created millions of lifetime criminals by locking up non-violent offenders. 25% of the world's prisoners are in American jails, and we have the gall to talk about China's political prisoners. It won't be a sweeping dismantling of the DEA, but I can see these steps being taken:
  • A bill that passes jurisdiction over to the states for marijuana (or better, all drug) control.
  • A bill that eliminates mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses
  • A tax on legal drug transactions - I don't like taxes, but making something into a source of revenue is a sure way to make sure it doesn't become a source of prisoners
#2: Pull the military back onto American shores. Obama seems keen to target military spending. I think that's the last thing you should target, but there is good military spending and there is bad military spending. American might is all about kill ratios: you might kill our guys and gals, but they'll take out 40 of your before you do. It is based on technology, logistical superiority, and the ability to communicate the field of battle before your enemy can. In this context, maintaining an umbrella of bases and a standing army in Europe, and securing their oil supply with the same in the Middle East, makes no sense. Asia too. The world is a tinderbox; but right now we are standing with an ever-weakening garden sprinkler trying to keep it from combusting. We need the equivalent of a good pair of binoculars and a bucket of sand. We'd be better off with a force based on "shock and awe" rapid response than one based on blanketing. This transition was started by Bush Sr., and I hope Obama cuts in the right places.

#3: Bring back civil liberties. I have seen no sign that Obama intends to do this, unfortunately. If anything, he will retain the massive executive powers that Bush Jr. gathered and "choose" not to use them - a situation that the founders would have called insane. I guess we see the Dems' true colors now - with them in power, where is all the outcry about rolling back the PATRIOT Act? Where is the urgency to extract ourselves from Iraq (and now we're going into Mexico...) Of all his broken campaign promises, this is the one that will destroy him.

#4: Stop minority victimhood. If nothing else, and I think I see it around me even now, I hope that having a black president removes the cult of victimhood that is a blight on minority, and especially American Black, communities. We can all grow up to be president now, so hopefully everyone can stop complaining about their societally-imposed disadvantages and use them as a motivating tool. Like, you know, every immigrant group that has ever come into this country.


How to supercharge the economy

The Futurist had a brilliant piece on 8 ways to supercharge the US economy. Most are common sense and reasonably un-partisan. Here they are:

6 for Government:
1) Allow anyone with a bachelor's degree to work in the US, no questions asked. My wife and I are currently going through the process of getting her a green card. It is unconscionable. We have had the smoothest possible route and used no lawyers, and it will cost us about $3000 and a year apart when all is said and done. She has a bachelor's degree from a US university, and has worked in the US before. I would say, just throw open the borders period; but I can see where that would go politically. But seriously, we lose the productivity of a class of people (educated immigrants) who start businesses and employ people and innovate at way, way, way above the national average. Then we turn around and lose outsourced jobs because those same people are starting companies in their home countries. We lose an average of probably 3-4 jobs (real jobs, not the kind that the government "makes") for every college-educated immigrant we keep out of the US. It's beyond stupid.

2) Simplify the tax code. How about just getting rid of it altogether? If that's not going to happen, there are a half dozen better way than an intrusive and loophole-filled income tax. A national sales tax would be fair and it would promote savings and investment over consumption. A property tax, especially an unimproved value tax rather than an assessed value tax, would be about as fair as you can get - tax people for the value they don't create, only sit on and scarcify. Or a resource extraction/destruction tax that taxed corporations or individuals for withdrawing natural resources or polluting. The point is, there is not a worse way to do it than we are doing it.

3) Exempt entrepreneurs from taxes on their shares and options. I love this one, but I wonder what you would call an "entrepreneur" - is it an initial shareholder? That seems reasonable, but then you would have rich people incorporating zombie companies for the tax shelter. I like the idea of a 0% corporate tax on revenues only for the first 3 years of incorporation. But it's all a little contrived. Really, if you want to make entrepreneurship live again in the US, you would do some simple things: massive deregulation of markets, massive deregulation of private investment, make health care a personal expense again, cut the corporate and personal income tax rates.

4) Make Sarbanes-Oxley voluntary. Along with just about every accounting law or regulation on the books for businesses.

5) Reform divorce laws. He argues that easy assymetrical alimony + no-questions divorce = lots of divorced men with little financial incentive to work hard. True. How about this: reform marriage law. As in, get rid of it. Why does the government have ANY business in the institution of marriage? Seriously! Why?

6) Make tax day one day before election day. This is ingenious. This alone would go a long way towards making us hold our politicians responsible. But I would suggest pairing this with an end to paycheck exemptions, so that everyone had to write a humongous check the day before election day.

For corporations:
7) Try salary reductions before you go for layoffs. I don't see why this isn't done more. You could even offer stock to people who get their pay axed, as an incentive to help pull the company through. Layoffs and re-hiring are a phenomenal expense and inefficiency.

For the people:
8) Improve your health through easy stuff. Change your diet and exercise. Save us hundreds of billions per year, and live happier and longer lives. All it takes is some discipline. Indeed.

It's a pretty good list. Most of these suggestions are in the "duh." column. Unfortunately, they're pretty unlikely to happen.


Meet the new boss, part... uh, what number are we up to now?

Obama likes to hide political treats in his continuing resolutions for the war in Iraq too... including... wait for it... war in Mexico!



Meet the new boss, part 6


I have nothing to add here, except that the opaqueness has shifted from Abu Ghraib to the New York Fed. It's moving closer to home!


Atlas Shrugged: Casting

Heretical Ideas had a segment on the perfect Atlas Shrugged movie. I agree, it would have to be a trilogy to do it right. I thought I'd try my hand at casting:

Leo DiCaprio would be my pick for d'Anconia. He has that manic streak, but also the penetrating good looks and intelligence. Jude Law or Robert Downey Jr. might also pull it off. If you need to go lower budget, Owen Wilson might be your man. Daniel Day Lewis would be my Hank Rearden - he played Sinclair's version of the magnate so well in There Will Be Blood - I think he captured the goodness very well before he turned evil in that movie. Donnie Wahlberg would be good if you wanted to go young. Russell Crowe could do this role also, but not as well as Lewis. Dagny Taggart- Kate Blanchett is perfect, as would be Kate Winslet. I can also see Scarlett Johannson, Natalie Portman, Julianne Moore, Claire Danes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Rachel McAdams, and a number of other actresses pulling the role off. The role is basically the classical strong women with a soft side... she has to balance a strong personality with the ability to get hurt, and to top it all off she has to convincingly fall in love with three men. Word on the street is that it is Angelina Jolie - she's a little soft; I think she'd be better as Lily Rearden. Hugh Akston - Morgan Freeman is the obvious choice from the philosopher perspective. George Takei could do the philosopher part, although he may be too old to realistically run a diner. Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart could do it too. I think these choices overplay the philosopher and maybe underplay the diner cook; Robert Redford and Clint Eastwood would be up there with Freeman, but Freeman takes it by a nose. You could also go way out there with this one and cameo Tarantino or something; it's really wide open. Jim Taggart - Crowe is not sleezy and desperate enough. He would play it too "cool" - As I mentioned earlier, I could actually see him as Hank Rearden before I could see him as Jim Taggart. It's a challenging role - he has to have a boastfulness when things are going his way, and a whiny blamefulness when things are not. Maybe Obama could fit it in his schedule? But I digress. I think Ben Affleck could pull this off, or maybe even Keanu Reeves (!) - lots of style, little substance, and a short memory. Jim Carrey could probably do it too - he's shown the ability to play dark comedy - but my thought is he would be too intelligent for the role. This is a tough one. I'll have to come back to it.

UPDATE: I think the Jim Taggart role would suit Joaquin Phoenix. He basically played it in Gladiator. My friend just suggested Alan Rickman - I like that even better.

Cherryl Brooks - Christina Ricci or Kirsten Dunst have the ability to play the helpless but good-hearted girl next door, although the role might be too small for them. Joey Lauren Adams could work.

Cuffy Meigs - the brutish military officer, the Gestapo enforcer who bides his time until he is the only one who can "save" the government. Can't just be a Luco Brazzi type guy - he also has a head on his shoulders. Christopher Walken? Cillian Murphy? Benicio del Toro (too small a role)? Forest Whitaker was great as Idi Amin, and having a facial scar or a bum eye helps the role significantly. Dennis Quaid might work. But I would go with one of the Platoon sargents - Tom Berenger or Willem Dafoe. I don't remember the character from the book very well, so I'm going on archetype here.
Dan Conway - the cowboy businessman; a genius who dresses and talks like an everyman. He should be a well-built man, but soft-spoken. It's a small role, so it might not even be in the movie - but it's an important conversation because it shows one alternative to the organized strike. Tommy Lee Jones would be great in this cameo. Tom Sizemore too. If I could choose one person though, it would have to be Chris Cooper.

Eddie Willers - where do you find an actor who will play an unexceptional intellect? That's tough. You don't want to go with an unexceptional actor for such a pivotal role, so humility is the number one trait you're looking for. Don Cheadle is a guy who can play humility, as could Tom Hanks. I think Liam Neeson could do it, also Tom Sizemore. Philip Seymour Hoffman could do it for sure. Tough one. I've also always thought Willers should be a funny guy, and although it's not really there in the book I could imagine a guy like Bill Murray, Will Ferrell, or Ricky Gervais playing a truly memorable Eddie Willers.

John Galt - I don't see the problem with this casting. Most actors seem to think of themselves as Galt - the Great Man in every way. A lot of older guys from the Golden Age had the swagger to pull it off - Eastwood, Redford, Beatty, Brando, pre-collapse Mel Gibson, and DeNiro come to mind. I think they are too old for the role though. I agree Denzel Washington would be a great choice for the role. Brad Pitt, Leo DiCaprio (better as d'Anconia, but he could do Galt too), Matt Damon, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise are viable choices. I could see Christian Bale in a pinch, but not really.

Lillian Rearden - frigid, cheating, emasculating, uses sex as a bargaining tool. All the negative traits of woman in an outwardly beautiful package. The linked post says Lucy Liu, and I have no objections. Angelina Jolie could do it with a hand tied behind her back, but it's too small a role to pay for her. Keira Knightley would do it to death, and I mean that in a bad way. Jessica Alba is that person in real life, but she's not all that great an actor for what you pay for. Nicole Kidman obviously, Halle Berry, Mila Kunis, Ziyi Zhang, Michele Pfeiffer, Mena Suvari, Marisa Tomei... this one's too easy.

Midas Mulligan - I always pictured him as portly and bald. Drew Carey would be great for this role. John Goodman might pull it off too.

Wesley Mouch - Kevin Spacey could play the sleezy spineless lobbyist, but I think he's too intelligent. Jason Schwartzman has that overwhelmed look to him. The problem is that you need to find a guy who can be dark, but also not terribly intelligent. Ed Norton could do this one too, and I think Jeremy Piven would be a worthy backup.

Orren Boyle - David Huddleston or Gene Hackman

Robert Stadler - the linked site suggest Robert Duvall. I could see him being apolitical, and I can see him acting blinded to what is going on. So I'm for that one. Let me also put Philip Seymour Hoffman's name in the running on this one.

Philip Rearden - Seth Green or Simon Pegg.

Rearden's Mother - She does charity work, and comes across as holier-than-thou. I can see Meryl Streep in this role. If you want to take it more holier, Goldie Hawn would work; more sarcastic and vicious, Christina Rose could do it.

Ragnar Danneskjold - Djimon Hounsou, Colin Farrell, Jude Law, Robert Downey Jr. And hey, he's a pirate, so why not Johnny Depp?

The looters circle would have to work well. Let's say we already have Joaquin Phoenix as Jim Taggart, and Ed Norton as Mouch. Tom Berenger is Meigs, kind of on the outer edges of the circle. Simon Pritchett is the hack academic sophist philosopher, a sort of Trotsky type whom everyone gets sick of listening to. Alec Baldwin works in that role, few can look serious ripping off a ridiculous monologue like he can, but Patrick Stewart could be good if he could tone down the intellect. Dr. Floyd Ferris, the cunning underling who manipulates Stadler and takes credit for Project X, could be played by Giovanni Ribisi (hard to beat for evil looks), Zachary Quinto, or Steve Buscemi? And for the headless president Mr. Thompson, the master of backroom deals and politics, Jack Nicholson or Sam Jackson would work. Balph Eubanks is the pompous writer; I picture someone slightly flamboyant like maybe a highly restrained Nathan Lane or Christopher Lee or James Woods.

Ken Dannager - Mickey Rourke or Edward James Olmos or Kurt Russell

Ben Nealy - Orlando Bloom, Ben Affleck, James Spader

Well, there you go. Let's see if I hit any of them as information comes out.


Cars, cars, cars

In the wake of GM and Chrysler bailouts and bankruptcies, I have absorbed a lot of information about the US auto industry.  It is interesting to see some of the scapegoats.  Here are a few things I've heard that sounded reasonable but turned out to be ridiculous:

GM & Chrysler are mismanaged.  It is more honest to say the were mismanaged, a long time ago, in the 1960's.  This was back when the car companies employed far, far more workers than today, and when the industry was in a post-war growth spurt.  Rather than disburse the earnings to the workers then, the companies decided to play the ol' Social Security slight of hand and just promise them money later.  Unfortunately for everyone involved (except the executives, whose families continue to be rich), the industry became more productive faster than the market became bigger.  From a high of somewhere in the range of 400,000-600,000 workers, GM's payroll dropped to less than 100,000 today.  They don't make fewer cars - it's just that, due to better design and production processes, automation, and other advances, they are able to make them with fewer people.  Unfortunately, all their legacy pension costs are still there; so every current GM employee must work hard enough for himself and a retiree somewhere.  Some would look at this and say, well, those pensions should have been socialized - which just bumps the risk up a level or two.  Or, that those executives in the 60's should have foreseen the massive productivity leaps and planned for it better.  But that's a little bit ridiculous.  The real problem was those executives writing IOUs rather than giving the money straight up to their workers in individual retirement accounts of some sort.  Pension, both public and private, are generally sunk by wishful thinking.

Detroit makes cars nobody wants to drive.  Pshaw.  Detroit still has a huge market share, and GM is the second-largest car company in the world.  For every Pinto there has been a dozen Corvettes, Mustangs, Caravans, Tauruses, Neons, Saturns, and other popular, quality cars.  Mechanics I have spoken to will vouch that there is little quality difference between the cars that come out of Detroit and those of other countries, dollar for dollar.

Detroit has been derailed by a sick SUV fetish.  Somewhat true - but only in terms of the lobbyists employed by the companies (at great expense) to get laws passed for tax breaks and emissions standards that favored large SUVs, trucks, and vans.  People wanted SUVs because gas was cheap; if the companies had been forced to respond to the market they would have done so.  Instead, they trusted their lobbying bubble too long despite oil price signals to the contrary.  Detroit was not the only ones pushing the tank version of the family car, but if anything it covered up the extreme and perverse financial situation with pensions for a few years longer, and instead of failing in good times when laid off workers could find work elsewhere, they failed in bad times (as per usual when government tries to legislate away economic ills, it just makes them worse).  SUVs didn't kill the big three.

So what now?  I'm a little flustered with the mass infusions of cash down the hole, and a little more so with the huge equity stakes the government took.  If you want to give the cash to get them through bankruptcy, then do so.  I get it.  You can't have people getting laid off into this economy, and I can see the advantages there.  But attaching strings of equity is silly - you have to divest at some point, and then how is it different from simply having given a loan?  Either way, you'll be starving the company of cash flow at some point - one from flooding the market with their equity, and the other from loan payments.  In the case of a loan, at least they can plan the payments.