Saturday, April 29, 2006

Bread and Circuses

The nation is outraged, outraged I say, by the cost of gasoline. And, with typical pre-pubescent petulance, they are demanding that ‘something’ be done about it. Naturally, this being a congressional election year, the pols are eager to do ‘something’. They clearly hope that providing bread and circuses for the unwashed masses will garner them a lot of votes this fall. Through it all, they assume that the public is incredibly ignorant of basic economics. Surprisingly, the evidence seems to indicate that they are correct in this assumption.

What is magical about a particular number? Why does three dollars become an issue more than $2.50? Three bucks is apparently the trigger number this year for that consumer outrage. Having lived through the days of two-bit a gallon gas when I was growing up, I admit to being stunned by the cost. But, then I was buying my first house shortly after those years and paying $18,750 for three bedrooms, brick, air-conditioned with fireplace, carpeting and all appliances. Recently, I completed my new home and consider it a bargain when it came in under $300K. So why the brouhaha over the cost of gas? If we take a look at the cost of a gallon of gas in constant year dollars, we find that we’ve been pretty fortunate in terms of that portion of our household budget spent on automotive fuel.

Then there is the political screaming about “excess” profits. What exactly is an excess profit? My economic education taught me that the price of something is what a willing buyer and a willing seller agree upon. If the price is too high, the buyer won’t buy. If the price is too low, the seller won’t sell. Probably the worst situation is one in which the price is set by a third party in a totally arbitrary manner without regard to profit, investment, labor, infrastructure, transportation, etc. It shouldn’t be too difficult to remind anyone over the age of thirty about the Communist experiment in such pricing. While bread was cheap in Moscow, it also wasn’t available. Despite the Politburo’s effort to price it, the producers couldn’t quite produce it for that amount. Hence, no bread. So, let’s agree that government determining what a proper profit should be is a ridiculous concept. If the price is too high, buyers won’t buy—that’s sufficient control

Which brings us to “windfall” profits and the presumption that when such occur, the proper role of government is to confiscate that windfall and somehow thereby assuage the insult to the market. What a load of crap! Anyone who believes that a government which takes any profit away from an industry is somehow going to benefit the individual is ready to make a down payment on a bridge in Brooklyn. Taking money from the oil industry in America is going to do several things, but none of them will be particularly beneficial to Joe Six-Pack.

It will penalize shareholders of the oil companies. And, don’t say that isn’t you unless you don’t have any investments of any kind including a pension or retirement plan where you work. It will penalize the oil companies which will create a reluctance to invest in exactly what is needed to help control rising fuel costs—exploration, refining, capacity, production, etc. It will inevitably raise the cost at the pump as the cost of the penalty gets piled atop the basic costs of the product. No good comes of the windfall profits tax beyond the creation of a pool of money for the political panderers to spend on bread and circuses.

If Americans were a little bit more worldly, they might be aware of the price others pay for gas. While we’ve had decades of low priced fuel, Europe has been a showplace of what market interference can cause. Twenty-five years ago when I was stationed in Spain, the cost of gas was somewhat obscured by pricing per liter. Yet, if you did the simple math equating a liter to about a quart and then multiplying by four to get cost per gallon, you found that gas was between three and four bucks a gallon. It didn’t change no matter where you went in Europe—France, Germany, Italy, England, or wherever. Always about three or four bucks. Now, the price is closer to five or six dollars a gallon. What are we griping about?

Reality ought to set in rather than pandering. Let’s start by admitting that the cost of gas isn’t generated in the USA. It’s a global commodity in a changing global market. Supply and demand can’t be ignored. The issue is that demand is increasing faster than supply with the rapid technological and economic advances of Asia, most notably China and India. More vehicles for more millions of people means more competition for that available supply of oil.

Simultaneously supply is jeopardized. We don’t control the producers of crude oil. The Middle East is not even remotely stable and therefore supply is not assured. Venezuela is in the political grasp of a US-phobic Marxist who may or may not hinder that supply source. Other areas face problems of transporting through terrorist filled regions. That drives prices up.

Top the whole steaming pie with a load of environmental do-gooders protecting us from theorized harm to the planet. When the US has untapped reserves of oil which cannot be exploited because of restrictions imposed when oil was cheap, we can accept a chunk of the pricing blame ourselves. Technology has improved drilling and production techniques considerably from the dirty old days of the 1940s. It is possible to co-exist with nature while still recovering the petroleum resources.

Building refineries in the US should be a priority. When we note that no new refinery has been built since the 1970s, it seems obvious that we could simultaneously reduce risk, increase production and lower costs by getting busy investing in our infrastructure.

Shifting of major oil users to other energy sources has got to take place. Firing electric generating plants with oil or even natural gas puts pressure on the petroleum markets. Nuclear power generation is safe, clean and relatively low cost today. We’ve got to face that fact. Home heating, particularly in older communities needs to shift from oil to other fuels as well. Wind and sun aren’t particularly efficient nor are they small footprint, so let’s get serious about nukes.

Finally, let us please get away from thinking that we can tax our way to lower prices. Only one person ever pays a tax regardless of where it is levied. That’s the consumer, the citizen, the man-in-the-street.

My advice is let the market work. If gas costs too much, people will drive less, buy smaller cars or shift their transportation mode. If some company makes too much money, another company will sell the product for less and eat away at the pig’s market share. And, if politicians want to get elected, let them show me that they understand capitalism and free markets better than taxocracy and throwing bread and circuses for the masses.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Never Forget

Release No. 4-11-06
April 21, 2006

'Doolittle goblets' find new home

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio - Eighty silver goblets commemorating each man who flew in the "Doolittle Raid" over Japan were added to the collection of the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force here Wednesday.

"We are honored in the trust you place in us. We will honor and respect that trust." retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles D. Metcalf, director of the museum, told the eight raiders attending a reunion here this week on the 64th anniversary of the famous raid.

The "Doolittle Tokyo Raiders" were volunteer airmen from the U.S. Army Air Forces, the predecessor of the U.S Air Force, who on April 18, 1942, flew 16 B-25 Mitchell airplanes in an attack against Japan during World War II. Army Lt. Col. James H. "Jimmy" Doolittle led the raid.

The goblets, which were presented to the raiders by the city of Tucson, Ariz., in 1959, have taken a highly symbolic place in the history of military aviation, U.S. Air Force officials said.

The goblets were previously housed at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 1973, retired Lt. Col. Dick Cole, Doolittle's co-pilot during the raid on Japan, built a portable display case to transport the goblets to the raiders' annual reunions.

At every reunion the surviving Doolittle Raiders meet privately to conduct a "Goblet Ceremony." After toasting the raiders who have died since the last reunion, they turn the deceased men's goblet upside down. Each goblet has the raider's name engraved twice - so that it can be read if the goblet is right side up or upside down.

In addition, the president of Hennessy Company gave Jimmy Doolittle a bottle of 'Hennessy Very Special' cognac, vintage 1896, the year of Doolittle's birth. When there are only two raiders left, these two men will open the bottle and have a final toast to their departed comrades, Air Force officials said.

"I've been wondering who the other guy is going to be to enjoy the bottle of cognac," Cole, who officially presented the goblets to the museum, quipped during the ceremony.

The goblets will be displayed alongside a B-25 bomber at the museum, which receives more than 1 million visitors per year, museum officials said.

"Airmen have a proud heritage that we can call upon as we move forward to an unlimited horizon that is ahead of us. The Raiders are not only a part of our Air Force heritage, but they are our heroes," Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Lichte, assistant vice chief of staff and director of the Air Force Staff, said during the ceremony.

Lichte credited the Doolittle Raiders with helping turn the tide in the Pacific theater during the war. "The eventual triumph of the Allies was certainly not a given, but the raiders set us on the path to victory and on a path that we will follow for many years to come," he said.

The general said the Doolittle Raiders define what it means to be an airman, and their legacy serves as an inspiration. "Our young airmen are inspired by the innovation of their forefathers and, of course, all these raiders," Lichte said. "We pledge to take the heritage we inherited from you and continue to protect our nation, so that you can be proud of America's next best generation."

For more information on the Doolittle Raiders and the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, go to [http://www.wpafb.af.mil/museum/].

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Six or Thousands?

The drumbeats to overthrow Don Rumsfeld are becoming incessant. The nightmare of the pacifists, peace-mongers, cowards and anti-American Americans is that Iraq might actually become democratized and stability might develop in the Middle East because of US intervention. There’s no way they can get elected if that should happen. That’s why it is important to bring stronger voices to bear than Cindy Sheehan. Poor Cindy, who entered the fray with such sympathy for her loss, has become too much of a caricature to be taken seriously. She’s stretched her fifteen minutes of fame into several hours and the glow is off that candle.

Now, we’ve got “the Generals” speaking out for purging of the SecDef. But, is this really a huge outcry of the military against Dilbert-style management? Hardly! So far, we’ve got six—count’em six—generals out of literally several thousand retired and active duty flag rank officers. That’s a long way from a landslide.

Yet, the mass media mavens flog the idea. One voice crying in the wilderness takes issue and speaks the truth: Generals and "Generals"

Krauthammer is quickly becoming one of my favorite commentators both in print and during his regular visits with Brit Hume on Fox News. He is rational and reasoned with seldom a bit of the hysteria that accompanies the likes of Eleanor Clift for example.

Most telling about the clamor for Rumsfeld’s scalp is the trotting out of Zinni and Shinseki again. These are a couple of senior military folks from the Clinton administration’s legacy who simply wouldn’t march to the new drummer. Make no mistake about it; generalship is a very political occupation. I spend a bit of time in the concluding chapter of my new book, “Palace Cobra” talking about careerists and warriors.

Ideally the military leadership should be composed of warriors. Success in war takes the ethic, the spirit, the courage of the warrior. It is a profession that some are not suited for, but if success is to be achieved, these leaders must be developed and promoted.

The careerist, on the other hand, is the square filler. This is the officer who attaches himself to those above him and seeks the pull to the top of the heap. He or she will gravitate toward aide-de-camp and executive officer positions assisting generals. They will jump from assignment to assignment, school to school and headquarters to headquarters gathering the credentials to qualify for a spot at the right hand of God or at least the President. They can sometimes be warriors, but it isn’t required. When it happens, that’s good. When it doesn’t that’s a disaster.

I’ve known some warriors who made it to the top of the heap. Gen. Ron Fogleman became Chief of Staff of the USAF. He was a combat warrior and a great leader. He also had the integrity to resign from his position when then President Bill Clinton demanded something which Ron wasn’t comfortable with. He remains a man of integrity and respected by all the folks that I know.

Similar general officer warriors are found if you look at the battles of the last twenty years. The Pentagon generals who show up at the embassy soirees aren’t always the ones called upon to lead in combat. Take a quick look back at Desert Storm, now fifteen years ago. Where did Norman Schwartzkopf and Chuck Horner come from? Not the puzzle palace across the Potomac, but rather from some back-water headquarters in Florida. Warriors, each, not careerists. Similar situation for Tommy Franks in Iraqi Freedom.

Now, the six iconoclasts getting all the press depend upon us to forget the distinction between warriors and careerist. Like spoiled little children, they strike out at the force in authority and in doing so they endanger the effort of those in harm’s way and undermine the policy of the current administration. Personally, I’ll be happy to listen to General Peter Pace, the current chairman of the JCS and his predecessor Dick Myers. They support the SecDef and confirm his leadership qualifications. That’s good enough for me.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

There IS a Difference

I am regularly amazed that people who get paid reasonably big bucks for opining in the major media can assert such ludicrous ideas with little to support those concepts beyond their own bias. The ongoing “crisis” regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions is spawning a lot of examples for my astonishment. Take a look at this one from Paul Krugman, published a few days ago in the New York Times: There's a Significant Difference Here

The bile spewed is no longer unprecedented. It is incredibly commonplace, but the concern is that editors, publishers and the general public read it with total acceptance.

The piece starts with the mantra of the sniveling “Blame America First” crowd. Yes, they know for a fact that everything that is wrong with the world is the fault of America. From global warming to Danish cartoons to high gasoline prices to genocide in Darfur, we are to blame. We must beat our breast, give away our prosperity, avoid conflict—particularly the armed variety—and, most importantly, impeach Bush.

Krugman starts with the assumption that the President was “itching for a fight” and therefore manipulated data, lied to the world, and then did whatever he wanted to get us to overthrow Sadaam. That’s increasingly the accepted knowledge of the left. Somehow, they have no difficulty overlooking Sadaam’s quest for nuclear weapons which dated back to the mid-80’s and Osirak. They don’t recall the use of chemical weapons in large quantities in both the eight year war with Iran and the represson of the Kurdish rebellion in the northern part of Iraq. They can’t recall the opinions of, not only the US intelligence community, but the British, the French (even!), the Germans and the Russians that Sadaam did have stocks of WMD. Intel is always a questionable commodity, but when a lot of sources provide a lot of input, conclusions gain credibility, even when there are errors in some assumptions. Ignore it all, the mantra is “Bush lied” and the bottom line is that it was all because of some sort of warrior mentality run amok.

Now, with that initial assertion, Krugman goes on to paint the Seymour Hersh opinion of impending war in darker colors. Yes, we should extend the madness to the conclusion that in a vain attempt to save the Bush II legacy, we are on the verge of an Iranian attack. And, somehow, Krugman wants to imply that once again it will be implemented by lying to the American people.

This time, of course, it may be a bit harder to keep the blinders on. How can we suggest that a case for invasion will be built on a trumped up WMD threat, when the fool on the hill in Teheran is conducting daily press conferences to tout Iran’s progress in joining the nuclear club? Is this a Baghdad Bob sort of media relations campaign but with bigger props?

Why does Iran want a bomb? You don’t have to make very long stretches of your assumptions to conclude that it is to eliminate Israel. And, along the way, to stretch the power of Iran in the region. With a bomb and demonstrated means of delivery, it will become very difficult to restrain Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ambitions. Here’s the man himself telling the world very clearly what he intends. In Plain View

It would be hard to conclude that this is some sort of Karl Rove plot!

A war, or even a surgical strike against Iran would be a very dangerous thing. It would strain American military capability to the breaking point. It would shatter a lot of carefully constructed alliances as nations would be forced to make difficult choices regarding trade, energy, security and whether or not they would be harmed or enhanced by supporting the move.

Yet, we are obviously (sorry Krugman—it is obvious,) faced with a situation in which the elected president of Iran is seriously unbalanced and pursuing a highly provocative course of action. Let’s hope that the rational players of the international scene can come together to exert some form of pressure on this rogue nation which will get compliance and willingness to live peacefully in the region. I’m pessimistic.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Looking For the Bright Side

If anyone has been pulling a Rip Van Winkle and just been roused from their slumbers, let me point out that network nightly news is dead. Like the fabled Pythonian Norwegian Blue Parrot, it has shuffled off this mortal coil…it’s dead, deceased, no longer in meaningful or coherent existence. The days of Edward R. Murrow can’t be resuscitated by George Clooney movies. The Rather-Brokaw-Jennings axis was the last gasp of a dying phenomenon. With Rather discredited, Jennings deceased and Brokaw retiring, there’s little reason for anyone to tune in to the Big Three at Five.

Dislike him as I do, I must give credit to Ted Turner for bringing this about. His concept of TV in the AM radio model of full-time news source has worked. There’s no need to wait until we get home to find out what’s happening in the world. We can tune in any of half-dozen 24/7 cable news sources, choosing the one which feeds us our preferred flavor of news. If we can’t get enough that way, we can bounce our web page back to a news source and get updated. If that is too obvious for our cubicle-mates, we can simply add a news-crawl along the top or bottom of our browser while we perform more productive tasks. If something catches our eye we can be propagandized immediately without waiting until the half hour before dinner.

There’s a down-side, of course. There isn’t really enough significant news to fill 24/7. That means we find the reporting shifting into the instigating mode. We get a nation in thrall watching hours of a white Bronco cruise slowly down the California freeway, led and followed by dozens of police cars while being tracked by a fistful of helicopters trying to avoid a mid-air with each other. That wasn’t news. Ditto for the ensuing trial.

I don’t get much intellectual stimulation from the continuous banter of the anchor reporter rehashing the same tired bit of news over and over. When Cronkite went live for most of a day tracking the Kennedy assassination, it was epic. When anchors did similar marathon shifts as we landed on the moon, it was fascinating. When Shep Smith gets his carefully coifed locks windblown on the patio of a Biloxi Holiday Inn, it’s crap. I know that hurricanes have rain and wind. He can report from the studio and look better doing it.

But, now this: Nightly News Done Nicely?

Evidence that “they” just don’t get it. This isn’t going to save CBS News. Katie Couric has no street cred. She hasn’t been in the jungle with the Army grunts like Rather. She hasn’t hit the beach or roamed the battlefield. She hasn’t gotten her face pelted with the hurricane winds on live TV. She simply is cute and perky and makes funny faces when she’s shocked or surprised. She’s nice with eggs and orange juice in the morning.

What she isn’t, is penetratingly intellectual from any side of the political spectrum. She isn’t Tony Snow or Britt Hume. She isn’t George Will or Bill Buckley. She isn’t even Chris Matthews or Chris Wallace. She’s Oprah at an anchor desk.

The good news is that this is a wooden stake into the heart of the biased main-stream media network news vampire. This is tacit admission that they aren’t interpreters of complex events, but rather they are an entertainment half-hour that simultaneously spoon feeds us the proper political spin of their bosses. We now can know for certain that they aren’t to be taken seriously when they sort through a hundred significant events worldwide and then spend their sixteen minutes amid fourteen minutes of commercials telling us what is important.

In the heyday of network news we had avuncular figures like Cronkite telling us “that’s the way it is.” And, we believed them. They were strong and old and mature and wise. They sure as hell weren’t cute and perky. If we expect Katie to hold a weaseling politician’s feet to any sort of fire to get the truth, we will be very disappointed.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Who to Believe?

If you had any doubt about the war on terror being heavily media-driven you need only review the last few days of reporting on Jill Carroll’s release. There she is, suitably attired in head scarf and swaddling clothes covering all possibly sinful exposure of bare female flesh. She smiles and laughs, describing the tiny room in which she was held captive and the one time she got to see a newspaper and television. Her captors were kind and cared for her while they resisted the evil invaders. She was never harmed and simply was being used to pressure the Americans to do what was right.

My first reaction was a flashback to “Stockholm Syndrome.” That was the phenomenon which was first recognized during a hostage taking in the Swedish capitol in 1973. After just five days in captivity the hostages sympathized with their captors rather than hating them. The psychological pressure of total dependence upon the thugs caused an emotional attachment. The syndrome was later applied to the Patty Hearst episode in which the heiress, first kidnapped for ransom by the Symbionese Liberation Army, later joins them in a bank robbery armed with an assault weapon. That’s pretty deep sympathizing in my book.

So, my impression was that Jill was traumatized by the experience and so grateful at her release that she was trying to sugarcoat the experience. Either that or she was agenda driven like the peace activists who were released last week. Her ideology was so deeply ingrained that she could overlook the evil of her oppressors. Did she forget the circumstances of her apprehension? Friendly Captors Kill Interpreter

I remembered early appearances in which she did the typical, almost clich├ęd video of pleading for compliance with the demands of her captors. There she was, huddled in front of the requisite three masked terrorists with their prop AK-47s and rocket launcher, begging for her life. They didn’t seem quite so kind and caring to me.

Now, we’ve got this: Christian Science Monitor Reports Forced Video

So, it seems that what we saw on the nightly news was really the propaganda message of the bad guys, not really a post-release expression of appreciation for the room and board of the past three months. It was coerced.

But, just when I think I understand what is going on, I encounter this one: Bash Bush--Take Two and Rolling Wow, they had power problems in the studio and had to start over to make the show properly professional quality. What a great little trooper our Jill is! She manages to keep the smile and perky delivery coherent during the second take of the message.

What’s the meaning of all of this? I’m pretty sure I know at least part of what happened. I’m very confident that the video makers are bad guys. I’ve got no doubts that they are brutal and willing to kill women, children, their neighbors and anyone they need to make their point.

But, I’m left with doubts about the whole episode. Could this have been a planned scenario? Was Jill a party to the thing from the start? Am I being too paranoid and cynical when I think that this might be a sure ticket to a Pulitzer and/or a multi-million dollar book contract? Maybe the interpreter wasn’t let in on the plot and resisted too aggressively becoming collateral damage? Maybe the final outcome on main-stream-media reportage in which the first image of Joyous Jill extolling her captors is the one that persists, is what was wanted all along.

I wish I knew the truth.