TwitLeaks

When asked about possible damage being done and lives cost by serial leaks of classified and sensitive documents, WikiLeaks[1] director, Australian internet activist Julian Assange[2], noted that he had no time to worry about such things as he had “two wars to stop.” What arrogance! This is just another in a series of naïve and gullible do-gooders meddling in affairs beyond their understanding. His target is obviously us, but the damage he is doing is to the diplomatic process – staid and outmoded as it is – worldwide. In typical fashion, Mr Assange came to his fame by “leaking” a false story – the video showing an American helicopter gunship shooting “innocent civilians” in Iraq, only to have it shown later (by real journalists) that the “civilians” were carrying AK-47s and RPG-7 launchers. Oh well … it was too good a story to source.

The first two document dumps – Afghanistan and Iraq – contained the names and locations of indigenous personnel who were helping Coalition forces with intelligence. They, and their families, are now, if not already dead, living in constant fear. Our ability to cooperate with locals to protect them from Taliban and al Qaeda fighters has been severely hampered. Congratulations Mr Assange, you have placed your beloved innocent civilians at extreme risk.

The details from this latest dump – among 250,000 documents illegally taken from classified State Department records – include discussions on our disappointment in the UN being unable to stop Iranian/Syrian arms going to Hizbollah, our disappointment in Qatar to stop funding terrorism, and hacking by the Chinese government of US computers. None of these are revelations, but the raw diplomatic cables contain confidential assessments by field agents that are meant for policymakers’ eyes, not those of anyone else. It’s an intrusion of privacy to no discernable end other than embarrassing the United States over matters that should concern Mr Assange’s deranged sense of “justice”. Apparently the innocent civilians of Israel are of no concern to him, nor the Muslim victims of most terrorist attacks. He probably admires the government efforts of Russia and PRC to penetrate American computer networks.

· Iran used Red Crescent ambulances to smuggle weapons and elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard soldiers into Lebanon during Hizbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, a leaked US diplomatic cable showed on Monday. “IRC shipments of medical supplies served also to facilitate weapons shipments,” the cable quotes an Iranian source. It added Red Crescent staff had seen “missiles in the planes” destined for Lebanon when delivering medical supplies to the plane. “The plane was … half full prior to the arrival of any medical supplies,” the cable said. The Iranian source also said an IRC hospital in Lebanon was handed over to the control of Hizbollah at the request of Hassan Nasrallah, secretary general of Lebanon’s Shi’ite party[3].

· Terrorists of all stripes, independent arms dealers, the Russian Mafia and at least one Mexican drug cartel use Qatar’s banking system with impunity. This has always been a disappointment for us, but apparently the Emirate is agnostic as to the sources of the monies deposited in its institutions. The frankness of the “eyes only” feedback on this matter will complicate a delicate situation we have been working on in private for some time.

On the up-side, these cables vindicate Israel’s long-held belief that she and her neighbors share common ground on the existential danger of Iran as currently constituted. Analysts and officials pointed to candid assessments from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt that Iran – not Israel nor continued failure of the “peace process” – posed the biggest strategic threat to regional stability. The assessments even stressed the need for considering conventional attacks on Tehran before its nuclear program becomes operational. Other officials pointed to a … diplomatic report in which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is compared to Adolf Hitler[4]. These revelations, while satisfying to us, will doubtless cause internal instabilities for each nation identified as not buying into the Islamists’ narrative of the evil US/Israel being the source of all regional problems.

All in all, Mr Assange has managed to embarrass people and institutions more significant than himself by using confidential information that offers nothing more defensible than phone taps on friends and acquaintances. In his zest for “ending two wars”, he has badly damaged the very processes by which wars are ended.


[1] WikiLeaks was launched as a user-editable site, but has progressively moved towards a more traditional publication model, and no longer accepts either user comments or edits. Wikipedia cofounder Jimmy Wales says it is no longer a wiki.

[2] Chris McGreal, Wikileaks reveals video showing US air crew shooting down Iraqi civilians, in The Guardian, 5 April 2010.

[3] See Iran smuggled arms to Hizbollah on ambulances, AFP, November 29 2010.

[4] See Joshua Mitnick, Israel greets WikiLeaks cables as vindication of its Iran policy, in Jewish World Review, November 30 2010.

California go Brách?

Again, probably, but not as we know it today – one way or the other. We have a chance to witness the value of a 50-state federation as opposed to a government with 50 subservient states. We have a classic laboratory experiment with New Jersey as the test and California as the control. New Jersey facing a $20 billion deficit and California, facing a $25 billion shortfall are taking starkly different approaches. Governor Cristy’s New Jersey is taking a pragmatic approach that actually addresses the cause – spending. Governor Schwartsenegger of California has already been to Washington seeking a $7 billion federal bailout (denied), and that wouldn’t have been California’s last request.

The moral hazard here, of course, is that once Washington bails out a state, it cannot politically refuse any other state that shows up hat-in-hand. Since only seven states are currently running surpluses, that would mean 43 bailouts in the wings. Untenable.

California’s spoiled residents would never put up with a Cristy-like cutting of services and union guidelines (for new contracts) unless the game changes, so let’s change the game.

During the Depression, a law was passed that allowed municipalities avail themselves of bankruptcy rather than fall onto the states for relief (which could afford them no better than the municipalities. The California communities of Orange County and Vallejo have used this provision recently (1994 and 2008, respectively). Congress should pass a similar law for the states themselves. If states are truly insolvent, they should be able to get relief from the courts – not everybody else (86% of whom live in states that need bailouts as well). Such a law would reapportion renewable assets (revenues) to restructured existing debts, allow the states to renegotiate union contracts and pensions, and set guidelines for future fiscal behavior. Aside from addressing the existential crisis, it would force the unions to become part of a solution to the problem they have largely caused. If they don’t agree to renegotiate now, the courts will do it for them later.

With 50 laboratories working on the same problem, it’s beyond possible that some innovative ideas will present themselves that are also scalable to the federal level. We have seen this in tax policy for years, but Washington is still shocked by behavior witnessed in state after state – flight from raising the marginal rate of taxes. Maybe, just maybe, Congress will include in its debate over state bankruptcy that they will be watching how various jurisdictia react to the new reality. And learn.

Éirinn go Brách?

Ireland forever? Probably, but the local mood is dark today, after the EU bailed out Greece, moving the Emerald Isle to the top spot on the EuroZone’s Basket Case list. “Our economy is over three times as indebted as Greece [in relative terms],” said Constantin Gurdgiev, a finance lecturer at Trinity College [Dublin] and an economics adviser to IBM-Europe[1]. Ireland’s national debt is predicted to peak at 102% of GDP in 2013 from 95% this year and to ease to 100% in 2014[2].

Under a four-year program, announced on November 24, the government intends to save €15 billion ($20 billion) between 2011 and 2014 – or ~4% of GDP – with €10 billion in public spending cuts and €5 billion in new taxes and revenues. The plan comes on top of €14.6 billion in savings measures introduced in five separate packages over the past 2½ years – the period in which the Irish nation has been swept from the opulence of a property boom to the misery of Europe’s intensive care unit[3]. The plan sets the stage for a €80-€90 billion rescue of Ireland by the rest of the EU and the IMF, less than seven months after Greece required similar treatment (a €110 billion bailout). Portuguese and Spanish borrowing costs also rose sharply on the 24th as investors worried that their debt levels will prove unsustainable, putting them next in line for a European bailout[4].

If Portugal and Spain go, can Italy be far behind? It is this house-of-cards aspect to the EuroZone that worries many in Europe and abroad. There have been warnings over the years that the EU was making the “UN mistake” – trying to include too many dissimilar societies into a bünd of “normalized” behavior. There is an historic problem associated here as well. After the end of hostilities in 1945, there was much hand-wringing in Europe over “the German Problem” – the habitual rise of a militaristic and nationalistic Germany to embroil Europe in general warfare every generation or so. America created the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a response, and promised that although Germany had to be rebuilt and re-energized to take part in European resistance to Soviet adventurism, the United States would keep Germany in-check. And we have. But now, Europe herself may awaken a nationalistic fervor in Germany, as the dominant European economy (and therefore the dominant source of all these bailouts). Angela Merkel, and those who put her into office, are not amused.

England is looking better and better for not “ceding our sovereignty” to somebody else’s central bank. A full member of the European Union, London never even considered throwing the pound sterling into a common European currency. They could see the insanity of having a single currency among politically and culturally diverse sovereigns. The rich would habitually be called upon to bail out the weak, and the weak, being serially hemmed-in by bail out restrictions, would never be anything but weak. Net, the only result can be a downward spiral into an economically moribund Europe. Remove Germany, and we are living the European experience – unemployment hovering around 9 or 10% and growth rates south of 4%. And the bailout domino storm will take Europe even lower.

This may be the lesson for us. If we start to bail out states, there will be no end to it, and the irresponsible will drag down the prosperous. Presto! Economic “justice”.


[1] See Irish unveil 4-year plan to claw back $20 billion, Associated Press, November 24 2010.

[2] See Tony Barber [London] and John Murray Brown [Dublin], Ireland unveils four-year austerity plan, in Financial Times [London], November 24 2010.

[3] Ibid.

[4] See Barry Hatton, Portugal, Spain hit by investor fears over debt, in My Way News, November 24 2010.

the Choson Kingdom Revulses yet Again

The Chinese unified the Korean Peninsula in the 7th Century, and a series of dynasties ruled Choson until 1910. The Japanese imposed a treaty on Korea in 1874 (guaranteeing access to trade), sparking the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Upon winning the war, Japan annexed Korea as a protectorate. Korean resistance continued up through World War II – primarily as a Communist movement in the Soviet Union and a republican one in China. Following Japan’s defeat in World War II, Korea was arbitrarily divided at the 38th Parallel with a Soviet zone to the north and an American one in the South. In June of 1950, North Korean forces invaded the South, initiating a war that culminated in a ceasefire signed on July 27 1953. Nothing was settled by the agreed-upon draw.

What we see today is a child of that history. A Berlin passion play writ large, Korea is a study of authoritarianism and market republicanism in full view of each other. The ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) has as principle elements of its economy starvation and a breeder reactor for the production of weapons-grade plutonium. The Republic of Korea (ROK), on the other hand, has a GDP of $1.278 trillion and a per capita income of ~$26,000. A satellite image of the Korean Peninsula at night reveals a brightly-lit south, strewn with web-like strands connecting glowing cities, while the north is a hole of blackness. PRC remains DPRK’s sole sponsor and mentor, though the North has economic ties with the likes of Venezuela, Syria, Pakistan and Iran, and a cottage industry in counterfeiting pharmaceuticals, cigarettes and American $100-bills.

At 0612 on March 26, I got a FLASH message from STRATFOR[1] informing me that a probable attack by a North Korean submarine has sunk a South Korean military vessel in the disputed zone of the Yellow Sea, west of the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel. It turned out to be the South Korean corvette ChonAn, and 46 of the 104 souls serving on-board perished. This event has been loosely tied to the 2006 partial detonation of a nuclear test device and the 2008 failed test-flight of a 3-stage ballistic missile that over-flew Japan before crashing into the Pacific. These are all examples of “moving the line” of behavior that the outside world will tolerate from the Hermit Kingdom. In all cases, the West clamored to “negotiate” with Pyongyang; in all cases, the West rewarded DPRK for its despicable behavior with food, oil and cash for promising to “never, ever do anything like that again.” Each time.

On the heels of revealing a hitherto unknown uranium enrichment plant (~2,000 plumbed and spinning centrifuges) to a past director of our Los Alamos National Laboratory – a startling revelation in its own right – we have the shelling of a South Korean island in the same disputed waters that produced the sinking of the ChonAn. At 0220 (EST) yesterday [November 23], another FLASH message arrived, saying that Yeonpyeongdo Island had been directly shelled by North Korean artillery after South Korean artillery units on the island fired into the sea during the widely announced Hoguk military exercises occurring across many areas of ROK. Two South Korean soldiers were killed, 15 others (and three civilians) were wounded, and ~100 homes and a hillside were set ablaze. Smoke columns could be seen from the South Korean city of Incheon.

In response to Dr Hecker’s report of the enrichment facility at DPRK’s Yongbyon nuclear complex, ROK’s Defense Minister Kim Tae-young raised the possibility of re-introducing tactical nuclear weapons into American arsenals on the Peninsula. This latest incident will do nothing to dampen that feeling. For the record, the last tactical nuclear weapons – fighter-deliverable B-61 gravity bombs – were withdrawn from ROK in 1991 as part of an agreement between George HW Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev on the global withdrawal of all ground- and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons outside of both nations’ territories. President Obama has ordered the Strike Group George Washington into the Yellow Sea. I am sure we have an Ohio-class SSBN sitting on the bottom somewhere near the Korean Peninsula, and could have simply surfaced it long enough for DPRK to photograph its sail number, but the George Washington is probably a more dramatic “show of the flag”. We await the next development.


[1] Strategic Forecasting Incorporated (STRATFOR), dubbed by Barron’s as “The Shadow CIA,” it’s one of the world’s leading global intelligence firms, providing clients with geopolitical analysis and industry and country forecasts to mitigate risk and identify opportunities. STRATFOR’s clients include Fortune 500 companies and major governments.

Non-Technical New START

A short follow-up on New START, trying to stay out of the technical weeds. There are three basic (read: non-technical) reasons for passing New START on to the 112th Senate:

1. it is not in the security interests of the US;

2. the treaty is complicated, and deserves serious consideration. With all the other things that must be done before the end of the year – a budget, taxes, etc – there simply isn’t enough time before the 111th Senate expires;

3. there is something illegitimate about having senators who were defeated in November offering their “consent”.

There are two basic reasons for the 111th Senate to go ahead and ratify:

1. President Obama is a greater threat to missile defense and strategic modernization than is the language of the Treaty, and Republican senators could trade their votes for a written commitment by the president to modernize our nuclear arsenal, and to continue meaningful funding for BMD;

2. Russia could use rejection of New START as an excuse for continued belligerence on matters of greater import, such as Russia’s continuing occupation of a substantial portion of Georgia, their continued blackmailing of Europe over energy, and Russia’s continued support for Iran’s nuclear program.

The simple security problem with New START is that in order to attain the limits imposed by the Treaty, Russia can build while we must reduce. A second, if equally important security concern, is that rail-mounted mobile ICBMs are transparent to New START. While this gives equal leeway to both sides, it ignores the fact that we do not favor rail-mobile basing and Russia does. It has the infrastructure in-place, and, being harder to verify, this is a basing mode with which they have cheated on every previous arms control treaty. Third, New START links defensive systems to a treaty concerning offensive systems, and again, this asymmetrically benefits Russia, who lags far behind us in BMD capabilities. Lastly, the high throw-weight-floor as to what is considered a strategic platform abdicates our responsibility to our European allies, many of whom now face a strategic threat from New START-excluded Russian missiles. Taken together, along with the absence of any American advantages gleaned from New START, this means that ratification should be dependent upon administration explanations as to why this agreement would be in our interest.

The complexity problem has to do with the administration’s anxiety to get it lame-duck passed by the 111th Senate. I understand that Mr Obama would love to have a foreign policy success, and that rubber-stamp ratification disappears with the seating of the 112th Senate, but the national interest is better served if any full Senate has ample time to examine the various components of the Treaty and their implications. If this was all remaining for the 111th to do, there wouldn’t be enough time, but it’s not – they’re undoubtedly going to address tax rates lest everyone get an increase on January 1; then there’s the little matter of an FY2011 federal budget (which it should be harassing the House to send across); just to name two. This fits in nicely with the third complaint about having this rushed through the 111th Senate, they have lost their street cred with the people, some of them having been defeated in November. Something as important as our nuclear deterrent and the next decade of our strategic relationship with Russia shouldn’t be left to lame-ducks.

Against these objections are a couple of considerations favoring immediate ratification. Our political right, and many of our strategic allies, are concerned about this administration’s apparent lackadaisical attitude toward geopolitics, in general, and items of existential strategic interest to those allies, in particular. Using New START as leverage to commit the administration to modernization and defensive matters has real utility.

Russia will behave badly in the face of any restructuring of New START to insert American advantages or to ameliorate Russian ones, but a failure to ratify will be met with public denunciation. We can live with that, but Russia will attempt to link New START-failure with every other point of contention we share, and that could become problematic. This administration withers in the face of foreign antagonism, regardless of the veracity of the complaint. It may well behoove American interests overall to accede on New START and tread water until 2012.

a Confused Treaty

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee[1] has approved the Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (popularly known as the New START Treaty)[2] for a floor-vote by the full US Senate[3] (a two-thirds vote of all Senators – 67 – is required for ratification). As its nickname indicates, this treaty is a follow-on to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which sunseted on December 31 2009. Out of the cloud of dissenting opinions aired regarding New START – ranging from the “it-doesn’t-go-far-enough” disarmament purists to the “Obama-can’t-do-anything-right” Republican purists – there emerges 11 genuine, substantive complaints about the effects of ratifying New START in its present form[4]. Of those, two assume primary status as being nearly universal among national security and arms control professionals[5]. Both are acknowledged in the Committee’s Resolution of Ratification[6].

At a higher level of abstraction, there have been some general concerns raised in this matter as well – is a deterrence-based treaty relevant in the post-Cold War world?; in view of the absence of any Russian reductions required by New START, is no treaty better than this one?; is START the right treaty to use as a model for this one?; the conflating of arms control, non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament renders this treaty a nonsensical, self-defeating document.

After absorbing the 356 pages of the Treaty package, as well as 30-odd supporting documents, one thing is abundantly clear – for whatever reason, virtually every concession is asked of the United States, and none of the Russian Federation. It appears that we merely wanted to “update” START while they negotiated a whole new post-Cold War stance. We brought checkers to a chess game. This raises the question of whether no treaty – not binding ourselves to restrictions in the absence of any Russian restrictions – is better than ratifying this one. I would like to see this addressed by, in order of preference, President Obama, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or proponents of this treaty.

Should we have opted to keep (rather than water-down) the reporting and verification regime of START, but based the new treaty on the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT, or the Moscow Treaty) of 2002? This would have three advantages for us – SORT is very specific on rail-mobile systems, it is limited to strategic nuclear systems; and it doesn’t expire until 2012, giving the new Congress ample time to consider the negotiating product. Allowing START to remain expired has no downside for us as New START constrains nothing that Russia is now doing.

Unable to shake the “comprehensive” model of problem solving, the administration’s New START addresses all three aspects of President Obama’s prime foreign policy concerns – arms control, non-proliferation and world nuclear disarmament. The problem is, they are sequential, not simultaneous, quests. Each of these quests also contain intrinsic problems for which this administration seems ill-suited to address consistent with national security. Effective arms control asks sovereign nations to do something they ordinarily would not do – to act against their own self-interest. This is a situation rife for cheating, at very least against the spirit of the “agreement”, if not the letter. This requires a rigid and enforceable verification regime, which is a Potemkin Village in New START. Nuclear proliferation is encouraged by hobbling our ballistic missile defense efforts, in effect leaving us as exposed as was required by the mutually assured destruction (MAD) model of bipolar deterrence during the Cold War. The absence of strategic defense also works against incentives for universal nuclear disarmament by keeping in-place the perceived advantage of possessing nuclear weapons. Additionally, New START would actually allow the Russians to increase their inventory (almost infinitely if using rail-mobile weapons) while staying under its limits. The combination of trying to do these three things “comprehensively”, rather than each on their own terms, means that these three loopholes will be institutionalized by ratifying this treaty.

The Senate can take one of three actions. It could forward a vote of less then 67 in favor (i.e., not ratify) over a perfecting statement of what is required to ratify; it could ratify over a statement of presidential requirements relating to concerns of the Senate (which is what is being attempted); or it can use the Treaty text as a markup, changing Treaty language, requiring the Treaty to be returned to the Parties for re-agreement (and subsequently to Messrs Obama and Medvedev for re-signing), and then back to the Senate and Duma for the ratification process. I prefer either the eldest or youngest approach, the middle one being the weakest response, as it contains no enforcement mechanism. This Treaty, as it is presently constituted, serves only Russian interests, and as such, is not in our best interest.


[1] Keeping in mind that these assignments will change with the seating of the 112th Congress, the current Committee Members are: For the majority: John Kerry, Chairman (MA); Christopher J Dodd (CT); Russell D Feingold (WI); Barbara Boxer (CA); Robert Menendez (NJ); Benjamin L Cardin (MD); Robert P Casey Jr (PA); Jim Webb (VA); Jeanne Shaheen (NH); Kirsten E Gillibrand (NY); Christopher Coons (DE). For the minority: Richard G Lugar, Ranking Member (IN); Bob Corker (TN); Johnny Isakson (GA); James E Risch (ID); Jim DeMint (SC); John Barrasso (WY); Roger F Wicker (MS); James M Inhofe (OK).

[2] New START consists of a 165-page Protocol, a 2-page Preamble, a 15-page Treaty, a 91-page Inspection Annex, a 68-page Notifications Annex, and a 15-page Telemetric Annex. Taken together, these documents constitute the binding agreement between the United States and the Russian Federation regarding strategic nuclear weapons, their delivery systems and the mechanism for resolving disputes relating to treaty matters.

[3] Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New START Treaty Resolution of Advice and Consent to Ratification, April 30 2010.

[4] New START ignores our responsibility to provide effective defense for our allies; it links strategic defense to strategic offense; unilaterally severely limits our ability to modernize an atrophying nuclear arsenal; counts strategic non-nuclear systems as nuclear ones; does not address non-strategic nuclear weapons; rail-mobile systems are transparent to New START; Bilateral Consultative Commission has too broad authority; discounts our need to retain nuclear superiority over combinations of adversarial nuclear powers; verification is a Potemkin Village of illusion; Russia’s history of noncompliance is neither addressed nor guarded against in New START; New START gives Russia a strong incentive to MIRV their inventory.

[5] The inclusion of strategic defense; and the non-inclusion of rail-mobile systems (a favorite basing mode of Russia, and one that they have cheated on in every previous arms control treaty).

[6] The instrument by which the Committee refers the matter to the floor for a vote.

Stop the Silliness and Govern

In the first place, these tax rates have been in effect since 2000 and 2002, so they are now the norm. The debate is over whether (and on whom) to institute the Obama tax increase. President Obama wants to raise taxes on everyone making over $250K a year because he doesn’t want to see “millionaires” getting any breaks. Fine. Move the line in the sand from $250K to $1 million. Problem solved.

Only liberals need grief councilors to console themselves for self-inflicted electoral losses! These are the people who would lead us?! Who’s paying for this narcissistic hokum?! The president should tell these wimps to man-up, lose the touchy-feely classes and get on with their jobs.

The West Wing is depleted of policymakers just as the president lost his legislative majorities, largely because of policies spawned by those now missing. National Economic Council Director Lawrence Summers and White House political advisor David Axelrod are soon to be gone (December 31 and after the State of the Union address, respectively), White House Budget Director Peter Orszag and Council of Economic Advisors head Christina Romer are already gone, as are Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and National Security Advisor General James Jones. More will follow – they always do after midterms, whatever the outcome. These are all high-pressure jobs (and excellent resumé fodder for higher-paying lobbyist or other private sector jobs). How he fills these West Wing desks will tell us volumes about how he intends to govern-out. If he chooses yet more academics and professional bureaucrats, not much will change; if he chooses people with real-world experience, there may be some hope. However he chooses, he needs to choose – and quickly – as he his lack of knowledge of history, applied economics and geopolitics has his ship of state wandering around rudderlessly (e.g., his achievement-free Asian tour).

All that we hear out of Washington between now and the State of the Union will be white noise. Both Houses of Congress will harden along partisan lines and the post-midterm White House will tell us how they “get it” while continually demonstrating that they don’t. If the State of the Union meanders along with glittering generalities and banalities, the President still doesn’t know what he’s going to do; if there are specifics, we will at least know what he considers to be feasible under the new political atmosphere in Washington. It took Bill Clinton six months to figure out how manage his congressional losses. I’ll bet on glittering generalities and banalities.

Stop the “I didn’t explain it well enough” canard … you don’t absorb this kind of loss because people don’t understand what you’re doing; you take this kind of beating because they do. Those who hired you – moderates and Independents – don’t particularly like what you did, and hate the way you did it. “Never waste a crisis” is just too slick and duplicitous for most people. You have a chance to demonstrate leadership over the next two years, but it’s up to you, Mr President, to demonstrate that you really are a post-modern, post-partisan statesman, and not just another Chicago politician.

the Banana Republic Continues

From the “More of the Same” file, Representative Darrell Issa (R-CA), as probable incoming head of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has hinted at around 280 hearings (read: investigations) he wants to hold in the 112th Congress’ first year. This would be a strategic and tactical mistake, not to mention a philosophical one. We simply must get over trying to criminalize political opponents with whom we disagree – that’s what happened with Obama’s Justice Department’s “looking” into CIA’s behavior during the Bush years. That was wrong-headed and Representative Issa’s plans are wrongheaded. He should begin his turn at oversight with his first day on the job, not Mr Obama’s first day on the job. That verdict is in – over 60 House seats and 6 or 7 Senate seats. Time to move on.

Strategically, if Republicans answer Democrat pettiness with pettiness, the cycle can only continue – tit-for-tat guarantees more tat. See the Middle East, select Central and South American countries, Africa.

Tactically, this is exactly the “business as usual” that voters are tired of. We have seen that the President of the United States is incapable of delivering an end to it (though he promised to during his campaign), and if the Republican House can, it would go a long way to cementing Independents’ loyalty. Confining himself to his chronological tour of duty would signal to the voters that their message to Republicans was heard.

Philosophically, I hope some of the newly elected Members would resist Mr Issa’s use of government for internecine warfare … the message from the Tea Parties was to return a constitutionally limited government to the service of the people, not a business as usual government to the service of whatever political party holds the majority at the moment. Time for them to step up.

Republicans, whose goal is power-retention, need to be reminded that the voters, whose goal is responsible government, have given them a chance, not a blank check and not a mandate. They shouldn’t make the same mistake that Democrats have – mistaking a 7-point popular win for a 60-plus-seat electoral mandate.

Analysis of the Polling for the 2010 Election Cycle

There is a truly stunning array of mathematical formulae as how best to sample a universe (total Likely Voters, for example) in order to yield an acceptable result (margin of error), given with confidence (degree of certainty). Aside from that, there are the niggling questions of how to define your universe (just what is a “Likely Voter”?), and how to word and order the questions so as not to influence the response. Using these methods, a sample is assembled to poll that matches the criteria. Those that choose to respond won’t match these criteria exactly, so the pollster must “weight” the results to redress these demographic anomalies, and this is a very subjective exercise – it’s what separates the good from the adequate from the bad (I’m throwing out “push polls” which are constructed in such a way as to give a predetermined result). I will get into none of this esoteria here.

As a political analyst, I am only interested in the accuracy of a polling unit – how closely do the poll numbers match the election results? In order to assess the performance of the various pollsters during the 2010s, I have compiled the latest (i.e., closest to election day) polls by each polling unit that I could find, in each of the 36 races for the US Senate for which polling was done, and compared them to the extrapolated results (based on a statistical monotony from the partial results available on Thursday 4 November[1]).

Some gross observations. Rasmussen polls were the only commonly available[2] polls in nine races. In South Dakota, incumbent Republican John Thune ran unopposed, and so no polling was necessary. No commonly available polls were available (including Rasmussen) for Wyoming. Of the 32 polling units represented, 23 only sampled one state; two appeared in only two states; two in only three states; one in four states and one in five; one in six states; and one in 16 states. Rasmussen polled in 36 states. A large part of the desirability of using Rasmussen is that they work wide – not just in certain states, regions, or with certain media outlets. Also, Rasmussen, over the past two election cycles (2006 and 2008), has proved the most reliable of those commonly available, and their results have trended to be within the margin of error[3] – which is as good as you can statistically do.

Now into the weeds.

Of the polling units that polled more than one state, only Rasmussen (36 states) and Public Policy Polling (16 states) interviewed over 5,000 people, and they both exhibited results that averaged within the margin of error (underestimating the winning spread by an average of 2.861% and underestimating by 3.188%, respectively).

Overwhelmingly most final polls underestimated the winning margin, regardless of Democrat or Republican winners. This is because “undecideds” almost always break for the front-runners, and thus are not reflected in the poll differentials. Campaigns know this and normally count on ~2/3 of the undecideds to go for whomever is leading the race at the time of the poll. Depending on the sophistication of internal polls, some even break down the undecideds demographically, assigning them to one candidate or another based on historical data of how age groups, religious affiliation, race, occupation, etc have tended to affect voting patterns in that district/city/county/state – whatever jurisdiction is being polled. Commonly available polls nearly always leave them as “undecideds”.

I have seen nothing here to dissuade me from continuing to use Rasmussen as my reference polling unit in analyzing political issues and races into the 2012s, after which I will, again, evaluate the results of those commonly available polling outfits. As a side note, I also use RealClearPolitics averages to act as a check on Rasmussen, and Pollster to evaluate voter trends during issue debates and political races. I have a high degree of confidence in both of these firms, but averages are, by definition, not as finely resolved as single polls, and trends are not useful in all applications.

Again based on monotonously extrapolated data from the partials available on 4 November, 61,267,662 people voted in senate races: 31,671,593 (51.169%) for Republicans; 26,605,062 (43.424%) for Democrats; 2,055,271 (3.354%) for Independents; and 935,736 (1.527%) for some “other” candidate (this last number includes the 83,201 projected write-ins in Alaska). Interestingly, this Republican-Democrat split (7.745 points) is approximately what Barack Obama carried the popular vote by in 2008, and the seat-for-seat Republican-Democrat margin will be amazingly close to the electoral margin. In other words, and for whatever it’s worth, the 2010s were essentially a mirror image of the 2008s.


[1] All of which, excepting five states, had counted more than 90% of the votes cast.

[2] By “commonly available”, I mean to those outside the press and the campaigns themselves (all campaigns and some press outlets do internal polling for their use only).

[3] Typically ±4.5%, with a 95% degree of certainty.

After All is Said and Done …

The tide went out, the tide came back. The Democrats still control the Executive and the Senate, and the Republicans control the House. Twelve of the eighteen states that will undergo post-census reapportionment are in Republican hands. We have, with this election, returned to our center-right normality. We have flirted with the evangelicalism of neoconservatism and the condescension of neoliberalism and rejected both. While we agree that freedom is superior to any other form of governance yet conceived, we tired of pushing it onto the unable and unwilling; we grew weary of being told we’re not smart enough to understand the really important things being done for (to?) us. We sent people to Washington with a simple message: “stop the insane spending … stop writing thousand-page bills that nobody reads … undo what new entitlements you can … and – above all – listen to those who employ you.” The coming struggle is going to be within each party, as reasonable heads try to reign-in the idealists of the right and left to form some sort of deliberative body that can govern.

As noted before, there are things that can be agreed upon.

Nobody in Washington wants to see the Bush tax cuts sunset on December 31. The argument is over the top bracket and the duration of the extension. Democrats will yield to Republicans and give them all brackets, but would like to hold out for a 1-year extension, hoping to keep it alive as a possible football if they sense weakness in Republicans before the 2012s. Republicans want to move the extension to 2-years, giving business the certainty that they won’t be punished next year for spending and hiring this year.

There are trade agreements that we’ve swept under the table for TARP-stimulus-cap-and-trade-healthcare (ROK, South America) that can be dusted off and passed. This will have an impact on trade balances (and therefore deficits) and for export-sensitive businesses (and therefore private spending and hiring). And it keeps our word to some allies.

I would like to see House Ways and Means submit the actual ObamaCare language to CBO for scoring so that both sides (and the American people) are working from real numbers. Without that, the fight over funding or not funding it will be no further along that it has been. We need to know the actual changes it will make before we can, as a nation, decide if we want the healthcare system (and costs) it describes. This issue is going to consume a lot of the 112th Congress’s time and effort – repeal it? Repeal parts of it? Defund it? Bog it down in hearings? Bog it down with oversight? This is a real opportunity for Democrats to show sincerity about “getting the message”. Say what you will, but the substance of ObamaCare, and the arrogance with which it was passed, lit the fuse on last Tuesday. This issue will not fade away. The politically prudent path for Republicans would be to starve it until SCOTUS reviews it.

There are some things we can do on energy, even as cap-and-trade sinks slowly into the Potomac swamp. If weaning off of foreign oil is really what we want, then open domestic sources. If weaning off of oil is really what we want, then realize that it’s going to take time – time during which we are still gong to need oil (see above). If some form of electrified future is really what we want, then we need to – right now – improve the existing grid and rethink things like nuclear metal-burners (both have lead-times measured in decades).

Tougher is going to be the economic front. If the Democrats still believe in Keynesian stimulation then we will have gridlock, meaning that the economy will heal itself, if slowly (growing around the Keynesian obstacles than have been placed in its way). If recovery is really what we want, then – and I have spoken of this in these pages for two years now – capital must be released into the market (lending). How we do that is to make business want to borrow, and that is done by removing uncertainty in the market outlook. Declare a moratorium on raising any business taxes and any new regulations until the economy is again robust.

It will be interesting,