September 07, 2007

One definite blow, one possible, to the dollar

First, Japanese oil company Nippon Oil will start buying oil from Iran in yen, not dollars. For Iran, this is an expansion of earlier moves to sell in currencies besides the dollar, in part for political reasons, and in part for the falling value of the dollar, which won’t be helped by this.

The eroding away of dollar-denominated oil has long been an American fear. So far, it’s just actions of an OPEC edge country like Iran. The big fear is that OPEC might officially decide to co-denominate oil in euros as well as dollars. (Up until 1971, OPEC co-denominated in both the dollar and the pound sterling; the British financial world crashed when OPEN jerked the rug out from beneath the pound.

The possible hit to the dollar? China may be dumping Treasury securities. Somebody’s dumping them, that’s for sure; it will take another month or two to figure out who.

September 06, 2007

Who’s “scrubbing” Wiki entries?

Wouldn’t you like to find out, especially if a big corporation is involved? Well, you can.

Ranking the presidents: This blogger's view

Ranking the presidents

Since it’s a popular task for both armchair and more professional historians, I’m going to wade into the battle myself.

Presidents are ranked by numeric order and given a letter grade on the standard A-F scale, including pluses and minuses. Contra historical writing, since I’m analyzing presidents, not presidencies, Cleveland’s two presidencies are lumped under one rating.

1. Abraham Lincoln, A+. I don’t believe in perfection, but Lincoln comes very close. I don’t strongly denigrate his early views on race, but do note he was a moderate, not a true progressive, when coming to the White House. But, he evolved and grew, including through his personal meetings with black leaders such as Frederick Douglass. My final comment quotes Secretary of War Edwin Stanton: “He belongs to the ages.”

2. George Washington. A. He set the tenor for the office of the presidency, being amongst the people without being too much of the people, something that Reagan recognized but Carter and Clinton didn’t; the same can be said of many members of the House in Washington’s own day. My one minor knock is his adding “so help me God” to the oath of office, thereby giving the “civic religion” so beloved by the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justice Antonin Scalia its first bit of nose under the camel’s tent.

3. FDR. A. I can’t see any other Democratic candidate in 1928 — certainly not either Al Smith or John Nance Garner — handling the Depression nearly as well as Roosevelt did. The only major fault is that he didn’t think of a national health insurance plan at the same time as Social Security, which of course wasn’t his original idea anyway.

4. TR. A-/B+. Though not an actual bigot, his less than fully-enlightened (for his day) racial attitudes, as exemplified in the Brownsville Army incident, knock him off the A pedestal.

5. Ike. B+. I think Eisenhower deserves more of his modern reassessment than what Truman got more than a decade ago. Yes, it’s easy to skewer Levittown, duck and drop nuclear bomb drills in schools, and such, but, Ike was prescient about the military-industrial complex, in possibly the best farewell message besides Washington’s, kept those duck and drop practices from ever having to become real, and presided over the economic boom times that allowed Levittown and suburbia.

6. James Monroe. B. He stayed under the radar screen, didn’t screw anything up, and got Quincy Adams to pen the Monroe Doctrine.

7. LBJ. B/B-. In his own words, that “bitch of a war,” which knocked the props from beneath the Great Society, keeps him from being in the top five. Nonetheless, as Republican hacks have shown today with politicizing the so-called “War on Terror,” LBJ’s fears of being tarred with the label of “first president to lose a war” weren’t to be taken lightly.

8. Carter. B/B-. A president of integrity and principle on a variety of domestic political issues, he got pummeled for it. Doesn’t get his share of credit for fall of the Soviet Union, as he started the “Reagan” defense build-up. Not ranked higher due to lack of political flexibility and acumen.

9. James K. Polk. B/B-. If we’re ranking him solely on morals, the way he provoked war with Mexico would get him severely dinged. But, as far as achieving the goals he proclaimed in 1844, he hit a grand slam. A B seems like a compromise, if we don’t look too hard at the slavery issue.

10. Hayes. B-. Elected president in 1876 by a bipartisan commission of SCOTUS justices and Congressmen, that just “happened” to break 8-7 on party lines, he restored integrity after the Grant corruption years and by promising not to run for re-election. Nonetheless, he got his hands tied by GOP agreement to end Reconstruction — which the Grant Administration had been phasing out anyway.

11. Jefferson. B-. Ranked lower than other presidents based on presidential years only. Louisiana Purchase was given to him, not initiated by him; the Lewis and Clark voyage was originally, in essence, espionage. His embargo on American commerce during the Napoleonic wars wrecked New England’s economy and he was basically clueless. Other high points, though, for submitting to a Supreme Court ruling defining the bounds of executive privilege, and getting the Adams-era Alien and Sedition Acts repealed. Gets dinged further for presidential and post-presidential retreat from earlier views on slavery-related issues.

12. Truman. B-. High marks for desegregating the Army and for how he handled MacArthur, though European allies in the Korean War had hoped for even swifter action. But, his domestic accomplishments were modest, and his administration was marred by the worst cronyism in hiring since Grant. Ranked lower than other B- presidents because of the integrity issue.

13. Kennedy B-. Let’s puncture the myth of Camelot. He blew the Bay of Pigs by not either going all-in, including air support, or else scrubbing it. His post-Pigs obsession with Castro gets him dinged, as does the illicit sex, not on account of the sex itself, but for ditching the nuclear “football” while doing so. Pluses for calm in handling the Cuban missile crisis and offering inspiration to a younger generation.

14. Taft. B-/C+. Yes, he did initiate trust busting beyond cases inherited from TR, and he didn’t really screw anything up, but he had no vision for the office.

15. Reagan. B-/D. Reagan wasn’t all that bad in his first term, and, although he had to lie to himself about what a tax increase was in 1982, he swallowed the need for it. D, or lower, for the second term, for Iran/Contra. Plus, it’s a legitimate question to ask if the onset of Alzheimer’s was influencing some second-term decisions.

16. Clinton. C+/D. Took the worst of the edges off welfare reform and gave us a balanced budget, among other things. Gave us NAFTA and the WTO, on the other hand, and botched health care reform; probably, any bill would have been tough to get past Congress, but his plan didn’t make it any easier. The D shows how much I’m disappointed that he expanded the Bush I privatizing of the Armed Forces and started, though not to the degree of Bush II, illegal “renditions” by the CIA of terrorism suspects.

17. Madison. C+/C. A decent man and a great political theorist, promoted over his head into the presidency.

18. Arthur. C. Credit for backing civil service reform after Garfield’ assassination; unclear if he would have done so otherwise.

19. McKinley. C/C-. While he didn’t screw much up, his pious platitudes about taking on the “white man’s burden” in the Philippines, while annexing Hawaii, introduced imperialist America to the world stage.

20. Cleveland. C and D. The C is for his first term, his principles on budgetary matters, and for being reasonably principled in general. The D is for his second term, for his anti-labor stance and his role in exacerbating, or at least exacerbating the pains of, the Panic of 1893, arguably the country’s first modern industrial depression.

21. Garfield. C-. His Congressional and Civil War generalship careers indicate this would probably be about the right spot had he lived to serve out his term, if not a bit lower.

22. Benjamin Harrison. C. Quiet administration that didn’t screw much up. A nonentity otherwise, other than not having a clue about the rise of organized labor.

23. John Quincy Adams C- (would get an A- as Secretary of State and A as Congressman). His administration itself was not bad, but honoring the “corrupt bargain” with fourth-place presidential finisher and former Speaker of the House Henry Clay by making him Secretary of State (at that time the normal stepping-stone to the presidency). He should have had the political sense to know that would guarantee a one-term presidency, and that Clay favored him over Jackson anyway.

24. Ford. C-. Political ineptitude, not to mention ethical questionability, for his pardon of Nixon, especially its unseemly speed after taking office. He could have stalled thing out until after the 1976 election, as far as the political sensibility of not pardoning Nixon right away.

25. Bush, George H.W. C-/D+. Handled the Gulf War well, but the blame is ultimately his for April Glaspie. Too slow to “cut losses” with Gorbachev rather than Yeltsin, and otherwise react to a post-Cold War world.

26. Adams. C-/D. Avoided war with France in 1798; but, first president to manipulate immigration and civil liberties for political advantage by signing into law, and personally backing much of, the Alien and Sedition Acts. Arguably, with hyperworry about French radicals, THIS, not A. Mitchell Palmer in 1920-21, was the first Red scare.

27. Woodrow Wilson. C-/D. At times, one wishes Wilson’s two terms could be considered separately, like two presidencies. That said, the major accomplishment of his first term, the establishment of the Federal Reserve, is probably overrated, and just as Taft inherited some trust-busting from Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson inherited some from Taft. The four constitutional amendments of a direct income tax, women’s suffrage, Prohibition and direct election of U.S. Senators, were the doings of Congress and state legislatures; Wilson could have used a bully pulpit, especially on women’s suffrage, but didn’t. And his racism, which began from the start of his first term and his official segregation of the executive branch is an indelible blot. Plus, even though stroke-afflicted, he presided over the first Red Scare.

28. Coolidge. D+/D. Failed to address the agricultural depression happening throughout the “Roaring ’20s” and also failed to see the stock market house of cards building up already in 1928. Term otherwise undistinguished.

29. Hoover. D. Far more intellectually qualified than any other of the D-rated presidents, his stubbornness about his idea of the role of the federal government, even though he tried some tinkering at the edges later in his term, get him ranked here.

30. William Henry Harrison. D/Inc. Yes, he only served a month, but giving a two-hour inaugural laced with Latin maxims while standing without a hat in the rain indicated a lack of common sense.

31. Tyler. D. Stuck by his principles when succeeding W.H. Harrison; nonetheless, outside of hating Jackson, such principles should have kept him firmly in the Democratic party. Little accomplished.

32. Van Buren. D. Cluelessness about the country’s first major recession and its causes, and failure to step out from Jackson’s shadow, say enough to put the country on a better financial footing.

33. Grant. D. He did enforce Reconstruction halfway vigorously in his first term, but then started backing away. Possibly the most corrupt administration in presidential history.

34. Harding. D/D-. Not an F, because he recognized, if belatedly, the cronyism and corruption in his cabinet and started trying to do something about it when he died.

35. Fillmore. D/D-. Yes, some version of the Compromise of 1850 was probably necessary, but Fillmore was certainly lacking in leadership in crafting the bill, especially in not anticipating the reaction to the Fugitive Slave Act. In addition, he thought more highly of himself than warranted.

36. Taylor. D-. While his Jacksonian resolve to hang Southerners who refused to accept the admission of California as a free state is admirable, it, if he had lived, would have thrown gasoline on the Compromise of 1850.

37. Nixon. D-/F+. Gets bumped out of pure “F” territory for having more brains than the four below him. The combination of Vietnam/Cambodia/Laos, on the one hand, and Watergate on the other, offset détente and environmental legislation.

38. Jackson. D-/F+. His blatant disregard of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Cherokee removal, combined with his cluelessness about the Bank of the U.S. and his temper, amply earn this ranking, for the first imperial presidency.

39. George W. Bush, F+. The only reason he is not ranked dead last is the following three presidents’ failings were even more egregious, and at more dire times in our country’s history.

40. Pierce. F+. The slightest of bumps above the three bottom dwellers, but his signing off on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Missouri slaveholder corruption in Kansas that led to “Bleeding Kansas” and accelerated the march toward secession, is bad enough.

41. Andrew Johnson, F. Intemperate when sober and even more so when drunk — stubborn, petulant and politically a butterfingers — Johnson refused to see that he in fact wasn’t following what Lincoln’s Reconstruction policy had been moving toward before his assassination. Lincoln never would have been Thaddeus Stevens, but he would have been closer to him, far closer in spirit, than to Andrew Johnson.

42. James Buchanan, F. His failure to stand up for the United States of America in the face of secession says enough.

Judge says no to part of revised Patriot Act

U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero said telling an Internet service provider to turn over records without a judicial court order violates the separation of powers. The ACLU had challenged FBI-issued National Security Letters on precisely that grounds, in the lawsuit before Judge Marrero’s court.

This applies to the 2005-revised Patriot Act. Marrero had earlier struck down the NSL gag order provision in the original version of the Act as a free speech violation; the Second Circuit Court of Appeals directed him to hear the ACLU’s suit on the constitutionality of the act even as revised.
The law was written "reflects an attempt by Congress and the executive to infringe upon the judiciary's designated role under the Constitution," Marrero wrote.

A win’s a win.

Now, can we get Democratic presidential candidates to tell us what they are going to do to junk the Patriot Act — besides Kucinich, who’s already made that pledge?

Larry Craig’s in-and-out dance, courtesy Karl Marx

Larry Craig’s “well, wait a minute, maybe I won’t resign, or let me caveat that again stance (would that also be a “wide stance”?) soooo reminds me of Marx’s famous dictum: “Historical facts … occur … twice …, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Further thoughts on Craig:
1. Maybe he’s trying to parse “gay” like Bill Clinton parsed “sex.” I’ve been waiting for some reporter to ask: “Well, if you’re not gay, are you bisexual?”

2. Another good follow-up question: Ask Craig if he always uses that bathroom when he flies through Minneapolis.

3. Can some hacker find Craig’s credit card numbers and see if he’s ever taken out a gay sex ad?

The way I see it, if this joker wants to unresign, or unplea his guilty plea, he deserves to get kicked as often and as hard as he can.

And, the out-and-in-and-out-again of Sen. Wide Stance (R-Fundamentalistville) is the punch line for many a joke as is. Can somebody in Minneapolis spend a few bucks for a faux bronze commemorative name tag/plaque for that toilet?

Update, Sept. 7: Well, I almost got my wish; a reader of a Seattle alt-weekly took a photo of the bathroom. Plus, a TPM e-mailer reminds us that the 2008 GOP convention is in — Minneapolis.

The “Protestant work ethic” is dead, if it ever was alive

One of my new year’s resolutions in January was to start a new personal journaling project, in which I would either take a picture of some mundanity, or write a haiku, every day.

Well, I’ve not done it every day, but I have done so at least once a week. This is what I’m working on for today, about labor, employment and the old “Protestant work ethic.”

Is it possible?
Can jobs reward us that much?
Do we self-delude?

Similar cases:
Are jobs, like relationships,

Is the modern job
Per Protestant ethic,
Masses' opiate?

"Left," "right" both say no;
Bourgeoise materialists
Steering labor blind.

But loss of job hope
Means loss of career rewards.
Blue, white collars both.

Neo-libs’ NAFTA,
CAFTA, WTO, kill hope,
Money and dreams.

Money is fobbed
With more and more made-in-China
Bread and circuses.

This cannot replace
Dreams shived for dollar stores
Nor the loss of hope.

Even the ideal job
Cannot reward every need;
This just fantasy.

Workaholic U.S.
Take note; live broader lives
At home and in play.

Isn’t this like jumping the QE2 for the Titanic?

Jim Press, Toyota's top North American executive, has jumped ship to Chrysler to run its sales and marketing.

No, really.

Temp employment: a leading recession indicator

Temporary agencies are slumping in their hiring. That last happening in the 1992 and 2000-2002 recessions.

That’s not all. Overall, U.S. hiring is the slowest in four years. Mish has this interesting comment on that:
Here is the key idea from the above article: "The slowdown in hiring was not related to last month's credit market turmoil.”

If he’s right, watch employment numbers before the end of the year. Since mortgage resets don’t peak until the middle of next year, a continued slump in employment will indicate not only a recession, but how bad of one.

Neocons take note

A new survey show younger Jews are less attached to the state of Israel than their parents:
The study found only 48 percent of U.S. Jews under age 35 believe that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy for them, compared to 77 percent of those 65 and older.

In addition, only 54 percent of those under the age of 35 are “comfortable with the idea of a Jewish State” as opposed to 81 percent of those 65 and older.

Very interesting.

Rudy to get “Swift-Boated”

A number of New York-based 9-11 agencies are setting up an umbrella nonprofit group to chase Rudy aroundthe country and note poor decisions, or lack of decisions by him that exacerbated 9-11, as well as post 9-11 decisions, such as not giving first responders respirators until November 2001.

Couldn’t happen to a better guy. Plus, it’s nice to see a real ReThug get a taste of his own medicine.

AQI — the 10 percenters, at best

According to an excellent new article from Washington Monthly, al Qaeda in Iraq makes up — at most — 10 percent of the insurgency there, and quite possibly more like 5-7 percent.

The article notes that, amongst others estimating AQI at 15 percent is the “liberal hawk” we all love to hate, Michael O’Hanlon. The article then logically spills out who else has an investment in hyping AQI numbers:
• Shrub, for obvious reasons;
• Petraeus, ditto (though he’s not mentioned by name, the differing opinion of boots on the ground vs. top brass make this a legitimate inference);
• “Surge” flacks like O’Hanlon;
• Iraqi President Maliki, in part to keep Bush on his good side (see bullet No. 1);
• Ba’athists, who can exploit both actual AQI members and alleged AQI attacks for their own ends;
• Other Sunni insurgents, for reasons similar to the Ba’athists.

Bottom line? Rumsfeld’s intent behind his words aside, AQI is, essentially, dead-enders compared to other insurgency players in Iraq, and it’s dishonest to the American people and the need, or lack thereof, for U.S. troops in Iraq to falsely play up their numbers.

September 05, 2007

Moving hassles part 2: electric service

As with phone service, I opted, after browsing online, to go with the company I had in Lancaster. Again, the company shall remain nameless, but once more, I will reveal initials: TXU.

TXU’s customer service rep said she could only start me off with its basic plan, not its floating rate plan based on natural gas prices. She said she would transfer me to another number where somebody else could then have me automatically switched to this plan.

(Sidebar: People of a certain political bent who talk about government bureaucracies have never done an apples-apples comparison to big business bureaucracy, I’ll wager.)
Well, after five minutes of hold time, I got a voice mail and left my info.

I tried, half an hour later, contacting the CSR main number. The first person tried to switch me over, but could not pull up my account info. The person he transferred me listened to my request, then transferred me back to the hang on and wait Gehenna I was in before.

(Sidebar two: Doorknob help us if KKR’s buyout of TXU finally goes through. They’ll probably fire 90 percent of TXU’s CSRs, in order to help pay down the massive debt from the acquisition, and you’ll never get a person to answer the phone.)

Makes you wonder if deregulated services really save you money after you pay for the post-installation call Aleve and Tagamet.

Moving hassles part 1: phone service

I called to establish phone service with the company I had in Lancaster when I lived here before. That company shall remain nameless, but its initials are MCI.
MCI apparently cross-trains all of its customer service representatives as telemarketers. Every three minutes, the person on the other end of the phone was trying to get me to add something to the basic service package. McDonald’s supersizing front counter jockeys aren’t that persistent.

Carbon-dioxide offsets: Lots of hype and hucksterism, light on reality?

The more we learn about carbon offsets, the more they appear to be little more than feel-good hucksterism.

“An Inconvenient Truth” is a good example of that, especially feel-good hucksterism purchased for pennies on the dollar:
The Oscar-winning film “An Inconvenient Truth” touted itself as the world's first carbon-neutral documentary.

The producers said that every ounce of carbon emitted during production — from jet travel, electricity for filming and gasoline for cars and trucks — was counterbalanced by reducing emissions somewhere else in the world. It only made sense that a film about the perils of global warming wouldn’t contribute to the problem.

Co-producer Lesley Chilcott used an online calculator to estimate that shooting the film used 41.4 tons of carbon dioxide and paid a middleman, a company called Native Energy, $12 a ton, or $496.80, to broker a deal to cut greenhouse gases elsewhere. The film's distributors later made a similar payment to neutralize carbon dioxide from the marketing of the movie.

This is Reason No. 1 that it’s little good than hucksterism, and why many conservatives (and not a few real environmentalists) are suspicious of Al Gore, Hollywood crusaders, etc.

It’s more than ridiculous, it’s bullshit to think that you could buy off the CO2 output of a major movie for less than $500.

Almost as ridiculous as this:
For less than $100 a year, even a Hummer can be pollution-free — at least on paper.

Carbon offsets look so hucksterish that I wouldn’t be surprised to see Preznit Shrub getting in on the game soon enough.

Here’s another issue: nobody knows whether, let alone how much, carbon offsets actually promote greenhouse gas reductions.
Offset companies often have vague requirements to determine if their potential investments would actually lead to additional reductions.

Native Energy says it looks for projects that need offset revenue to survive -- a difficult standard, since the projects are expensive and the offset payments are relatively small. But even if a project can stand on its own, it can still qualify for the money if it is novel or simply “not business as usual,” according to the company's website.

That definition has allowed Native Energy and other offset companies to claim the carbon reductions from projects in which they have played minor roles.

Plus, not mentioned in this article, we have the backdrop of the European market overselling offsets last year.

Nor does the article get into how the price for carbon offsets was set where it was in the first place. The problem is, the current price is so low it offers easy guilt relief without making people really think about how much CO2 they put out, nor about how much its cost may be.
Offsets are so convenient that they may foster a false sense that global warming can be easily solved when the hard and expensive work remains undone.

Read the whole article — five web pages of it — to get the details.

Texas spends $1 billion to court FutureGen

Yes, that’s the price of incentivess the state is spending to attract the experimental clean-coal technology power plant.

Just think if Gov. Rick Perry and the Lege would shell out that much to enforce current state and federal pollution regulations, toughen up state laws, and cooperate with, rather than fight, the EPA on urban ozone standards in the biggest metropolitan areas.

But, that would be so “environmentalist,” so “green,” and we can’t have that in the Lone Star State now, can we?

And, for the last time, you numbnut east Texans, the Leon County site gets no bonus points for being on top of an active coal mine. Texas lignite is way too dirty to use for clean coal technology. You’ll be seeing rail cars come from Wyoming, instead.

September 02, 2007

Bush lies even to a professional historian

Tells Robert Draper “Self-pity is the worst thing that can happen to a presidency,” Mr. Bush told Mr. Draper, by way of saying he sought to avoid it..

Tries to avoid it? Hell, he wrote a new chapter on it.

Maliki steals page from Bush

Says criticism of his administration helps the terrorists. Watch for color-coded “terrorist” alerts, based on the degree of U.S., or U.S. surrogate (that’s you, Ayad Allawi) criticism of Iraq, to hit the streets of Baghdad any day now.

Of course, Maliki may be right.
According to Allawi's published program, the parliamentarians would not only appoint a new government but also suspend the new constitution, declare a state of emergency and make the restoration of security its priority.

Given Iraq’s state of disarray, I can’t see how suspending the constitution would do anything but eliminate the final remnants of trust in a central government, thereby fueling people’s allegiance to various insurgencies.

A simple solution to the subprime crisis: loan officers’ pay

Put them on salary rather than commission:
As he drives through the Slavic Village neighborhood (of suburban Cleveland), passing homes stripped of aluminum siding, copper pipes and other remnants, Marc A. Stefanski says, “There are still S.& L.’s and banks that lend with a conscience, but, man, you got to find them.”

Mr. Stefanski should know: as the chief executive of Third Federal Savings and Loan, a Cleveland thrift that his parents founded in 1938, he has an unusual perspective on the mortgage mess. Unlike most of his competitors, Mr. Stefanski resisted the urge to cash in on the subprime lending boom.

His bank never offered no-money-down loans, piggyback mortgages, exploding adjustable-rate mortgages or the other financial exotica that ultimately tripped up the Sweets and millions like them. Third Federal pays its loan officers salaries, rather than commissions, so there is no incentive to go for volume. Even more remarkable is that Third Federal holds onto a sizable portion of its mortgages and keeps them on the books, rather than selling them to Wall Street to be sliced and diced into asset-backed securities owned by investors on the other side of the globe.

The result is that unlike many other mortgage lenders, Third Federal has a vested interest in making sure its loans do not go bad, so foreclosure is a last resort.

And, Third Federal practices what it preaches in selling more risky loans, when it does:
Third Federal has created a program for more risky borrowers like the Sweets, with required classes so that mortgage holders understand exactly how their loans work and what they will owe.

If the majority of American lenders were like Third Federal, we would never have had the problems we do.