Man Without Qualities


Saturday, September 13, 2003


Story Time

A friend e-mails these doctored pictures, which I'm using to test picture posting.

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Friday, September 12, 2003


Ah, Wilderness!

Some environmentalists are saying that tourism to unspoiled places is spoiling the world's ecology.

But when the Man Without Qualities was recently in Costa Rica and Brazil - hot spots of ecotourism - all the ecotourists I met (and there were a lot of them - apparently mostly from rich parts of Europe) seemed to think they were doing something to get in touch with nature, and which was good for the environment.

Boy were they confused. They were mere neo-eco-imperialists by the reckoning of the groups complaining today.

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Thursday, September 11, 2003


Davis Descending XLI: New Polls For Old

The ticker tape running beneath Hannity & Colmes reports that two new polls, one by Survey USA and one associated with Stanford, both show Arnold Schwarzenegger leading Cruz Bustamante by rather wide margins - with the recall favored in each case by 62% of likely voters.

And the Democrats' choice for their 2004 presidential nominee turns out to be a no-brainer: Al Gore!

UPDATE:

[A]ccording to a new Los Angeles Times poll.

Likely voters in the Oct. 7 election support the ouster of Davis by 50% to 47%, with just 3% undecided, the poll found. The result, a statistical tossup, is virtually unchanged from an August Times poll.

The Democratic governor remains highly unpopular, but by at least one measure, his standing has improved: 63% of likely voters disapprove of his job performance, down from 72% in last month's poll.


The LA Times poll shows Arnold Schwarzenegger (25%) trailing Cruz Bustamante (30%), with McClintock drawing 18% and withdrawn candidate Peter Uberroth at 8%.

Once curious aspect of these LA Times poll numbers is that the Republican-associated candidates collectively draw 51% of the vote, a recurring pattern in many of the polls. That, in turn, suggests that the recent poor performance of Republicans in California may be more the result of structure than basic appeal - that is, the Republicans may need to find candidates that bridge their conservative-moderate gap (or perhaps some other, less obvious, gap).
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Paul Krugman Audio Link

Paul Krugman solidifies his position as one of the nation's leading producers of hilarious baloney in this NPR audio link, noticed by the indefatigable Don Luskin.

Listen! Enjoy!

Whenever he gets in a fix, he reaches into his bag of tricks!

You'll laugh so much your sides will ache,

Your heart will go pitter pat!




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Edward Teller II

The New York Times today runs a more elaborate article on Edward Teller than the article the Times featured yesterday which was discussed in a prior post.

Some of the more obnoxious aspects of yesterday's diatribe have been corrected. Today the Times acknowledges Dr. Teller's brilliance and grudgingly avers to the value of his deep insights into the workings of the Soviet Union - which, of course, the aftermath of the Soviet collapse has demonstrated was every bit as nasty as Dr. Teller had determined and his critics simply would not accept. For example, yesterday's article led off with this demeaning summary of the life of one of the 20th Century's truly great people:

Few, if any, physicists of this century have generated such heated debate as Edward Teller. Much of it centered on his decade-long effort to produce the hydrogen bomb, his ardent promotion of nuclear weapons in general, his deep suspicion of Soviet intentions and his opposition to curtailment of nuclear testing.

His frustrations in seeking to win support for development of the hydrogen bomb led to his testimony that helped deprive J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the development of the first atomic bomb, of his security clearance. The result in much of the scientific community was a backlash against Dr. Teller that clouded the rest of his life.


The Times is deeply wrong to refer to Dr. Teller's ardent promotion of nuclear weapons in general - and this rhetoric chosen by the Times is obviously intended to cast Dr. Teller as having an "ardent" relationship with the H-Bomb, in other words that he "loved the Bomb" - yet another Strangelove allusion by the Times. Dr. Teller did advocate a broader nuclear strategy than his critics did, and he also advocated civilian uses of nuclear energy and hydrogen bombs. But in every case his advocacy was carefully thought out and far from "general." He was often confronted by hysterical opponents, opposed to any use of the H-Bomb on emotional or ill-conceived tactical grounds. And he was almost always right. In the aggregate, this reference to his ardent promotion of nuclear weapons in general is a nothing short of a slur.

Similarly, the reference to his deep suspicion of Soviet intentions is tendentious and wrong. Dr. Teller didn't suspect Soviet intentions, he understood them - which his most ardent critics did not.

Further, as noted in my prior post, yesterday's Times screed was as short on acknowledging Dr. Teller's scientific contributions and brilliance as it was long on its inappropriate Strangelovian intimations.

Today's effort by the Times suggests that yesterday's hachtet job was not well received. Yesterday we saw the work of Walter Sullivan alone, but today's apparent damage control job adds William J. Broad. Is this the Times' attempt to impose some adult supervision? In any event, today's article opens with rather a different tone, one that acknowledges his scientific importance and broad influence:

Edward Teller, a towering figure of science who had a singular impact on the development of the nuclear age, died late Tuesday at his home in Stanford, Calif. He was 95.

Widely seen as a troubled genius, Dr. Teller generated hot debate for more than a half century, even as he engendered many features of the modern world.

A creator of quantum physics who loved to play Bach and Beethoven as an amateur pianist, the Hungarian-born physicist helped found the nuclear era with his work on the atom bomb, played a dominant role in inventing the hydrogen bomb (though he often protested being called its father), battled for decades on behalf of nuclear power and lobbied fervently for the building of antimissile defenses, which the nation is now erecting.


Today there is no reference to Dr. Teller's "suspicions" of the Soviets - it is replaced by a reference to his "distrust" of Soviet intentions, a marginal improvement on the Times' part. A grudging acknowledgement has also been inserted:

During the cold war, [some of his colleagues] praised him as having a deep understanding of the tyranny of Communism and for succeeding like no other scientist in forging weapons to fight it.

Dr. Teller's highly nuanced and exactly correct analysis of J. Robert Oppenheimer is also quoted today, where yesterday we were led to believe that Dr. Teller had simply denounced Oppenheimer.

Yesterday:

His frustrations in seeking to win support for development of the hydrogen bomb led to his testimony that helped deprive J. Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the development of the first atomic bomb, of his security clearance. .... Asked if he considered Dr. Oppenheimer disloyal to the United States, Dr. Teller said no. He was then asked whether he regarded him as a security risk. He replied that he often found Dr. Oppenheimer's actions "hard to understand."

"I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated," Dr. Teller told the panel.


Today:

Asked if he considered Dr. Oppenheimer disloyal to the United States, Dr. Teller said no. He was then asked whether he regarded him as a security risk.

"I thoroughly disagreed with him in numerous issues, and his actions frankly appeared to me confused and complicated," Dr. Teller told the panel.

"To this extent," he said, "I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understood better and therefore trust more. In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands."


So - contrary to yesterday's insinuations - Dr. Teller did not suggest that he thought Robert Oppenheimer was a "security risk" with a wink and a nod. No sensible person can deny the truth of what Dr. Teller did have the courage to say about Robert Oppenheimer, who was a confused, conflicted, complex, brilliant scientist who imported much of his own social and political agenda into his technical recommendations. He was obviously not the right man to be running the programs he was running, regardless of his brilliance and scientific accomplishments and independently of whether he should have been regarded as a "security risk." That is, Dr. Teller's judgment in this affair was measured, intelligent and correct - and the portion of the scientific community that thereafter shunned him simply embarrassed themselves by doing that. Later investigations revealed that Robert Oppenheimer also had a problematic past which included substantial involvement with the Communist Party - a past that he largely concealed.

Today's article still does not strike the right balance. The wholly inappropriate Strangelove reference remains, and remains unqualified, for example. But today's article replaces and repairs a substantial portion of yesterday's mess. In truth, today's article should have been printed under the same kind of errata headline that accompanied the Times' Jason Blair confessions.

And there should be another such article tomorrow.

MORE
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Two Years Ago Today

Always remember.
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Bad News For The Beeb ...

... which means that the "Bush lied" crowd in this country has some additional real problems coming out of this, too.

Prime Minister Tony Blair's government did not deliberately "sex up" a dossier on Iraqi weapons by including a disputed claim about chemical and biological weapons, a parliamentary committee reported Thursday.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2003


This Raises A Few Questions For The Airport Security Officials In Charge

A homesick shipping clerk had himself shipped from New York to Dallas in an airline cargo crate, startling his parents -- and a deliveryman -- when he broke out of the box outside their home. .... His box was carried in the pressurized, heated cabins, but could just as easily have been placed in the lower, unpressurized holds, said Richard G. Phillips, chief executive of Pilot Air Freight.

"He could easily have died" ... The freight cost -- billed to [his] employer -- was $550. At that rate, "he could have flown first-class."


Of course, many students have contemplated this particular method of transportation. But few have had the wherewithal to try it ... and survive.

UPDATE: It seems the auto-shipping clerk's big mistake was not telling the authorities that he was just testing airport security for a piece he was preparing for ABC News.
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Minute Man Moves On

Tom Maguire has joined the migration to Moveable Type.

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Tuesday, September 09, 2003


Edward Teller

Edward Teller died yesterday at his home on the Stanford University campus in Palo Alto, Calif. He was 95. Dr. Teller was famous and controversial for his central efforts to produce the hydrogen bomb, his promotion of nuclear weapons for carefully selected purposes, his deep understanding of the Soviet Union and his opposition to curtailment of nuclear testing.

The New York Times coverage of his passing again demonstrates how flaccid and tendentious the Times has become, as with this casually offensive passage:

He was seen as the model for Dr. Strangelove, the motion picture character with an artificial arm who "loved the bomb" and spoke with a Central European accent.

In fact, Dr. Teller was seen as a model for Dr. Strangelove only by a few critics determined to grasp whatever rhetorical device they could, regardless of how obviously wrong that device might be. Strangelove spoke with a clearly German accent. Dr. Teller was Hungarian. Strangelove's mechanical arm was likely to spring into a SEIG HEIL at the slightest provocation. Teller was a Jew. It is therefore weirdly despicable of the Times to make this association, especially since Dr. Teller was not widely seen as a "model" for Strangelove and was probably not intended by Stanley Kubrick as even a partial model.

Strangelove was almost certainly intended as a amalgam of Werner von Braun, the former Nazi rocket scientist who provided his services (and those of his underlings) to the US after the Second World War and, even more so, Herman Kahn, who was the best source for Strangelove. As one commenter puts it after discussing and essentially dismissing the inevitable Kissinger suggestion:

I think the best case can be made that Herman Kahn was the best source for Strangelove. Kahn was one of the earliest employees at the RAND corporation, which had been set by Gen. "Hap" Arnold to study nuclear war. According to THE WIZARDS OF ARMAGEDDON by Fred Kaplan, Kahn was notable for developing the linguistic trick of referring to potential casualties with the "only" word, as in "only two million killed." "Alluding almost casually to 'only' two million dead was part of the image Kahn was fashioning himself, the living portrait of the ultimate defense intellectual, cool and fearless, asking the questions everyone else ignored, thinking about the unthinkable." Indeed, his book ON THERMONUCLEAR WAR (1960), SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN reviewed it as "a moral tract on mass murder; how to plan it, how to commit it, how to get away with it, how to justify it."

The case FOR Kahn: Dr. Strangelove himself refers to a study he commissioned from the "Bland Corporation," a clear play on Kahn's old haunts. The similarity to Kahn's own ideas in Strangelove's pronouncements -- including the mine-shaft and ten-females-to-each-male stuff -- is uncannily similar to Kahn's brand of futurism. And since Kahn was the most famous nuclear war theorist at the time, Kubrick must have been thinking of his work.

The case AGAINST Kahn: Kahn, despite his name, was American-born, and was never a Nazi. Kahn was once asked about STRANGELOVE, and his reply was: "Dr. Strangelove would not have lasted three weeks at the Pentagon, he was too creative."


The Times doesn't like Dr. Teller. So the Times writes nasty, incorrect, unqualified things about him when he dies.

That's how bad it is.

UPDATE: An astute reader with personal knowledge of Dr. Teller e-mails more:

I agree with your complaint about the Times mentioning the alleged connection with Dr. Strangelove. They also failed to focus on just how brilliant he was and his range of scientific achievements. In 1964, my wife worked at what was then Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, CA. Teller had been the head the lab and was still emeritus at that time. The buzz at the Lab was that it was typical for a scientist to bring some new discovery to Dr. Teller only to have Teller dig into a file where he had made the same discovery years earlier, but not bothered to publish it.

Also, a book about the Manhattan Project noted that the three Hungarians, Teller, Leo Szilard, and John Von Neumann, were considered notably brilliant even by the standards of the stable of brilliant scientists who worked on that project.


These comments are completely on point. Von Neumann was a unique, incandescent polymath who advanced fields ranging from computer theory to quantum mechanics. Leo Slizard, a chief foe of Maxwell's Demon, cut a similarly wide intellectual swath (including as co-inventor with Albert Einstein of a new kind of refrigerator).

And Edward Teller was very much their peer.

INCIDENTIALLY: Herman Kahn's parents were ambitious immigrants from Bialystok. The place is worth remembering.

STILL MORE: Another astute reader adds:

You know, I read the obit after I read your piece, and I was furious. The Times goes on about how Teller was spurned by the scientific community after his 1954 testimony, then later tell us that TIME put him on the cover in 1957 as a scientific icon, and he was made Director of Larry Livermore in 1958.

All very true. First, the spurning, then the apotheosis. Given the way the Times covers Dr. Teller, perhaps the Gray Lady thinks his best years are yet to come!

MORE

STILL MORE
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Davis Descending XL: Ueberroth Gibt Raum Zum Atem Zu Schwarzenegger!

California gubernatorial recall candidate Peter Ueberroth is dropping out of the race. Ueberroth, a Republican business executive has been receiving support from about 5 percent of likely voters polled. It is unclear what effect his dropping out will have on Schwarzenegger's chances, but it is probably a good thing.

Many determinations, including of who is a "likely voter" in this election - and therefore the poll results - are much more questionable than in a typical race with many antecedents.

What about Tom McClintock?

His public perception seems to be improving, although he draws only 13% of polled likely voters (again, with that "likely voters" caveat). I have been wrong about Mr. McClintock before, but I will still make prediction:

Mr. McClintock has a good reason to stay in this race notwithstanding his 13% numbers. Specifically, Arnold Schwarzenegger may yet implode before the election.

For example, it is still unclear whether real or invented "dirt" will be produced against Mr. Schwarzenegger. Allegations of business or tax improprieties? People claiming he sold them illegal drugs - or caused them to be hooked on drugs? Even an attempt to associate him with the gay prostitution that pervades some of bodybuilding? As I have noted before, if such "dirt" is produced, it is likely to be produced just days before the election - not leaving time for it to be scrubbed off.

If Mr. McClintock is going to withdraw at all, he may therefore want to wait until just days before the election. The recent Harris poll apparently includes a question on what happens to Mr. Schwarzenegger's support if Mr. McClintock withdraws (The race without Tom McClintock: Arnold leads [Bustamante], 33-31.). But there seems to be no discussion in the media of what happens to Mr. McClintock's support if Mr. Schwarzenegger withdraws.

But it would be very interesting to know what happens to Mr. McClintock's support if Mr. Schwarzenegger withdraws - especially because he may have to, and also because Mr. McClintock would make by far the best governor out of the crowd now seeking the position.
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Dick Morris: Compare And Contrast

Dick Morris:

Why is Bush falling so badly? The superficial reasons are the Iraq casualties, the failure to find WMDs and the continuing inability to round up Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. But the real reason is that terror is receding as an issue, largely due to Bush's success. The solution for Bush is to put terrorism back on the front burner by high profile and aggressive action against Iran and/or North Korea. It's not necessary to wag the dog, but Bush should wag his tongue and raise the profile of these two remaining threats to our security.

Reality:

US President George W. Bush's approval ratings have taken a hit in recent weeks, but analysts say the reason lies in the country's economic troubles rather than the unrest in Iraq. .... "The public's priority has shifted significantly to focus more on the economic side," says Scott Keeker, a specialist with the Pew Research Center, a political research organization in Washington. "Of course, the news continues to be pretty discouraging there."

Absent something of the scale of a major new terrorist act, the bulk of the 2004 presidential election - say, 80% - is going to be the performance of the American economy. That's going to be true whether Messrs. Bush or Morris like it or not, and it will be true whether or not Mr. Bush takes action against Iran or North Korea. But the economy is doing better, and it is revealing that the Democrats and Mr. Bush's other critics find themselves admitting that, yes, there is a recovery, and, yes, it is now even a strong recovery ... but, but, but it is a jobless recovery. The Democrats are rather like children's storybook characters on a chunk of ice nearing the equator. Will they reach the island (or the election) before it melts completely (or employment or public optimism picks up) and the sharks have their way? That's in tommorrow's chapter, sweetheart - now it's time to sleep.

Dick Morris is a brilliant man. But sometimes one gains considerable comfort knowing that it is unlikely that Dick Morris spends time at the Jefferson Hotel, sucking on the toes of some hired girl while chatting up this President with strategic "insights." The correct advice for the President is:

Do what you can to enhance the economic recovery. And if you can't think of anything to do, just do what you can to shore up your various constituencies, campaign with vigor and hope for the best - and, of course, talk up how you're better on national security and terrorism than your opponent is. That's good at the margin, and you may have to play with tight margins. You've got a good shot. Unemployment and the polling sags it brings are lagging indicators and there's still more than a year to November, 2004. And don't start any wars you don't absolutely have to.
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David Brooks: Compare And Contrast

The New York Times launches a new columnist today, David Brooks. Mr. Brooks is not off to the best start. For example, here is his summation paragraph:

The essential news is that Bush will do whatever it takes to prevail, and senior members of his administration are capable of looking honestly at their mistakes. You will just never be able to get any of them to admit publicly they've ever made any.

And here is the lead, very large-print headline from today's Los Angeles Times:

Iraq Estimates Were Too Low, U.S. Admits

That headline captions an article that includes the following passage:

"It is fair to say that the level of decay and underinvestment in the Iraqi infrastructure was worse than almost anybody on the outside anticipated," said one senior administration official. "We were all surprised," said another.

So, compare and contrast: David Brooks today asserts that you will just never be able to get any of the Bush Administration to admit publicly they've ever made any mistakes on the same day at least two senior members of the Bush Administration do just that.

Well, maybe that's OK. Maybe Mr. Brooks doesn't read the Los Angeles Times anyway.

In addition, the phrase Bush will do whatever it takes to prevail may be problematic because the place it appears - Times Op-Ed pages - frequently assert or insinuate that whatever it takes to prevail includes lying or worse, as Don Luskin correctly points out. One might also note that - contrary to Mr. Brooks' insinuation and the overt assertions of others on his Op-Ed page - the President has always desired major United Nations involvement in Iraq, that's what all the shouting was about in the little green glass shee-bang on the East River some month's back. The pertinent question now is: Can United Nations or international involvement be obtained or increased on conditions which are tolerable under present circumstances - that is, now that the war is over? The answer increasingly appears to be "yes," and to his credit Mr. Brooks acknowledges that much: Colin Powell was dispatched to talk with Kofi Annan about a resolution authorizing a greater U.N. role. Annan was receptive.

A regular columnist plays a long term game, and one would not want to judge Mr. Brooks' tenure at the Times prematurely. He is right not to want to begin facing down a fusilage of irate letters labeling him a conservative "hack." He has not even begun to build a separate constituency at the Times. But he is going to need to show substantially more intestinal fortitude than he does in today's first column if his tenure is to be more than an embarrassment. Mr. Brooks should, for example, keep in mind that he has not just been reborn, full grown, from the brow of Pinch Sulzberger. Mr. Brooks has a history - and an oeuvre. He simply cannot mimic the tone of the other Times Op-Ed page writers without eventually clashing violently with his prior positions and looking like a ridiculous, empty opportunist. (He writes: "[Members of the Administration] don these facial expressions suggesting calm omniscience while down below their legs are doing the fox trot in six different directions." Was this sentence a column-warming gift from Maureen Dowd?) I haven't (yet) checked Mr. Brooks' prior work for consistency with today's column, but my guess is that he's already slicing the baloney pretty thin here.

POSTSCIPT:

The use of United Nations or broader international forces in Iraq is very unlikely to reduce resistance or violence there - although it may mean fewer US troops take the shots. It's nothing short of bizarre that terrorists blowing up the headquarters of the UN in Iraq and killing the chief of the UN forces there has been taken by many of the Administration's critics as evidence that UN or more broadly internationalized forces would be better accepted in Iraq than US forces are. And doesn't the UN immediately reacting to the bombing by pulling out signal to the terrorists that terrorism is much more effective against the UN than the US?

My guess is that the Administration's request to the UN to assume a broader role is a tactical move on Bush's part that forms part of the same strategy that includes his request for more money. Yes, the Administration would prefer that the UN and other countries act more responsibly, and some enhanced cooperation may be forthcoming. Another UN vote might allow some countries such as India to provide some support, for example. But really substantial changes in the attitudes of those such as Chirac, Anan and Schroeder are highly unlikely - they haven't grown up yet, so it's probably not going to happen at all.

But for all that, the request should be made. The UN-or-broader-international-involvement move allows the President to answer the inevitable question: Why are you not trying to get other countries to shoulder or pay for more of this? In fact the UN, Germans, French, etc will probably not pay what they should. Of course, all that will be good reasons in the future to make them pay when it comes time to restructure the commercial and political relationships of the Mideast.

In the long run, the Iraq investment will bear a huge return, comparable to the return realized from the demolition of the Soviet Union and the reconstruction of Russia. The Soviet excursion was expensive for the West, both in terms of military investment to confront the Soviets and in terms of losses in post-Soviet commercial investment. But there's no question that was money well spent.

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Sunday, September 07, 2003


Running For Empty

The most recent Zogby Poll says that North Carolina Senator John Edwards is drawing less than 3% of likely Democratic primary voters, who favor former Vermont Governor Dr. Howard Dean (16%), Massachusetts Senator John Kerry (13%), Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman (12%), and Missouri Congressman Richard Gephardt (8%).

Yet, confirming his senior aides' bizarre aside to the New York Times, Senator Edwards on Sunday sent a letter to North Carolina state Democratic Party chairwoman Barbara Allen announcing his decision (recounted by state party executive director Scott Falmlen): "I ... decided that I will not seek re-election to the United States Senate in order to devote all of my energy to running for president."

Why does Senator Edwards not think this kind of decision is something he needs to share directly with the people of North Carolina?

In any event, one might consider:

No Senate run. Drawing less than 3% in the Presidential polls - but chooses that route. Why?

John Edwards has two things going for him: He is from the South and he is young, and therefore Democratic vice-presidential timber! If the Democrats nominate any of Dean, Kerry or Lieberman, they will need a southerner to balance the ticket.

And now, on that note, how about Florida's Sen. Bob Graham?

Two "contenders" running for vice-president sub rosa? Can anyone do that and preserve one's dignity?

MORE: Some people have suggested that Richard Gephardt is also running for Vice President, which would make the line up of Democratic contenders even more peculiar.

Further, how does Hillary Clinton figure into all this? Of course, there is the persistent question of her entering the 2004 run for the presidency, but it's getting late. Would the polymorphous but arguably-Arkansan New York (and ultra-liberal but arguably "moderate") Senator Clinton have any "balancing" qualities on the Democratic 2004 as a vice presidental candidate with a New Englander heading the ticket - even if she were willing to accept second billing? The calculus would hardly be standard.

If John Edwards were to be become the vice president in 2004, he would automatically become a huge obstruction to anything that remained of Senator Clinton's presidential aspirations, since he would likely be first in line for the 2012 Democratic nomination - and he's young enough to wait that out.

Will Hillary Clinton become Florida's Sen. Bob Graham biggest buddy in promoting him for the 2004 vice presidential slot?
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More Jobs Than We Thought?

Mickey Kaus does a terrific job of taking Louis Uchitelle's to task for Uchitelle's NYT report on the disappointing August job figures, which includes this questionable spin job:

93,000 jobs were lost in August, countering expectations that employment would finally begin to expand. ... The unemployment rate declined to 6.1 percent from 6.2 percent in July, but economists said that was apparently because of a surge in the number of people who, having lost jobs, listed themselves as self-employed rather than unemployed.

In other words, the drop from 6.2% to 6.1% was not primarily caused by an increase in discouraged workers but by an increase in the number of people who consider themselves to be self-employed workers. Kausfiles correctly points out the decision to second guess such people's characterization of themselves as "self employed" and instead conclude that most of them are really "unemployed" is questionable spin.

Kausfiles' approach is strongly supported by the current status of the recovery. As noted in a previous post (and in common economic knowledge), employers experiencing an increased need for labor often do not hire permanent employees right away. Rather, they first try to make current employees work harder or more, and try to fill positions with temporary help to the extent possible. Both of those trends are now strongly evident in the economy.

Yet another way for an employer to obtain labor without hiring a permanent employee is to hire more independent contractors. The extent to which that approach is feasible will depend on the type of work desired. It is unlikely that an assembly-line worker can be an independent contractor - but if an employer were to require, say, some computer software engineering services, what better place to obtain them than to hire a former employee on a contract basis? If one's former employer or another software company knocked on your door to sign you up as a contract worker (which Microsoft, by way of example only, often does - sometimes at the cost of legal complexities) - would you be mistaken or deluded to refer to yourself as "self employed" after signing the contract and starting work on the project?

A substantial increase in the number of self-employed people is just what one expects to see at this stage of the recovery - for many of the same reasons that employee productivity and temporary employees are now increasing smartly.

For that matter, are all those independent writers and reporters who provide content for the Times and other media - such as Virginia Postrel - really just "unemployed?" And where do I sign up to be so "unemployed?"

A related point: Where an employer needs sevices normally provided by humans, the employer might in some cases also acquire technology to substitute for human workers - fully or partially. If labor laws are rigid, employers may have an incentive to acquire too much technology in the sense that employers may acquire more technology and less human work than the society-wide wealth-maximizing mix. In that case, per-worker output will be higher than the efficient (that is, the society-wide wealth-maximizing) mix would dictate. Unemployment will also be too high. That is: rigid labor laws encourage an inefficiently high level of worker efficiency. The classic example is current Eurosclerosis - where very high German (say) worker efficiency combines with high society-wide unemployment. Given the remarkably high productivity increases recently observed, it would be interesting to see if such increases are partially a sign of creeping Eurosclerosis in the American economy - with health insurance costs as a main focus.

UPDATE: John Fund points out:

The worst idea before the [California] Legislature is Senate Bill 2, written by John Burton of San Francisco, the liberal president of the state Senate. It would compel businesses with more than 20 workers to pay almost all health insurance costs for employees--even part-time workers--and their dependents. Companies would have to pay at least 95% of health-care costs for low-income workers, and 80% for everyone else.

Jill Stewart, a columnist and former Los Angeles Times reporter, describes the measure as "closer to socialism than anything I've seen heading for approval in 20 years." This bill would create a powerful incentive businesses to stay below the 20-employee limit by stunting their own growth, or drop below the limit by laying off workers. Ms. Stewart reports the bill was ghostwritten by the Service Employees International Union, a major Democratic contributor.


FURTHER UPDATE: Don Luskin has noted that the California Chamber of Commerce cites worker's comp reform as the number one business issue in the state.

The system is obviously in crisis and is widely believed to be driving business from California. However, there are other states with such systems that are also out of control.

Irrationally high workers' comp costs will, of course, drive business out. But, to the extent businesses remain, the workers' comp system creates an incentive towards Eurosclerosis (call it Calisclerosis?). A machine or software is not subject to claiming disability from carpal tunnel syndrome, and doesn't visit chiropractors: The typical injured California worker sees a chiropractor 34 times, compared with an average of 16 times in 12 other states studied by the Workers' Compensation Research Institute. Of the $1.2 billion expected to be spent on chiropractic treatment for 2004 injuries, $600 million could be saved by capping visits, according to the nonprofit Workers' Compensation Insurance Rating Bureau.

Calisclerosis is only one possible incentive towards inefficient overuse of technology. Such arguments and considerations do not, of course, prove that Calisclerosis is happening. But some economists are giving the job-growth-productivity links a hard rethinking. Possible Calisclerosis should be part of what is reexamined, along with the happier prospect that the nation's productivity potential is higher than has been believed.

STILL MORE: An astute friend e-mails:

Here’s another angle on the jobs spin. The Dept of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics conducts two entirely different job surveys, one of business establishments and one of households. For some reason the former is always quoted for job creation statistics (payroll), and the latter is always quoted for “the unemployment rate.” The two are diverging incredibly. [This chart shows what is happening.] Since year-end 2000, the former is showing the famous millions of jobs lost. But the latter shows a complete job recovery – a perfect breakeven (just a slight gain, actually). Year to date, the former shows over 300,000 jobs lost, the latter 1.2 million jobs gained. There are many differences between the two. The latter includes self-employed.

This press release from the Senate Joint Economic Committee discusses the matter:

Senator Bob Bennett (R-UT), chairman of the Joint Economic Committee (JEC), held a hearing today to discuss the August employment numbers with Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Kathleen Utgoff. Bennett discussed the state of the current economy and asked the commissioner about a seemingly significant discrepancy in the employment numbers.

“Though not widely known, employment figures come from two different surveys,” said Chairman Bennett. “The BLS surveys individual households to determine the unemployment rate, while it asks businesses about the number of people on their payrolls to determine how many jobs have been gained or lost. Congress relies on these statistics to make policy decisions, and we need to be sure we are acting on the most accurate and complete statistics available.”

According to the household survey, the number of employed people has increased by 1.4 million since the end of the recession.

The payroll survey, in contrast, indicates that roughly 1.1 million jobs have been lost over that period. Some of the disparity may reflect methodological differences between the two surveys, or it may be telling us of fundamental changes in our economy.

A significant difference between the two surveys is that the household survey accounts for those who are self employed and for small emerging businesses that may be overlooked by the payroll survey.


The full statement is here. This chart compares unemployment with other recessions.

It is by no means clear that the media coverage of the current national employment situation is coherent or correct.




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