SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

Slate magazine thinks that fastidious chefs are doing it wrong and that everyone needs to relax when it comes to worrying about the perfect oven temperature to cook their masterpieces – because the perfect oven temperature is a myth. Apparently some people pay people to “calibrate” their ovens every year, a waste of money given the fact that ovens heat above the set temperature and allow it to cool below before reheating, and the fact that different parts of the oven will maintain different temperatures to the area with the thermostat. This is a total vindication of my “make it up as you go along, don’t measure things and see what happens” philosophy of cooking.

Neil Armstrong is recovering well from heart surgery according to a report from NPR. Armstrong, the first man on the moon, now aged 82, recently had heart bypass surgery according to his wife. Neil Armstrong is an outspoken opponent of recent cutbacks to the NASA budget, recently telling Congress: “For a country that has invested so much for so long to achieve a leadership position in space exploration and exploitation, this condition is viewed by many as lamentably embarrassing and unacceptable”.

PoliticalOmnivore writes a smart review of David Frum’s first novel, “Patriots”, which I am currently also reading. Frum, a leading American and Canadian conservative intellectual, and former Bush administration official, has written an excellent novel which provides an insider’s glimpse into the seedy underside of Washington D.C., and the way that recent political trends (the Tea Party etc.) are influencing the behaviour of the thousands of political operatives working in D.C., serving the powers that be. I will be publishing my own review of “Patriots” on this blog in the coming days.

Another piece from Slate, scolding us for admiring the physiques of the female Olympic beach volleyball competitors, rather than their athletic skills. Justin Peters, the author, makes a fair point, though I think he goes a little too far in referring to Boris Johnson as an “asshole couch dweller”.

The astronauts currently aboard the International Space Station have a unique perspective on the London 2012 Olympic Games, writes astronaut Joe Acaba on his NASA blog. He writes: “I think watching the Olympics reminds us that we share one planet and that we can respect one another no matter what our differences, yet at the same time we can be proud of who we are and what we represent”.

A moving memorial from The Economist to recent failed missions to Mars, against the background of the recent success of NASA’s Curiosity rover in landing successfully on the surface of the red planet.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

The same left-wing blogs who so viscerally oppose the idea of unpaid internships, or the government’s welfare-to-work plans for unpaid work experience in exchange for benefits, are apparently posting recruitment advertisements for people to work as interns in a “voluntary” capacity. Blogger Guido Fawkes calls them out for their blatant hypocrisy.

<< Nothing else worthwhile to report on British politics. The Olympics eclipses everything… >>

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

A rare voice of sense in today’s Republican party, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md) has spoken out against the hysteria and apocalyptic language being used by some of his GOP colleagues as the budget “sequester” – the compulsory draconian spending cuts designed to kick into effect if the two parties could not agree a comprehensive spending deal – comes closer to becoming a reality. Appealing to the better nature of lawmakers, Bartlett says: “We need to stop with all the superlatives about the thing and be rational about it and involve the American people on it. It’s their country. It’s their kids that will have to fight the next war. They have a right to be involved, don’t they?” Hear, hear.

The Economist ponders the difference between “buying a little social justice with your coffee and buying a little Christian traditionalism with your chicken”. Their conclusion: “… the best arena for moral disagreement is not the marketplace, but our intellectual and democratic institutions. We hash out our disagreements, as best we can, in public deliberation. The outcome of this deliberation becomes input to official policymaking, which in turn determines the rules of the game for business.”

Tim Stanley, writing in The Telegraph, cries a river for Mitt Romney over the recent harsh campaign ads that the Obama campaign has unleashed upon the Republican nominee-in-waiting. Pulling the partisan blinkers firmly into position over his eyes, he conveniently skips any mention of Republican “death panel” talk, or GOP intransigence on striking a bipartisan deal on the budget and deficit reduction. According to Dr. Stanley, “… we can also detect a strategy for winning that runs counter to liberal faith in his powerful personality. In short: hope and change are out; divide to win is in.”

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Republicans For Big Government

Barack Obama - Sequester - Obamaquester

Run for your lives! The Obama Jobs Sequester is coming!

The evil President Obama sneakily – and somehow avoiding the notice of Congress – inserted into a congressionally approved bill a provision that would make large, across-the-board cuts in domestic spending if Republicans and Democrats failed to work together to reach a grand bargain on spending, tackling tax revenues and federal spending in a unified and bipartisan way.

And now that congressional leaders have failed to agree on these items, the undiscriminatingly large cuts are about to fall on the federal budget, which will result in many lost jobs, particularly in the area of national defence, which is just terrible. And all because of Obama. Right?

At least that’s how Kimberley Strassel, writing in The Wall Street Journal, sees it:

A year ago, the president demanded a $500 billion “sequester” of defense dollars as a penalty should Congress fail to cut a grand debt deal. Congress of course failed, and Mr. Obama’s sequester is now imminent. The sequester slash comes on top of the $487 billion in defense cuts Mr. Obama had already ordered in January of this year, threatening the likes of Mansfield.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned of the damage the sequester will do to national security. Yet the far more immediate political problem for Mr. Obama is that the cuts are compounding his domestic jobs liability—in the final stretch of the campaign.

More than one million lost private-sector jobs, to get down to it, as estimated by groups ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers to the Aerospace Industries Association. Military jobs are on the block, but the bulk of the pink slips will come from private businesses—from giant defense companies on down to smaller businesses that are the economic mainstays of their communities. They’ll come from states crucial for President Obama’s re-election: Virginia, Florida, North Carolina, and more.

So apparently, according to the Kimberley Strassel school of thought, what we should be doing in this recession is cutting government spending, because government doesn’t create jobs, entrepreneurs do. Unless that government spending is supporting jobs in the defence sector, of course, in which case we should be increasing it, dramatically!

Some more “moderate” Republicans argue that while they support cuts in principle, they are appalled by these looming defence cuts in particular because they are across-the-board and arbitrary, and pay little heed to particular defence programs or areas that could be more reasonably targetted for cutting. That’s the point of the sequester that they and their Democratic colleagues agreed to. It inflicts blind, undisciminating pain on areas of government spending precious to both sides of the political aisle, with the intention of presenting such an unthinkably draconian package of cuts that leaders would get together to forge a compromise.

If you don’t like the idea of a scythe being taken to defence spending or to welfare programmes without regard to their individual merit, get together, in the name of patriotism and bipartisanship, and for the sake of the people who elected you, and hammer out a compromise that cuts the welfare state while raising tax revenues to help close the massive hole in America’s federal budget.

Interestingly, you never hear Republicans making the same arguments against across-the-board cuts to welfare programmes, or social security, or food stamps. In those cases, apparently, it is fine to slash away at the budget with little regard for the people who were led to believe by their government (Republicans as much as Democrats) that certain benefits would be available to them, and who planned their lives accordingly, often with little left in reserve.

We can argue the rights and wrongs of this – personally I find the welfare state too generous, and politicians of all sides too cowardly in failing to tell voters the truth about the unsustainability of current levels of provision over the past recent decades – but surely we can all agree that just as you cannot rip a bandage from an open wound and expect the patient to be unharmed, so you cannot remove anticipated benefits or support from citizens overnight, at a time of economic hardship, and expect their lives, or the social fabric, to remain stable.

In fact, there is only one other area of government spending besides national defence that I can think of where Republicans have come out in outraged horror at the mere talk of blanket cutbacks – I’m speaking, of course, about Medicare. Those lofty words about scaling back federal spending and shrinking the size of government sure do fly out of the window awfully fast when one of their core constituencies (in this case, the grey vote) is in the firing line.

But Kimberley A. Strassel is not troubled by any of these arguments or contradictions, content instead to bob gently in the vast ocean of her own ignorance, wilful self-deception and cynically fiscally irresponsible propaganda.

No, for her it is the Obama Jobs Sequester, the Machiavellian outcome that he desired all along in order to gut his own nation’s capacity to defend itself. It’s the only plausible explanation for how we find ourselves in this situation. Unless it isn’t.

SEMI PARTISAN SUMMARY

CULTURE

Pamela Haag, writing at Slate, has had enough of the “mommy” prefix being applied to everything from jeans to porn to jobs to blogs. In an interesting piece, she goes on to argue that the effect of these mommy-isms is to diminish the work or activities outside motherhood that women engage in.

The Economist ponders the recent death of author Gore Vidal and laments that it marks the passing of an age when politics was less…dumbed down. Recalling Vidal’s famous televised altercation with William F. Buckley Jr., they note: “It is hard to imagine men like Vidal and Buckley, two snobbish East Coast intellectuals with lockjaw patrician accents, being invited onto prime-time television now to opine on the hot-button issues of the day. Vidal’s death earlier this week, at age 86, marks not only the loss of a provocative novelist and political thinker, but also the demise of a brand of public discourse. It seems there is no longer a place for the erudite and witty public intellectual in America. Instead of learned allusions to classical literature, public figures, including the president of the United States, are now expected to drop their G’s and speak knowledgeably about the cast of The Jersey Shore”. Indeed.

 

BRITISH POLITICS

NPR gazes at Britain from across the pond and raises an eyebrow at the marked uptick in explicit British patriotism that has been observed in this jubilee and Olympic year. I think that they do British national pride a disservice saying things such as: “Never before have British sports fans sung the national anthem, or flourished their (proliferating) red-white-and-blue Union flags, with such gusto. Never before have British commentators yelled so loudly at the slightest sign that their one of their countryfolk may secure a medal”. After all, national pride can be expressed in many ways, not all of which require flying a massive flag above a car dealership. But nonetheless, they do have a point. NPR go on to ponder the likely impact of this new-found patriotic expression on the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum.

A really interesting article by Damian McBride, detailing the first 24 hours of the 2007 foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in Surrey, and the then newly-appointed Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s reaction to it. Lord knows I am no fan of Gordon Brown’s – given a few seconds of silence in any social gathering I am liable to launch into my anti GB diatribe – but I must admit that he did have his good qualities (earnestness, attention to detail) as well as the bad. McBride notes: “At the end of those 24 hours, even before we were clear how serious the outbreak was, there was no question – whether you were a government official, a political journalist or a punter watching the TV – that the PM was in control of this crisis and was personally directing every aspect of how it would be dealt with.” This article humanises Brown, and reminds me that no matter my stark disagreements with him on policy, he worked very hard – albeit egotistically and misguidedly – in service to the country.

 

AMERICAN POLITICS

Washington “elites” are more out of touch than ever with the rest of the country, and far more tolerant of persistent mass unemployment, argues Jonathan Chait, writing in New York Magazine. For those like him, Chait writes, the great recession “…is more akin to a famine in Africa. For millions and millions of Americans, the economic crisis is the worst event of their lives. They have lost jobs, homes, health insurance, opportunities for their children, seen their skills deteriorate, and lost their sense of self-worth. But from the perspective of those in a position to alleviate their suffering, the crisis is merely a sad and distant tragedy.”

Place your bets now. Mitt Romney is beginning to meet with and “audition” the various Republican contenders to take the Vice Presidential spot on his ticket. Some options are more palatable than others, but whether Romney picks a “boring”, safe candidate or takes a risk with an unconventional bold choice will say a lot about how confident his campaign is of victory, or conversely how worried they are about their prospects and are looking for another game-changer.

Charles Krauthammer was obviously watching a different foreign trip than the one the rest of us witnessed as Romney embarked on his overseas tour. Using his Washington Post column to declare the trip an unbridled success, Krauthammer has convinced himself that Romney’s undercutting of the official US position on Jerusalem and criticism of Palestinian culture were somehow smart diplomacy. Others might argue that these actions were contrary to his earlier promises (and standard convention) to avoid criticising US policy while a presidential candidate on foreign soil, and that regardless of ones views on the Middle East peace process, it might be a good idea to avoid enraging one of the two sides before you have even won election.

Romney Gets Owned By The Economist

Ouch.

The Economist seems to have taken an even dimmer view of Mitt Romney’s recent foreign excursion than I did. In a scorching piece subtitled “Like Bush, but without the cosmopolitan flair”, the newspaper rips Romney for what they call his “horn-honking, floppy-shoed clown show” of a foreign trip.

The newspaper rightly lays into Romney for stating before he left on his ill-fated trip that he would not comment on foreign policy matters while on foreign soil (in accordance with usual protocol), but then reneging on his promise and doing precisely that while in Israel. They note:

… he moved on to Israel, where his campaign promptly involved itself in a diplomatic scandal (this time with actual consequences) over whether it had said that Mr Romney would back a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran. Mr Romney went on to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel, a position no American administration has ever taken because discussions over the final status of the city are the most explosive subject in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Then this morning, at a fund-raising breakfast largely populated by ultra-rich Jewish Americans, Mr Romney managed to suggest that Palestinians are poor because their culture is inferior to that of Jews.

Sigh. Presidential candidates are just not supposed to do that. Aside from the fact that it is highly irresponsible to start announcing an alternate US foreign policy abroad before the votes have been counted and you have been sworn in to office, explicitly backing the policies of one foreign political party (Likud), or a coalition, unnecessarily meddles in Israel’s domestic politics. It is a blunder committed by someone with no sense of diplomacy and no thought to the consequences of his actions, save for the effect it would have on shoring up his base at home.

The Economist takes particular exception to Romney’s speech at a fundraiser:

“As you come here and you see the GDP per capita, for instance, in Israel which is about $21,000 dollars, and compare that with the GDP per capita just across the areas managed by the Palestinian Authority, which is more like $10,000 per capita, you notice such a dramatically stark difference in economic vitality,” the Republican presidential candidate told about 40 wealthy donors who breakfasted around a U-shaped table at the luxurious King David Hotel.

Don’t say things like that when The Economist is listening. They have facts and figures to hand, and both the time and brainpower to use these facts and figures to make you look like an ass hat:

To make matters worse, Mr Romney got his numbers wrong. Per capita income in Israel is over $31,000; in the Palestinian territories it is closer to $1,500. Those aren’t the kinds of numbers that divide industrious Protestants from happy-go-lucky Catholics. They’re the kind of numbers that divide South Korea from Ghana. You don’t get those kinds of divisions because of cultural differences.

Comparing the income of the average Israeli to that of the average Palestinian, as though their prospects at birth had been equivalent and their fortunes today are largely the result of their own efforts and their “culture”, is gratuitously insulting and wreaks damage to American diplomacy.

It really does wreak damage to American diplomacy. Yes, to some extent Obama did the same thing with his own foreign tour in 2008 – his speech in Berlin where he talked of the need to engage better with the world and partner with other nations, while quite true to my mind, was also perhaps an inappropriate repudiation of the existing American policy under then-president Bush – but this is of a different order altogether. At some point, a future hypothetical President Romney would have to engage with the Middle East peace process, and enraging one half of the debate with needless and groundless attacks on their “culture” are only going to make that already vexing job even more complicated.

Furthermore, the idea that some ethereal thing such as “culture” accounts primarily for the disparity in per capita wealth between the two populations is so absurd as to be ridiculous. A man as supposedly intelligent as Mitt Romney surely understands that, regardless of  your views on where responsibility for the troubles lies, Palestinians and Israelis are not born with equal prospects at birth, diverging only because of one culture’s superiority over the other.

As The Economist wryly notes at the end:

Perhaps at a fund-raising breakfast in New York, Mr Romney might compliment the city’s wealthy Jews and Hindus on their culture of educational excellence, which has made them so much richer and more accomplished, on average, than America’s evangelical Christians and Mormons.

I think we all know that Romney won’t be saying anything of the kind. Calling Palestinian culture inferior carries no penalties back home. Criticising evangelical Christians, on the other hand…

When Homemade Signs Fail

The Obama re-election campaign recently released via Facebook this picture of an Obama supporter holding aloft a hand-written sign, detailing in colourful lettering the reasons why they voted for the president in 2008 and plan to do so again in 2012:

This is all very well and good, notwithstanding the dubious nature of some of the “achievements” listed, but then it all goes wrong in point #8. The placard creator writes:

“Despite inheriting one of the worst economic messes since the Great Depression, he added 2.6 million private sector jobs to our economy, and indications are that the economy is slowly improving. To anyone who thinks it’s been too slow – don’t you know you can’t turn the Titantic around in a day?”

Now, I get the message behind this, and I actually agree with it. The economy was falling off a cliff when Obama took office, and the tales told by Republicans about how sunny and wonderful everything would have been if only John McCain had won and we hadn’t had that awful stimulus package that did nothing to help us are just pure grade A baloney. The stimulus was necessary – much of the money may have been misdirected and there may have been a dearth of “shovel-ready” projects in which to invest, but it is a great falsehood to argue that it made things worse.

However, I also think that any election literature that includes the phrase “indications are that the economy is slowly improving” is pretty weak and perhaps should not see the light of day. And the Titanic metaphor?

Apparently you “can’t turn the Titantic [sic] around in a day”. In fact, you probably can’t turn it around at all, given the fact that the wreck lies two miles beneath the surface of the north Atlantic ocean. But if it were still afloat, I’m sure that it’s turning circle wouldn’t be that bad. Then again, maybe that’s why it hit the iceberg.

But do you really want to be comparing the US economy to the Titanic? Really? Is that wise? Are you just trying to give some ammunition to the Romney campaign at this point?

Come on, Obama campaign, you can do better than this.

 

# you can’t turn the titanic around in a day