Sunday, December 29, 2013

What the Duck Dynasty Mess Shows about politics

Liberals suck at tactics. Conservatives suck at strategy.

Let's be honest here. It was no shock that a Conservative Evangelical Christian thinks gay people are Evil Sinners Going to Hell, and that their private sexual activities are the start of the Slippery Slope to Damnation for Us All. That's a big part of the definition of Conservative Evangelical Christian. If you attack a Conservative Evangelical for doing shit like comparing homosexuality to bestiality you will end up fighting the entire international Conservative Evangelical movement.

On the other hand in America in 2013 KKK propaganda is condemned by all right-thinking people, including people like Bobby Jindall. During the 60s the core of KKK propaganda was that all the black people who actually lived in the South liked Jim Crow. It was Yankee and Communist agitators that were causing the Civil Rights movement. Robertson is racist. And not just in the sense that racial equality advocates say everyone is racist. He's racist in the sense that he has just said, flat-out, that blacks were better off when when it was illegal for them to go to the same schools as whites. There is no large international movement to protect people like that.

Which means that if you actually want to get the homophobe off the air the tactic that will work is to emphasize that both sets of comments are equally horrible. Anyone whose headline includes the phrase "Homophobic," or "gay," but not the word racist should be getting a very nasty letter of complaint from your organization.

But while the right won tactically by convincing people who only read headlines that Robertson had not said anything bad about blacks, they really fucked up their strategy.

In the long-term they need non-white votes. A significant proportion of those votes will have to come from blacks. Blacks tend to be skeptical off economic conservatism at a genetic level, because in the black experience freedom (aka: the Emancipation proclamation) = extreme Federal spending (aka: the Civil War) + abrogating the Constitutional rights of wealthy Americans (prior to the war slave-owners were the richest Americans). Even in non-economic realms blacks tend to be suspicious of limitations on Federal power, because in the black experience limited Federal government is generally the justification for not punishing a white guy for limiting black freedom. The Trayvon Martin case is the most recent prominent example.

What could do it is Social Conservatism. Bush tried this, and was getting some traction with it. The problem is that even socially conservative blacks tend to suspect that their socially conservative white peers are only claiming to be reformed on racial issues. It's not hyperbole to say that they have nightmares about a socially conservative Federal Government allowing states to re-impose Jim Crow. And now a social conservative is saying flat-out that blacks were better off under Jim Crow, and a bevy of prominent social conservatives (including non-white Jindall) are defending him.

In some ways this isn't a big deal. If the GOP can double-down on the white vote and nominate somebody Latino-friendly in 2016 they don't actually need to gain ground with blacks. But their recent policy-choices seem to be designed to alienate Latinos, and if their entire strategy is to get an ever-increasing share of an ever-decreasing proportion of the country they've got a huge problem. Politics is a game of flexibility, and the GOP/Conservative movement is extremely unwilling to be flexible.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Rand Paul's Ideas for Detroit

They won't work, but it's nice somebody is taking the problem seriously. Everyone's attitude is basically "Isn't it horrible that we can't do anything," when in fact it would be fairly trivial for any level of government above Detroit (including the County) to solve. They just don't want to spend money. Paul's idea would spend a large amount of money, by basically abolishing taxes in poor areas like Detroit, but it's nice that he's trying.

Granted he's trying to get Obama to sign a huge tax cut for free, but at least he's doing Detroit the courtesy of using us for political cover for his pre-existing anti-tax position. Everyone else is treating the City like it's got zombie-plague.

The problem with previous ones is Detroit's taxes are only high in comparison to the tiny little cities that dominate the rest of Michigan. In Cleveland today I pay more taxes then I did in Detroit. Sales taxes is almost three points higher, I pay income tax to two cities on every dollar I earn, and both cities charge at least Detroit's 2%, Detroit's property taxes were probably higher but I have never owned a home. This means that local taxes just aren't that big a deterrent from living in Detroit. In fact if the City had doubled the income tax, added a two-cent sales tax; and used the money to get reasonable police/fire response times and a working mass transit system back in the Archer years we could probably have avoided a lot of this mess. But that would have taken leadership, because the state would have had to agree with increased Detroit taxes, and Archer was a manager. In some ways Kwame had a better chance to pull this off because he at least had a Democratic governor (Granholm), but he wasn't interested in long-term planning.

The clearest proof of this was in Kevyn Orr's original "Report to Creditors," which was his attempt to convince the pension0funds and bond-holders to cave prior to filing for bankruptcy. Page 11 detailed the comparative tax burdens and insurance cost premiums of Detroit and several local 'burbs. Detroit's Tax penalty was $300-$600, but Detroiters pay an Auto insurance penalty of $800-$2,000. In other words, even waiving Detroit's taxes completely won't make the City competitive because much of the extra cost of living in Detroit is levied by insurance companies.

Paul's program might work because it also guts Federal taxes. If I can get a huge Federal tax break then that might compensate me for a) paying through the nose for insurance, and b) needing to hire my own private security.

The problem with implementing it on a large scale is that it could work too well. It would apply to a fairly significant proportion of the country (any area where unemployment is 1.5% higher then average), and it would give such massive tax benefits that you could see some pretty huge distortions in the market. For example, if I'm Apple I could move my HQ to a small city with a population of a few thousand, start a "philanthropic" homeless shelter that gives 1,000 people fairly nice apartments for free as long as they remain legally unemployed, and never have to bother with that Double Irish again. The unemployment rate can't drop below 20%, and the rest of the country isn't likely to hit 18.5%. I have saved myself a bucket-load of money.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The search for Syria motivations is silly

Here they are:
An Israeli government official says Israel has issued a complaint to the U.S. about Palestinian officials leaking classified details about ongoing peace negotiations.

Israeli and Palestinian negotiators had pledged to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry they would not speak publicly about the content of their talks. But a Palestinian official who spoke to The Associated Press offered the first detailed peek at the renewed peace negotiations.

The anonymous Palestinian official said Israel proposes leaving dozens of settlements and military bases in the West Bank and seeks a Palestinian state in provisional borders.

The Israeli official said Sunday some of the information the Palestinians have leaked is incorrect or distorted. He refused to elaborate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as both sides said they wouldn't brief the media.

Benjamin Netanyahu is doing these peace negotiations as a favor to his strongest ally and international protector. He just ran on, and won, a term as Prime Minister mostly on the basis that the status quo with the Palestinians was fine and the peace process was not a major priority for Israel.

He doesn't have to keep doing these negotiations if he doesn't want to. And since these negotiations cover very delicate areas he's got a reason to walk away from them at pretty much any time he wants.

For reason I laid out in my last diary, the Israelis have no real choice but to bomb Assad. They are doing Obama (and by extension all Americans) a huge favor by letting us delay the bombing. And it will cost Obama (and thus everyone) by making the peace talks tricky.

BTW, peaceniks who think Assad-not-being-bombed could actually happen, what do you base this on? Israel has an Air Force. They don't think the evidence against Assad is ambiguous because they supplied it. They know Hezbollah is a threat, that Hezbollah is moving closer to Assad with every battle, and that Assad has no scruple against gassing hundreds of innocent people. They are not known for taking the "let's not sweat it," view on threats to Jewish life. In what universe do they not conclude that Hezbollah is like 10 minutes from gassing hundreds of little Jewish children, and decide to use their Air Force to vaporize Damascus?

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Nobody Seems to get Syria

I love Matty Yglesias and William Saletan over at Slate. I love anti-war Democrats. But it's very clear they don't think about foreign policy on a regular basis. Syria is a very small country. It's 20 million people are roughly half the population of the average UN country (it does get up to 2/3 if you include territories). It's land area is comparable to Washington state. It has basically no energy resources. If you talk about Syria solely in terms of things that are within Syria's borders you can only conclude that Syria is less important then Mozambique, Zimbabwe, or Argentina.

And that's pretty much what all these people are doing. They are looking at the Syria problem purely in terms of it being a SYRIA problem, and coming to the entirely logical conclusion that President should just ignore Assad like he's ignoring Mugabe. This is stupid.

Syria isn't a significant country. Unfortunately for us it borders many significant countries. The Turks are in NATO, the Israelis and Jordanians are "Major Non-NATO US Allies," and all three share a border with Syria. They all deserve to know we will spend a few Billion$ to protect them. That is what Ally means. Syria also shares a border with Iraq and Lebanon, two of the only countries where hundreds of US Troops have died within my lifetime. So from a simple geographical perspective Syria is probably the most important country in the world that is not a) a permanent member of the UN security council, or b) formally a US Ally.

Now lets consider the nature of the problem in Syria. It's clear somebody is using chemical weapons there because every few months thousands of people show up at the hospital with nerve gas damage. This is not something an exile with a fertile imagination can fake. If the CIA could fake it they would have done so in Iraq. Chemical weapons attacks are happening in Syria. Period. End of story. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

The questions then become:

1) Who is doing it?

2) What can we do about it?

3) What impact does this have on our allies?

4) What impact does it have on our relationship with said allies?

I have seen virtually no commentary on the internet that deals with any of these questions at all. I will do my beast to answer them here.

1) Obama is claiming the Israelis intercepted communications from a Syrian Army Chemical weapons unit to a senior Syrian official (generally identified as Assad's brother). If Obama was lying about receiving this from Israel Bibi would go ballistic (he's not an Obama fan), and John Kerry's recent attempt to revive Oslo would die. Therefore it's virtually certain that Obama has a communications intercept from Israel that the CIA thinks is credible.

The question then becomes "Are the Israelis lying"? I doubt it for two reasons. First if they actually lied they'd eventually be caught, and they'd lose credibility. Second (and more important) I don't see what they gain out of a weakened Assad, or a rebel take-over of Syria. Weak Assad aligns with Hezbollah, which means instead of useless drones they get hit with chemical weapons. To an extent this is already happening, but for this play to help them Obama would need to respond so aggressively that Assad is forced to back off from supporting Hezbollah, but not so aggressively that Assad loses, because nobody has any clue what would happen if the rebels took over. This is just not the kind of scheme an actual intelligence agency would try.

Which leads to the final question: did the rebels plant the story? This is possible, but would require a lot of luck to work. There are so many moving parts to a scheme like this that it would be very easy to, for example, include somebody on the radio who doesn't sound like the regime character he's playing, or include a regime character who happens to be in France that day.

OTOH in the middle of a battle it's very easy to lose your cool, and fire off your weapons even if you know the boss several levels up would not want that to happen. It's happened more then once to our troops. It's not impossible to imagine a scenario where a known-hothead like Maher Assad pulls the trigger on a chemical weapons attack his brother would never approve. It's even easier to imagine a lower-level guy whose boss is Maher Assad doing it. The attitude "it's better to ask forgiveness then permission" exists everywhere.

2) In practical terms very little. This doesn't rise to the boots on the ground level, and even if it did Iraq proved don't have the troop-levels to make it work. We'd need 400k boots to adequately occupy the country, which means 1.2 million Army+Marines ground-pounders on Active Duty and we just don't have them. Turkey, Jordan, and Israel do have them but we can't use Israeli troops to overthrow Arab governments and the other two are not in the mood for foreign adventures.

Since there's no coherent rebel command structure to ally with we can't bomb Assad into oblivion and then treat with the new government. We have no clue who that'd be, much less how long they'd last as government.

So what we can do is bomb Assad until he makes major changes. The major changes we need are dependent on what those three allies (Turkey, Israel, and Jordan) need to feel like they aren't about to be gassed.

3) Let's start with Israel. Assad is aligned with Hezbollah, whose latest antic is blowing up bus-loads of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria (the guy who tried to do it in Cyprus got caught). Assad owes Hezbollah a huge favor, since they fought for him at Qusayr, and now he's proven that he can't stop his subordinates from using chemical weapons. Those subordinates, who in some cases will owe a Hezbollah fighter their lives, are the only people between Hezbollah and nerve gas. I don't agree with the Israelis on many issues in the Middle East, but they have every right to be terrified today. Hell, if I was Israeli the phrase "quivering in terror" would be an understatement.

The Turks don't have anything quite as dramatic as Hezbollah fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with chemically armed Syrian troops to fear, but they still haven't finalized peace with the PKK, and they don't always see eye-to-eye with Assad. What's to stop him from arming the PKK, or a provisional PKK on the lines of the IRA in Northern Ireland, with nerve gas if they don't give Assad everything he wants?

Jordan doesn't have any active rebel groups. But that's because King Hussein threw out the PLO in Black September. That was a full-fledged Civil War 40 years back. The issues that caused that war are mostly solved, but if Assad started handing Jordanian dissidents Nerve Gas Jordan would not be a nice place to live.

4) Let's start with Israel: if the US does not stop Assad from ever using these weapons again, ideally while also permanently divorcing him from Hezbollah, they will be 100% justified in abandoning the American alliance. John Kerry's attempt to revive the Oslo process will end in failure. The Israelis themselves will directly intervene in Syria to accomplish their objectives, and America will get blamed if anything goes wrong. In other words this is kind of a fucking nightmare for us. Since having a Hezbollah-aligned, nerve gas using neighbor is a fucking nightmare for the Israelis I won't blame them if we force them to do it.

On to Turkey. The Turks probably wouldn't actually invade Syria to set up their own puppet regime. Nobody likes having crazies with nerve gas set up next door, but if they invaded they'd be on the hook for those 1.2 milliion ground-pounders I mentioned in in question 2, they currently only have 300-350k, and their Prime Minister doesn't want to give his Generals more power. The Turks won't abandon our alliance if we can't solve this for them, but they'd really like it solved.

Jordan is even more screwed then Turkey. 1.2 million ground-pounders would be 1/3 of the male population of Jordan. So they probably won't try to conquer Syria, abandon their alliance, and curse our names forever.

In other words Obama's current plan is pretty much the only thing he can do. He has to force Syria to give up it's chemical weapons, and they won't do that unless he makes keeping them incredibly expensive. The only way he can do that is bombing with the USAF and USN. His opening ask will probably be pretty high: No Hezbollah on Syrian territory, permanent UN weapons inspectors with the power to photograph Assad naked and post it to twitter, the immediate execution of Assad's brother for war crimes, etc.

He'll probably settle for a lot less. He'll give up the Hezbollah demand, reduce the execution to exile, and accept somewhat limited weapons inspection powers or something along those lines.

What he cannot do is what the anti-war types want, and restrict his actions to things the UN Security Council will endorse because the UN Security Council has vetoes from the Russians and Chinese.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Sports post: the Big 10's new divisions

And as expected, Sparty isn't happy.

This isn't really a surprise. Sometimes it seems like the only way Spartan fans have fun is by claiming they was robbed. But this time is particularly silly.

The Big 10 has 4 major brands with multi-decade histories of success: University of Michigan, Ohio State, Nebraska, and Penn State. Lately Wisconsin and Michigan State have been dominating the conference. The geographical split puts four of those six into the East, and the other two in the West. MSU fans are convinced they'd have a much better shot at the Rose Bowl if they went East.

Here's the problem: that math doesn't work. To get to the Rose Bowl in the West they have to play three power schools (OSU, UM, and PSU). This obviously harder then simply playing two power schools (Wisci and Big Red), but a) MSU fans are insisting on having a protected crossover with the University of Michigan which gets them back to three and b) in 2014 PSU will still be in sanctions hell. They'll be difficult to beat, but they probably won't be threatening for a Division title with only 70 scholarships. If they'd been sent East they'd still be playing three power programs a year.

Moreover that's ignoring the other schools in the division. Iowa, Northwestern, and Purdue have all been excellent in the near-past. Two of the three ended up in the West. Which means an MSU in the West would be playing at least three power-schools, two schools that are actually quite good today, Illinois, and Minnesota (Indiana would likely be moved East if MSU went West). The Golden Gophers were Bowl-eligible last year, so they aren't exactly a gimme, and the Illini have a distressing tendency to be very good once or twice a decade. Then there's be two more cross-over games, and because MSU has earned the title of Power-School they'd likely be against Power Schools from the East.

What MSU actually got was this: two gimmes while Rutgers and Maryland re-tool for the Big-10, a beatable Purdue team, two and half power-schools, and they'll probably get beatable Minnesota as one of their early Cross-division games.

Frankly I can't think of a team that did better out of this new division system then MSU.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Solution to Detroit's Problems

It's quite simple. It's actually already been done in Phillie, New York, and the entire province of Ontario: Abolish as many of the local jurisdictions in the Detroit area as possible, including Detroit proper. The resulting super-municipality would look great in national city rankings. This would help the suburbs, they'd no longer be "a hi-rise bolted on to the ghetto" to paraphrase a quote frequently attributed to their dear leader. It would have a tax base, there would be one guy whose entire job was to ensure blacks and whites stopped arguing about stupid bullshit that happened in the 70s, and it would have much better numbers then every other rust belt city.

The basic structure would not be what they did in Ontario or Phillie, but NYC. Boroughs will be necessary because nobody wants to give up significant elements of autonomy, even if the autonomous unit in question is a glorified tax-dodge (I'm looking at you Grosse Pointe Shores). The new Boroughs would take on a lot of the functions of their local Board of Education. They'd also retain most of the powers of the local cities. The City-County of Detroit gets police departments, County Government functions, functions the cities have already sent to multi-government agencies. Transit, for example, is by and large a fief of SEMCOG.

The pros for the City proper would be twofold. First: with no shitty headlines about how Detroit is worst at everything it would be a lot easier to convince people to move to the City Proper. Second with access to the entire region's resources we might be able to get a handle on crime. Get a handle on crime and Auto and Homeowner's insurance rates fall, since Detroit Auto insurance alone typically costs an individual $1,000 more then if he lived in Dearborn, this makes it much easier to stay in the City. If those things happen property values go up, which means property tax receipts go up, which means the schools district can afford to stop sucking...

The advantage for the rest of the region would be less, but would still be important. First, it would mean suburbanites gained a measure of control over the Detroit-brand. They had no say in whether Kwame got fired, but they definitely suffered when he did his thing. Second it's really hard to convince people to move to suburban Detroit from outside of the region when your entire sales pitch is "this tiny little suburb you've never heard of is not a hell-hole, unlike that nasty City of Detroit." Third a lot of them actually want the things that can only be provided by a real Metro Government, like mass transit.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Why Detroit is Screwed

Given all the great things I mentioned about Detroit in my last diary, you're probably wondering how Detroit got to be in such bad shape. It's a perennial winner on the worst-crime lists, it doesn't really have a per capita income, and it's bankrupt. The answer is simple: for all the advantages Detroit's heritage and geography bestow. It's not a City in the same sense that all the other cities on the worst-crime list are.

I'll compare Detroit to Chicago, and NYC because they're the big boys in terms of Northern Cities, and Cleveland because it's fairly typical of the Rust Belt and I've lived here a few years. Legally speaking there are a lot of similarities between the four cities. They're all the core of larger regions, but Detroit is truly unique in a lot of ways.

All three have a greater proportion of their region's population then Detroit. They are all more diverse economically, racially, culturally, and in every other way then the actual Municipality of Detroit. The actual box on the map called Detroit is overwhelmingly black, overwhelmingly working-class, and if you believe in things like the black under-class probably majority under-class. The reason is pretty simple: after the '67 riots every White person right of Trotsky decided to move from the City. Which meant property values collapsed, and pretty much every black person with the ambition/ability to buy a house as an investment has also left.

In the most cities some people haven't left solely because they're too poor to afford a move, and others are hanging around solely because they're not sure their criminal schemes would work on the other side of the street; but in most cities these groups aren't what you'd call a "statistically significant proportion of the population."

Another major difference is the level of power City Elected officials have. Most small cities have multiple independent elected boards with actual political power. There's almost always a School Board and a City Council, and a Mayor. In the Midwest and East Coast there's also a County government. But as Cities get bigger they need more centralized governments, so the Mayor usually ends up in control of most of those boards. Chicago and Cleveland have no elected School Boards, but they do have County governments over them. NYC is actually technically in charge of five County-level Boroughs. You just can't run a big city effectively without a lot of centralization.

Detroit does much of this. The Mayor isn't quite a dictator, but he's definitely got the advantage in fights with City Council. What he doesn't have is any influence over the County, the School Board, the elected Board running the local Community College, etc.

Look at it this way. Let's say you were conservative, and ran for Mayor of Detroit on a platform of cutting taxes and firing the entire City Government. If you won you could do virtually nothing to cut the property tax because most Detroit property taxes aren't levied by people the Mayor can order around. You'd have to win major elections to all the Boards I mentioned. If you were left-wing and you ran for Mayor you'd probably be doomed to lose re-election because the people of Detroit are convinced the Mayor has influence over the schools, and that's just not the case.

In short Detroit's core problem is that it's designed stupidly. The City itself does not have the legal powers necessary to run a large city. The City map is such that it has no tax base, but it does have several hundred thousand extremely-expensive-to-govern residents. There are some advantages the City has, which allow it to overcome these issues in a good year, but Michigan hasn't had a good year since I was in High School.