Two Americas

I received this from my e-mail friend Gretchen:

    I owe John Edwards an apology. He has been correct all along. There are, apparently, at least two Americas — maybe not in the economic sense that Edwards has purported, but in an abstract political sense. Having just returned from five days in Boston, Massachusetts, I can affirm the duality of America.

    In both the Tulsa airport and at Chicago O’Hare, where I had a layover, there were lounges for active duty military people and their families. One of my seat mates from Tulsa to Chicago was a Navy chaplain who is currently serving in Virginia. He said those lounges include television, free soft drinks and snacks, WiFi and comfortable chairs and sofas. Most of those who make use of the lounges are in uniform, but anyone with a military or a military dependent ID can use them. I know from previous travel that military lounges are in each of the terminals at DFW, as well, and that military personnel with orders to war zones are also granted free access to American Airlines Admiral’s Club at DFW and O’Hare — and maybe other airlines’ clubs, as well — but I am familiar only with AA.

    Out of curiosity, I asked a gate agent at Boston Logan, when I arrived there if there was a lounge for military personnel and her response, literally, was, “Why would there be such a thing?” When I told her about the military lounges in Tulsa, DFW and O’Hare, she just shook her head. Also, although I cannot verify that the Admiral’s Club in Boston does not have the same policy for troops headed into or returning from war zones that the clubs at DFW and O’Hare have, I did note that there is no sign advising soldiers of their welcome to the club posted outside the Admiral’s Club at Logan — and such signs are prominently displayed in Dallas and Chicago.

    Another two-Americas indication were the ads on TV and radio. Of course, I expected far more Democratic ads to be on Boston television since Massachusetts is overwhelmingly blue. Hillary had ads that played more often than any other. One of her ads included a young boy with diabetes, who thanked Senator Clinton effusively for her promise to “allow stem cell research, so he will be given a better chance to live.” (Bush has never “disallowed” stem cell research.)

    What I didn’t expect, though, were numerous commercials depicting people who talk about how miserable their lives were before their heroes, Joe Kennedy and Hugo Chavez, defied the president and the greedy American oil companies and granted them low-cost heating oil, compliments of the generous Venezuelan government. Against a backdrop of shivering, sad-eyed New Englanders, Joe Kennedy hails the expression of kindness from a leader who understands the needs of suffering people. I am more than confident that Joe Kennedy’s ad would never be played in middle America.

    I stayed at the Westin Hotel during part of my stay–a birthday gift from my son. It is a very nice hotel and the service was excellent…but while that particular hotel’s television programming included MSNBC, CNN and CNN Headline News, FoxNews was omitted. When I asked the desk clerk why FoxNews was not part of the hotel’s cable lineup, he told me that only limited channels could be offered–no other explanation. The Golf Channel, two ESPN channels, TNT and 20 or so other channels were offered–but there was no room for FoxNews.

    Anyway…I’m home and although I had a wonderful Christmas with my son and his wife and his extended family, I’m glad that he no longer lives in Boston and I am delighted to be back in MY kind of America.

The Motive for an Assassination

The murder of an actual (or potential) head of state often is followed by conspiracy theories.

Some killings (or attempts) may be apolitical. Shooting Ronald Reagan and George Wallace were the results of tormented minds not bothered by any ideological nuances.

In some recent cases, the matter is rather simple. The Ceausescus were bloodthirsty vermin who needed be allowed no opportunity for a second chance. Allende was a Marxist who was parlaying an electoral fluke into one-man misrule.

If we go back in history, we find some more mysterious killings. The Emperor Napoleon died in exile while under control of English authorities. Evidence points to a death hastened by (or the direct result of) poison with a cumulative effect.. It would be so simple to blame the English for his demise. However, a live Bonaparte was an advantage to an England not wholly in agreement with French world policies. He was a potential instrument of destabilization. Only French interests would be served by his early demise. A dead person can become a martyr, and the French exploitation of Joan of Arc should not be forgotten.

Warlord/dictator Francisco Franco was known to have allowed one of his allies to be executed even though a rescue attempt might have saved him. When an ally could turn to a future rival, martyrdom provides a more useful symbolic ally.

We may never cease hearing of conspiracy theories about the deaths of Lincoln and Kennedy.

The situation in Pakistan is complex. The dictator is a regional friend whose actions are limited by circumstances. His initial coup was beneficial as it denied radical theocrats closer access to deliverable nuclear weapons.

The return of Bhutto to the political scene should not be seen as the restoration of political reform but as the effort of a corrupt family to get a prime place at the trough. The husband of the late candidate was not called Mr. Ten Percent for nothing.

In terms of our domestic politics, there was a certain imperative of giving lip service to the return of Bhutto to the public scene in Islamabad. Yet what overarching role did she serve?

Her own supporters would have little reason to see her dead. Her movement was dominated by a personality rather than a set of ideals. In a three-way contest, she would assure a majority vote for the radical theocrats. Thus, her abrupt removal from the scene would benefit Musharraf. However, the price in international public opinion (especially from the United States) would be very dear and the current leader is driven more by logic than superstition. Those who stood to gain the most by her presence as an electoral factor are not known for consistently rational thought. The very thought of a woman on the public stage is appalling and demands direct and violent action, in spite of the short-term negative effects. Killing her helps to stir up violence by her supporters against the Government. Chaos benefits the radicals.

Not really a surprise: Benazir Bhutto assassinated

    Pakistan’s Bhutto assassinated
    Attack jeopardizes elections, path to democracy in nuclear-armed nation

    RAWALPINDI, Pakistan – Pakistan opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was assassinated Thursday in a suicide bombing that also killed at least 20 others and plunged the nuclear-armed country into chaos ahead of a general election she had hoped to win.

    The death of the charismatic former prime minister created fears of mass protests and an eruption of violence across the volatile south Asian nation, which also is a hotbed for Muslim extremists.

    Pakistani troops were put on “red alert” across the country as President Pervez Musharraf blamed terrorists for Bhutto’s death and said he would redouble his efforts to fight them.

This is a country with no good options. President Musharraf has played with some democratic reforms, but that’s all. Former Prime Minister Bhutto was not once but twice removed from office due to corruption charges.

A lot of people will be quick to blame President Musharraf, as Miss Bhutto was his most serious threat in the elections, and stood a very good chance of winning, but there are certainly other possibilities, including Islamic extremists who would not tolerate being ruled by a woman, or third parties who thought that having the public blame Mr Musharraf would mean that he would lose, and someone else could win. I’m not foolish enough to jump to any conclusions until more of the facts are in — and even then, facts in that part of the world are often less than factual.

This would hardly rate a mention in the Western press, if Pakistan didn’t have nuclear weapons. Pakistan has had a nuclear program for a long time, beguin in 1972 under Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in response to India’s nuclear testing. Pakistan conducted six nuclear test detonations in May of 1998, which not only proved that Pakistan had nuclear weapons, but that it had enough nuclear weapons on hand to expend five in tests as responses to India’s 1998 tests.

    The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that Pakistan has built 24-48 HEU-based nuclear warheads, and Carnegie reports that they have produced 585-800 kg of HEU, enough for 30-55 weapons. Pakistan’s nuclear warheads are based on an implosion design that uses a solid core of highly enriched uranium and requires an estimated 15-20 kg of material per warhead. According to Carnegie, Pakistan has also produced a small but unknown quantity of weapons grade plutonium, which is sufficient for an estimated 3-5 nuclear weapons.

    Pakistani authorities claim that their nuclear weapons are not assembled. They maintain that the fissile cores are stored separately from the non-nuclear explosives packages, and that the warheads are stored separately from the delivery systems. In a 2001 report, the Defense Department contends that “Islamabad’s nuclear weapons are probably stored in component form” and that “Pakistan probably could assemble the weapons fairly quickly.” However, no one has been able to ascertain the validity of Pakistan’s assurances about their nuclear weapons security.

The left-wing British newspaper The Guardian reported that President Bush has been given a plan to seize Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal if it seems likely that nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of extremists, but The Washington Post reported that there are some real intelligence gaps in being able to do so:

    Pakistan Nuclear Security Questioned¹
    Lack of Knowledge About Arsenal May Limit U.S. Options
    By Joby Warrick, Washington Post Staff Writer

    When the United States learned in 2001 that Pakistani scientists had shared nuclear secrets with members of al-Qaeda, an alarmed Bush administration responded with tens of millions of dollars worth of equipment such as intrusion detectors and ID systems to safeguard Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

    But Pakistan remained suspicious of U.S. aims and declined to give U.S. experts direct access to the half-dozen or so bunkers where the components of its arsenal of about 50 nuclear weapons are stored. For the officials in Washington now monitoring Pakistan’s deepening political crisis, the experience offered both reassurance and grounds for concern.

    Protection for Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is considered equal to that of most Western nuclear powers. But U.S. officials worry that their limited knowledge about the locations and conditions in which the weapons are stored gives them few good options for a direct intervention to prevent the weapons from falling into unauthorized hands.

    “We can’t say with absolute certainty that we know where they all are,” said a former U.S. official who closely tracked the security upgrades. If an attempt were made by the United States to seize the weapons to prevent their loss, “it could be very messy,” the official said.

If the Administration really does have a realistic plan for seizing that arsenal, the President ought to go ahead and issue the order. There are some times when you can’t afford to sit around and wait to see what happens.
¹ – The Washington Post, Sunday, November 11, 2007; Page A01

The idiocy of the housing market

I don’t watch a lot of television, but when I do sit down in front of the 42″ plasma high-def TV, it’s frequently tuned to TLC, The Learning Channel, and one of the shows I’ll watch is called Flip That House. Flip That House is a reality show about people who buy run-down properties, restore and remodel them, and then sell the houses for a profit.

I watched a couple yesterday evening, and, as always, I was amazed. No, not amazed by the jobs that they did, though some were reasonably impressive, but by the prices: they show people buying these absolute dumps, 3 bedroom, 1½ bath houses in modest, middle-class looking neighborhoods — and starting out at over $300,000 for the house. They take six or eight weeks, budgeting $40,000 to $80,000, and sha-zamm! they turn around and sell it for $579,000 or something like that.

Due to the markets in which I’ve worked since 2000, I’ve seen the housing bubble expanding like mad; I’ve produced a lot of concrete for Toll Brothers and similar high-end home builders. [When I started out in concrete, I did a lot of work for Ryan Homes, which (at least in the 1980s) specialized in larger but still reasonably priced houses.] Toll Brothers, on the other hand, builds McMansions, and I could never see how there could be so many people around Allentown, Pennsylvania and Hockessin, Delaware, who could afford houses in the $350,000 to $750,000 range.

I lived in a remodelled farmhouse when I was in Hockessin, actually a locally famous place, the old llama farm. I didn’t own the house, but rented it for two years. I was renting only the house; the separate office building with upstairs efficiency apartment and the barn and the 3¼ acres of land were not part of my lease. As the end of the second year of my lease was approaching, the owners decided that they wanted to sell the property, and since we were already there, they offered me what they considered to be a bargain; they were going to list the entire property for $385,000, but offered it to us for $335,000.

Well, I did a little checking on just what that would cost us, and, in very rough figures, we’d have been paying about $2,500 a month for the mortgage.

Uhhh, sorry, but no thanks; that would be $30,000 a year just in our mortgage payment! It was a nice house, and nice property (though it couldn’t have been subdivided, due to a pond and a stream running diagonally across the wedge shaped piece of land), but, realistically speaking, you’re looking at the entire take-home pay of someone with a $40,000 a year job, just to pay the mortgage.

Now, we weren’t doing badly in income when we lived in Hockessin, and we actually could have afforded it — if we were willing to eat potatoes and beans for one meal and beans and potatoes for the next. Maybe we could have splurged occasionally, and had rice, though soy sauce for it might be a real luxury. And the least little hitch, like one of us breaking a leg or getting sick for a couple of months, and it would have been all over; we’d never have recovered financially from getting just two months behind on the mortgage.

Thing is, the llama farm would have been a real bargain in that neck of the woods, for there were three Toll Brothers subdivisions surrounding it, and I well remember the sales sign at the entrance to Hockessin Valley Falls: New Homes from $350,000 to $750,000. If a $300,000 mortgage would have run me $2,500 a month, what kind of payments would people have to be making on a McMansion that cost three-quarters of a million dollars?

It’s no surprise that it couldn’t last; I’m still stunned that housing prices have gone up so much for so long since the market bottom in 1991. But the Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index showed a record 6.7% decline in prices for existing homes, the largest decline since the 1991 construction recession.

In the year-over-year comparison, Miami posted the largest decline among the 20 markets with prices down 12.4 percent in October compared with the same month last year. Tampa, Fla., was the second-worst performing city with declines of 11.8 percent. Besides those two cities, Phoenix, Detroit, Las Vegas and San Diego also posted double-digit year-over-year declines.

Well, at least one guy thinks that it’s a good time to buy!

Home prices fall: Can it really be all bad?
by Tracy Coenen

Economists and financial analysts watch the housing market carefully for clues about how the American economy as a whole is faring. The latest headlines are about falling home prices, and the hysteria is building. Yes, it’s the 23rd month in a row that home prices either fell or didn’t increase enough to please analysts. That’s bad, right?

Well the housing market does give us some signals about our economy, and these numbers may be sign of weakness for Americans. (I don’t think it’s as serious as the media would have you think, but that’s another article on another day.)

I prefer to look for the silver lining in this cloud. What a great time for bargain hunters to get a great deal on a house! Sure, falling home prices are bad for sellers who might end up upside down on mortgages or who might not profit the way they had hoped. But it’s a great time for those who have been saving and planning for a home purchase to cash in. There are great deals to be had, and buyers have many choices in the marketplace. Happy house hunting!

Uhhh, maybe. If it were me, I think that I’d wait a while longer. There’s a serious backlog in existing homes for sale, the largest inventory since 1991, and home building has slowed way, way down. I know of a couple of subdivisions where homes are literally more than $100,000 less expensive than they were two years ago; it must suck to be one of the families who bought big in 2005! Yeah, there are some houses out there that look like real bargains compared to 2005 and even 2006, but there’s no particular indication that we’ve reached a bottom yet.

There’s only one number you need to check: the National Organozation of Realtors puts out a housing supply inventory figure every month. When that number declines for two months in a row (and it increased again in November), we’ll probably have reached the bottom and started to creep up again.

In the meantime, watch Flip That House, and see if you can tell me why a 3 bedroom, 1½ bath fixer-upper would go for over $300,000 in California.

The Immigration Conundrum, Part 5

Brian of Liberty Pundit (where I cross-post when Brian needs a right-handed pinch-hitter) has an article on what he sees as the solution to illegal immigration:

    The Solution To Illegal Immigration, But Nobody Will Do It
    Wednesday, December 26, 2007

    Reuters has an article up that vindicates what I’ve been saying for the past three years, that if you make it impossible for illegal immigrants to get a job or drain our social programs, they’ll self-deport:

    Mexican illegal immigrant Lindi sat down with her husband Marco Antonio in the weeks before Christmas to decide when to go back to Mexico.

    She has spent three years working as a hairdresser in and around Phoenix, but now she figures it is time to go back to her hometown of Aguascalientes in central Mexico.

    “The situation has got so tough that there don’t seem to be many options left for us,” Lindi, who asked for her last name not to be used, told Reuters.

    The couple are among a growing number of illegal immigrants across the United States who are starting to pack their bags and move on as a crackdown on undocumented immigrants widens and the U.S. economy slows, turning a traditional Christmas trek home into a one-way trip.

    In the past year, U.S. immigration police have stepped up workplace sweeps across the country and teamed up with a growing number of local forces to train officers to enforce immigration laws.

    Meanwhile, a bill seeking to offer many of the 12 million illegal immigrants a path to legal status was tossed by the U.S. Congress, spurring many state and local authorities to pass their own measures targeting illegal immigrants.

    The toughening environment has been coupled with a turndown in the U.S. economy, which has tipped the balance toward self deportation for many illegal immigrants left struggling to find work.

    Put aside the article’s economic Chicken Little message (”the sky is falling!”), take a good, hard look at what this is saying. It says, in a nutshell, that if they can’t find work, they go — voluntarily — back home. That’s the solution to the illegal immigration problem, but nobody has the guts to follow through on it.

    The article does mention that not all of the illegal immigrants are going home, though. Some are headed to states that are more welcoming to illegal immigrants. I have to believe, though, that it’s only a matter of time before these states say “enough is enough” and follow the lead of the other states.

    Fighting illegal immigration is a two-step process. Step one, you secure the border and stop the flood of illegals coming in. Then you crack down on employers who are hiring these people and giving them the incentive to coming here illegally. You dry up the jobs, they’ll stop coming, and those that are already here will go home. Those that don’t will be easier to find, arrest, and deport (they’d no longer be the proverbial needle in a haystack).

    Only then, after those two things are done, can we start talking about immigration reform. I’ve said it so many times on this blog that I’ve lost count, but I have zero problem with people wanting to come here, as long as they do it legally. Fill out the papers, go through the process, and I’ll be happy to call you “neighbor”. But if your first act in coming to this country is breaking the law, then sorry … you’re s.o.l. with me, there.

I tend to think that my perspective on illegal immigration is different from most conservative bloggers, because I’ve been involved professionally in trying to get these lazy, good-for-nothing Americans to do some not particularly fun jobs. Continue reading ‘The Immigration Conundrum, Part 5’ »

Christmas at the Pico household

It didn’t really seem much like Christmas this year, with my darling bride having to work twelve-hour shifts on Saturday, Sunday and Christmas Day; she’s a registered nurse, and for some unknown reason the maladies which can afflict the human body pay no attention to the calendar.

Our Christmas presents were mostly restrained this year, in large part because I spent so much on my wife’s present. We were sitting in JT’s All-American Steak House in beautiful, downtown Jim Thorpe in the beginning of December, when she said, “You know, with all of the expenses we have coming up in January, we really ought to be fairly restrained in gift giving this year.”

At which point I replied, “Oh, then you’d probably be annoyed to learn that I just spent $725 on your present.”

Her jaw dropped, and then she asked me if I was telling the truth, at which point I said that I was happy with it — since I had actually figured that her present would cost twice as much.

What did she get? I bought a stained glass window for the transom over our double front doors, 10″ tall by 52″ wide. The old transom was just regular window glass, and she had mentioned months earlier (when I installed a new floor on the porch) that it would be nice to have a stained glass window there. Given that her birthday is the 16th, and I have a difficult time trying to think of two good presents for her every December, once she mentioned that, it was a done deal in my mind.

She was completely surprised.

Most of the presents were for the kids, but I did get a new cordless (18 volt) drill, a new insulated vest and the DVDs of the fourth season of the best Star Trek series, Deep Space 9.

Rating schools

U. S. News and World Report provided a ranking of the top 100 public high schools in the nation. Mine (the Baltimore Polytechnic Institute) did not make the ‘gold cut’ and got the more mediocre ‘silver’ status. It was the only racially-integrated public school in Maryland when I attended and is now 70% minority. This is not the reason for the fall from grace but it may reflect arbitrary grading standards rather than true performance.

Baltimore has a dual-track system of high schools. There are coeducational schools that serve a community and there are four single-sex schools that draw from the entire population of the city and are known to be academically more challenging, Baltimore was then very parochial. One seldom socialized outside the community. Kids from Highlandtown kept out of West Baltimore and Forest Park. Patterson Park might as well be Patagonia to kids from other parts of the City. Poly drew from all quarters and some parochial barriers did crumble a bit at the edges and horizons were widened just a bit.

There were no entrance tests to select potential students. Guidance counselors did attempt to help ninth graders make their decisions. Many students had an inflated idea of their abilities to make the grade so the attrition rate was high.

A passing grade of 70 was in contrast to the 60% level used elsewhere and a student with failing grades could usually transfer elsewhere and still be promoted. They could also repeat a semester, but this cost them a change in class year. Two years of foreign language were mandated and English was taught each semester. There was a lot of math and science and the high point was once the ‘boiler test’, a day spent running the steam plant that heated the building and generated electricity. It was the only day where the few kids who smoked could do so in the building.

Among the faculty, degrees in Education were rare and most were trained in the discipline that they taught. Most had practiced in their field. A retired attorney did a great job teaching physics but the retired Navy O-5 who taught solid geometry had done a bit of celestial navigation in the days before LORAN and GPS.

Students with the best grades served as tutors on a voluntary basis. Discipline outside of the classrooms was the job of selected upperclassmen. There were a few Niedermeyers but what can you expect.

There was a constant struggle between the Board of Education and the school. They wanted standards to be relaxed so that more students could benefit from the diploma. This went so far as to alter our athletic schedule. Our football rivals were once the hated City as well as the Catholic and preparatory schools. This was deemed to be elitist and the school was forced to change.

The school managed to escape total control of the Board of Education but got the standard per-pupil cash allotment. Private gifts supplemented this. The unique arrangement caused many of the grading criteria to be indicated by ‘N/A’.

The educational establishment would relate criteria such as class size and per-pupil expenditure with educational excellence. By such standards, the District of Columbia schools should be the best in the Nation. Schools in affluent communities are usually well-funded and seem to be performing well, But is this a function of a huge bureaucracy and bloated budgets or does it reflect the performance of kids whose homes are often well-stocked with books that family members read?

The high school in question has suffered a bit as a result of politics. Its student body had interests directed towards science and engineering while those who envisioned a career in law and politics gravitated towards our rival institution, City. Former Mayor and Governor Schaffer was a City Boy and was known for holding petty grudges……..