A presidential candidate's usual fake deficit-reduction plan involves promises to "crack down on tax loopholes" and the like. Witness Barack Obama's pledge to "end wasteful government spending" and "make government more accountable and efficient." Good luck with that, Barack. As any student of the federal budget knows, such savings rarely materialize or are much smaller than claimed.
But John McCain's vow to balance the federal budget by the end of his first term takes the cake. Take a gander at how he plans to pull off this feat:
The McCain administration would reserve all savings from victory in the Iraq and Afghanistan operations in the fight against Islamic extremists for reducing the deficit. Since all their costs were financed with deficit spending, all their savings must go to deficit reduction."
Given today's news that Iraq is considering imposing a timetable for withdrawal on U.S. troops, McCain may get his "victory" there sooner than he imagines.
But Afghanistan? That's another story. As the Washington Post notes, there were more Western troop deaths in Afghanistan in May and June than there were in Iraq. The Taliban has proven in recent weeks that it can threaten Kabul and Kandahar, while slinking back across the border to safe havens in Pakistan. What's McCain's plan for turning this situation around quickly? Imagine telling your mortgage lender: "My plan to pay off this debt in four years is to get a new job that pays me a million dollars a year." Sure, it could happen. But I doubt the bank would be impressed by the proposal.
The politics of pushing a deficit-reduction plan right now are odd, too. Has there been any public clamor for such a thing? With
gas prices soaring, the job market tanking, and the cost of everything
going up, are Americans really worried about the budget deficit
right now? I fail to see the political payoff here. Time to bring in some new talent?
With U.S. gas prices screaming past $4 a gallon, you would think that everyone would be rushing out to buy a fuel-efficient hybrid. Yet Green Car Congress reports that U.S. hybrid sales, which were booming earlier this year, are falling back down to earth:
Reported US sales of hybrids took a 27% dive in June 2008 to 24,917 units from 34,300 units in June 2007 as Toyota continued to struggle with limited availability of the Prius. The Prius sold 11,765 units in June 2008, down 34% from June 2007. June 2008 had 24 selling days, compared to 27 in June 2007.
Total light-duty vehicle sales in the US dropped 18.3% by volume in June to 1,189,108 units, according to Autodata, with sales of passenger cars dropping 7.9% and sales of light trucks dropping 28.4%. Reported hybrid sales represent 2.1% of new vehicle sales for the month.
The drop isn't due to a lack of demand. Toyota can't make Priuses fast enough: Waiting lists to buy the world's dominant hybrid vehicle stretch to as long as six months, and the company has only a one-day supply of them on hand (60 days is the industry norm). The major kink in Toyota's supply chain? The batteries, all of which are produced in just one factory in Japan. The factory can only churn out 500,000 batteries per year, though the car company is planning to ramp up production and open a second facility.
Toyota had better get its act together soon. The competition is about to get fierce.
Passport has the day off tomorrow for the July 4th holiday here in the United States, so here's an early Friday photo to contemplate. Enjoy your weekend!
WASHINGTON - JULY 02: Eight-year-old Peter Wajda of Mount Laurel, New Jersey, poses for photographs on top of 10,512 sneakers tied by their laces and laid heel-to-toe in the courtyard at National Geographic Society headquarters July 2, 2008 in Washington, DC. Assembled by National Geographic Kids magazine, the string of shoes was certified Wednesday by Guinness World Records as the longest chain of shoes, measuring 8,700 feet or nearly 1.65 miles. Wajda, a third-grader at Moorestown Friends School, organized a shoe drive and collected 509 of the shoes used to set the record. The shoes will be shipped to Nike's Reuse-a-Shoe program and recycled into basketball courts and other play surfaces.
Which economists, journalists, and business leaders are doing the best job of advancing free markets and free people? You can make your opinions known by voting for nominees for the Free Market Hall of Fame.
At this year's FreedomFest—which describes itself as the world's largest annual gathering of free minds and is the brainchild of contrarian economist Mark Skousen—the first five members of the Free Market Hall of Fame will be inducted at a July 12 gala banquet in Las Vegas. Unlike with FP's top public intellectuals poll, however, the nominees receiving the highest vote counts won't necessarily make it into the Hall of Fame. Rather, "[a] select group of economists and other free-market supporters will make the final decision and vote on upcoming Hall of Fame members," according to the hall's Web site. I guess the Hall of Fame isn't ready to surrender the commanding heights to the tyranny of the Internet majority.Meanwhile, I recommend voting for Andrew Carnegie for question 6: "Vote for your favorite free market business leader and entrepreneur (past)." Without this industrialist and philanthropist, FP's publisher, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wouldn't be here!
Yesterday's Washington Post Quote of the Week:
And I reminded the president that I am reminded of the great talent of the—of our Philippine Americans when I eat dinner at the White House.
There's no question airlines are hurting right now. The price of jet fuel has shot up more than 80 percent since 2007, and carriers are now charging for services that were once included in the ticket price.
But did you know that airlines are actually cutting back on fuel to save money? IEEE Spectrum blogger Tekla Perry found that out the hard way when his Continental flight to Newark, New Jersey, had to make an emergency pit stop at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh, New York.
It so happens that Continental has made more "minimum fuel declarations" than any other airline, meaning that its pilots have more often notified air traffic controllers that they may need to land in a hurry. Perry cites a remarkably unsubtle October memo sent from management to pilots that reads, "[A]dding fuel indiscriminately without critical thinking ultimately reduces profit sharing and possibly pension funding." Perhaps a little more critical thinking is needed in the board room?
At the Claude Taylor Photography Gallery, just a short stroll from FP's office at Dupont Circle in Washington, you don't need dollars if you want to buy a print. Just hand over your euros -- each gets you $1.50, according to this sign in the window. The studio began accepting euros in March, owner Claude Taylor told the Washington Post, citing his perception of increased numbers of European tourists due to the weak dollar. The phenomenon isn't limited to Washington. Some stores in New York have also been accepting euros.
Meanwhile, also in the Washington area, guess who's buying SUVs in this era of record-high oil prices? Europeans. With the weak dollar, they can import jumbo vehicles at teeny prices.
If you're a struggling American newspaper trying to maintain quality and improve local coverage, what's one possible solution?
Outsource to India, says the deputy editor of the Orange County Register, California's fifth-largest newspaper. On a one-month trial basis, Mindworks Global Media, an India-based company, will copy-edit some of the Register's stories and lay out pages for a community newspaper at the same company that owns the Register.
This isn't the first time an American news outlet has outsourced to India. Last year, Passport blogged about a Pasadena, California, news Web site that hired Indian journalists to cover meetings of the Pasadena City Council, which are broadcast over the Internet.
There are bound to be some hiccups and gaffes along the way, but it could work better than expected. Mindworks says on its Web site that its workers are "trained thoroughly to become familiar with the client publication and the region," and some employees are bound to have been educated at American universities. And perhaps articles about India and other countries will include more nuance and context.
For American editors and reporters, increased outsourcing is understandably scary. But what if it's key to fundamentally reinventing newspapers, whose U.S. circulation and advertising revenue have been plummeting? Those of us who work in journalism will have to up our game and make ourselves relevant. It's creative destruction at work.
I'll believe this is a real trend when Vin Diesel makes a movie called The Fast and the Fuel-Efficient:
Today, ecomodding is rapidly becoming a movement. Forums devoted to ecomodding specific vehicles — such as priuschat.com and metrompg.com — are launched frequently and gain popularity rapidly.
One site, ecomodder.com, went online in December 2007 and 45,000 readers were checking in daily within three months. "It just sorta went viral," says Darin Cosgrove, 38, of Brockville, Canada, who cofounded the site with Benjamin Jones, 19, of Hanover, New Hampshire. [...]
With advice gleaned from the forums, Cosgrove yanked the gas engine and installed an electric drivetrain using donated lead-acid batteries and about $700 in parts scrounged from an old forklift and a golf cart. Today, he drives the electric car around town, getting what he figures is the equivalent of 80 mpg. For highway trips, he still uses gasoline, but in an ecomodded '98 Geo Metro that now gets 76 mpg, up from its original EPA highway rating of 46 mpg.
To avoid haggling with "unstable regions and unfriendly regimes," U.S. President George W. Bush recently called for an expansion in domestic oil production to fill the United States' "short run" oil needs. Part of that call involves exploring new areas of supply, such as the Outer Continental Shelf (sections of U.S. coastline) and parts of ANWR (the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge).
But how quickly can we actually pump out the needed "short run" supply from these places? It can take from three to 10 years from the time the decision is made to explore to actual oil delivery, according to OPEC.
Of course, the time required to produce oil depends on where the oil is and how difficult it is to reach. For instance, drilling in deep water, like in the Gulf of Mexico, can take longer for technical and financial reasons. U.S. companies will likely incur some added expense in trying to reach the undersea oil -- there is a global shortage of deepwater drilling ships equipped to do the job, and each one costs a pretty penny (i.e. several hundred millions of dollars) to construct.
According to OPEC, oil exploration alone, which involves surface-mapping and test drilling, costs "tens or hundreds of billions of dollars." Hundreds of billions of dollars better spent on developing new energy technologies, perhaps?
And what about the controversial ANWR drilling? That'll take about 10 years to bear fruit, two or three of which will be spent just collecting necessary leases and paperwork. Even if that timeline holds and the wells start producing a decade from now, peak production isn't expected until the 2020s. At which point, with any luck, the United States will have started to wean itself off its most enduring addiction.
Good stuff today from Clive Crook:
The US does not know whether to tax energy or subsidise it, promote domestic oil production or forbid it, treat ExxonMobil and Chevron as champions or pariahs. So it does all of the above.
I should note that both Barack Obama and John McCain are incoherent on this point. As the New York Times dryly observes, Obama favors ethanol subsidies, "some of which end up in the hands of the same oil companies he says should be subjected to a windfall profits tax." As for John McCain, he seems not to understand what cap and trade means.
Comedian Mike Myers's latest movie, The Love Guru, hits the big screen in the United States today. In the film, Myers plays Guru Pitka, a character who is raised at an ashram in India and then moves to the United States to serve as a New Age-ish life coach for a Canadian ice hockey player experiencing marital problems.
Some Hindus in the United States have complained that, based on what they've seen in the trailer, the movie lampoons their faith and reinforces misconceptions about their religion. The movie never mentions Hinduism, and Guru Pitka is supposed to be of a fictional faith. Critics, however, contend that considering he's coming from an ashram in India, wears Hindu saffron robes, and uses the term "guru," what other religion would viewers logically link him to?
It's true that in the United States, Hinduism -- one of the world's fastest growing religions and practiced by nearly 1 billion people -- has been largely and inaccurately portrayed as a bizarre, New Age-like religion. And The Love Guru will probably reinforce that image. As one Hindu leader told the Associated Press, "People are not very well-versed in Hinduism, so this might be their only exposure. They will have an image in their minds of stereotypes. They will think most of us are like that."
Upset Hindus should take solace, however, in the fact that this movie is a flop, mainly due to Myers's tired jokes and lame toilet humor. Reviews have been scathing, and the film received a pathetically low 15 percent on the tomatometer. Looks like The Love Guru generated some bad karma for itself.
This cork-filled life preserver from the Titanic, which sunk in 1912, will be sold at auction house Christie's annual ocean liner sale in New York next Wednesday. The life preserver, one of only six known to exist, had been kept by a family in Nova Scotia since it was found -- allegedly by a farmer at the Halifax shoreline soon after the tragedy. Christie's expects it to go for 30,000 to 40,000 pounds ($59,000 to $79,000); the auction house sold another one last year in London for 61,000 pounds ($120,000).
Illegal immigration is in the news again. The L.A. Times reports today that U.S. prosecutions of illegal immigrants, most of whom have come across the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas and Southern California, are at an all-time high. In March, 9,350 illegal immigrants reportedly faced federal charges, up from 3,746 a year ago. Most of those convicted have been put in the pen for about a month.
The prosecutions are part of a broader attempt to crack down on illegal immigration -- including other measures such as work-site raids-- in light of Congress's failed attempts last summer to pass a comprehensive immigration bill. But has the increase in prosecutions actually done anything to stem the immigrant wave? Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff thinks so:
The reason this works is because these illegal migrants come to realize that violating the law will not simply send them back to try over again but will require them to actually serve some short period of time in a jail or prison setting, and will brand them as having been violators of the law... That has a very significant deterrent impact."
It seems the thousands of immigrants still trying to come across the border haven't gotten Chertoff's message. If miles of treacherous desert and the threat of being kidnapped by notorious coyote smugglers aren't enough to deter folks seeking a better economic future, why would a month in jail make much difference? The prosecutions seem like just another punitive measure that, along with beefed-up border patrols and increased border fence construction, hasn't had much impact thus far.
What the prosecution efforts have done is overburden an already overstretched federal court system. Immigration cases accounted for more than half of the 16,298 federal criminal prosecutions recorded nationwide in March. Public defenders are overwhelmed by the volume of immigration cases and the challenges they present, including language barriers and the sad state their clients are often in after having spent days sweltering in the desert. So far, it looks like Chertoff's plan is deterring one thing -- the ability of more important federal cases to take priority in court.
Fear of terrorism contributed to higher vacancy rates in and around tall office buildings in Chicago after the 9/11 attacks, according to a recent working paper.
The study examined vacancy rates of office space from 1996 to 2006 in Chicago's central business district. Chicago was selected because it has three landmark buildings: the Sears Tower (the tallest building in the United States), the Aon Center (the third tallest), and the Hancock Tower (the fourth tallest).
Controlling for all sorts of variables, the researchers (Alberto Abadie of Harvard University and Sofia Dermisi of Roosevelt University) compared office space in the three landmark buildings and in buildings within a 0.3-mile-radius "shadow area" of those buildings, with office space in the central business district that was more than 0.3 miles from those buildings.
In the five years before 9/11, the vacancy rates in the shadow areas and non-shadow areas tracked one another closely. After 9/11, however, vacancy rates in the shadow areas increased significantly more than those in the non-shadow areas. The finding suggests that fear of terrorism contributed to higher vacancy rates in and around tall landmark buildings.
For those of you who work in cities with skyscrapers, do you think people still have reservations about working in tall buildings? (In June 2006, seven men were arrested for allegedly plotting to destroy the Sears Tower.) Could a higher perceived risk of terrorism really be causing firms to shy away from high-rises?
Housing prices may have some folks running for shelter, but that doesn't mean everyone has given up on the U.S. real estate market. Hotpads, an online real estate and housing search engine, has created a set of "Rent Ratio Heat maps," which show nationwide relationships between renting prices and purchasing prices. These handy maps show you where you should rent and where you should buy.
Take a look at their map of Washington, D.C. below:
The formula is pretty simple. Areas marked with red grids tell you where to rent, while blue areas (where the ratio is lower) tell you where it makes more sense to buy. You can also see examples of average rental costs.
Berkeley law professor and former Bush administration official John Yoo weighs in on Boumediene v. Bush, last week's Supreme Court ruling granting Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention:
In World War II, no civilian court reviewed the thousands of German prisoners housed in the U.S. Federal judges never heard cases from the Confederate prisoners of war held during the Civil War. In a trilogy of cases decided at the end of World War II, the Supreme Court agreed that the writ did not benefit enemy aliens held outside the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, we in the Justice Department relied on the Supreme Court's word when we evaluated Guantanamo Bay as a place to hold al Qaeda terrorists. [...] Incredibly, these five Justices have now defied the considered judgment of the president and Congress for a third time, all to grant captured al Qaeda terrorists the exact same rights as American citizens to a day in civilian court.
I'm no lawyer, but it seems to me that the key problem here is using the phrase "captured al Qaeda terrorists" to refer to accused al Qaeda terrorists. Shouldn't you have to prove that someone is, in fact, a terrorist? Yoo says no:
A judge's view on how much "proof" is needed to find that a "suspect" is a terrorist will become the standard applied on the battlefield. Soldiers will have to gather "evidence," which will have to be safeguarded until a court hearing, take statements from "witnesses," and probably provide some kind of Miranda-style warning upon capture. No doubt lawyers will swarm to provide representation for new prisoners. [...] So our fighting men and women now must add C.S.I. duties to that of capturing or killing the enemy. Nor will this be the end of it. Under Boumediene's claim of judicial supremacy, it is only a hop, skip and a jump from judges second-guessing whether someone is an enemy to second-guessing whether a soldier should have aimed and fired at him.
Judging from the scare quotes, Yoo seems to have little time for legal terms of art when it comes to terrorism. It's an odd stance for a law professor to take. But there's an easy way to solve his problem: Put arresting terrorists back in the hands of law-enforcement officials who are actually trained to handle the kinds of thorny questions Yoo outlines. Soldiers can focus on fighting wars.
Is Becky Hammon a traitor or a savvy capitalist?
The story in a nutshell: Hammon, 31 and from South Dakota, plays basketball for the San Antonio Silver Stars, where she earns the maximum WNBA salary, about $95,000, and was last season's runner-up for the league's MVP. Last year, she signed a four-year contract worth more than $2 million to play with a professional Russian team in the off-season. Russia then fast-tracked her to citizenship, and she became a dual U.S.-Russian citizen early this year. Two weeks later, she became a member of Russia's national team and will now be representing Russia at the Olympics.
Hammon, who has no Russian heritage, says it was simply a smart business decision. Dual citizenship makes her more valuable because her Russian league requires two Russians on the court at all times and each club permits only two American players. "There's nothing more American than taking advantage of an opportunity," she told ESPN.
Hammon insists she never had a serious chance of making the U.S. Olympic team. She wasn't on USA Basketball's original short list of 23 candidates last year and, given that she's 31, this Olympics is probably her last shot. (Why an MVP runner-up didn't even make the short list is another subject altogether.)
Some may criticize Hammon for being unpatriotic, but she is embracing two things Americans love dearly -- capitalism and the freedom to pursue happiness. In a world of athletes without borders, such as Lukas Podolski, expect more talented sports players to go to the highest bidder.
Still, I'm curious to see if her eyes tear up to Russia's national anthem if she gets to mount the medals podium this August.
Flood water nearly covers a street sign June 13, 2008 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The city continues to evacuate residents as water from the rain-soaked Cedar River continues to rise.
Tim Russert, moderator of NBC's Meet the Press, died of a heart attack this afternoon right here in Washington. He was 58 and had just returned from a family trip to Italy to celebrate his son's college graduation. Election 2008 will not be the same without him.
If you want to become a German citizen, you'll have to pass a new citizenship test as of September 1. The test has 33 questions on the country's politics, history, and society. To pass, you have to answer 17 questions correctly (52 percent of the total 33).
Seven sample multiple-choice questions were unveiled this week. I took the mini-test here and passed, but just barely (I got four questions right). How did you all score? Feel free to leave comments below.
And, for anyone planning to become an American, the United States will be using a redesigned citizenship test as of October 1 that is supposed to focus less on civics trivia and more on fundamentals about the country's government, history, and geography. Ten sample questions are here. I doubt many American-born citizens would know the answers to most of these questions. In fact, Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at Vanderbilt University, told the New York Times that of those who take the test:
[T]heir knowledge of American history may even exceed the knowledge of millions of American-born citizens.
No word yet on whether the German or American citizenship tests' study materials will include a DVD of gay men kissing and a topless woman on the beach -- images found in the Netherland's test-prep package.
The New York Post broke the news today that the Abu Dhabi Investment Council is buying a controlling stake in Manhattan's famed Chrysler Building for $800 million. This follows a deal last month in which an investment group including the Kuwait and Qatar sovereign wealth funds purchased the GM building (as well as yesterday's notably less controversial sale of the Flatiron Building to an Italian company). Judging from the giant red headline on the Drudge Report and the hysterical reader comments on the Post site, I'm guessing that this is going to be a BIG DEAL.
I understand all the reasons why oil-fueled SWFs make people uncomfortable. I also understand the all-American symbolism of the Chrysler Building, generally considered New York's most attractive skyscraper. (Though out of pure borough pride, I'm partial to Brooklyn's Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower.) But is the fact that wealthy foreigners are buying property in one of the world's most international cities really that revolutionary a concept? After all, Abu Dhabi is buying the Chrysler building not from Americans, but from a German investment firm.
We've also been here before. This 1989 Time article on the dark implications of Japanese firms buying New York real estate helps put some of today's "decline of the West" fears into perspective. The sale of Rockefeller Center to Mitsubishi was considered especially disgraceful, as evidenced by this quote from Connecticut's freshman senator, one Joseph Isadore Lieberman:
This year when they turn on the lights of that Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, we Americans are going to have to come to grips with the reality that this great national celebration is actually occurring on Japanese property."
Were they going to replace it with a bonsai or something?
Nearly two decades after that deal, millions of Lieberman's constituents continue to visit Rockefeller Center, which has been safely back in American hands since 1995. Something tells me that New Yorkers will still be proud of the Chrysler Building even if it's owned by rich Arabs instead of rich Germans.
Think that math and science remain the domain of Asian-Americans? Think again. Today's Times, in reference to a recent study conducted by the College Board and New York University (pdf), had this to say:
The report found that contrary to stereotype, most of the bachelor’s degrees that Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders received in 2003 were in business, management, social sciences or humanities, not in the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering or math. And while Asians earned 32 percent of the nation's STEM doctorates that year, within that 32 percent more than four of five degree recipients were international students from Asia, not Asian-Americans.
The report also shows a correlation between Asian-American students' SAT scores and their parents' earnings and education level. Ironically, the same correlation is found with other Americans. So... maybe it's time to stop viewing Asian-Americans as a mathematically-inclined monolith and to start seeing them as individuals? After all, the designation "Asian-American Pacific Islander" does encompass 48 ethnic groups.
The summer gas-tax holiday is back, and John McCain thinks he may have a winning issue:
Along with Barack Obama, many economists largely dismissed the notion of a gas tax holiday as a political ruse that would do little to lower prices, but McCain has repeatedly said he does not believe the proposal would be a panacea for America's energy woes. [...] Instead, McCain argued, low-income families could save some extra cash to pay for their children's school supplies this fall, or perhaps treat themselves to a nice dinner.
I'm no mathematician, but let's do some quick number-crunching here. Suppose you buy a tank of gas each week and your car holds 15 gallons. The 18.4-cent a gallon gas tax will cost you $2.76 each week. There are 12 weeks left until Labor Day, the end of summer. That means a typical person would save $33. If you're a childless couple living in Falls Church, VA, that might buy you dinner at the Olive Garden -- where the Chicken Alfredo will run you a cool $13.50 -- but no wine.
So says FP contributor Benjamin H. Friedman, writing for Cato@Liberty:
I keep reading about the cyber-war we’re supposed to be fighting with China. Reading this story, I don't see it. There are evidently a lot of Chinese hackers (not necessarily government-sponsored), and a bunch of Chinese electronic espionage (not necessarily successful). That's a problem, not a war.
Fed up with skyrocketing gas prices? Does it seem like driving is becoming more of a hassle with each passing day? It gets worse.
Check out this story from USA Today, which links rising oil prices with rising pain in nationwide road and highway repair budgets:
The mix used to resurface roads consists of gravel and sand held together with a binder called liquid asphalt, which is made from crude oil. As oil prices rise, so does the cost of asphalt, says Don Wessel of Poten & Partners, a consulting firm that publishes Asphalt Weekly Monitor. "Prices are the highest I've seen in many, many, many years," he says. "The concern is that they will go up considerably."
What's next? I don't even want to know.
Maybe Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao's Facebook campaign is working after all. Xinhua reports that Americans kids are now going wild for Wen. The really bizarre article quotes letters that American students apparently wrote to Chinese leaders expressing admiriation for their earthquake-response efforts. Here's one from 12-year-old Hannah Rudoff from Portland, Oregon:
Dear Grandpa Hu and Grandpa Wen, your love to the quake-affected in Sichuan has again won worldwide respect for China, I hope all the leaders of other countries can also make it this way in their administration [...] I admire your people-first style and selfless spirit, and I pay my respect to you!"
Rudoff's classmate Elizabeth Krasch, addressed her note to China's military:
Thank you, Uncle PLA!" said Elizabeth in the newly acquired Chinese vocabulary "Jiefungjun Shushu" meaning uncle soldier of the People's Liberation Army, "You saved many lives from ruins. You bring hope to each and every corner of China. We will never forget your love to the young, the old and to the people! I will never forget this new Chinese word that I learned today!"
Now, I attended an elementary school that was so PC that the card game "war" was banned because of its violent overtones and we learned about César Chávez before George Washington, but I still don't think my teachers would have had us write fan letters to communist party leaders as a class project.
(Thanks to reader AS for the link.)
For months, the rough consensus of the pundit class has been that Iraq is an albatross around the neck of John McCain. Surge or no surge, the U.S. public had largely made up its collective mind about the war -- the toll on the military, the massive expenditures, and everything else -- and decided it wanted to get out. (As über-pollster Andrew Kohut observers, however voters are divided on how fast to get out, and they overwhelmingly prefer McCain to Barack Obama on national security.)
But what happens when the facts change? May saw the lowest number of U.S. combat deaths of any month in the war's five-year history, and Iraqis are increasingly taking the lead. Iraqi military operations in Basra, Sadr City, and Mosul have all gone better than many outside observers expected. Although it's easy to imagine the violence picking back up again, it's also conceivable that, by November, Iraq could be very calm indeed.
The Washington Post editorial board seems convinced that this will present trouble for Obama. I'm not so sure. It's possible the war staying out of the news will only help focus the race on the economy, where the Democrats have an advantage. But I can see it cutting both ways. At the very least, it will be awkward for Obama to pivot from saying, "the war is lost, let's get out" to "the war is won, let's go home." Readers, what do you think?
Shane Harris makes some explosive allegations in a new article for the National Journal. Experts, citing U.S. officials, believe that China's People's Liberation Army may have shut down power grids in Florida and the northeastern United States, Harris reports:
Tim Bennett, the former president of the Cyber Security Industry Alliance, a leading trade group, said that U.S. intelligence officials have told him that the PLA in 2003 gained access to a network that controlled electric power systems serving the northeastern United States. The intelligence officials said that forensic analysis had confirmed the source, Bennett said. “They said that, with confidence, it had been traced back to the PLA.” These officials believe that the intrusion may have precipitated the largest blackout in North American history, which occurred in August of that year. A 9,300-square-mile area, touching Michigan, Ohio, New York, and parts of Canada, lost power; an estimated 50 million people were affected.
If the allegations are true, was this act intentional? Perhaps not, another source tells Harris:
A second information-security expert independently corroborated Bennett’s account of the Florida blackout. According to this individual, who cited sources with direct knowledge of the investigation, a Chinese PLA hacker attempting to map Florida Power & Light’s computer infrastructure apparently made a mistake. “The hacker was probably supposed to be mapping the system for his bosses and just got carried away and had a ‘what happens if I pull on this’ moment.” The hacker triggered a cascade effect, shutting down large portions of the Florida power grid, the security expert said. “I suspect, as the system went down, the PLA hacker said something like, ‘Oops, my bad,’ in Chinese.”
I wonder if Richard Clarke still believes that the real threat from Chinese hackers is industrial espionage.
It seems that Americans are finally getting the message: Driving's a financial drag. For the first time in six years, U.S. consumers said they would drive less this past Memorial Day weekend. The U.S. Department of Transportation also reported that March showed the steepest decrease in driving since 1942, when the government first started keeping tabs.
Angry voices are even rising in Europe, where consumers have long paid relatively high prices to fill their tanks.
British truck drivers blocked a highway today and are marching to Downing Street to demand a $1.85 discount on diesel that has now hit $9.00 per gallon. The truckers complain that the higher the gas prices, the greater the government's profits off the taxes. (U.S. consumers pay a flat 18.4 cent federal tax per gallon, but Britain adds about 50 pence onto each liter plus a 17.5 percent VAT on top of the total cost.)
In France, fishing boats blocked ports last week to prevent oil shipments to refineries. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is proposing a tax cut on fuel, though he says the measure should be EU-wide.
All this talk of fuel tax completely misses the point -- only an increase in supply will make a difference in the long run. Brazil has the right idea, announcing it will invest $5 billion in deep water fields, ships, and rigs. That's the kind of government intervention that matters.
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