Sunday, July 29, 2007

Cracks in the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby

There is an interesting article in The New York Times by Laurie Goodstein entitled "Coalition of Evangelicals Voices Support for Palestinian State" which chronicles how even some of the conservative Christian evangelicals are moderating their unquestioning support for the policies of the state of Israel. In otherwords, the loose coalition of constituencies that collectively comprise the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby is weakening a bit. As the Times aricle opens:

In recent years, conservative evangelicals who claim a Biblical mandate to protect Israel have built a bulwark of support for the Jewish nation — sending donations, denouncing its critics and urging it not to evacuate settlements or forfeit territory.

Now more than 30 evangelical leaders are stepping forward to say these efforts have given the wrong impression about the stance of many, if not most, American evangelicals.

On Friday, these leaders sent a letter to President Bush saying that both Israelis and Palestinians have "legitimate rights stretching back for millennia to the lands of Israel/Palestine," and that they support the creation of a Palestinian state "that includes the vast majority of the West Bank."

They say that being a friend to Jews and to Israel "does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted." The letter adds, "Both Israelis and Palestinians have committed violence and injustice against each other."

The letter is signed by 34 evangelical leaders, many of whom lead denominations, Christian charities, ministry organizations, seminaries and universities.

And just in case you don't deeply comprehend how "out there" some of these Neo-Crusaders are, the Times tells us that they:

... interpret the Bible as predicting that in order for Christ to return, the Jews must gather in Israel, the third temple must be built in Jerusalem and the Battle of Armageddon must be fought.

Hmmm... I wonder what President Bush and Vice President Cheney think about that perspective. Them and their "long war" against "terrorism." Either they really do believe that they are preparing for "the Battle of Armageddon" or they are simply two-bit politicians who are milking the religious ferver of the evangelicals for all than can. Let us hope that it is the latter.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Really bogus story on high gasoline prices in NY Times

I'm still generally supportive of news coverage by The New York Times, but they do manage to print way too many really misleading and biased stories. The latest was an article by Jad Mouawad entitled "Gas Prices Rise on Refineries' Record Failures" which provides a very misleading account of why retail gasoline prices are so high and overall is more of a mouthpiece for the promoters of energy and commodities speculation and merely repeats the promoters' "story" that high prices are due mostly to refinery outages (and higher crude oil prices.) The story is grossly superficial, not really new news anyway, and does absolutely nothing to dig down and challenge the veracity of the "stories" being touted by Wall Street "analysts" and others who have a financial vested interest and conflict of interest in having people believe the stories.

Rather than pick the story apart line by line, I'll highlight one data point which essentially proves that refinery outages couldn't possibly even come close to explaining the dramatic rise of retail gasoline prices at a national level. Here is what the article says:

As a whole, refining disruptions have been considerably higher than in previous years: they averaged 1.5 million barrels a day in the first quarter, compared with 700,000 to 900,000 barrels a day from 2001 to 2005. In the days after the hurricanes, refiners were forced to briefly halt as many as five million barrels of production.

To anybody who knows nothing about the business, a shortfall of "1.5 million barrels a day" in refining capacity might sound like a really big deal, except for the fact that available inventory levels of retail gasoline (as reported weekly by the Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration (EIA) having been running consistently above 200 million barrels for this entire period, way more than enough to cover even a 1.5 million barrel a day shortfall. If inventories weren't able to cover the shortfall, we would see inventories declining dramatically over time. Yes, inventories are 4.5% below a year ago (but only by a mere 9.5 million barrels), but that further proves that refinery shortfalls are not causing inventories to be drawn down in a dramatic way. Multiply 1.5 million per day by 90 days and you get 135 million barrels. The EIA data proves that gasoline inventories have not been depleted by 135 million barrels. In other words, the loss of production due to outages did not result in a shortfall of available gasoline. In other words, there was no supply shortage. Sure, demand is rising, but only at a low annual rate (the latest EIA report says "Over the last four weeks, motor gasoline demand has averaged over 9.6 million barrels
per day, or 1.3 percent above the same period last year.

The Times article cavalierly states:

Many factors have led to the rise in gas prices, including disruptions in oil supplies from places like Nigeria and Norway. But analysts say the refining bottleneck in North America has been one of the main drivers of higher energy prices this year.

But they make no mention of the role of speculation on the futures markets. They reference "analysts", failing to mention that the firms employing most of those "analysts" have a vested interest in perpetuating "stories" to incite higher levels of speculation in energy futures.

Curiously they refer to the "refining bottleneck" as only "one of the main drivers." Well, either this so-called "refining bottleneck" is the main driver or it isn't, and if it isn't the main driver, then what is and why doesn't the story focus on it instead? I suspect that when pressed, they would point to higher crude oil prices. But if higher crude oil prices are the main driver, why even bother mentioning secondary or even tertiary drivers that may only account for a few pennies a gallon at most? The bottom line here is that the whole story (both the "analysts" story and the Times story) is rather fishy to say the least.

Even if you buy the story that high crude oil prices are the main driver (which isn't the story being peddled here), that raises the question of what is really going on with regards to both supply and price of crude oil. The quote above does blame part of the rise in gasoline prices on "disruptions in oil supplies from places like Nigeria and Norway", but even that is simply yet another "story" being peddled by "analysts" and others who have a financial vested interest and severe conflict of interest in perpetuating "stories" that even when true paint a very misleading big picture. Once again, we can consult the weekly EIA data and prove that the so-called "disruptions" have had no detectable impact on the overall availability of crude oil as an input to refineries or other uses. The EIA weekly reports have reported domestic crude oil inventory levels of well over 300 million barrels for an extended period of time, way more than enough to cover any Nigerian or Norwegian "shortfall" for an extended period of time. Not to mention the fact that the U.S. has 690 million barrels of crude oil sitting in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve precisely for any significant "supply disruptions." In fact, the current crude inventory level is 5.4% above a year ago, at 352 million barrels. This is very compelling proof that even if there is a shortfall from any number of individual suppliers, there is way more than enough oil sitting in inventories to make up for any shortfall. If the so-called "shortfalls" were truly significant, there would have been a dramatic drawdown of inventory levels, and there has been no such drawdown. This is truly compelling proof that there is no fundamental reason for high crude oil prices and hence no fundamental reason for high gasoline prices.

There is in fact a single "culprit" behind higher energy prices: "the world is awash in liquidity." Put simply, there are too many people with too much money and the stock and bond markets are not providing high enough rates of return, so vast amounts of money are flowing into the commodities markets. Even individual investors are seeing stories chiding them that commodities should be a part of any investor's "portfolio." ("Oil is going to $100! [or is it $200?]) It is that money which is bidding up the price of crude oil and gasoline. And Wall Street and so many of the so-called "analysts" are providing the drumbeat and siren song urging people to put their money into these commodities, exactly as they had done with MBS leading up to the so-called "subprime crisis."

Why the Times does not cover that story is rather baffling. I simply do not know whether they are knowingly participating in the obfuscation of the true story, or merely suffering from incompetence, negligence, and basic laziness. Either way, we readers and consumers suffer the consequences. Ditto for Congress, a Democratic Congress no less, for their turning a blind eye to this sad story.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Democratic "surge" still not showing any significant results

The Democratic "surge" in Congress is certainly generating a lot of noise and attention, but is simply not giving us any significant results. Sure, they are clearly scoring "points" among partisan Democrats, but this is not real progress. At best, the Democrats are laying the groundwork for the political battles of the 2008 elections, but as far as doing something positive for the American people and dealing constructively with the trumped-up so-called "Global War On Terror" and the quagmire in Iraq, the sum total of their progress is virtually nonexistent.

As with President Bush and his "surge" in Iraq, the Democratic "surge" is far more in the way of posturing than progress.

If the Democrats really wanted to demonstrate a commitment to progress they would impeach both President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Granted, conviction after impeachment might not be a "slam dunk", but I can see no robust reasoning for not pursuing impeachment. What is holding them back? The only credible answer I can come up with is that the Democrats would simply prefer for the state of affairs under the Bush administration to further deteriorate over the next 15 months so that they can turn what might be a landslide election anyway into a true "slam dunk." Besides, would a President Pelosi (next in line) seriously be able to orchestrate a withdrawal from Iraq in a way that didn't leave voters with a bad taste in their mouths when they enter the polling booths in 15 months?

I'm certainly not a big fan of Hillary, but I think she can clearly do the job and the 2008 election is hers to lose. Sure, the liberal Far Left may remain enthralled with Obama or even Edwards and a good percentage of Americans dislike her personally for any number of reasons, but whether the election was held today, in six months, or in 15 months, she doesn't appear to have any credible opposition. It is a little too soon to put up the "Mission Accomplished" banner, but she can at least start measuring the drapes.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, July 15, 2007

SiCKO not so bad but not very enlightening

As promised, I did in fact pay the bribe required to see Michael Moore's new health care "documentary", SiCKO. It wasn't too bad considering that it was more a matter of political posturing than documentary. It was in fact about as I expected: one-third reasonably factual documentary, one-third political spin, posturing, emotion baiting, and misleading presentation, and one-third classic Michael Moore comedy. As extertainment it was not so bad, although I still object to having to pay a bribe (modest though it was) to gain access to the factual aspects of the documentary.

As far as its value as a documentary, to me it was of low value since, as expected, he mostly repeated characterizations of our health care system that are widely known. Sure, there were some interesting factoids (e.g., the roles of Nixon and Reagan), but most of the facts were merely anecdotal or already well known.

The sound track was great and added significantly to the entertainment value of the film, even if it did nothing but distract from its documentary value.

As to the central question posed by the film: Why can't we have a system like the one in Canada, Britain, or France? To me the very obvious answer is that despite the anecdotal evidence of "health care horror stories", our system does in fact appear to work well enough for most people, so why should we risk giving up a system that works "good enough"? Sure, the bad might get better, but are we guaranteed that the good won't get worse? Obviously there are at least two distinct camps on that issue, but the chasm between them is what stymies any significant change.

The simple fact is that our health care system will only be radically changed when "the people" as opposed to the politicians and Big Pharma and Big Health actually feel strongly enough to vote in the polls to change things. Sure, politicans respond to money and lobbying, but ultimately the people do get to vote in elections and can give the boot to uncooperative politicians.

-- Jack Krupansky

Off to see SiCKO

I was seriously considering boycotting Michael Moore's new film SiCKO as a matter of principle (it claims to be a documentary but is actually political in nature and billed in a misleading manner), but I finally decided to go.

First off, to me, the first and only real role of a movie is for entertainment. A true documentary belongs on TV or free on the Internet. The idea of a documentary in theaters simply doesn't make sense except as a commercial political venture.

The idea of paying to see a documentary is rather offensive. Facts relevant to public policy should not be held hostage to paying of a bribe.

Given that I will have to pay to see SiCKO, I was reluctant to do so since I'm fairly confident that this "film" is simply a rehash of many facts that are already widely known by those of us who pay attention to public policy.

So, I'll see the film (and be out the $7.25 ticket price) because:

  1. Maybe there is some relevant information that I don't already know.
  2. I actually do find Moore to be entertaining. His style is frequently so blatantly silly that I can't help but laugh.
  3. As a student of public discourse, I would like to know what arguments various parties are using, regardless of whether I buy into those arguments.

-- Jack Krupansky

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Iraqis starting to show a sense of independence

The U.S. military departure from Iraq will be greatly facilitated when Iraqi politicians begin to show some real backbone and start telling the U.S. what to do rather than the other way around. There have been some promising signs recently. An Associated Press article entitled "Iraqi PM insists peace is possible without U.S. - Al-Maliki claims 'full confidence' if coalition forces withdraw 'at any time'" tells us that:

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Saturday that the Iraqi army and police are capable of keeping security in the country when American troops leave "any time they want," though he acknowledged the forces need further weapons and training.

A lot more progress is needed, but each little step helps.

The key is not so-called "political benchmarks" that are being dictated by the U.S., but Iraq getting up the nerve to simply tell the U.S. military to "get out."

-- Jack Krupansky

Politics and principles

Do politics and principles ever mesh? Are they inherently contradictory? Do they mix at all? Are some politicians actually able to blend them, or is that simply an illusion? My simplistic answer is that principles are what drive you and politics is simply the day to day tactics utilized to pursue those principles, but that is only true when your publicly-stated goals in fact match your privately-held principles. The problem for many or most politicians is that they first focus on political opportunity and then are forced to adopt goals that fit the politics and only then can they consider the extent to which their principles may or may not be compromised by their politics (political goals.)

I was reading an article in The Washington Post by Peter Baker entitled "Despite talk, Iraq shift unlikely anytime soon - Bush holds commanding position -- and votes -- in showdown over war" which quoted our "battered" President Bush as saying:

When it's all said and done ... if you ever come down and visit the old, tired me down there in Crawford, I will be able to say, 'I looked in the mirror and made decisions based upon principle, not based upon politics,' ... And that's important to me.

That's certainly a candid and probably honest assessment, but it begs a number of questions. What are his principles? Some people question whether he really has any or whether he's simply another unprincipled hack politician. I would question whether he is really speaking about deep moral principles or simply "strategic" aims that he has picked up over the years from a lot of people with extremist agendas who are continually whispering in his ear. And what does he really mean by the term "politics"? Is he really speaking of it in the common, general sense or in the antagonistic, disparaging, and unfortunately popular mode of characterizing one group's cherished beliefs as "principles" and every other opposing group's beliefs as mere "politics." In other words, maybe he is simply saying that when your "team" is losing, you stay loyal to "your" team even if the other team has much better prospects. Maybe simple, old-fashioned, Texan loyalty is his primary source of drive and solace.

Hmmm... he actually said "made decisions based upon principle" singular, not "made decisions based upon principles" plural. That is an interesting distinction, although it isn't possible to know if he really meant to draw that distinction or was simply speaking more than a bit too loosely. What might he have been referring to by "upon principle" (singular)? What principle? It sounds as if he's not even referring to "principle" in the moral sense at all and really is using it in the gamesmanship sense, the way a true Texan would fight to the death to protect his property and his friends and family.

That still leaves us contemplating this gap between President Bush's personal goals and his "team" goals and his responsibility to the American people.

The only thing that is crystal clear is that he will in fact he heading back down to his ranch, in just over 18 months.

-- Jack Krupansky

Monday, July 09, 2007

Is the Iraq "surge" working or not?

The jury is still out on whether the U.S. troop surge in Iraq is gaining any traction. The real issue is not whether U.S. troops can bring the level of "sectarian stife" down to zero, which I think is a non-starter, but whether the surge can buy Iraqi politicians enough time so that they can gain the confidence necessary to come to a robust and durable political compromise over the structure of Iraq as a country. That is the big question for which the only answer right now is "Maybe, maybe not."

September, when the U.S. commander must give his big report to Congress, may seem as if it is just around the corner, but two months is really a dog's age in this kind of rapidly evolving political situation, both at home and in Iraq. I don't have high expectations for what will transpire by September, but I do think that it is important to keep an open mind. When confronted with extreme positions, I find that the truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

Although September will be a turning point in U.S. politics, I do believe that the surge and political maneuvering in Iraq will have until the end of the year to come to something resembling an end point. Regardless of the maneuvering in Washington, Iraq will evolve on its own through the Fall. Again, I do not have high expectations, but I don't have high confidence that the extremes will come to pass either.

In any case, I do believe that some sort of troop drawdown will commence early in 2008. It will either be because the surge worked (dramatic reduction in sectarian strife) or because all parties (Congress and Iraqi politicians) agree that it is the proper thing to do even in the face of ongoing sectarian strife.

The real bottom line is that at least the surge is getting a chance to answer the previous question of whether a surge would work. By the end of the year we will have the answer and we will have eliminated the situation of endlessly debating whether a surge would work.

The big wildcard is that the ultra-hawkish Neoconservatives and the rest of the so-called Pro-Israel Lobby are unlikely to go quietly into the night and are likely to begin a campaign to find some way to drag Iran into the picture to give the impression that maintaining a strong presence in Iraq is vital to "confronting" Iran and its so-called "nuclear ambitions." These guys are hunkered down and biding their time for the moment, but expect a full-bore "whispering" campaign against the concept of a large-scale withdrawal from Iraq to begin in earnest in September. This part of the story is a real sleeper as far as media coverage.

-- Jack Krupansky

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Constant repitition of the Global Warming/Climate Change "story"

Former vice president Al Gore simply doesn't get it. He doesn't get science and its power to persuade people about the "real" world. To wit, he resorts to political, social, and even "moral" arguments for what at its heart and soul should be simply a question of science and hard data about so-called Global Warming and Climate Change. But, hey, this is very understandable since he is at his heart and soul a politician and not either a scientist or even a competent policymaker. So, of course, he resorts to political and social and "moral" rhetorical arm-twisting instead. And, most importantly, this is why the former vice president is a particularly poor spokesperson for addressing whatever scientific underlying issues may be at stake with regard to so-called Global Warming and Climate Change.

Rather than enlighten us with any new and relevant scientific results and data, the former vice president continues to blindly repeat his same old story, this time on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times in a piece entitled "Moving Beyond Kyoto."

Lacking a solid scientific case, he resorts to imploring us that:

This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue, one that affects the survival of human civilization. It is not a question of left versus right; it is a question of right versus wrong. Put simply, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours.

Who knows, maybe the former vice president actually does have a solid scientific case hidden away that he hasn't yet presented, but the simple fact is that he destroys his own credibility by trying to cheat and turn the debate into a so-called "moral" issue. He denies that this is "a political issue," but by putting that disclaimer right up front, he's telling us that he fully recognizes that the current state of the debate is in fact deeply political and social in nature. It is extremely unfortunate that he is trying to shift the debate even further from raw, hard-core science and even deeper into the realm of mindless, irrational human passions.

He closes by telling us that:

The climate crisis offers us the chance to experience what few generations in history have had the privilege of experiencing: a generational mission; a compelling moral purpose; a shared cause; and the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict of politics and to embrace a genuine moral and spiritual challenge.

There is plenty of uncertainty over Global Warming and Climate Change, but there is something that I am 100% certain of: whatever we may need to do concerning Global Warming and Climate Change is most certainly not a "moral and spiritual challenge."

The "challenge" is quite simple: it is a scientific, technical, and economic challenge. If we could get the facts straight, then we could act in a rational manner and proceed towards a "solution", but under the former vice president's "leadership" there appears to be virtually no interest in committing ourselves to do the necessary scientific research (which may take many decades and several generations) before we embark on a "moral" crusade.

I am not so hopeful that reason will prevail in the short run as political considerations continue to reign supreme. Actually, I think practical considerations (e.g., the reality of the extent to which our society depends on existing transportation and energy systems) will prevail over even political considerations, but that balance will shift over the next ten years.

I do concur with one statement by the former vice president:

Certainly, there will be new jobs and new profits as corporations move aggressively to capture the enormous economic opportunities offered by a clean energy future.

Ka-ching, ka-ching! With that single "pragmatic" statement, the former vice president completely destroys the "moral" authority he was seeking. Oh well.

I would prefer that hard-core efficiency would be the driving economic factor, but if the former vice president wishes to accelerate the process by shifting money from the poor and lower-income groups into the coffers of big business, the effect won't be completely malignant even though moderately unfair in its treatment of those who lack political clout.

-- Jack Krupansky