Sunday, November 27, 2005

Thanksgiving at Home

I love to be with all my relatives, but it never quite works out as it should. This year I think I offended my sister when my sister-in-law mentioned that she had tickets to come and see my daughter in her ballet. Uh-oh. It's a very unimportant part and my sister-in-law asked me for tickets without prompting. Why should I have to make sure my sister had first dibs? Oh well.

My brother is a religious conservative and we always end up talking politics. I am pro-war as he is, but I am not a fan of Bush and especially dislike his posse. But, in the spirit of amity, I tried to say something vague, but nice. "He's a good judge of personnel," I say. Now, I think I'm right about that, simply because I don't sense that he is a micro-manager. He doesn't really have the smarts himself to do all the analysis, and he knows it, which is a good thing. He surrounds himself with competent people who share his basic beliefs and who he knows are loyal to him.

Unfortunately, when I said this, my nephew the left-liberal, became incensed and said, "Like who? Cheney?" No, I said, I'm not real fond of Chaney but Bush probably didn't have a choice in that. At this point I regretted the whole line of discussion, because I'm not really sure why I dislike Cheney so much, and I knew I was probably wrong, in many senses about both of my assertions. But it was too late to duck out of it, and I'm certainly too proud to back down.

My nephew sits there thinking I'm an idiot, and my brother, by this time, is on a loud monologue about Cheney's virtues and why Bush loves him. Everybody else is looking nervous. In the past, when this sort of thing has happened, we ended up insulting each other and storming out of the house. At any rate, my other sister, the nephew's mother, chooses this moment to shut the drawer on my brother's finger. Things get a little out of control. He's hollering and she's apologizing extravagantly, and my brother keeps repeating that he's all right. My nephew and I take the opportunity to go somewhere else until things simmer down.

My sister is very sweet, but more clever than any of us and quite capable of taking decisive action and lying about it. My brother and I will put the whole thing out of our minds, but the irritating part of the scene to me is that I will never know for sure whether she did it on purpose.

I am thankful for all of them. I'm also thankful it wasn't my finger in the drawer.

11/27/200511:33 PM

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Saturday, November 26, 2005

Flight of the Turk

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan left Denmark in a huff on Tuesday. He had differences with Prime Minister Rasmussen of that country on the issues of press freedom and terrorism. Erdogan complained that a member of the PKK was to be allowed access to his press conference as a reporter. Rasmussen responded that he was unable to do anything because the matter was now before the court.

Then, adding umbrage to his huff, Erdogan took a swipe at the Jyllands-Postern newspaper on the famous cartoon issue.

Rasmussen: Freedom of expression in Denmark is at an advanced level. If you are uncomfortable, take the issue before the courts.

Erdogan: Muslims do not insult any of the prophets; we do not tolerate any insults by others in this regard either. We demand equal respect for our prophets and holy figures.

I'm not sure about the word "equal" on Erdogan's part. Do the Danes demand respect for the prophets? Are Muslim prophets, aside from Mohammed and Jesus, different than those in the Old Testament? Do Muslims, on the whole, really respect Jesus? Do Muslims punish or restrain those Muslims who offer insults to Jesus or the "holy figures" honored by the Danes? Such a short phrase to leave me so puzzled.

It seems to me that the present administration of Turkey will be unable to attain any kind of rapprochement with the EU if it continues to put pride before diplomacy. It's too easy to make him look silly. I guess he's playing to the home crowd. I'm also a little puzzled that the Turks are so vehemently opposed to terrorism, yet they took steps to protect the state terrorism in Iraq, blocking the US from a vital path of access.

11/26/2005 12:59 AM

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Friday, November 25, 2005

Petroleum 101 continued

Mallory has posts up for Petroleum 101D and 101E. Nothing to disagree with. Interesting about the slurpees. I'm hoping she continues with Petroleum 102.

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Railroad Economics

I have noticed, riding in my car in Pennsylvania, that highways in rural areas seem to be very well cared for. New bridges are being built; limited access segments are being extended. Gravel roads are being covered with asphalt. Prosperity cries out from every I-beam.

This is all very nice. The Interstate Highway System in particular is one of my favorite things. It was a strategic creation, inspired by WWII's shortages and bottlenecks. It's designed for high speeds. It's even got room for makeshift aircraft landing strips. It has its downside, but it has brought a thousand decaying villages to life and improved productivity for freight and transportation to such an extent that many people think that railroads are obsolete. Most of these people tend to be Republican and non-urban, people who benefit from the remarkable upgrade of our highway system, while being insulated from the downward trend of our railroad infrastructure.

The contradiction here is that huge amounts are spent on the highway system, and no profit is expected. The few highways that charge tolls are unpopular with the voters. Railroads, however, are expected to pay their way every mile and every pound. The Nov.28/Dec 5 issue of TNR has a short editorial on why Amtrak shouldn't be expected to make a profit. They wonder why railroads and highways are held to different standards. But they merely scratch the surface of the economic dilemma.

Economically, Amtrak is like an airline, only more so. The driving force of both is the huge capital investment and fixed costs measured against relatively small passenger-mile costs. Both organizations do everything possible to enlist one more passenger. Each additional fare is pure gravy. Empty seats are lost opportunities. Airlines will sometimes cancel a flight with too few passengers, but the train will follow its schedule from necessity. The only way to enlist more passengers, of course, is by means of pricing and incentives. They try to lock in passengers as early as possible, but they also give price breaks at the drop of a hat. You get a special price on Amtrak for being a member of AAA! They go to great lengths tohide the real price of course. They certainly don't tell you about a better deal that you could have gotten, but customers have a way of getting educated. In the long run, if there is any competition at all, the prices of such services have a strong tendency to become too low. The companies find it easier to cut costs, to skimp on maintenance, to mortgage the future, than to raise prices. In short, they can't make a profit. Without intervention they will inexorably self-destruct. I know, I know, Southwest Airlines is doing pretty well, but what it's really doing is innovating faster than the others can catch up. They have a different cost structure and are selling a different product for the time being.

The same logic would prevent highways from becoming profitable. Highways, however, tend not to have a lot of competition between any two points. The pressure of a high toll would distort motorist behavior in many ways, but motorists have been more than willing to pay for a superior product. There is a place in NE Pennsylvania where the Turnpike travels virtually the same route as Interstate 81. In spite of the toll, the Turnpike does reasonably well simply because 81 has more traffic and occasional delays. The state police are also more lenient and less vigilant on the Turnpike, enough to make up for the cost and delay at the tollbooth. Hassle reduction pays. The HOV lanes from Virginia into DC also exact a toll of sorts. The normal traffic flow is so slow on these "super" highways that people are willing to carry extra passengers to meet the HOV requirements. Some have used dummies to simulate the requirement, and they're willing to accept the risk in order to partake of a superior product.

Now, I happen to believe that rail transport is socially superior to automobile. I have read that it takes as much fossil fuel to keep Amtrak running as we use per passenger-mile on the highways, but I frankly don't believe it. Besides, we could use alternate fuels on the railroad based on electrical generation technologies. Anyone who travels DC to Boston, the great Bos-Wash corridor, knows that Amtrak is a wonderful thing. It is convenient, productive and not too expensive for a business traveler. Amtrak itself is reputed to handle 50% of the DC/NYC person-miles. The Acela Express train, billed as a breakthrough, is merely an incremental improvement. The line itself, the track maintenance, the general deterioration, prevents any great improvements. But the Acela is downright embarrassing if you look to Japan or France for your yardstick. We are missing a lot by under-funding our most productive transportation mode. If you've seen the transportation system in the city where our congressmen make their living, you know that a little investment can make a big difference. The DC Metro system is the most effective mass transit system this side of Paris, and getting better all the time.

The strategic advantage of railroad should not be ignored either. Katrina and Rita have taught us that you can't evacuate a city through its highways. Even using contraflow, the highways could not cope. Unpredictable human behavior, road quirks and sheer volume cause too many bottlenecks. Railroads, OTOH, are accustomed to dealing with challenging schedules and conditions. They are great planners. If you give them a little bit of warning, they can arrange to handle the required volume.

In many places highways have reached the point of diminishing returns. Additional investment will not improve the performance of the highways significantly, but merely maintain a bad situation. The highways around our major cities are incapable of handling the normal load on a normal day while trains run at half-capacity for lack of upkeep and social support. I believe that our nation itself is running at half-capacity because of our unbalanced investments in these two modes of transportation.

11/25/2005 4:12 PM

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Monday, November 07, 2005

Non-Haven

Ted Kennedy today told Tim Russert that Iraq had become a "haven" for the terrorists. I just have to take exception to this characterization. A haven, as any inhabitant of Massachusetts should know, is a safe harbor, a port, a place where a ship is insulated from the storm, where repairs can be made in peace, where the crew can take sustenence and comfort, unmolested by the hazards of the high seas. Surely, few terrorists view Iraq in this light. It may be attractive to them, a challenge, a glorious field, but certainly not a haven. Test in combat may be hardening them, making them more effective as fighters, breeding new terrorists even, but it is not giving them a chance to heal.

If you are looking for a terrorist haven, try to remember what Afghanistan was like. How about the Horn of Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan, Indonesia -- places where they can recruit, collect money, train in secret. Those are havens for terrorists.

I am not one who thinks Ted Kennedy is an evil conniver. I think he is an honest and humbled man trying to do the best he can for the people as long as he has the strength to speak. I think he rightly sees himself in historical terms, continuing the battles that his family represents. He has applied himself to realistic efforts for compromise and progress in the Senate. However, he couldn't be more wrong about the war in Iraq or the cost that we are paying to fight it. He sees it, as do many, through the prism of Vietnam, which was indeed painful and costly. It was also demoralizing because we lost when we didn't have to. We can only lose in Iraq if his opinions prevail.

11/6/05 01:15 PM

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Friday, November 04, 2005

Rasmussen Explains the Basics

The official website of Denmark has reported that Egypt intends to make an issue of the "blasphemous" cartoons published in Jyllands-Posten, which I wrote about on October 18. They plan to refer it to an Islamic summit. The website states:

… the Egyptian ambassador in Denmark requested, along with ten other ambassadors of Muslim states, to meet with Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to discuss Jyllands-Posten's decision to print twelve caricatures of the prophet, an act considered blasphemous by many Muslims.

The newspaper published the cartoons after a Danish author complained that no artist dared to illustrate his book about the prophet. Jyllands-Posten's editor-in-chief said the cartoons were a test of whether fear of Muslim retribution had begun to limit the freedom of expression in Denmark.

Rasmussen refused to meet with the ambassadors, saying that if they thought he had any power to influence what a national newspaper did and printed, the essence of Danish democracy had been lost on them.

'The Egyptian ambassador in Denmark has said that the case no longer rests with the embassy. It is now being treated at an international level. As far as I have been informed by my government, the cartoon case has already been placed on the agenda for the Organisation of the Islamic Conference's extraordinary summit in the beginning of December,' ...

(Emphasis is mine.)

I’m beginning to like this Prime Minister Rasmussen. I'm thinking that I have done a disservice to Denmark by assuming they were part of Old Europe.

11/4/2005 8:36 PM

UPDATE 11/8/2005 10:25 PM -- The illustrator of the most controversial drawing, showing Mohammed as a bomb, is selling it at auction. In my opinion, this picture is not an ordinary cartoon. It is very well drawn and thought-provoking in its detail. I predict it will go for a lot of money. You can look at it over here.

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Andrew's Request

Frank Warner has a post giving advice to a college freshman who wants to prove that the wars of the past were all mistakes. There are a lot of great comments, by Nicholas in particular. I left a comment which I'll post here as well:

Andrew,

The Great Depression of the 1930's was a grim calamity that could have been avoided if Alan Greenspan had been in charge. I'm not kidding. Economic thinking has developed to the point that we don't go through the same suffering that we used to endure at the end of every business cycle. Modern economists know enough, maybe just enough, to protect us.

War can be addressed by the same intellectual approach. The architects of MAD in the 50's and 60's protected us, and everyone else, from nuclear destruction. They have received scant thanks for that effort, mainly because people, like yourself, still think they were wrong. The only cure for war is strength. Strength means foresight, planning and the wise allocation of resources. Strength, in a free state, is gained by the application of sound scientific, technical, commercial, diplomatic and moral processes. In other words, the grownups are paying attention. Sometimes they make mistakes. Sometimes they seem to make mistakes.

What matters most is what the leaders of your country really want. Over time it will come to pass. One of my heroes is Mikhail Gorbachev, who brought down the Soviet Union from inside as peacefully as it could possibly be done. And it needed to be done. Leaders like Saddam, Ahmadinejad, Castro and Hugo Chavez, desire only power and self-aggrandizement. Sacrifice of their citizens carries no moral weight to them. When people like that are in charge of entire nations, expect war.

If you want to end war, you need to study it. Study it as deeply as Milton Friedman studied the role of money in our economy. You might consider reading anything by John Keegan. Avoid those who merely want to assign blame. If you would rather indulge in wishful thinking about our violent past, you might consider reading fantasy and science fiction.

11/4/2005 1:26 PM

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