Friday, May 29, 2009

Deep Question

If General Motors (which will be 72.5% government owned) fails to achieve the stringent new CAFE mandates set by President Obama, will they have to pay a fine to the government as others have? Assuming GM is still on the dole, what will be the net effect? Will Uncle Sam pony up the money so GM can pay Uncle Sam the penalty?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Turtles and Manatees … wildlife on and near Sanibel

Last Saturday was World Turtle Day, a fact I missed until my wife told me. Island Turtle doesn’t miss much, but he sure did on that one.

But it wasn’t lost on the real turtles on Sanibel and nearby Cabbage Key. They were out in profusion. The first was a lake turtle crossing the road near Gramma Dot’s restaurant on Sanibel. The next day we took my daughter and the grandkids to Cabbage Key and ran into 3 gopher tortoises within 20 yards of the restaurant. Now it probably wasn’t just Turtle Day that got them moving, it’s (to put it nicely) socializing season, where boy turtle meets girl turtle.

Seems the spirit of the times has spread to the manatee population too. Enjoy the photos, especially the manatees cuddling.

Government vanity projects … Glory to the leader, misery for you and me.

The world is littered with vanity projects intended more to glorify the government in power than serve the needs of its citizens. The extravagant waste by the Chinese government, spending tens of billions of dollars in Shanghai for last year’s Olympics, is a prime example of this. Now many of the gleaming new office buildings stand nearly vacant and many of the Olympic structures ill suited for further use.

But worse than where the money was spent, is where it wasn’t. Three months before the Olympics in Sichuan province, tens of thousands died in government built substandard school buildings that collapsed from the 8.0 earthquake. The road and transportation infrastructure was so bad and fragile there was simply no way to get rescue workers to the sites where they were needed and when they were needed. Years of government indifference to funding structurally sound schools led to a needless loss of life. A comparable 8.0 earthquake in 2003 on Hokkaido Island, Japan killed only one and that was a person hit by a car while cleaning up rubble.

In Europe, another vanity project is the A380 Airbus, the largest commercial airliner ever built. Double the size of its more fuel efficient (per seat mile) rival, the Boeing 787, it trades away frequency for capacity, an advantage at slot limited airports. Only problem, with air travel in a funk, slots are now less of a problem. Airlines operating smaller, but equally efficient equipment have the flexibility to fly either two flights at advantageous times or cut back to a single flight depending on market conditions. And the market agrees with the small/frequent strategy. Airbus, which originally planned to produce 26 monster A380s in 2009, has now cut its current production rate of 18 to 14 because of order deferrals by the airlines. And French and German taxpayers will have to pick up the tab for Airbus's losses.

But the biggest vanity project of all is high speed rail. None of the European or Asian lines comes close to breaking even financially. All are money losers. Even worse, all needed new rights of way, as will ours, for gentler turns the high speeds require. High speed tracks can not be shared with freight to reduce costs because of speed incompatibility. For safety reasons there can be no grade crossings, all lines must be bridged over or tunneled under. Starting from scratch, condemning property for right of way through eminent domain in already developed urban and suburban countryside will give NIMBY new meaning. And you can’t zig zag with high-speed rail as you can with highways to avoid an expensive or politically sensitive obstacle.

Other political hurdles include where and how many stops there will be on a run. Each stop adds about 6 or 7 minutes a trip, 1 to 2 minutes for the stop and the balance for acceleration and deceleration. When the Pennsy first operated Metroliners (the first fast rail in the eastern corridor) they wanted non-stop service to compete with the highly successful Eastern Airlines Shuttle between Washington and New York. The target was two and a half hours for the 225 mile trip. But union requirements for two crew changes, one in Philadelphia and another to run the last 15 miles from Newark to the City, as well as the threat by Maryland to mandate onerous “full crew” laws if they bypassed Baltimore, added about 15-20 minutes to the trip.

The proposed Florida High Speed Rail System ran into similar problems before it was mercifully killed by referendum. The proposed line was to run from the Tampa Airport to the Miami Airport with 5 intermediate stops along the way. Two were planned for Orlando, one at the “attractions” and the other at the airport. Big problem: the “attractions” stop turned out to be Disney World which freaked out the other “attractions.” So the typical political solution was imposed: add a third and needless stop in Orlando and lose another 6 to 7 minutes.

An analysis of the original Florida constitutional amendment that mandated the rail system points up the horrendous costs and losses involved. And these are in year 2000 dollars and prices.

[I]nternationally renowned public policy consultant and transportation expert Wendell Cox has released eye-opening costs and data regarding Amendment Initiative No.1, which Florida voters will decide on Nov. 7,[2000]. According to the report, the estimated cost to construct a high-speed rail system connecting the state's five largest metropolitan areas would be between $8.2 billion and $21.9 billion; take 20 years to complete; and cost Florida between $617 million and $1.6 billion in annual deficits once in operation.

High speed rail would realistically take around of 3 hours for the 320 miles of Tampa to Miami with 6 intermediate stops, bridge slowdowns and urban area speed limits using 150 mph trains. By comparison, there are frequent airline flights, providing slightly over one hour service, which would beat the train by about two hours to the precisely the same destination (the airport). Planes beat trains hands down. They pay their own way through gate fees, fuel taxes and landing fees to cover airport facilities and the Air Traffic Control system. Security costs are covered by ticket surcharges. And the planes and crews are paid for by the airlines. Not so with trains. And if you think trains operate on time, you haven’t traveled Amtrak lately.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

E15, bad for cars … worse for boats.

There have been three major ethanol producers that have declared bankruptcy in the past 6 months (VeraSun, Panda Energy and White Energy) as well as several smaller ones. The problem is the high cost of manufacture, especially high corn prices, and slackening demand driving down its price to the point of being unprofitable. Ethanol has now lost its cost advantage, with gas droppping dramatically from last year's highs. Outside the Corn Belt, it is significantly more expensive than gas. In Florida last week the ethanol price was $2.105 and pre tax gasoline in the $1.70s. The solution: more government intervention.

The pressure is on Congress to force distributors to blend to 15% to solve the problem government caused in the first place. Lost in all of this, is it would void the warranties of millions of cars in the US. But the problem is far worse for the marine industry. Even 10% ethanol is causing severe problems to fuel systems. It primarily shows up in fuel lines of older boats where the inner liner is destroyed by the corrosive action of the ethanol, causing it to flake away and clog the fuel system (see photo of fuel line flaking that clogged the fuel pump of a 200 hp Mercury EFI engine). Fuel pumps themselves are susceptible to degradation. In boats with fiberglass fuel tanks, the ethanol and co solvents attack the resin and produce a gooey liquid that clogs lines and fuel filters. All cause engine failure.

Before 2006 fuel containing ethanol was segregated out of the marine distribution system. With the Energy Policy Act of 2005, Congress mandated minimum amounts ethanol that had to be blended into motor fuel. Currently it is 10.5 billion gallons for this year and will increase to 36 billion gallons in 2022. It is now very difficult to assure a marina they are getting ethanol free fuel. Oregon on the other hand requires all marine fuel to be E10, despite efforts of boaters to make the dangers known. The boating industry addressed the problem for production in 2006 and after. But being rational people, they certified their upgrades to the 10% standard. Fools they were. But then again they are dealing with Corn Belt politicians who are not trying to save the planet, they are only trying to get themselves reelected.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dead people vote … Now dead people get stimulus checks. ACORN at work?

Drudge carries this provocative headline: MILLIONS IN STIMULUS CHECKS: FOR DEAD PEOPLE? There have been a number of reports of people who died dozens of years ago being sent $250 stimulus checks. The Social Security Administration says only about 8,000 to 10,000 went out to dead people because SSA had no record of their deaths. It’s interesting they have such a detailed record of the number of incorrect names, so soon. Sounds fishy. It might have been helpful if they had used it in advance. My Fox New York reports on a case where the dead recipient was never part of the Social Security system, having left the country in 1933 before it was established: But when her son finally opened it, they saw that the check was made out to her father, Romolo Romonini, who died in Italy 34 years ago. He'd been a U.S. citizen when he left for Italy in 1933, but only returned to the United Stated for a seven-month visit in 1969. The Santopadres are not alone. The Social Security Administration, which sent out 52 million checks, says that some of those checks mistakenly went to dead people because the agency had no record of their death. That amounts to between 8,000 and 10,000 checks for millions of dollars. The feds blame a rushed schedule, because all the checks have to be cut by June. The strange this is, some of the checks were made out to people -- like Romonini -- who were never even part of the Social Security system. Now the question is, did SSA get the names from its own list or one generated by ACORN?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Cayo Costa birds

Cayo Costa is an undeveloped large barrier island just north of Upper Captiva. Accessible only by boat, it is a haven for bird life and a sheller’s delight. Plant life is the same as it was 500 years ago. The northern half of the island is a state park, with rudimentary cabins and tent sites. There are no restaurant facilities. Park rangers operate a truck drawn tram to carry visitors the one mile trip from the dock to the beach for a small fee. Because its remoteness, crowds are small and shells largely untouched.
Shown are an ibis in flight, a sanderling and a small group of black skimmers

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Deep Question.

Do PETA people swat mosquitoes? Do they think bedbugs have feelings?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Hugo Chavez seizes foreign oil service companies, because he hasn’t paid them

Chavez is following his earlier takeover blunders (telephone, cement and oil conglomerates) and now plans to seize the oil service companies that have remained. Most haven’t been paid since last summer and they are beginning to close down operations. This follows the seizure of Conoco and Exxon Mobil two years ago after they rejected a partial takeover and far higher taxes.

When they announced they were seeking international arbitration to challenge the amount of compensation offered, Chavez threw a fit and threatened to cut off oil deliveries to the US if President Bush didn’t make them stop. Then he realized the US has the only refining facilities that can handle his gunky, high sulfur crude. It also hit him that any award to the two US companies wouldn’t be out of their reach, they could simply seize his US assets which include Citgo. Even worse, the US is his only market price customer. The remainder are his politically favored pals, who pay only 30% of market and the balance over 25 years.

The inept state oil company (PDVSA) management has made few or no capital improvements and done little maintenance. They are simply milking the system and running it into the ground. And it is beginning to show. Venezuela was pumping 3.2 mbd in 1998 (before Chavez) and is now down to 2.13 in April. It is likely production will drop below 2 million in the near future. The US has been buying 1.2 million. The Finacial Times (UK) explains the rationale: PDVSA which is under pressure to cut expenses by 60 per cent because of tumbling revenues, is estimated to owe as much as $12bn (€8.9bn, £7.9bn) to contractors since suspending payments to them last August, shortly after oil prices began their precipitous decline. It has demanded that companies accept a 40 per cent cut in their bills, arguing that the decline in oil prices means they are charging too much. Sort of sounds familiar.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Good Taliban, Bad Taliban … a failed concept

The seeds of Pakistan’s rapid descent began in mid February with a peace agreement crafted by cleric Sufi Mohammed that the Taliban would disarm in exchange for control of the Swat Valley. In India there was shock and horror that Pakistan’s government could accept such a deal. The Times of India reported at the time:

Reactions from US officials to Islamabad’s latest "peace deal" with extremist forces who have scorched the Swat region indicated that Washington was once again buying into the discredited theory of "good Taliban and bad Taliban." Pakistan has argued that some Taliban (those sponsored by the ISI whom it regards as strategic assets) can be won over and trusted whereas others (who have turned "rogue") and are irreconcilable.

Shortly after, the Taliban consolidated their hold, imposed strict Sharia law and began moving into neighboring Buner district by force of arms. There are reports of hostage taking by the Taliban to shield themselves from Pakistani attacks. There is now a realization from the US administration that working with the Taliban simply won’t work. The trustworthy cannot control the extremists and hold on to power at the same time. From today’s Wall Street Journal:

But U.S. officials and analysts in Pakistan say the Swat deal shows it is the men with weapons -- ordinarily the hardest core of extremists -- who decide on what terms peace will come. Men like Mr. Mohammed must find favor with them to maintain their positions. The deals "actually neutralize the moderate people," said Samina Ahmed, the South Asia program director for the International Crisis Group. "Where are they now? They're not in Swat. They're fleeing for their lives."

The seriousness of this can’t be overestimated. If even one of Pakistan’s 60 or so nuclear weapons falls into the hands of the Taliban, the world changes. We have been told that the weapons are safe, but these are hollow assurances. Most reports have them spread around the county side at missile sites and air bases. Spiriting them out of the country would have to rely on absolute cooperation at each location. The problem is, the Pakistani military sees them not just as weapons, but as symbols of national power and sovereignty. There is no better example that you can’t work with terrorist organizations and expect positve results. Good Taliban, Bad Taliban is a failed concept.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Deep Question.

With government running medicine, will the general public go to Bethesda Naval Medical Center and the political class to VA hospitals, or the other way around?

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Democrats’ Attack on CIA … Now Total Retreat by Pelosi’s Forces

Two weeks ago Democrats were in full attack mode, intending to prosecute any and all who “tortured” enemy combatants. Thanks to the backbone of some former senior CIA folks and I might add, the Washington Post, there has been an abject reversal, culminating in a letter from the House Intelligence Committee to all CIA personnel.

Here's the story. Recently the CIA has come under assault recently like no other time. The first insult was the appointment as Director of Leon Panetta, a political hack with no previous intelligence experience. The agency soon became a punching bag, in an orgy of Bush bashing from the White House to Nancy Pelosi’s office. The reaction from Langley was swift. Three former CIA Directors openly criticized the release of documents outlining details of the interrogation techniques. In a blistering one-two attack, the Washington Post carried op-eds against Democrat critics written by former CIA case officer, House Intelligence Committee Chairman and CIA Director Porter Goss and Michael Scheuer, a longtime CIA operative and a Bush critic, now retired.

First was Goss on Saturday, April 25 in which he describes the selective amnesia of Speaker Nancy Pelosi:

A disturbing epidemic of amnesia seems to be plaguing my former colleagues on Capitol Hill. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, members of the committees charged with overseeing our nation's intelligence services had no higher priority than stopping al-Qaeda. In the fall of 2002, while I was chairman of the House intelligence committee, senior members of Congress were briefed on the CIA's "High Value Terrorist Program," including the development of "enhanced interrogation techniques" and what those techniques were. This was not a one-time briefing but an ongoing subject with lots of back and forth between those members and the briefers. Today, I am slack-jawed to read that members claim to have not understood that the techniques on which they were briefed were to actually be employed; or that specific techniques such as "waterboarding" were never mentioned. It must be hard for most Americans of common sense to imagine how a member of Congress can forget being told about the interrogations of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed. In that case, though, perhaps it is not amnesia but political expedience.

The following day Scheuer writes about the damage the politically motivated revelations are causing inside the agency and the short sightedness of eliminating tradecraft tools that one day might save the country. He points his finger directly at President Obama:

Americans should be clear on what Obama has done. In a breathtaking display of self-righteousness and intellectual arrogance, the president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families. Americans and their country's security will be the losers. The Republicans do not have the votes to stop Obama, and the world will not be safer for America because the president abandons interrogations to please his party's left wing and the European pacifists it so admires. Both are incorrigibly anti-American, oppose the use of force in America's defense and -- like Obama -- naively believe that the West's Islamist foes can be sweet-talked into a future alive with the sound of kumbaya.

Joe Babbin writing in Human Events (Friday May 1), reports that the agency’s anger over its demonization, and the attendant morale sapping, was reaching top level Democrats who demanded Pelosi and others call off the dogs. He reveals two secretive meetings Nancy Pelosi conducted to bail herself out. It culminated in an unprecedented letter to all CIA personnel from Congressman Silvestre Reyes, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.

The first meeting, on Tuesday (April 28) evening, was attended by Pelosi, Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Tx) and others. The following night, (April 29) Pelosi and some or all of the other attendees met with CIA Director Leon Panetta, also behind closed doors. No Republicans were invited to either meeting which means the Democrats were assessing the damage and deciding how to maneuver their way out from under the responsibility for it. Spin and strategy. Later Wednesday evening, Reyes sent an unprecedented letter to CIA director Panetta making a sort of apology to the CIA. Reyes’ cover letter asks Panetta to “…disseminate it to the CIA workforce as soon as possible.” The letter to CIA employees is a very odd mixture of praise for the CIA and CYA for Reyes.

Here is the letter written by Reyes, at the behest of his boss Pelosi, to CIA personnel. It’s a total retreat from the threats of exposure and prosecution the week before. It’s as close to an apology as Democrats can make. Unfortunately the damage has been done and can’t be undone.

April 29, 2009 Central Intelligence Agency Washington, DC 20505 Dear Friends and Colleagues: In recent days, as the public debate regarding CIA’s interrogation practices has raged, you have been very much in my thoughts. I write to let you know, without sound-bites or political calculus, my view on this debate and to remind you of my deep gratitude for the work you do each day. First and foremost, I wholeheartedly support the President’s decision that no CIA officer or contractor will be prosecuted for authorized actions they took in the context of interrogations.

I may disagree with some of what the Agency was asked to do, but I understand that my disagreement lies with the policies, not with the officers executing those policies far from Washington. As the President said, this is a time for reflection, not retribution, and I do not want to see anyone punished for doing his or her job.

At the same time, I think we should take seriously the President’s call for reflection. The public rarely learns of CIA operations, with good reason. In this case, though, the public disclosure of interrogation operations and the OLC opinions underlying them gives us an opportunity to engage in a public discourse about what policy is best going forward. I think that discourse can be a healthy thing for the country and for CIA. One important lesson to me from the s interrogation operations involves congressional oversight.

I’m going to examine closely ways in which we can change the law to make our own oversight of CIA more meaningful; I want to move from mere notification to real discussion. Good oversight can lead to a partnership, and that’s what I am looking to bring about. I recognize, of course, that there will always be inherent tensions between the branches of government; the Framers intended it that way.

But,I also believe that there are positive changes we can make to the way we do business, and I will be working toward those changes in the coming months. Finally, I want to say again what I have said to many of you in my travels throughout the world: thank you. I know that your work is difficult and often dangerous, and takes you away from your families, your country, and the comforts of home. I am grateful for your sacrifices, and I am mindful of them daily. 

Respectfully Sylvestre Reyes Chairman

Soon, probably very soon, this county will face a major crisis. An unstable Pakistan will face the threat of a takeover by the Taliban. Pakistan’s President Zardari and Afghanistan’s Karzai are meeting today in Washington to address the imminent danger. Pakistan’s 60 or so nuclear weapons are at risk. We have no troops in Pakistan, nor will we. The CIA will have to play a key role and it will have to act decisively.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Foreign policy … Failing grades for Obama and Hillary

Little was made of foreign policy achievements for the first 100 days by either Obama or the press. There is a reason. It is abysmal.

The five main areas of concern are North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. North Korea. After Kim launched his “satellite” which failed to achieve orbit, we took him to task at the UN. Even got the UN to pass sanctions on three companies involved in missile work, none of whom have we ever traded with. Kim threw a hissy fit and announced he would restart his plutonium producing reactor to make more weapons and refused to attend the Six Party talks, making them now, the Five Party talks. At our urging, Russia sent Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Pyongyang to smooth things out and got snubbed. At least he got 9,000 miles of perks from Aeroflot for the trip. Iran. No progress at all.

Ahmadinejad continues to snarl and threaten the dismantlement of Israel. There is no talk of resolving the nuclear stalemate. We have proposed talks to have talks to discuss it. The State Department is very good at that. The new Netanyahu government has turned the tables on the US which is pressuring it for a two state solution. Bebe has said he would be glad to talk about that, once Obama has succeeded in resolving Iran’s nuclear threat. Good hardballing Bebe.

Afghanistan. Obama’s personal diplomacy during his European trip resulted in a commitment for 5,000 troops to help in our efforts. Only problem, none of them are combat troops. All are trainers. Perhaps the French are worried Obama might beat them at their own game and bug out first. If only the French would send 900 military chefs instead, but alas mais non.

Iraq. Frictions are developing between Maliki and Hillary over making overtures to the Baathists who ran Saddam’s government. Maliki will have none of it. No kumbaya for him, he lost too many relatives. Something triggered the unusual public statement by Hillary, that “We are committed to Iraq.” Possibly it was all the talk of “date certain withdrawals” and “over the horizon redeployments” for the last few years that has Maliki on edge.

Pakistan. This is turning into a disaster. Remember they have about 5 dozen nuclear weapons floating around. Well Zardari felt the best way to solve the Taliban problem was to give them the Swat valley, sort of like what Neville Chamberlain did 70 years ago. But they got grabby and took neighboring Buner too about 60 miles away from the capital, Islamabad. Soon the world could be faced with a nuclear armed Taliban government in Pakistan. Scary!

Will Obama follow through on his pledge of August 2007? From the Washington Post:

…that as president he would be prepared to order U.S. troops into that country unilaterally if it failed to act on its own against Islamic extremists.

 No one thinks he will. And that’s the problem. No one knows what to expect of this inexperienced, naive administration.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

White House uses strong arm tactics to extort concessions from lenders

Update May 5, 2:00PM EDT. I notice many of you are Googling for more information on the Chrysler/government bankruptcy situation, and especially the court challenge led by Tom Lauria. I am not a legal expert and I hesitate to be the source of up to date news on the subject. For a better appreciation for what is happening, go to The Truth about Cars website. They have very current analyses of what is going on.

Yesterday (May 1) on Detroit’s Frank Beckman’s morning talk show (WJR), bankruptcy attorney Tom Lauria made the incendiary accusation that the members of the White House had threatened to use the “the full force of the White House Press Corps to destroy” his client’s reputation if it didn’t acquiesce to highly unfavorable terms of the government’s proposed Chrysler restructuring plan. Because of the strongarm tactics, Lauria’s client dropped its opposition.

Here is the tape of Beckman’s interview of Lauria. The relevant portions begin at the 1:30 mark. Listen to it.

Lauria: Let me tell you it’s no fun standing on this side of the fence opposing the President of the United States. In fact, let me just say, people have asked me who I represent. That’s a moving target. I can tell you for sure that I represent one less investor today than I represented yesterday. One of my clients was directly threatened by the White House and in essence compelled to withdraw its opposition to the deal under the threat that the full force of the White House Press Corps would destroy its reputation if it continued to fight. That’s how hard it is to stand on this side of the fence.
Beckman: Was that Perella Weinberg?
Lauria: That was Perella Weinberg.

There is a pattern here. Financial institutions holding billions of Chrysler’s secured debt are being held hostage by the TARP loans they are not permitted to pay back. They are being forced to accept just pennies on the dollar for loans they made in good faith less than two years ago. Just like mob loan sharks, the administration wants them under its thumb so they can extort more and more concessions. This is an abuse of power that goes beyond Nixon.