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August 27, 2012

The Real Thing, vs The Appearance of It

Say thou to Harry of England:
Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep:
advantage is a better soldier than rashness.

- Henry V, Scene VI

A few interesting items from our morning browsing:

When it comes to deficit-fueled government spending, Warren Buffet, of Buffet Rule fame, is voting with his feet:

Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRKA) recently terminated credit-default swaps insuring $8.25 billion of municipal debt, according to the company's latest quarterly SEC filing. The original bet was a bullish one -- in the event the municipalities defaulted on their debt, Berkshire would have to pay out. The move to terminate those contracts may have made some investors more skittish about the finances of U.S. states, cities and towns, but this shouldn't come as a surprise to those who have closely followed Buffett's remarks.

Since at least 2009, Buffett has warned about the risks of insuring municipal bonds. In his annual letter to shareholders, he said rather than raise taxes to fill budget gaps, government officials might be inclined to default on bonds whose payments are guaranteed by insurance companies. Guaranteeing munis against default, he wrote, "has the look today of a dangerous business -- one with similarities, in fact, to the insuring of natural catastrophes."

We find his lack of faith in the Obama admininstration's policies disturbing. But also extremely amusing:

[Buffett] has wholeheartedly supported President Obama’s economic agenda of higher spending and higher taxes on wealth creators to pay for the welfare state both he and the president envision.

He even allowed the president to use him as a political prop and put the Buffett name on a new tax that won’t raise much revenue but may win the president a few more votes as he fights for re-election.
Which is why the last thing he wants to do is explain that his move isn’t a bet against all bonds but just some of those in areas that have adopted the same misguided fiscal policies both he and the president are advocating on a national level.

What does it say about these policies when the "smart money" decides they're too risky?

In other news, Andrew Ferguson belatedly discovers the inverse (or is it obverse? Multiverse? Buehller?) of the old maxim, "All that glitters is not gold" - maybe there are more important qualities in a candidate than glibness and a convincingly authentic inauthenticity:

Romney once famously called himself “severely” conservative. Other adverbs fit better: culturally, personally, instinctively. He seems to have missed out on The Sixties altogether, and wanted to. As a freshman at Stanford he protested the protesters, appearing in the quad carrying signs of his own: SPEAK OUT, DON’T SIT IN! In 1968 the May riots stranded him in Paris. “The disorder appalled him,” the authors write. He left Stanford for BYU, where long hair, rock bands, and peace symbols were banned. As a young go-getter he liked to give friends copies of Think and Grow Rich, by Napoleon Hill—a Stephen Covey for the Coolidge era, sodden with moral uplift. (Even his anachronisms are anachronistic.) “There was nothing jaded about him,” a school friend tells the authors, “nothing skeptical, nothing ironic.”

At his wedding, he declined when the photographer asked him to kiss the bride: “Not for cameras,” he said. Since that day, Ann says, they haven’t had an argument; friends believe her. And their kids—we’ve all seen their kids. The authors tick off a typical week for the young family. Sunday: “church, reflection, volunteer work, family dinners.” Monday: “family night,” when the family gathered for Bible stories and skits about animals. Tuesday was for family basketball games and cookouts. Friday was date night for Mitt and Ann. Saturday was for doing chores, and so on, in a pinwheel of wholesomeness that a -post-60s ironist can only gape at, disbelieving. The Romneys present a picture of an American family that popular culture has been trying to undo since—well, since An American Family, the 1973 PBS documentary that exposed the typical household as a cauldron of resentment and infidelity.

And now, here, 40 years later, it’s as though it all never happened: a happy American family, led by a baby boomer with no sense of irony! Romney is the sophisticate’s nightmare.

Almost every personal detail about Romney I found endearing. But my slowly softening opinion went instantly to goo when The Real Romney unfolded an account of his endless kindnesses—unbidden, unsung, and utterly gratuitous. “It seems that everyone who has known him has a tale of his altruism,” the authors write. I was struck by the story of a Mormon family called (unfortunately) Nixon. In the 1990s a car wreck rendered two of their boys quadriplegics. Drained financially from extraordinary expenses, Mr. Nixon got a call from Romney, whom he barely knew, asking if he could stop by on Christmas Eve. When the day came, all the Romneys arrived bearing presents, including a VCR and a new sound system the Romney boys set up. Later Romney told Nixon that he could take care of the children’s college tuition, which in the end proved unnecessary. “I knew how busy he was,” Nixon told the authors. “He was actually teaching his boys, saying, ‘This is what we do. We do this as a family.’ ”

Romney’s oldest son Tagg once made the same point to the radio host Hugh Hewitt. “He was constantly doing things like that and never telling anyone about them,” Tagg said. “He doesn’t want to tell people about them, but he wanted us to see him. He would let the kids see it because he wanted it to rub off on us.”

If we didn't know better, we'd be wondering whether actions weren't more important than words? There's a certain irony in the fact that it took Romney's enemies to make a conservative focus on substance rather than seeming. There's an old saying about that too, but we'll spare you.

Doug Mataconis wonders whether the Afghan Surge was a success?

... Kandahar and Helmund have been the location where most of the “Green on Blue” attacks by members of the Afghan military and police forces have taken place in recently. Measuring the surge simply the the level of violence in those two areas, then, one would have to conclude that the operation has fallen far short of its goals to say the very least. Starting later this year, American troops will begin their draw down, including in Helmund where the number of Marines will be reduced to just about 7,000 troops. At that point, the beginning of the end of the surge, and of the American presence in Afghanistan itself. It should have come a lot sooner, of course, but at least it will have been reached. Looking back on all of it now, it’s hard to see what we’ve accomplished, and even harder to see what President Obama’s decision to ramp up our commitment significantly over the past two and half years has accomplished.

If anyone can tell us what the goal of the Afghan Surge was, we'll be eternally grateful. When The Shrub announced the Iraqi Surge, we were earnestly assured that without clear, measurable goals, it was impossible to assess whether our strategy was working.

Iraq's political and military success is considered vital to U.S. interests, whether troops stay or go. And while the Iraqi government has made measurable progress in recent months, the rate at which it's done so has been achingly slow.

The White House sees the progress in a particularly positive light, declaring in a new assessment to Congress that Iraq's efforts on 15 of 18 benchmarks are "satisfactory" — almost twice what it determined to be the case a year ago. The May 2008 report card, obtained by the Associated Press, determines that only two of the benchmarks — enacting and implementing laws to disarm militias and distribute oil revenues — are unsatisfactory.

The media reaction to the startling revelation that 15 of the 18 benchmarks had been achieved was to complain that progress was "too slow". Meanwhile, we've heard precious little about the Obama administration's benchmarks, quite possibly because they were so vaguely worded that no one - including Obama's supporters - could figure out what they meant (much less measure to what extent they had been achieved).

Back in 2009, we were surprised when Time did a fairly decent job of documenting the flawed assumptions underlying what, had it been advanced during the Bush years, the media would have called "the so-called Afghan Surge". What a difference an election makes.

It's such a hassle for the media, holding government accountable. Perhaps now we can get on to more important matters.

Posted by Cassandra at August 27, 2012 08:15 AM

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Wow. Quite a choice this year.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 27, 2012 10:25 AM

The political objective (goal) in Iraq has been first and foremost to deny it as a base for terrorists. The best way to do that was determined to be to introduce democracy to the country and hope it took hold. To retain a democracy, a strong and loyal military is needed. Building a strong and loyal military from scratch takes 7-10 years, roughly as long as it takes to build a good Staff Sergeant or Gunnery Sergeant or Major. That's the minimum.

All other measures are fluff.

I still don't know what the objective in Afghanistan is, after the initial objective of punishing those who directly supported the 9/11 attack. The nature of Afghanistan is tribal, so there is no way that a democracy will take hold nationwide, at least, not for a century or two. Look at the Italian city states for a comparative example--many Italians today still don't understand how we can be loyal to a whole country and not just our own city.

And isn't it time to get out of Bosnia? After all, Clinton (Bill) promised that the troops would be out of there by Christmas. How long ago was that?

Posted by: Rex at August 27, 2012 10:57 AM

...isn't it time to get out of Bosnia? After all, Clinton (Bill) promised that the troops would be out of there by Christmas. How long ago was that?

Heh :)

I have a hard time even writing about Afghanistan. Whilst looking for an old post, I ran across this interview I did with a reporter from the Guardian in 2009.

I had forgotten all about it. Tell me this isn't apt, though:

Cass, whose husband is an officer serving in Afghanistan with the marine corps and did not want to use her surname, is just as passionately opposed to her loved one being put at risk without a purpose. But in her view the answer is not to pull out of Afghanistan but to step up the war effort with real commitment. "I'm very concerned we've been playing a middle game here," she says. "I'm having to deal with the uncertainty of never knowing whether my husband is about to be blown up, and the least that I need to know is that there's a set goal and we are in this to win."

Cass was brought up in a military family – her father was in Vietnam – so she is used to her loved ones being in danger. "What frustrates me more as a military wife is that my husband might be taking that risk for nothing – that is difficult to accept."

And I was one of the very luckiest ones - all I lost was a year with my husband. I cannot imagine the desolation of having lost someone you love.

I get so angry when I think of all the egregious BS surrounding the Surge in Iraq. Harry Reid announcing we'd lost before we even had half our troops in country. The grandstanding, and the way Petraeus was treated when he came back to testify before Congress.

But confronted with a strategy that made far less sense and indeed was never really justified (or measured), the media just rolled over and played dead. I guess "the cost" was less important, that time around.

Time for me to shut up before I blow a gasket.

Posted by: Cassandra at August 27, 2012 11:32 AM

Iraq was at the center of the Muddled East, and there was a logic as to why we were there.

Many people legitimately disagreed with that logic after a while, and many more became disillusioned when it took longer that 4 seasons of "Lost".

There were hopes of trying to reform and rebuild Afghanistan after decades of war; the original civil war agains the Soviet puppet government, the Soviet invasion (the armies of socialism don't march backwards!), then the return to the perpetual state of tribal war.

AFghanistan? What's the question? I really have no good answer about what we should be doing, or how to do it.
It's a broken country in many ways, and perhaps not even a country in any sense of the Westphalian definition.

Corrupt, backward, crooked in any notion of a civic life, yet many of the people, families and tribes are brave, decent and hard working in a very harsh country.

The real answer is time, which is a commodity that our political class is unwilling to devote to any problem as difficult as Afghanistan. That is the same answer as Haiti,in our own backyard, but we can't seem to grasp that one either.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at August 27, 2012 11:56 AM

If the day comes when I understand what we are doing in Afghanistan it will be the day of my first ever epiphany. If the occupation, surging or not, is constrained to deal only with those with AK-47s and planting IEDs (Al Queda terrorists?) and not with those lopping off heads (Taliban), then it seems we have missed more than just the point – we have missed two points. One, the problem in Afghanistan is nothing smaller than Islam. Two, there isn't a damn thing to be done about. Get out, get out now, (should have gotten out nine years ago) – sacrifice no more American/European(NATO) forced to observe rules of engagement that include not spitting, pissing, or farting in the direction of Mecca.

Posted by: George Pal at August 27, 2012 12:09 PM

The real answer is time, which is a commodity that our political class is unwilling to devote to any problem as difficult as Afghanistan. That is the same answer as Haiti, in our own backyard, but we can't seem to grasp that one either.

Can't, or won't. In the end, they amount to largely the same thing.

Whenever I think of Afghanistan, I'm reminded of two lines from one of my favorite movies:

"I'm not even angry anymore. Someone should be.", and

"Sometimes I think I shall never be able to forgive the waste."

The first is a lie, but it's what I tell myself. The second...

Posted by: Cassandra at August 27, 2012 02:10 PM